Bob Dylan and the Trouble with Similes


by Larry Fyffe

Usually containing the word ‘like’ or ‘as’, a simile is a trope that creates a vivid comparison between an object (or action), and a different thing that has some similar aspect.

Bob Dylan constructs lots of similes – below, he presents a woman who firmly attaches herself to a man:

Get away from all these demagogues
And these bad luck women stick like glue
It’s either one or the other, or neither of the two
(Bob Dylan: Nettie Moore)

Dylan’s quoted words can be interpreted – decoded – as making fun of the literary scholar’s inability to define and clearly separate one figure of speech from another. Indeed, the singer/songwriter earlier pens a similar warning about the ability of metaphors to multiply uncontrollably, entitled ‘The Trouble With Tropes’, but the coded message never gets received nor recorded by Captain (Bill Shatner) Kirk on the USS Enterprise:

Buffalo Bill wouldn’t have known what to do
If he got just one look, one good look at you
And I don’t know what to do either
Just want to tell you, “it’s neither”
Tom say, “Don’t take her”
Judas said, “Leave’er her”
(Bob Dylan: Golden Tom, Silver Judas)

In the song lyrics below, a simile (blossom soft as snow) meets up with a hyperbole (a river of tears); a personification (trailing moss); an alliteration (mystic, moss); and vowel assonance (keep, sea, tear):

The trailing moss, and mystic glow
The purple blossom soft as snow
My tears keep flowing to the sea
(Bob Dylan: Moonlight)

The above moon verse – a tribute to the neo-Transcententalist poet below:

Here is no question of whiteness
White as can be, with a purple mole
At the centre of each flower
(William Carlos Williams)

Bobby ventures down into the basement; he deliberately mixes up the metaphoric medicine. In the lyrics that follow, the women is depicted as a saint swirling in smoke; she’s poisonous, like mercury, to one’s artistic health:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke, and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Oh, who do they think could bury you?
(Bob Dylan: Sad- Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

Similes that Dylan employs are not as bright nor as pure white as the ones used by those Romantic Transcendentalists who find in Nature a mystical spirit of vitality:

Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around and around
We live and we die, we know not why
(Bob Dylan: When The Deal Goes Down)

More gleeful is the following simile:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats over vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host, of golden daffodils
(William Wordsworth: Daffodils)

Mixing similes together can have a humourous effect – if you’re a hungry as a pig, a farm animal that eats almost anything, then you should eat one even though it looks like a dachshund:

Well, I asked for something to eat
I’m as hungry as a hog
So I get brown rice, seaweed
And a dirty hot dog
(Bob Dylan: On Road Again)

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