Bob Dylan and Robert Frost: this is not our fate

by Larry Fyffe

Robert Frost is a middle-of-the-road poet. In his lyrics about the cosmos, nature, society, and the individual, Frost swings back and forth between a gnostic-like vision and a romantic transcendentalist one:

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more
But dipped it's top, and set me down again
That would be good both going and coming back
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches

(Robert Frost: Birches)

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, too has a gnostic-like vision though a darker one,  along with a bit of Romantic optimism. In the song below, Dylan depicts mankind locked out of an ideal Edenic paradise:

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempt to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times, I think there are no words
But these to tell what's true
And there no truths outside
The Gates of Eden

(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)

Frost’s lyrics reveal that the narrator therof is just a busy man with little time for contemplating the beauty of Nature:

Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow ....
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep

(Robert Frost: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening)

The singer/songwriter paints a picture where both woods and town are ‘dark’, and anything but ‘lovely’:

The evenin' sun is sinkin' low
The woods are dark, the town is too
They'll drag you down, they run the show
They will beat you black and blue 
Tell ol' Bill when he come home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I'm not alone
That the hour has come to do or die

(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

The poet/narrator may reside in a somewhat busy place, but it’s ways of behaving appear to be rather calm and complacent – like himself when choosing which path to take when going for a walk in the countryside:

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back 

(Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken)

Not so calm is the rough-and-tumble world of which the singer speaks:
Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don't win the race
It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth
Took a stranger to teach me to look in justice's beautiful face
And see "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth"

(Bob Dylan: I And I)

Interpreted from a gnostic point of view, the ‘stranger’ be a female spirit who separates from her male counterpart, and believes in taking an eye for an eye before she’s re-united with her male twin, and becomes the goddess of ‘wisdom'( Sophia).

The latter-day Romantic poet presents a rather biblically-based apocalyptic vision of a coming catastrophe, but the narrator really hasn’t got the time to think about it much:

Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire
But if I had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction, ice
Is also great
And would suffice

(Robert Frost: Fire And Ice)

Bob Dylan (or his persona if you wish) admonishes complacent writers, like Robert Frost, that the Holy Bible’s prediction of an impending apocalypse is not a matter to to be taken lightly, and a warning needs to be sent to their readers and listeners to change the ways in which they behave lest everybody suffers the consequences – for example, by having an atomic bomb dropped on their heads:

'No reason to get excited', the thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who think that life is but a joke
But you and I we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late' .....
Outside in the distance, a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

(Bob Dylan: All Along The Watchtower)

Interpretations of the poem and song lyrics can vary to a certain extent, but there can be no doubt that Bob Dylan has read a number of Robert Frost’s poems.

 You might also enjoy “Frost fills the window: Dylan’s knocking on the door”

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  1. With measured beat and slow …
    When the evening sun is low
    (Henry Longfellow: The Village Blacksmith)

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