(Published on the Askesian Society blog, 2008)

It is by now well known that Bob Dylan fills his recent songs with lines taken from elsewhere. Just as ‘Love and Theft’ – whose very title is an ostentatious quotation, from the title of Eric Lott’s book about white singers coopting black culture – contains phrases from Virgil, Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga, as well as the usual panoply of blues artists, so the source of many Modern Times lyrics has been found to lie in Ovid and Henry Timrod. As Robert Polito points out, it may well turn out that every bit of speech on the album can be traced to some other work (1).

In composing an article on ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ – the best song on Modern Times – I was forced to address this feature of Dylan’s latest album. Several explanations have been ventured, and I hope to add another shortly. Until then, I want first to suggest a way in which the problem has recently become deeper. We learn from Tell Tale Signs that the early version of ‘Ain’t Talkin’’ contains no Ovid references. Given that it ends up with nine, this is surprising. Are the references integral to the song, or mere adornments? How much interpretative pressure can we reasonably put on a song thrown together in the studio?

But my main purpose here is simply to add to the findings of Scott Warmuth, Cliff Fell and Richard Thomas (2) by suggesting further connections to both Ovid and Timrod in Modern Times and other works of that period. It is worth admitting at the outset that many of these are mere echoes, and therefore become plausible only in the context of the nineteen Ovid and sixteen Timrod references already found by others.


Workingman’s Blues #2

1. Poems demand for the writer leisure and solitude: I’m tossed by sea and wind, savaged by winter. – Tristia, 1.1.42

Now, I’m sailin’ on back, ready for the long haul / Tossed by the winds and the seas

2. My tears flow uninterrupted except when I pass out, when a sleep like death stuns my senses. – Black Sea Letters 1.2.28-29

Sleep is like a temporary death

3. There’s no one alive today whom my words have wounded. – Black Sea Letters 4.14.44-5

You’ve wounded me with your words

Ain’t Talkin’

4. Of this I’ve no doubt – but the very dread of misfortune often drives me to nurse superfluous fears. – Black Sea Letters 2.7.5-6

I’m not nursing any superfluous fears

Someday Baby

5. He was making for his homeland, a cheerful victor: I was driven from mine – fugitive, exile, victim. – Tristia, 1.5.66

Now I’m going to drive you from your home, just like I was driven from mine

6. Though I often yearn to write about something else, I find myself slipping back into the same old rut. – Black Sea Letters, 4.15.33-4

I keep recycling the same old thoughts

The Levee’s Gonna Break

7. Look at me – I’ve lost my home, the two of you, my country, they’ve stripped me of all they could take – Tristia 3.7.46

Some of these people gonna strip you of all you can take

8. For the good I hoped from you, my friends, forgive me. I’ll not repeat that mistake. – Black Sea Letters, 3.7.10

I tried to get you to love me, but I won’t repeat that mistake

Beyond The Horizon

9. All this I’d sooner credit than think that you, my dearest comrade, have changed, have set aside your love for me. – Tristia 4.7.20

I still can’t believe that you’ve set aside your love for me

10. Provided always you make your repentance plain – Tristia, 4.9.4

My repentance is plain

11. ‘Yet it’s better (I think) that my friend’s zeal should have faded than that they should have pled for me in vain.’ – Black Sea Letters, 3.7.35-36

I’ve been pleading in vain (3)

Huck’s Tune

12. ‘Enough that I should live amid ice and Scythian arrows (if such a version of death can be called ‘life’.) – Black Sea Letters, 1.7.10

In this version of death called life

Masked & Anonymous

13. ‘Rather stretch out your arm for the weary swimmer to grasp at, don’t balk at holding up his chin!’ – Black Sea Letters 2.6.13-14

Would you reach out your hand to save a drowning man if you thought he might pull you in?


Workingman’s Blues

1. And, if it may be, save / These sacred fields of peace / From stain of patriot or of hostile blood – The Cotton Boll

All across the peaceful sacred fields / They will lay you low

Spirit On The Water

2. ‘Burn your way to the heart!’ – Praeceptor Amat

You burned your way into my heart

3. ‘How then, O weary one! explain / The sources of that hidden pain?’ – Two Portraits

Can’t explain / The sources of this hidden pain

When The Deal Goes Down

4. ‘A simple, but still a most magical strain, / Its dim monotones have bewildered my brain – Vox Et Praeterea Nihil

My bewildered brain toils in vain (4)

5. ‘In my dreams, / I see it beaten by the midnight rain, / Or chilled beneath the moon.’ – A Mother’s Wail

The midnight rain follows the train

Huck’s Tune

6. ‘“Perhaps,” he said, “this lady and her elves / Will one day come, and take me to themselves.”’ – A Vision of Poesy

All the merry little elves can go hang themselves! (5)


(1) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/feature.html?id=178703

(2) http://dylanchords.info/45_modern/timrod.html and journal.oraltradition.org/files/articles/22i/Thomas.pdf . One of Thomas’ examples appears to be erroneously cited: “there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones” is at Tristia 4.6.42, not 4.7.51.

(3) Oddly enough, bobdylan.com replaces this lyric evidently present on the album with ‘I ponder in vain’.

(4) Again, bobdylan.com has this inaccurately, as ‘bewildering brain’.

(5) This link is not clear at all, but nonetheless worth including for two reasons. First, it is a puzzling line which does not fit well with the rest of ‘Huck’s Tune’, and is therefore in need of explanation. Second, there are at least five references to elves in Timrod’s collected poems, making them one of the notable features of his work.