Bob Dylan Reads From T.S. Eliot’s Great Modernist Poem The Waste Land

As a recent piece in The Inde­pen­dent notes, “stu­dents of lit­er­ate song­writ­ing” are unsur­prised to find ref­er­ences to T.S. Eliot scat­tered through­out the pop canon: Gen­e­sis, Man­ic Street Preach­ers, Arcade Fire… and of course, Bob Dylan. Dylan arguably makes ref­er­ence to Eliot’s mas­ter­work The Waste Land with the line “in the waste­land of your mind” from “When The Night Comes Falling from the Sky.”

And in the penul­ti­mate verse of “Des­o­la­tion Row,” he gives us an image of “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot / Fight­ing in the captain’s tow­er.” As with every oth­er line in the song, this could mean just about any­thing. But giv­en Dylan’s admi­ra­tion for The Waste Land, it could eas­i­ly refer to the edi­to­r­i­al tug-of-war between the two poets, as it was Pound who shaped Eliot’s poem into the work we have today. And then there’s the tow­er image so promi­nent in Eliot’s great poem, an occult motif Dylan returned to.

Just above, hear Dylan riff on the first four lines of The Waste Land for his XM Radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, which aired from May 2006 to April 2009. On the show, Dylan played records, respond­ed to (fake) lis­ten­er emails, read poet­ry, told jokes, and did musi­cal bits, all in keep­ing with themes like “Mon­ey” and “Weath­er.” (You can catch two episodes a day on

He reads Eliot in a faux-beat cadence—sounding like Tom Waits—with a juke joint piano bang­ing away behind him. Dylan opens his read­ing with some brief com­men­tary, telling us that Eliot’s poem “com­mem­o­rat­ed the death of Abra­ham Lin­coln.” This throw­away line may just give us a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into Dylan’s lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ties. Know­ing that Eliot’s lilacs refer to Lin­coln seems almost cer­tain­ly to indi­cate that Dylan knows they first refer to Walt Whit­man, whose “When Lilacs Last in the Door­yard Bloom’d” direct­ly com­mem­o­rates Lin­coln.

Of course, he isn’t going to tell us that, if he knows it, just like he won’t give any­thing away in “Des­o­la­tion Row,” a song so filled with ref­er­ences to famous fig­ures and works of art that it’s hard to tell how much is “orig­i­nal” Dylan and how much a patch­work of para­phrase. The dis­tinc­tion hard­ly mat­ters, Dylan seems to sug­gest in his eli­sion of Whit­man. Eliot’s poem is, line by line, so much a col­lage of allu­sion and cita­tion that there seems to be no Eliot at all, just a mani­a­cal edi­tor (or two). The first line of the poem—“April is the cru­elest month”—traces in part to French Sym­bol­ist Jules Laforgue, one of Eliot’s favorites, who begins his “October’s Lit­tle Mis­eries” with “Every Octo­ber I start to get upset.” And Eliot’s orig­i­nal title, “He Do the Police in Dif­fer­ent Voic­es” comes ver­ba­tim from Dick­ens’ Our Mutu­al Friend. As any­one who’s read Eliot in an aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting knows, the list goes on, and on.

One of the effects of Eliot’s mas­tery of oth­er people’s work (hear him read his poem above), which he could dis­as­sem­ble and make mon­strous­ly his own, is that his crit­ics and fans will nev­er tire of pulling apart his dense­ly com­pressed vers­es and pok­ing around inside them. Like­wise Dylan. The lat­ter nev­er passed him­self off as a poet explic­it­ly (although he’s often read that way), but as a song­writer he’s spawned a cot­tage cul­ture indus­try as pro­duc­tive as Eliot’s. Even his erst­while radio show, in which he offered his own com­men­tary and crit­i­cism, has its com­men­tary and crit­i­cism from fans. I may nev­er be con­vinced that songs—pop, folk, hip-hop, or otherwise—work the same way as poems, but if any­one fig­ured out how to leap nim­bly over what­ev­er gap lies between them, Dylan cer­tain­ly did. Maybe one of the con­nec­tions he made is this: what seems to set both Dylan and Eliot apart from their peers is their com­pete dis­re­gard for notions of authen­tic­i­ty in favor of the play of “dif­fer­ent voices”—impersonation, quo­ta­tion, and homage to the artists they admire.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

T.S. Eliot Reads His Mod­ernist Mas­ter­pieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Lis­ten to T.S. Eliot Recite His Late Mas­ter­piece, the Four Quar­tets

Bob Dylan Final­ly Makes a Video for His 1965 Hit, “Like a Rolling Stone”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • ragged clown says:

    Come on, the influ­ence of The Waste Land on Des­o­la­tion Row starts with the title! Eliot’s neo-sym­bol­ism is all over mid-six­ties songs like Love Minus Zero, Visions of Johan­na, and Stuck Inside of Mobile. All Along the Watch­tow­er adapts from Prufrock in its final lines. Music plays an impor­tant part in the struc­ture and con­tent of Eliot’s work (even in his titles, like Four Quar­tets, Rhap­sody on A Windy Night, Pre­ludes etc.) and per­haps this was part of the appeal. Bob cer­tain­ly knows his Whit­man, as he adapts from “When Lilacs…” in “Cross the Green Moun­tain.”

  • Johnnie says:

    I was dis­ap­point­ed to hear that Bob was­n’t clear about the dif­fer­ence between the end of a line and the end of a sen­tence, and that he could­n’t pro­nounce “Starn­berg­ersee.” I guess I expect­ed more. A clear­er com­pre­hen­sion, per­haps.

  • Roderick T. long says:

    Not sur­prised to find them in the pop canon, but did­n’t expect to learn they’re in the pop “cannon.“nnn(Sorry.)

  • Anne Margaret Daniel says:

    I wrote about Dylan and Mod­ernism a few years ago for “Mon­tague Street.” And I love the read­ing on “Theme Time Radio Hour” of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”:

  • Tricia says:

    “Say hel­lo to Valerie, say hel­lo to Vivi­enne, give them all my salary on the waters of obliv­ion”

  • Mick gold says:

    Thanks for this. Which episode of TTRH is BD’s Waste Land read­ing from? Of course I was taught the sig­nif­i­cance of Eliot’s open­ing line is the way he revers­es the open­ing of Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales, so that the fer­til­i­ty of April becomes bad news.

  • Martin Killeen says:

    The con­clu­sion of the Cap­tain’s Tow­er verse in Des­o­la­tion Row res­onates with echoes of Prufrock:

    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

    I have heard the mer­maids singing, each to each.

    I do not think that they will sing to me.

    I have seen them rid­ing sea­ward on the waves
    Comb­ing the white hair of the waves blown back
    When the wind blows the water white and black.

    We have lin­gered in the cham­bers of the sea
    By sea-girls wreathed with sea­weed red and brown
    Till human voic­es wake us, and we drown.

  • Stuart Bailie says:

    Was­n’t the open­ing line, ‘April is the cru­elest month’, a,so a ref­er­ence to the Can­ter­bury Tales?

  • Bill says:

    Any­one know what the music is that’s play­ing beneath the read­ing?

  • Carol Randazzo says:

    I tried to start Bob and TS togeth­er, so the simul­ta­ne­ous rhythms would reveal their indi­vid­ual pace. Bob was first, while TS fol­lowed. Strange­ly enough, they were pret­ty togeth­er. Does this poem have a spe­cif­ic meter?

    Dylan stopped for the word he could not pro­nounce because he was in his per­son­al­i­ty while TS’s per­son­al­i­ty was car­ried in the qual­i­ty of his voice, which had a sad styl­ized qual­i­ty of his peri­od. Rem­i­nis­cent of war radio announc­ers emot­ing the hor­rors of mod­ern wars. That is the sound I hear in TS Eliot’s voice (and I am so pleased to hear him read it). Politi­cians have that urgent qual­i­ty.

    Dylan’s humor on the oth­er hand, revealed him play­ing with his igno­rance, sug­gest­ing ” I’m ok You’re ok” hon­esty out front. It dates him, but oh such a mind blow­ing time.It upsets the flow and mean­ing but we are more drawn into Dylan’s ques­tion­able break, which reminds us we are with him not the poem.

    I enjoyed both read­ings but Bob’s bold­er rhyth­mic accents direct­ed my mind to reach out and explore the thought implied by the accent.

    Inter­est­ing how the TS Eliot, read­ing becomes dat­ed but the mate­r­i­al is age­less and how Bob Dylan’s play­ful approach reflects a now­ness.

  • Carol Randazzo says:

    I just want to clar­i­fy. When start­ed their read­ings, almost togeth­er, they are not speak­ing in exact­ly the same pace but they end the poem almost at the same time.

  • Morna says:

    My sen­ti­ments, exact­ly.

  • Morna says:

    My sen­ti­ments, exact­ly, John­nie.

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