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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, January 19, 2009


Christopher Rollason, who knows about these things, has posted this on his own blog on the occasion of Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday (today). Here is the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia - the revised version in the paperback published last October - suggesting that his influence on Dylan has been a mixed blessing, but in which the good has outweighed the not-so. This entry also discusses Dylan's very funny book Tarantula:

Poe, Edgar Allan [1809-1849]
Edgar Allan Poe, born to actor parents, had little success in his own lifetime but gained posthumous recognition as a major figure in 19th Century American literature. Critic, short-story (including ghost-story) writer and poet, he was also a promising athlete in his youth, impressing his teachers in Richmond VA ‘by swimming six miles against the tide in a river during a heatwave’. His best-known work is the story ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’ (1839), ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) - sometimes claimed to be the first detective story - and the poems ‘The Raven’ (1845) and ‘The Bells’ (1849). One of those who made Greenwich Village into Bohemia a century and more before Dylan arrived in it, Poe died in Baltimore, 7 October, 1849.

Christopher Rollason has suggested Poe as the prompt for Dylan’s wild 1960s book Tarantula being so-called. He points out that Poe’s story ‘The Gold-Bug’ is prefaced by the epigraph ‘What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad! He hath been bitten by the Tarantula.’ Poe credits these lines to All in the Wrong, a play of 1761 by Arthur Murphy, but Poe editor Thomas Ollive Mabbott says this is untrue; Poe may have made them up. Either way, as Mabbott comments: ‘The bite of the tarantula spider was held responsible for a wild hysterical impulse to dance - tarantism - that affected great numbers of people, especially in Italy, during the later Middle Ages. In Frederick Reynolds’ play The Dramatist (1789)… a character… says, “I’m afraid you have been bitten by a tarantula - you’ll excuse me, but the symptoms are wonderfully alarming. There is a blazing fury in your eye - a wild emotion in your countenance.”’ The point being that the protagonist appears to be mad but eventually his actions are revealed as based on a hidden chain of logical reasoning. Rollason adds: ‘the theme of Hamlet-like apparent madness would seem to make sense in the general context of Tarantula, a tragi-comic voyage across a world that refuses to make sense, a crazy extension of the carnival on Desolation Row.’ This seems somewhat less speculative when we note that Poe himself features inside Tarantula: in the section ‘The Horse Race’, ‘edgar allan poe steps out from beside a burning bush’, while in ‘Al Aaraaf & the Forcing Committee’, Dylan writes of ‘New York neath spells of Poe’. The phrase ‘Al Aaraaf’, which refers to a passage in the Koran about a kind of limbo poised between heaven and hell, is itself the title poem of a volume published by Poe in 1829.

These mid-1960s allusions to Poe follow those from the Dylan songs of 1965, in which ‘some raven’ appears in ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘rue Morgue Avenue’ is part of the geography of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ and Captain Kidd, having appeared in Poe’s ‘The Gold-Bug’, reappears in ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’.

Poe’s literary spirit also loiters behind some of Dylan’s 1970s work, for good and ill. Poe’s short poem ‘To Helen’, of which everyone knows two lines, usually without knowing where or whom they come from, removes the puzzle of all those embarrassingly florid pseudo-classical phrases of Dylan’s that sit so uneasily in the choruses of ‘Sara’, on Desire. Where Helen is addressed in terms of ‘Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face / Thy Naiad airs...’, which Poe says have brought him home ‘To the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome’ (the lines everyone knows, of course), and adds: ‘How statue-like I see thee stand... / Ah, Psyche, from the regions which / Are Holy Land!’, so ‘Sara’ is bombarded with: ‘Sweet Virgin Angel... Radiant jewel, mystical wife / …Scorpio Sphinx in a calico dress’ and ‘Glamorous nymph with an arrow and bow.’

Poe’s influence has also been to the good. Dylan inherits the heart of Poe’s quirky confidence with rhymes, and particularly internal rhymes. The tour-de-force example of Dylan’s ‘No Time To Think’ (1978): ‘I’ve seen all these decoys through a set of deep turquoise / Eyes and I feel so depressed... / The bridge that you travel on goes to the Babylon / Girl with the rose in her hair... / Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt / You can give but you cannot receive’ is prefigured by that of Poe’s scintillating ‘The Raven’ (1845): ‘And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain / Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before / So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating / ‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door’.

In 2003, interviewed by Robert Hilburn in Amsterdam, Dylan said that in adolescence Poe’s poetry had ‘knocked me out in more ways than I could name.’ Dylan also mentions Poe twice in Chronicles Volume One (2004), and that December, interviewed on US-TV by Ed Bradley, when Dylan says that the burden of being perceived as a ‘prophet’ in the late 1960s made him feel like an imposter, he elaborates: ‘It was like being in an Edgar Allen Poe story and you’re just not that person everybody thinks you are, though they call you that all the time.’

[The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols, ed. A.H. Quinn & E.H. O’Neill, first published 1946, has been reprinted through to at least the 1970s. The quote re Poe’s swimming prowess comes from Martin Wainwright, The Guardian, London, 25 May 2005, p.4, while reporting Sylvester Stallone’s intention to direct a Poe film bio. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. 3, Tales and Sketches 1843-1849, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 844-845. Dylan, Tarantula, St. Martin’s Press reprint, 1994, p. 39 & p.136. Christopher Rollason’s comments posted on the online discussion group, 5 May 2001. Dylan to Robert Hilburn, Los Angeles Times, 4 Apr 2004; Chronicles Volume One, pp.37 & 103. Dylan to Ed Bradley: ’60 Minutes’, CBS-TV, 5 Dec 2004.]


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