Who Actually Writes Bob Dylan’s Song Lyrics?


by Larry Fyffe

There has been an ongoing debate among academic scholars, and for some time now, that Bob Dylan, well known for his travels in space and time, is the author of only a few of the lyrics that he sets to music.

Basically, there are two contending schools of thought. The first school steadfastly holds that Christopher Marlowe authors most of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics; the second school is equally sure that William Shakespeare pens most. This article will attempt to settle the matter once and for all.

The first school of academics maintain that Bob Dylan, in his Nobel lecture, deliberately takes attention away from their contender, Marlowe, because Bob does not want it known that he has his songs written by someone else:

“John Donne …. wrote these words: ‘The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nest.’ I don’t know what it means. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good”.

These academics declare that Dylan is simply laying down a trail of smelly red herrings to throw scholarly bloodhounds off the scent – that Dylan knows full well that the geographical names refer to the respective homes of Hero and Leander, the latter swimming the Hellespont, guided by a torch from her tower, in order to seduce the beautiful Hero who has sworn herself to chastity.

These literary analysts make the point that it be Marlowe who pens the following words:

Sea borderers, disjoined by Neptune’s might
The one Abydos, the other Sestos hight ….
It lies not in our power to love or hate
For will in us is over-ruled by fate ….
Whoever loved that loved not at first sight
(Christopher Marlowe: Hero And Leander)


The same scholars also state that Marlowe, with Hero in mind, pens the words to the song below:

You’re the queen of my flesh, girl, you’re
my woman, you’re my delight
You’re the lamp of my soul, girl, and
you torch up the night
(Bob Dylan: Precious Angel)

But I say: “Maybe, but maybe not”. Let’s examine the second school of academic thought on the matter at hand. This school notes that, in his Nobel lecture, it is William Shakespeare whom Bob Dylan attempts to draw attention away from: “The words of Shakespeare were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics are meant to be sung, not read on a page.”

Marlowe, I say, is suspect because he may well have been an atheist. Not so Shakespeare. The Bard’s characteristic phraseology often appears in Dylan’s song lyrics; too much so to be merely coincidental:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing
(William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act V, scene 5)

To wit, Shakespeare is the one who actually pens the tell-tale throbbing Edgar Allan Poe-like lyrics that appear below – the ‘walking shadow’ gives the writer away:

Forgetful heart
Like a walking shadow in my brain
All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
(Bob Dylan et al: Forgetful Heart)

The academics who contend the Bard ghost writes the lyrics for Dylan’s songs point out that Shakespeare’s not shy about slipping in an ad here and there for his own plays – like ‘Hamlet’, with his girlfriend Orphelia, for instance:

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday, she is already an old maid
To her death is quite romantic, she wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)


The ability to time-travel has its benefits, and whereas Bob Dylan is able to convince William Shakespeare to jot down a bunch of song lyrics to set music to, who among us would fault him?

In a number of his Sonnets, Shakespeare employs the word ‘decay’:

Situation just gonna get rougher
Why do we needlessly suffer?
Let’s call it a day
Go on separate ways
Before we decay
(Bob Dylan: We Better Talk This Over)

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  1. This used to be an interesting website for thoughtful articles about Dylan. What happened to it?

  2. Larry,
    what a lovely take on copy-paste and inspiration in the work of Dylan…
    Nice take, I am reading for writing a little piece how us ordinary souls at home, in court and in our work, in conversations or our writing put in little words, concepts and catchy phrases from Dylan, Beatles, Springsteen, Grateful Dead. We walk, talk and write with these words as if they are fun or wisdom. It is what we do. Why not Dylan too.

    The coolest thing you do is to introduce time-traveling and parallel-worlds into the idea of Shakespeare and Dylan. Have you been binge-watching ‘Man In The High Castle’?
    thx for your wonderful and always interesting writing.

  3. Both schools are quite mistaken. The true author of Dylan’s songs is TS Eliot. While TS and that other high modernist Ezra Pound seem to drown in a hippy apocalypse in Desolation Row, old dry bones Eliot has left his mark in other ways; both men turned Christian, both wrote about the human soul in extremis. One example will have to suffice to put those Marlowe and Shakespeare advocates to flight. In 1935, in Burnt Norton Eliot wrote:
    ‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
    Cannot bear very much reality.
    Time past and time future
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.’
    I wouldn’t mind betting that that ‘bird’ is one Dylan has singing ‘just for you’, but more to the point, later, in his avatar as Bob Dylan, Eliot writes:
    ‘I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can
    Some things are too hot to touch
    The human mind can only stand so much
    You can’t win with a losing hand…’

    In The Four Quartets, Eliot also left us with with a secret code that would enable us to decode Tangled Up In Blue:
    ‘Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future
    And time future contained in time past.’

    What could be clearer!

  4. Yes indeed, the old schools point their fingers at Marlowe and Shakespeare as Dylan’s writers but the New Critics note that the singer/songwriter takes a number of shots at TS to cover-up his major reliance on Eliot for providing more modern-sounding ‘ghost’ lyrics to accompany his music. By comparison, this third school of academics consider Shakespeare and Marlowe as merely minor writers of some of Dylan’s lyrics.

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