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Bob Dylan meets William Butler Yeats

Within the electric song lyrics of Bob Dylan, howl the ghosts of William Yeats’ symbolist poetics, often inspired by William Blake:



All perform their tragic play / There struts Hamlet, there is Lear / That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia (William Yeats: Lapis Lazuli)

Here comes her ghost again:

Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window / For her I feel so afraid / On her twenty-second birthday / She already is an old maid (Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

Ophelia, where have you gone?

Through hollow lands, and hilly lands / I will find out where she has gone / And kiss her lips and take her hands / And walk among long dappled grass( William Yeats: Song Of The Wandering Aengus)

The memory of a departed love who waves her hand from the tall grass:

You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know / But I’ll see you in the sky aboveIn the tall grass, in the one I love / You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go( Bob Dylan: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)

Human life is a tragic cycle that repeats itself:

All men have aimed at, found and lostBlack out; Heaven blazing in my head / Tragedy wrought to the uttermost (William Yeats: Lapis Lazuli)

A theme of many a Dylan lyric:

I cross the Green Mountain / I sit by the stream / Heaven blazing in my head / I dreamed a monstrous dream (Bob Dylan: ‘Cross The Green Mountain)

In the end, like the nursery rhyme says, we all fall down:

O mind your feet, O mind your feet / Keep dancing like a wave / And under every dancer / A dead man in his grave (William Yeats: A Drunken Man’s Praise Of Sobriety)

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky / with one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea, circled by thecircus sands / With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves / Let me forget about today until tomorrow (Bob Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man)

Some of Dylan’s songs express a message similar to the one above – that is, of making the best of a bad circumstance whereby stands the Eternal Footman holding your coat, and he snickers (ref: The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot ) 

Likewise, the Blakean message of youthful innocence lost is let loose by Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned

(William B: Yeats: The Second Coming)

A somber message that echoes in the lyrics of the songwriter:

Don’t fall apart on me tonight

I just don’t think I could handle it

Don’t fall apart on me tonight

Yesterday’s just a memory

Tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be

(Bob Dylan: Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight)

”Memories linger, sad yet sweet

And I think of the souls in heaven who we’ll meet”

‘Cross the Green Mountain was written for the soundtrack of Gods and Generals, a Civil War TV series. In this Dylan puts himself in the mind of a Civil War soldier (a dying man). The mood is strikingly brought forward by his band, rolling along like in so many of his long and significant tunes.

The first part of the song sets the scene and the second part read as a soldier’s letter. The Storyteller describes the scenes as nightmarish, but we quickly understands that he is part of this real-life nightmare, it is not just a dream. The music is somehow a mixture of “Knockin’ on heaven’s door” with a New Orleans funeral march. Dark and respectful.

The video is a masterpiece as well, our man riding among horrible scenes of death and mutilation. He’s like a dark angel or a greek choir sitting on a large horse or walking among the dead. That’s the good, the bad is that the video is only for the first four verses of the song!

Bob Dylan must really have dug into Civil War era poems, and absorbed their “feel” and spirit but also direct images and phrases.  The Lyrics are built up with short sentences and clear language very reminiscent of songs from the era it depicts. In addition to old Civil War poems there are snippets from the Bible and… WB Yeats, of course.

Verse 1:

I cross the green mountain, I sit by the stream

Heaven blazing in my head (5), I dreamt a monstrous dream

Something came up out of the sea (1) (2)

Swept through the land of the rich and the free

(Dylan has since said that USA is a land built on slavery, this line probably conveys the same sentiment)

1.  Biblical ref. Revelations 13:  “I saw a beast rise up from  the sea” see also Verse 8, second line: “...And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name…” The second one not so obvious maybe, but Dylan clearly compared the battlefield to the Armageddon.

2. Biblical ref. Daniel 7: “..And four great beasts came up out of the sea.”

5. W.B Yeats – Lapis Lazuli (verse2, in the middle):All men have aimed at, found and lost;Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

Verse 2:

I look into the eyes of my merciful friend

And then i ask myself, is this the end?

Memories linger, sad yet sweet

And I think of the souls in heaven who will meet

Verse 3:

Altars are burning with flames far and wide

(Biblical allusions to altars and fire, but also the burning landscapes of war)

The foe has crossed over from the other side (3)

They tip their caps from the top of the hill

You can feel them come, more brave blood to spill

3. Nathaniel Graham Shepherd’s “Roll Call” - War Poem (verse 5): “For the foe had crossed from the other side,…”

Verse 4:

Along the dim Atlantic line (4)

the ravaged land lies for miles behind

The light’s coming forward and the streets are broad

All must yield to the avenging God (9)

4. “Charleston” by Henry Timrod: “…along you dim Atlantic line.”

9. The Bible,  Nahum 1:2: “… The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies…”

Verse 5:

The world is old, the world is gray

Lessons of life, can’t be learned in a day

I watch and I wait, and I listen while I stand

To the music that comes from a far-better land

The full version of the song, with verses 6-12, is available here:

Verse 6:

Close the eyes of our captain, peace may he know

His long night is done, the great leader is laid low (10)

He was ready to fall, he was quick to defend

Killed outright he was, by his own men

The next four verses are about the soldier meeting his “merciful friend” aka death.

Verse 7:

It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year

I feel that the unknown world is so near

Pride will vanish and glory will rot

But virtue lives and cannot be forgot (6)

6. The last line in R.C. Waterston’ poem The Departed.

“The memory of the justShall still be dear, whate’er their earthly lot:Dust may return to dust,But Virtue lives, and cannot be forgot.”

10.  Henry Lynden Flash: “Death of Stonewall Jackson”

Not midst the lightning of the stormy fight,Nor in the rush upon the vandal foe,Did kingly Death, with his resistless might,Lay the great leader low.

Verse 8:

The bells of leavening have rung

There’s blasphemy on every tongue (1)

Let ’em say that I walked in fair nature’s light

And that I was loyal to truth and to right

Verse 9:

Serve God and be cheerful, look upward, beyond

Beyond the darkness of masks, the surprises of dawn

In the deep green grasses of the blood stained world

They never dreamed of surrenderin’, they fell where they stood

Verse 10:

Stars fell over Alabama, I saw each star

(Jazz song from the 30s, also sung by Frank Sinatra: Stars Fell on Alabama)

You’re walkin’ in dreams, whoever you are

Chilled are the skies, keen as the frost

The ground’s froze hard and the morning is lost

The point of view now switches again, first to the mother then back to the soldier in the last verse

Verse 11:

A letter to mother came today (7)

Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say

But he’ll be better soon, he’s in a hospital bed

But he’ll never be better – he’s already dead

7. This verse is an allusion to Walt Whitman’s “Come Up from the Fields Father”. In that poem a letter arrives to the home of a civil war soldier (Peter). The mother reads the letter: “Gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital, / At present low, but will soonbe better.”

His mother grieving and her daughter tries to console her:

“See dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better.”

However…: “Alas poor boy, he will never be better,(nor may-be needs to be better, that brave and simple soul.) / Whilethey stand at home at the door he is already dead, / The only son isdead.” 

Verse 12:

I’m ten miles outside the city, and I’m lifted away (8)

In an ancient light, that is not of day

They were calm, they were blunt, we knew ’em all too well

We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell

8. Referencing the William Channing Gannett’s poem (from the book Singers and Songs of the Liberal Faith), “Sunday on the Hill-Top”: 

Only ten miles from the city, And how I am lifted awayTo the peace that passeth knowing,And the light that is not of day!

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