Bob Dylan and Arthur Rimbaud (Part V)

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By Larry Fyffe

Without darkness, there’s no light; without life in the hustle and bustle of crowded, dirty cities, there’s no romantic dreams of a tranquil life with Nature in the countryside. PreRomantic poet William Blake depicts the innocence of youth corrupted by the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution, and burlesques Emanuel Swedenborg’s separation of the spiritual and physical aspects of the human existence; William Wordsworth searches, outside the city, for reconnection with the vital spirit that pervades Nature.

Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan draws upon the translated poems of the French Symbolists:

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All them scenes to this affair
(Bob Dylan: You Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)

PreSurrealist poet Arthur Rimbaud is a little boy lost who scatologically buries Wordsworth’s idealism. Rosemary is a flowery symbol of of hope, and a lily, one of death that, like excrement, stinks:

In short, is a Flower, Rosemary
Or Lily, dead or alive, worth
The excrement of one sea-bird?
(Arthur Rimbaud: On The Subject Of Flowers)

The French Symbolist poet comes under the influence of the Gothic personified-filled sentiments of American poet Edgar Allan Poe:

The rosemary nods upon the grave
The lily lolls upon the wave
Wrapping the fog about its breast
(Edgar Allan Poe: The Sleeper)

The above ghostly imagery re-appears as pollution in the poetry of a Modernist:

The yellow fog rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs it’s muzzle on the window-panes
Licks it’s tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in the drains
(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Bob Dylan out-Rimbauds Rimbaud, out-Eliots Eliot – double entendres the following song lyrics:

Now, I’m startin’ to drain
My stool’s gonna squeak
If I walk too much farther
My crane’s gonna squeak
(Bob Dylan: Please, Mrs. Henry)

Dylan takes Rimbaud’s flower symbols, and transforms them into characters in a narrative song wherein ‘dye’ links up with ‘die’:

Lily had already taken all the dye out of her hair
She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw
Thinkin’ ‘ bout Rosemary, and thinkin’ ’bout the law
But most of all, she was thinking ’bout the Jack of Hearts
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

Lily, a symbol of death, is oft employed by Arthur Rimbaud:

It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your hair
Brought strange rumours to your dreaming mind
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the trees, and the sighs of the nights….
And the poet says that by starlight
You come seeking in the night, the flowers that you picked
And that he has seen on the water, lying in her long veils
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily
(Arthur Rimbaud: Ophelia)

Rimbaud’s angst of a wasted life is not lost on Bob Dylan:

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath my window, for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday, she’s already an old maid

According to Dylan, akin to Rimbaud, it’s better to settle for reality than dream of a Garden of Eden that exists only in your mind:

All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to re-arrange their faces, and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you send them from Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)


  1. I think Patti Smith nailed it early on – that, physically and poetically and spiritually, the Rimbaud that seemingly faded into obscurity – came back – not as Bob Zimmerman – but as Bob Dylan

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