Bob Dylan and Emily Dickinson:

Typological Poets of the Broken Heart

To listen to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Album “Time out of Mind” is to catch once again the echoes of  Emily Dickinson’s apocalyptic expectations of the  return of divine vision  to an empty soul once ravished, then left bereft, the bride at the alter praying for the return of the bridegroom. On this echo, we hear too the repeated pattern of American poetry pulsating in waves from the 1600s to the 1860s to Dylan’s own signature era of the 1960s and our own millennial age. For the lost love to which both these poets pour out their hearts is only symbolically another person. As  it did in the Old Testament, as it did in Puritan poetry, as it often has in great American literature, the human other stands in for a transcendent reality, for a truth outside the texts of human culture.

In  Faulkner’s “Bear,”  when McCaslin quotes from the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” the line “Forever wilt thou love and she be fair,”  Ike says to him, “He’s talking about a girl.” McCaslin snaps back, “He had to talk about something. He was talking about truth. Truth is one, it doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart – honor and pride and justice and pity and courage and love. Do you see now?” The point is, as Faulkner says, that humans can “comprehend truth only through the complexity of passion and lust and hate and fear which drives the heart.”

Even the old Puritans wrote love songs which on the surface were thoroughly sensual, but clearly were addressed not just to the human form. In 1685 Edward Taylor wrote a poem based on Canticles 7.3 “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.” The final stanza goes:

Lord put these nipples then my mouth into
And suckle me therewith I humbly pray,
Then with this milk, they Spiritual babe I’st grow,
And these two milk pails shall themselves display
Like to these pretty twins in pairs round neat
And shall sing forth thy praise over this meat.

Taylor also wrote the first American poem about Christ’s heavenly coach in which the saints are all bound for glory.  With these and other poems he confirmed an enduring American tradition in which the poet breaks out of the literal, corrupt worldly Egypt and dares a long hard trip across the wilderness in the hope of reaching  on the other side the promised land of transcendent vision. Rock ‘n Roll was born out of gospel and the blues, and the most powerful aspect of this music, rock critic Greil Marcus tells us, “did not come from Africa but from the Puritan revival of the Great Awakening, the revival that spread across the American colonies more than 200 years ago. It was an explosion of dread and piety that southern whites passed onto their slaves and that blacks ultimately fashioned into their own religion.” It is this tradition which both Dylan and Dickinson use to understand their spiritual experience.

Both Emily Dickinson and Bob Dylan suffered a similar breaking out of the cage of conditioned consciousness to stand for a moment outside of the text, outside of the cause and effect relationships of time, to be “awakened” from the walking sleep of normal consciousness to experience the light of  what Dickinson called “Eternity”. But both lost that vision, the moment passed, leaving them back in the  literal world ravished but abandoned, damaged goods unable to return to Egypt but unable to forget their glimpse of the promised land. Left alone with an unbearable longing for the return of that vision, they both were forced to put back on and wear the human masks with which we all lie our way through the world. “I did not know the wine came once a world,” asked Dickinson, “Did you?”

For us who read and listen to their poetry, it is what they made of the “hours of lead”, that “quartz contentment,” the long ordeal in the spiritual wilderness that is important. Both these Americans reacted with the same fierce need to give voice to their longing and their loss, walking, as Dylan sang, “through streets that are dead.” And to that, we owe the power of their poetry.

Dickinson and Dylan’s understanding of their similar experiences was shaped by a peculiarly Protestant reading of the Christian scripture which had been reinforced and spread in the colonial awakening. Whatever the experience actually was, however interpreted through whatever analytical tradition, both of these poets chose to interpret their experience in those traditionally American Biblical terms. “I had,” said Dylan, “a born-again experience. If you want to call it that. It’s an overused term, but it’s something people can relate to.”   Both poets also returned to the Song of Solomon, to the love songs of the Old Testament, in which the  longing for the divine other is typologically figured as a longing for a lost human love. We read it in Solomon, we read it in the love poetry of that seventeenth-century Puritan mystic Edward Taylor, we read it again in Emily Dickinson, and now Bob Dylan has joined this holy train.

Unfortunately, we also have seen repeated the consternation of critics who do not understand the symbolic consciousness that colors this tradition. Just as there are legions of critics trying to identify the man whom Emily Dickinson must have been writing to (this “Lord” she refers to must have been the judge Otis Lord, they babble), so we have critics who imagine that the lost love Dylan mourns in every cut on this new album must be a human woman. Not that there cannot be a human person in either Dickinson’s or Dylan’s mind. When the real person, Otis Lord, asked for Emily Dickinson’s hand in marriage, she rejected him with a clear statement of her ability to distinguish the merely symbolic nature of human flesh: “You ask the crust but that would doom the bread.”  The human lover, if there is one, stands as a symbolic representation of the otherworldly experience which cannot be voiced in its mystic fullness but must be expressed symbolically, dressed in human form. To actually marry a person to achieve this love would be to fall to idolatry and forget the vision of Zion which is truly God.

This is of course to argue that Dylan still lives and writes in the shadow of his 1978 conversion experience when, as he says, he was “broken, shattered like an empty cup/ And I’m just waiting on the Lord/ To rebuild and fill me up.” That experience, whatever it was, had a profound effect upon him, giving him at least temporarily a whole new orientation and identity. Emily Dickinson also had a very specific moment of shattering. For her, the event occurred in 1861, and it blew her away. Much of her poetry refers back to this mystic moment of both “madness” and ecstatic vision. It was a moment in which the old self , the old identity, was shattered and a vision suddenly made possible of  that which exists outside of the limits of any finite self. Writing in the middle of the 1800s, Dickinson’s holy train bound for glory was, like Edward Taylor’s, a horse-drawn carriage, and the moment of her revelation was “the Day/ I first surmised the Horses’ Heads/ Were toward Eternity-”.

This moment of revelation was a revelation both of the “sham” of the old self and the “glory” of eternity. It was at once both “vision and veto,” and much of her best poetry combines the images of destruction and  revelation: “The wounded deer leaps highest.” And she saw the metaphor of Christ on the Cross as the symbol of this combination of the death of the old ego and the resurrection of a new spiritual sense, the attainment of a higher consciousness, what she called a “costumeless consciousness,” pure spirit liberated from its “corporeal friend.” Of Christ on the Cross, Dickinson asked “Did he know how conscious consciousness could grow?”  Apparently the vision came in waves over a period of several days: “And then – a Day as huge/  As Yesterdays in pairs/ Unrolled its horror in my face -/ … Could it be Madness – this?” Her old identity crucified, she believed that she had caught in that moment the “majority” call madness, if only like Moses in passing, a glimpse of the divine. This is why she wrote “Much madness is divinest sense.”

So Dylan in his “Time out of Mind” harkens back to a moment of  both loss and vision, when as he says in the first cut, “I spoke as a child/ You destroyed me with a smile,/ While I was sleeping.”  Awakened from sleep, his old self destroyed, he has fallen into some vision of love. It is a love he wishes he could escape from, that he could be free from, but he cannot escape. “I’m sick of love,” he sings, “but I’m in the thick of it… I’m trying to forget you; I’d give anything to be with you.”

Emily Dickinson recorded her moment of disintegration as a “funeral in my brain” in which “ a service like a drum/ Kept beating – beating – till I thought/ My Mind was going numb.” The drumming in her brain accelerates until it  reaches a crescendo and then breaks. After the break, she is spaced out in a kind of cosmic stillness “As all the heavens were a Bell/ And Being but an ear/ And I and silence some strange race/ Wrecked solitary, here.”  In a similar vein, Dylan recalls that “yesterday everything was going too fast,/ Today its moving too slow.” As a result, he “has nothing to go back to now.” The line has a double reference, for there is nothing in the world to go back to, only the old sham. Once that has been exposed as an illusion, as a lie, as mere worldliness, nothing of it can ever satisfy again, not even human love. But neither is there any experience of holy vision to return to, for that has withdrawn itself too. So Dylan is left, as Dickinson was, like Moses in the wilderness praying to be allowed to enter the promised land. “It always seemed to me a wrong,” wrote Dickinson, “to that old Moses done/ To Let him see the Canaan/ Without the entering.” Both American poets know, in Dylan’s words, that “the mercy of God must be near” but both find themselves “standing in the doorway crying” in what Dylan using the classic Biblical pun calls “the dark land of the son.”

But in no way can Dylan get the vision out of his mind or memory. In this too he is like Dickinson who wrote

If I had not seen the sun
I could have borne the shade,
But light a newer wilderness,
My wilderness has made.

Like Dickinson, Dylan has “been praying for some vision/ Laying ‘round a one-room country shack.” But like Dickinson, he is weary of the wait and is growing “tired of talking, trying to explain.” He has not yet spoken the dark desire that haunted the earlier poet, the self-destructive wish “What if I say I shall not wait!/ What if I burst the fleshly gate -/And pass escaped to thee!”  But as the  memory “grows dimmer,” he does feel abandoned, “20 miles out of town – cold irons bound.” Admitting “I dont know how much longer I can wait,” he darkly warns, “It’s not dark yet/ But I’m getting there.”

Nevertheless, for both poets the longing is made somewhat easier by what little still is left of the memory of the love that’s been lost. Both seem to claim that, as the old Puritans preached, they are “in the world but not of it.”  Dickinson could claim that the moment of vision gave her at least a tiny taste of eternity, a glimpse of the reality outside of false perceptions of the world. It was, she said, “my being’s worth, a single dram of heaven.” But that single dram, though it only came once a world, was better than never having seen a glimpse of what is outside the  worldly cage. She did have her memory of her vision of Eternity, and at times that was more than enough; it was the promise of election sealed and delivered in that one painful, glorious white flash. It was, she wrote, “Mine – by the right of the white election…. Mine long as ages steal.” So Dylan ends up his album of longing with the claim that “My heart’s in the highland.” His body is stuck in the “same old rat race/ Life in the same old cage,” but his spirit is back there with his lost love. He is in the world with its illusion of flesh and dirt and its lies and deceptions and sham identities, but, he sings in the last two lines of the album, “I’m there in my mind/ And that’s good enough for now.”

All of our ancestors left someplace else, whether voluntarily or dragged on slave ships or stuffed into steerage. Our first  American ancestors left old identities behind,  and we have had to renew generation after generation that constant turning from the lies of old identity to the hope of a new and better vision. The pattern of American life, repeated in Dylan’s own numerous transitions,  has been the search for a new and better identity, only to find eventually even that new and better identity to be “as hollow as it seems” until the pattern repeats and a new break from the new identity to find an even better newer one repeats the cycle. And so we beat on across the wilderness with the vision of the promised land somewhere up ahead, over the rainbow, beyond the horizon, breaking out of the old cocoon, born again, decayed again, and reborn, from century to century in a long continuous march toward we don’t yet know what.

Our poets sing of this our sojourn. And it is they who remind us as they remind themselves that we are searching not for some new worldly identity, not for a new politics, or a new gender, or a new worldly form, but for an identity that transcends all the forms of time and space and puts us in touch with Eternity.  Many would be more comfortable if the form Dylan chose in which to express his experience were not so dogmatically Christian. But some such inevitable human forms, of whatever tradition, are part of what we have to overcome. The train we ride may be a slow train coming, but it is coming; it is moving along its tracks heading not for a literal worldly destination but for a time out of mind.. Emily Dickinson and Bob Dylan are but two who keep alive this mighty tradition that is us.

[This article appeared in “Crawdaddy” and in “On the Tracks” June 1998]