Wanderer Above the Sea of Poetry
The Romantic Heroes of Bob Dylan
by Lily Ekimian
via Wikimedia Commons
If I were to describe the average character in a Bob Dylan song, I would say he is self-centred, isolated, introspective, has been rejected from and in turn rejects society, and travels with an incurable wanderlust. For anyone who has taken a Romantic literature course, this may very well sound familiar. Yet, as Dylan is the first songwriter to win a Nobel Prize in literature, this comparison may not come as a surprise.
The Romantic heroes of Byron, Shelley, Goethe, and Lermontov are often perceived as tragic figures restlessly swaying between polar extremes, echoed in the capriciousness of nature, a common symbol in Romantic works. This can just as easily be said of the hero of Dylan’s landmark 1975 album, ‘Blood on the Tracks.’ The very same narrator who howls, “You’re an idiot, babe, / It’s a wonder you can even feed yourself,” turns, seemingly in an instant, to croak with simplicity and sincerity, “I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like / I like the way you love me strong and slow / I’m taking you with me, honey baby / When I go.” Despite the emotional extremes and a constantly shifting narration, listening to the album all the way through, we have little doubt that we have just followed the physical and emotional journey of a single character. And this is a character who seems to have more in common with 19th-century jaded heroes, such as Childe Harold and Eugene Onegin, than a singer-songwriter of the 1970s.
The ability of the Romantic hero to pull focus from those around him, regardless of the situation, is well established – for instance in Goethe’s Werther, Lermontov’s Pechorin, and most cunningly in Pushkin's poem, ‘I Loved You.’ In this work, the speaker supposedly wishes his former lover well, hoping that she will be fortunate enough to find someone that will love her as he did, framing it almost as a challenge. He makes no mention of her feelings or opinions, and a simple eight-line love poem reveals itself as somewhat of a bitter taunt. In Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,’ the narrator’s words betray a narcissism and self-centredness to rival Pushkin’s poem: “I’ll look for you.../ You’re gonna leave me now I know / But I’ll see you in the sky above / In the tall grass, in the ones I love / You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
Viewing Dylan’s characters as Romantic heroes may offer insight into one of the most enigmatic poetic figures of the 20th century, who could be considered the Romantic hero of his own life. However, since Dylan has often rejected autobiographical interpretations of his songs, perhaps we should leave his characters as separate from himself. Yet, how often is it the case that an author shares nothing with his work?
A new Bob Dylan bootleg from the ‘Blood on the Tracks’ sessions, ‘More Blood, More Tracks,’ is out now, with a 10 song sampler available for streaming.