Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" vs TS Eliot's "The Wasteland"

I decided to pull out my old laptop. Going through it was like looking at an old photo album. A lot of memories and definitely some embarrassing moments. One pretty cool thing I found was an old essay from my University days.  I have kept it exactly the same as when I wrote it in 2008.  I hope you enjoy.
 

 

Desolate Wasteland: Convoluted Confrontation of Corruption in Eliot and Dylan

 

Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row” has been called “a poet’s prophetic vision of the reality of America” (Gleason 163) and was heavily influenced by T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Both are obscure yet poignant examples of writing from disillusioned members of a counterculture, surrounded by chaos, corruption and war.  Together the poetic pessimism of these two works proves that through the use of numerous allusions and the appearance of inaccessibility through powerful metaphor, poetry can be a powerful kind of protest.

In an attempt to interpret these works, one must place them in context. Bob Dylan, writing post World War II, finds himself in a world of chaos.  The Vietnam Conflict has begun and the Cold War lingers in the minds of people around the world. On the other hand, T.S. Eliot was writing post World War I after having witnessed the wasteful slaughter of a great many lives. His writing reflects that futility. In years to come, as Gitlin states, “Many of the alienated [youth]…seized upon “The Wasteland” as an emblem of their estrangement (73). One of the estranged was Bob Dylan, who wrote and recorded “Desolation Row” a mere 7 months after the death of Eliot in 1965. “Eliot’s poem was a manifesto, a weapon to be used,” (Gitlin 73) so Dylan armed himself with Eliot’s influence and set off to challenge the corruption of humanity in his own time.

Though it would appear that these two works are of very different categories (poetry and music), the similarities between the poems are numerous. While Dylan’s words may come with music, he considered himself a poet first and foremost. Likewise Eliot’s work, specifically “The Waste Land,” has “been termed a “music of ideas”” (Korg 456). Additionally, Dylan was greatly influenced by Eliot poetically, even alluding to him in line 101 of “Desolation Row.” Therefore one can expect a great congruency between these works.

First to be noticed is the resemblance in style. Both are exceptionally long works of poetry and are based on imagery through narration; the speaker of each poem describes “heap[s] of broken images” (Eliot ln.22) that seem to be unrelated fragments, yet they conjure up dark feelings. Early in the poem, the speakers describe scenes of depravity such as, the people “selling postcards of the hanging” (Dylan ln.1) or the corpse “planted last year in the garden” (Eliot ln.71). This pessimistic, sickening tone establishes the mood upon which these poems are based. Perhaps the intention of these poems is to serve as a wakeup call, a way of making the accustomed immorality new again. In this way, form reflects the meaning of the poems as Dylan and Eliot begin to illustrate their dissatisfaction with the fragmented illusory world around them.

At first it appears that both poems are quite inaccessible. They are varied in topic from line to line, the metaphors are vast and strange and they are constructed around literary and historical allusions. Additionally, Eliot makes his poem even more inaccessible by having several lines in German and even in Sanskrit. However, “the emergence of [this] inaccessibility can be understood as a certain sort of protest” (Gitlin 70). Both Dylan and Eliot are aware that obscure poetry is not intended to deprive the reader “but rather to make truths which would otherwise cheapen by exposure, the object of strong intellectual effort” (Boccaccio 261). The obscurity of Eliot is aped by Dylan to serve the purpose of calling attention to those who will understand the problem and hopefully make change.  Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” is a “dare to the audience to accept the shockingly non-linear spiritual and political disorder of post-World War I Europe” (Gitlin 74) while Dylan’s “Desolation Row” is an invitation to leave the circus-like world of chaos and join the counter-culture reformation. 

Eliot also rebels against standard poetic formations and establishes a fragmentary poem that appears to have no consistency in stanza length or meter. In this way, form reflects subject matter since Eliot is attempting to rebel against the post-war society of the 1920’s in which he sees a distorted society.  This is proven by the last line of his poem in which the speaker says “Shantih shantih shantih” (Eliot 334).  Previously, Eliot had spoken mainly of the dead saying “He who was living is now dead / We who were living are now dieing” (28-29) in a wasted land, but this final line shows the poem is an example of protest as the speaker prays for “Peace peace peace.”  

Dylan follows Eliot’s use of poetry as protest and thus also uses poetic form as a method of rebellion; Dylan defies the conventions of his own time to produce “Desolation Row.” Firstly, the songs of Dylan’s contemporaries were nowhere near the length of “Desolation Row.” As well, this work does not have a chorus or repetition of stanzas common in 1960’s music. Instead he only repeats the words “Desolation row” to drive home his point. Dylan truly treated this song like a work of poetry setting it apart from the other protests of his time.

Vital to the poems is the political subtext that is both anti-war and anti-governmental corruption. Both Eliot and Dylan call out symbols of the government such as the “barbarous king” (Eliot ln.99), the restless “riot squad” (Dylan ln.9) and agents who operate at midnight; all are used in a negative way reflecting harm to the others characters with suggested torture and even death by “heart-attack machine” (90) and “kerosene” (92). Each fragmented stanza in these poems is used to illustrate “society as valueless, its institutions rotten, and its leaders immoral and without any motive but greed and power…add[ing] up to the starkest analysis yet of the poverty of the system” (Gleason 164). These poems can be read as an invocation for justice against the dreadfulness depicted.

The use of allusion is imperative in both these works. In Eliot’s “The Waste Land” the speaker makes reference to Coriolanus, Tiresias and religious figures such as “Saint Mary Woolnoth” (67). In “Desolation Row” Dylan too makes mention of several characters, both real and fictitious, historical and literal with the inclusion of several religious characters. Cinderella, Robin Hood, the Phantom of the Opera coexist with Einstein, Cain and Abel and “the Good Samaritan” (33).  What purpose do all these allusions serve? In both texts there is an emphasis on knowledge; the authors’ intent is to say that one must be aware of literature and religion to understand the world these poems reflect. The poems act as hypertexts, indexing educational sources that may help to gain knowledge of what the poems speak of. The allusions appeal you to look outside the poem for meaning. The reader is thus called to analyze their own world like they must analyze the poem.

There are several powerful metaphors that are shared in these two poems that continue to showcase the influence of Eliot’s work on that of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” One of the most significant is regarding sight. In both poems there is reference to blindness. “Desolation Row” refers to “the blind commissioner” (ln.5) suggesting that those in power, the leaders of the world, are ignorant and oblivious or perhaps they merely turn a blind eye toward humanity. Oppositely, there is also mention of a “famous clairvoyante” (ln.43) in Eliot’s poem and a “fortune telling lady” (ln.27) in Dylan’s work. This suggests a foresight to the poems. Madame Sosostros makes further predictions of death and deceit in “the Waste Land” and the seer in Dylan’s work symbolically predicts rain, which of course can represent hard times ahead. This enhances the doomed meaning of the poems suggesting that humanity’s corruption is never ending.

Interestingly, there is a shred of irony in Dylan’s poem. The word desolation typically is understood to mean misery or wretchedness. Yet, in his work, all the characters are attempting to get to Desolation Row by any means necessary. Upon further investigation, desolation can also mean isolation thus pessimistically suggesting that perhaps “hell is other people” (Sartre) and one is better off alone or at very least, away from the modern world. Dylan asks “Which side are you on?” (ln.100) offering a choice: to be part of the solution instead of the problem. Thus, Dylan’s work is an invocation for his listeners to renounce their world and establish a counter-culture of their own, one that rejects the squandered waste land that Eliot describes.

In conclusion, Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” is written in response to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  Both describe the debauchery and corruption they see around them, however, it is Dylan that offers a small glimpse of hope. He says that the world and many people that inhabit it are corrupt, but our fate is not yet sealed: there is indeed a place where a “Good Samaritan” (Dylan 33) can escape “the factory” (Dylan ln.89) and the “violent hour” (Eliot ln.215) of mendacious human civilization. To flee the wasteland one must escape to desolation row.

Works Cited

 

Boccaccio, Giovanni. “Genealogy of the Gentile Gods.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. 255-262.

Dylan, Bob. “Desolation Row.” Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia Records: 1965.

Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry: Shorter 

5th Edition. New York: Norton, 2005. 866-878.

Gleason, Ralph J. “The Greater Sound.” The Drama Review. 13.4. (Summer 

1969): 160-166. JSTOR. April 11, 2008 <http:links.jstor.org>

Gitlin, Todd. “Inaccessibility as Protest: Pound, Eliot, and the Situation of American Poetry.” Theory and Society. 10.1. (Jan., 1981): 63-80. JSTOR. April 9, 2008 <http:links.jstor.org>

Korg, Jacob. “Modern Art Techniques in the Wasteland.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 18.4. (Jun., 1960): 456-463. JSTOR. April 12, 2008 <http:links.jstor.org>

Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. New York: Samuel French Inc., 1957.