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 dylanradio.com).
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.
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
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.”
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.
Not surprised to find them in the pop canon, but didn’t expect to learn they’re in the pop “cannon.”nnn(Sorry.)
Ha! Thanks. I love a witty correction.
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”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3RJysESt0Q
“Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Vivienne, give them all my salary on the waters of oblivion”
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.
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.
Wasn’t the opening line, ‘April is the cruelest month’, a,so a reference to the Canterbury Tales?
Anyone know what the music is that’s playing beneath the reading?
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.
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.
My sentiments, exactly.
My sentiments, exactly, Johnnie.