Are Bob Dylan’s Song Lyrics Hermetic Or Gnostic?

by Larry Fyffe

Which side of the big Titanic metaphor is singer/songwriter Bob Dylan on?

Do his song lyrics reflect a Hermetic view of the cosmos, or a Gnostic one? It’s a question many an examiner of Dylan’s music ask, but few forward a convincing answer. And no wonder since the two philosophical points of view have become so entangled with one another over the centuries.

Basically, most followers of the Hermetic school hold that there is an Absolute  principle governing the Universe, and that it’s discoverable through reason and intuition; that is to say, science and religion are not really incompatible: there is a unitary plan to be found within the workings of the Cosmos.

Many of the orthodox religions, including the Abrahamic ones, call it “God’s plan.”  Whether Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed, they be messengers sent from the transcendental God behind all of Creation to assert that physical matter is a divine inspiration designed for the benefit of mankind.

At first, earth, air, water, fire are conceived by humans to be the basic elements of the Universe, and then the development of the ‘science’ of alchemy and magical fluids shifts the focus more and more to man’s reasoning ability.  For example, preRomantic poet William Blake seeks to balance modern Reason with earlier Spiritualism.

Later, Transcendental Romanic poets sense the presence of a vitalistic spirit pervading the physical world. Optimism, symbolized by light, and founded on a better understanding of the Oneness of the Universe becomes the order of the day. Science be not a demon, nor sexual desire a sin. 

On the other hand, most forms of mystical Gnosticism, at least for the unenlightened, place a dark cloud over the sun. There is a transcendental God of sorts; however, the Absolute One is even more distant than the Supreme Clock-Maker Being conjectured by the Deists of the Enlightenment Age.  Not only is the Monad far removed from mankind, but fragmented, and unknowable to all but a few lucky ones – interplanetary traveller Emanual Swedenborg, with his neoGnostic doctrines, being one of them.

According to these Gnostics, the ‘spiritual’ world of goodness is basically closed off to mankind because she or he is trapped in physical existence – confused, and ignorant, if not downright evil and sexually obsessed. 

Knowledge for the most part becomes existential, and  pessimistic. Why? Because the Creator of the physical world is far from a benevolent God – instead, He’s a demiurge. 

To make matters worse, getting in touch with the goodness of the Absolute Monad with help from the lucky ones who have broken through to the Other Side ~ who are in communication with the shape-shifting, and often mythological, messengers emanating from the Male/Female Monad ~ is extemely difficult for most earth-bound human beings to achieve.

At times, Bob Dylan, or at least his persona, with the help of the right kind of female essence, displays a Hermetic Transcendentalist side:

If not for you

My sky would fall

Rain would gather too

Without your love, I'd be nowhere at all

Oh, what would I do

If not for you

(Bob Dylan: If Not For You)

At other times, Dylan recognizes a much darker Gnostic side:

Idiot Wind

Blowing through the buttons of our coat

Blowing through the letters that we wrote

Idiot Wind

Blowing through the dust upon our shelves

We're idiots, babe

It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves

(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

Common to Bob Dylan (and poet William Blake) is the use of the figurative device known as ‘anaphora’ – the repetition of the same words at the beginning of successive lines of a poem or song.

In conclusion, Bob Dylan mixes messages in his magical medicine bottle that float back and forth between the positive Hermetic and the negative Gnostic poles of musical electricity. 

Take a sip – it’s all good.

You might also enjoy “Idiot Wind – the meaning of the music and the lyrics”

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And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



  1. In my country everybody talks about either/or.
    It is not to be rude, but I think the answer is neither / nor.

    In Desolation Row Bob Dylan really teases us. (as he often do). You feel so good, when you can recognize Robin Hood, Cinderella and Einstein. Yes you feel at home. But you forget it is a carnevall.

    “I had to rearrange their faces
    And give them all another name”

    Those people can be totally different from their carnival characters. eg
    “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood”
    It makes no sense.

    Now to your question: Do his song lyrics reflect a Hermetic view of the cosmos, or a Gnostic one?

    “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
    The Titanic sails at dawn
    And everybody’s shouting
    “Which Side Are You On?”
    And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
    Fighting in the captain’s tower
    While calypso singers laugh at them
    And fishermen hold flowers
    Between the windows of the sea
    Where lovely mermaids flow
    And nobody has to think too much
    About Desolation Row

    He tells he does not want to be on anybodys side. He wants to be a calypso singer, who laughs at them(Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot) The calypso singers do not think about desolation road. They are just spontaneus and happy.
    AHA you will say: He has a hermetic view. He has hermetic closed himself out of the real world.
    I am not sure, if he believes in Neros Neptune. Maybe he is gnostic?
    HAHAHA Of cause he is not. He is making fun.

    Ohh ohh ohh Larry Fyffe: You will never catch Bob Dylan., You will never be able to put him in a cage.
    Look what he writes. The last lines of Desolation Row: He does care about Desolation Row.

    “Right now I can’t read too good
    Don’t send me no more letters, no
    Not unless you mail them
    From Desolation Row”

    I love his escapes and humor.

    He has had a good time writing this song with all its name-dropping. Everything is nonsens – but he knows we will use a lot of time to find out, what in the hell it all means.

  2. Here is a man (a jew), who was expelled from his jewish community and had to live alone, because of his believe. He believed in the devine., but not in the traditional God.
    His name is a video about the philosopher Spinoza.

    and here is a discussion about Spinoza..

    The good question is: Which devine power does Bob Dylan believe in. I dont think he can explaine it, but I think he feels it.

  3. I don’t get it, Babette. Why do you consider that you and I are in disagreement when what you say above is so close to what I’ve written in the article above?, ie, that Dylan shifts his viewpoint from one side to the other.

    What I said in the article, you say it just as good.

    I do contend Dylan’s lyrics do make sense – figuring things out is not the goal – the answer is not as important as the question – which side are you on?

    I have no intention of catching Dylan – nor do I think that I can catch a beam of light, and put it in my pocket and save it for a rainy day.

    I’ve written some 200 articles on Dylan, and have never once said what you seem to think I have said – that he can be put in a cage.

    Indeed, I have said the very opposite ….over and over again.

    Now smarten up! (lol)

  4. Version 01: Smarten UP

    Larry Fyffe: You and I have the same problem. We are scientifically trained. We try to create order in chaos. Thats what we do to understand the subjects og objects we study . This is also how our society and culture are built up. Political parties and Religions are a part of our culture. We need structure to keep us together. We need culture. We share the same music, art, architecture and ways to behave and dress. We want to show to our neighbor that we are in the same boat, We are in the same community. We stick together. We care for each other. We help each other. We join associations , because it is nice to be together with some people with the same interests or believes. What would happen if we did not do it? We would feel utterly alone and expelled from society.

    Se what happend to Spinoza fra 5,55 until 08.30
    He was cursed and expelled.. His books were banned. At that time we did not have freedom of speach Does the same happen today. No – you can say what you want, —-but dont think you will not be expelled, if you dont fit in.

    Bob Dylan does not fit in. he tells us.
    He feels alone , expelled from society, and sometimes he feels as a stranger in the world. And that is exactly what he is, because he does not want to belong to anybody. He wants to maintain his free mind, his freedom of speech and expression, Futhermore he wants to have the possibility to change his mind without beeing accused of beeing Judas and without being questioned why – and how comes? . He simply does not want to be attached to any philosophic-, religious- , political- musical-. or litterary moovement, association or group.

    I think that is what he is telling in Desolation Row and in many other of his songs.
    He sings:
    “All I really want to do is, Baby be friends with you”

    And what do we answer?
    Brilliant I know an association I am very fond of. Wont you come and join us.

    And what will he do?
    He will run away.

  5. Version 02: Smarten UP

    We are scientific here so we need examples/proofs.
    This poem is from his own homepage. It can´t be more autentic.

    All I Really Want To Do

    I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you
    Beat or cheat or mistreat you
    Simplify you, classify you
    Deny, defy or crucify you
    All I really want to do
    Is, baby, be friends with you

    No, and I ain’t lookin’ to fight with you
    Frighten you or tighten you
    Drag you down or drain you down
    Chain you down or bring you down
    All I really want to do
    Is, baby, be friends with you

    I ain’t lookin’ to block you up
    Shock or knock or lock you up
    Analyze you, categorize you
    Finalize you or advertise you
    All I really want to do
    Is, baby, be friends with you

    I don’t want to straight-face you
    Race or chase you, track or trace you
    Or disgrace you or displace you
    Or define you or confine you
    All I really want to do
    Is, baby, be friends with you

    I don’t want to meet your kin
    Make you spin or do you in
    Or select you or dissect you
    Or inspect you or reject you
    All I really want to do
    Is, baby, be friends with you

    I don’t want to fake you out
    Take or shake or forsake you out
    I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me
    See like me or be like me
    All I really want to do
    Is, baby, be friends with you

    Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

  6. I’d consider Spinoza hermetic, re-opening the “Gates of Eden” to humans, and the likes of the Romantic Transcendentalist poets, so both in mind and body, they have the prospect of entering therein.

    Decartes be rather gnostic in that he separates the mind from the physical senses, and therefore he blocks the body from re-entering a pantheistic Paradise.

    Dylan’s lyrics seem to show that the singer/songwriter/ musician likes swinging on the Gates, grabbing and eating an ‘apple’ some of the time but not all the time.

  7. Version 04: Smarten UP

    Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through

    I can smell the smoke.

    Thank you LarryFyffe for your answer. I know you know a lot,, so I decided to try to read some poems of T.S. Eliot. I can tell you: I was not impressed. Did he really get the Nobel Price for that? (I can feel your anger now LF). Then I startet to read “The Wasteland”. What a lot of rubbish. It was almost as zapping the TV channels. or reading FaceBook. It can´t be true, that he is still so famous. Then I read about him and WWI, and then I read the poem again.

    Suddenly the memories from my childhood started, and they wont disappear.

    You see in my childhood we had many paintings. One of them was a scaring portrait. We children called it “The Lady in Red”. My mother mooved the painting, so it was hidden behind the door between the kitchen and the diningroom. Most of the time the door was open, but when there was too much smoke in the kitchen, my mama asked me to close the door and then – then “The Red Lady” emerged.

    25 Years later my mothers aunt died and I got two beautiful paintings from North Africa.
    50 Years later I got a book with black leather cover from my mother. She told me it was printed letters from the painter to her aunt. The painter (Her fiancee)had worked as a war correspondent in North Africa during WWI. Later I have read on the internet: He had an depression after the war and died from the spanish flue a few years later. She – she never got children.
    “The Red Lady” was a postwar selfportrait of the painter ( not a lady but a man with a scarf around his head). . The two beautifull paintings, he had painted were from before the war.
    There were a worldwar between.
    The black book I have never read. German is a closed book for me. –

    That poem Wasteland brought short broken stories forth from my childhood. I now understand, why there is no structure or progressive story in the poem. It was too painful. 40 million people died in WWI and from the Spanish Flue. Yes I understand why the streets were empty and fertility low. This year it is 100 years since The Treaty of Versailles.

    Larry Fyffe: You write: “Dylan’s lyrics seem to show that the singer/songwriter/ musician likes swinging on the Gates, grabbing and eating an ‘apple’ some of the time but not all the time.” Tell me was that a joke? I dont want to hear more from Eden –

    unless it is from “The Gates of Eden”. 🙂

  8. Not really kidding

    I was referring to the “Gates Of Eden” with its figurative language suggesting that the Gates of Eden are sealed, locking out the physical body from entering through them – akin to Rene Decartes Deistic and, somewhat, gnostic idea of a body/ mind duality – “there are no truths outside The Gates of Eden”.

    While I was thinking of:

    I’d like to go by climbing up a snow-white trunk …
    That would be good both going and coming back
    One could do worse than be a swinger of birches
    (Robert Frost: Birches)

    That is to say, you can’t pin Dylan’s song lyrics down to one spot, to one meaning.

  9. No, not really kidding, but making a figurative reference that Dylan lyrics cannot be pinned down to one spot, one level of meaning:

    “I’d like to go by climbing up a snow-white trunk …
    That would be good both going and coming back
    One could do worse than be a swinger of birches
    (Robert Frost: Birches)

    And of course to ‘Gates Of Eden’ that suggests the Gates are sealed, at least, to the physical body…”there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.”

  10. Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

    Your humble:
    Stephen Hawking

  11. Hawkins just seems to be dismissing the traditionally held idea of ”God’ as creator for it is indeed impossible to comprehend ‘nothing’ because there’s always been ‘something’, and ‘something’ has been always been detected by science up to the point that it is impossible to measure it.

    “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant ‘ceptin’ Alice.”

  12. There isn’t a parity between the positive and the negative “poles”. The ‘Hermetic’ and the ‘Gnostic’ aren’t equivalent: the former is the trajectory that the universe pulls us towards, while the latter is a epiphenomenal waystation – a temporary pathological preoccupation borne from unresolved trauma, and the overall breakdown of socioaffective coregulation processes between human beings. There is only one truth – and one truly worthy way of living and being, and that is what you term the ‘hermetic’. This position, furthermore, is not incompatible with either science or religion, insofar as reason encompasses both these spheres of analytic activity. Epistemology (how we know), is science, and ontology (what is real) is religion. Religion is about deepening our connection with the infinite essence while science is about clarifying the nature of the created realm, and therefore, the nature of the emergent objects we interface with.

    There is no fundamental oppositionality between religion and science, but a natural complementarity. They both fall under the rubric of reason, as reason, in the end, is about attuning ourselves to what is real, efficacious and fundamental.

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