Bob Dylan and the classics

You’ve been with the professors

And they’ve all liked your looks

With great lawyers you have

Discussed lepers and crooks

You’ve been through all of

F Scott Fitzgerald’s books

You’re very well read

It’s well known

(Ballad of a Thin Man, 1965)


In the four weeks since Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there has been a worldwide debate about his merit as a literary figure deserving such a prestigious award.

While many agree that he is the most outstanding English speaking poet of the late 20th century, others argue that he is nothing more than a songwriter on a par with Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell.

But for a man who has written over 500 songs and three books, plus the screenplay and score for the amazing 232 minute long Renaldo and Clara, the search for Bob Dylan’s literary merit shouldn’t be too difficult.

Yet, Dylan was left speechless by the news that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In a call with Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Dylan said: “I appreciate the honour so much… the news about the Nobel prize left me speechless.”

“It’s hard to believe … amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?” he added.

Making the award announcement on 13 October, Danius compared Dylan’s work to that of ancient Greek writers Homer and Sappho.

Asked later about the comparison, Dylan said: “I suppose so, in some way. Some of my own songs – Blind Willie, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, Joey, A Hard Rain, Hurricane and some others – definitely are Homeric in value.”

But he declined to remark on the meanings of those songs. “I’ll let other people decide what they are,” he said.

“The academics, they ought to know. I’m not really qualified. I don’t have any opinion.

“There’s a certain intensity in writing a song,” he added. “You have to keep in mind why you are writing it and for who and what for.

“Everything worth doing takes time. You have to write a hundred bad songs before you write one good one. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things that you might not be prepared for. Like it or not, you are in this alone and have to follow your own star.”

Dylan’s former partner Joan Baez went further when she said: “The Nobel Prize for Literature is yet another step towards immortality for Bob Dylan.

“His gift with words is unsurpassable. Out of my repertoire spanning 60 years, no songs have been more moving and worthy in their depth, darkness, fury, mystery, beauty and humour than Bob’s.

“None has been more of a pleasure to sing. None will come again.”

It is certainly the poetry in his songs that has earned Bob Dylan the literature world’s highest honour.

I stumbled to my feet

I rode past destruction in the ditches

With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo

Renegade priests and treacherous young witches

Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you

The palace of mirrors

Where dog soldiers are reflected

The endless road and the wailing of chimes

The empty rooms where her memory is protected

Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times

(Changing of the Guard, 1978)

Most observers recognise that his words and music often borrow heavily from the American dustbowl tradition of singers such as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

And like most other songwriters, Dylan leans heavily on contemporary life and vignettes of unrequited love – his 1983 album Infidels is a homage in itself to those sources.

But for a once self-professed “song and dance man”, Dylan is much more than that.

And what about those books he devoured as a hungry teenager and the professors who “all liked your looks… You’re very well read, It’s well known.”

Bob Dylan’s songs are steeped in deep literary references and maybe it is that which stands him apart from other well-respected songwriters of his generation.

Above all others, Dylan has long held a fascination for William Shakespeare.

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night

Told the first father that things weren’t right

(Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window

For her I feel so afraid

On her twenty-second birthday

She already is an old maid

To her, death is quite romantic

She wears an iron vest

Her profession’s her religion

Her sin is her lifelessness

(Desolation Row, 1965)

Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley

With his pointed shoes and his bells

Speaking to some French girl

Who says she knows me well

(Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, 1966)

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut

Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

(Time Out of Mind, 1997)

And his fascination has led many observers to note that his last self-penned album in 2012 was titled Tempest – the name of Shakespeare’s last play, and it left many more to wonder whether this will be Dylan’s final album. At 75 years-old it would be a fine way to close his own book.

A book which includes renaissance lines such as: “In the smoke of the twilight, on a milk white steed; Michelangelo indeed, could have carved out your features” (Jokerman, 1983)

But what about the Homeric references… just how deep does Dylan go with the Greek and Latin classics and how “very well read” is he really?

In the poetical beauty of Temporary Like Achilles (1966), a 25-year-old Dylan leaves little doubt:

Standing on your window, honey

Yes, I’ve been here before

Feeling so harmless

I’m looking at your second door

How come you don’t send me no regards?

You know I want your lovin’

Honey, why are you so hard?


Kneeling ’neath your ceiling

Yes, I guess I’ll be here for a while

I’m tryin’ to read your portrait, but

I’m helpless, like a rich man’s child

How come you send someone out to have me barred?

You know I want your lovin’

Honey, why are you so hard?


Like a poor fool in his prime

Yes, I know you can hear me walk

But is your heart made out of stone, or is it lime

Or is it just solid rock?


Well, I rush into your hallway

Lean against your velvet door

I watch upon your scorpion

Who crawls across your circus floor

Just what do you think you have to guard?

You know I want your lovin’

Honey, but you’re so hard


Achilles is in your alleyway

He don’t want me here, he does brag

He’s pointing to the sky

And he’s hungry, like a man in drag

How come you get someone like him to be your guard?

You know I want your lovin’

Honey, but you’re so hard


During a televised interview in 2004, Ed Bradley asked Dylan how he came to write such mercurial lyrics.

Surprisingly, Dylan said he didn’t know, mentioning a “wellspring of creativity” before adding: “I don’t know how I got to write those songs,” quoting from It’s Alright Ma, with its surreal words he lingered on the ultimate rhyming syllables: “Darkness at the break of noon / Shadows even the silver spoon / The handmade blade, the child’s balloon / Eclipses both the sun and moon / To understand you know too soon / There is no sense in trying.”

But Dylan did admit to reading a lot and he’d always read eclectically as opposed to canonically. And one of the things he discovered was the evoking of other literature, including Ovid’s exile poetry or Timrod’s Confederate poetry.

Dylan has always been interested in the American Civil War (see his wonderful song Cross the Green Mountain in the 2003 movie Gods and Generals) which perhaps led to his interest in Rome.

And there are songs from the 2006 album Modern Times which are littered with lines from Peter Green’s translation of Ovid.

In the first song on that album, Thunder on the Mountain, Dylan sings “I’ve been sitting down studying the Art of Love / I think it will fit me like a glove.”

And on Ain’t Talkin’, the last line of the last song of what might be his last album the singer is walking up the road “In the last outback, at the world’s end”.

In case you think this is accidental, the same song has three or four other Ovidian lines or significant phases, including: “Every nook an cranny/cormer has its tears” … “loyal and much loved companions” … “make the most of one last extra hour”, all on one song from Tristia 1.3 [24, 65, 68], Ovid’s night of exile poem.

Ain’t Talkin’“Every nook and cranny has its tears”

Ovid – Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 24 – “every nook and corner had its tears”

Ain’t Talkin’“all my loyal and my much-loved companions”

Ovid – Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 65 – “loyal and much loved companions, bonded in brotherhood”

Ain’t Talkin’“I’ll make the most of one last extra hour”

Ovid – Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 68 – “let me make the most of one last extra hour”

Ain’t Talkin’“I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned”

Ovid – Tristia, Book 5, Section 7, Lines 63-64 – “I practice terms long abandoned”

Ain’t Talkin’“They will tear your mind away from contemplation”

Ovid – Tristia, Book 5, Section 7, Line 66 – “tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes”

Then look at the splendid Workingman’s Blues #2.

At first release, reviewers believed Dylan was directly referencing the Grateful Dead’s 1970 marker Workingman’s Blues, but his song has references which are more than 2,000 years old:

Workingman’s Blues #2“My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf”

Ovid – Tristia, Book 2, Section 1, Line 179 – “Show mercy, I beg you, shelve your cruel weapons”

Working Man’s Blues #2“No one can ever claim/That I took up arms against you”

Ovid – Tristia, Book 2, Lines 51-53 – “no one can claim that I ever took up arms against you”

Workingman’s Blues #2 “To lead me off in a cheerful dance”

Tristia, Book 5, Section 12, Line 8 – “or Niobe, bereaved, lead off some cheerful dance”

Workingman’s Blues #2“Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking/That you have forgotten me?”

Tristia, Book 5, Section 13, Line 18 – “that I’m wrong in thinking you have forgotten me!”

Workingman’s Blues #2 – “You are dearer to me than myself/As you yourself can see”

Tristia, Book 5, Section 14, Line 2 – “wife, dearer to me than myself, you yourself can see”

And if you’re are still unconvinced, Dylan returns to the classics in The Levee’s Gonna Break “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones”

Ovid – Tristia, Book 4, Section 7, Line 51 – “there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones”

Finally let’s take a look at the song Early Roman Kings  from the outstanding 2012 album Tempest.

At a superficial glance, it sounds Roman, and there are a couple of lines that work with that: “All the early Roman kings in the early, early morn, / Coming down the mountain, distributing the corn.”

So classicists were excited when the title was first announced, coming off the Ovid of Modern Times.

But the Roman Kings actually turned out to be a 1960s Latino gang in New York, “In their sharkskin suits”, the second line of the song.

He’s playing with his audience, because the title is much more Latin than the other titles of songs that actually have Ovid in them.

The play continues when the voice of the singer, no longer in Rome or New York, becomes verbatim that of Fagle’s Odysseus taunting the Cyclops at the end of Odyssey 9: “I can strip you of life / Strip you of death / Ship you down / To the house of death.”

As with his Ovid lines, so with Homer, Dylan has an eye or ear for the poetry of translations which then fit his music, tunes and melody, in this case via a Muddy Waters style blues.

After the verbatim quotes, the singer continues “One day / You will ask for me / There’ll be no one else / That you’ll wanna see.”

“No one” is of course the Homeric speaker, and the Homeric addressee will not be seeing anyone.

So maybe Dylan’s ability to understand, digest, and draw inspiration from classical authors helped place him among the ranks of the Nobel Prize winners in Literature.

Or maybe he answered it himself in his riveting speech to last year’s MusiCares awards: “Critics have said that I’ve made a career out of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do? That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations.

“Like I stay up late at night thinking about how to do it. “What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.” You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations.

“And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. I don’t even know what that means or who has time for it.”

He later added: “These songs of mine, I think of as mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far.

“They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been traveling on hard ground.”