In honor of Bob Dylan’s win of the Nobel prize for Literature, we present a comparative analysis of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Euripides’ The Bacchae
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the ‘60s counter-culture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the ‘70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ‘80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ‘90s.
For over a decade now, these words have echoed through stadiums and concert halls in the moments leading up to Bob Dylan’s entrance into the candescent room. With it reverberate the screams of Dylan disciples, poets and pariahs, pop junkies, renegades, the original hipsters, generations of loyal fans, former prime ministers, and Molly Ringwald—all seemingly different, yet emphatically linked. The time-honored prelude sends a perpetual chill down the spine that directly hits the soul. This singular sensation has only intensified a decade later as Dylan has become the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 23 years—fulfilling that unwittingly prophetic tribute “poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll.” And with that, many are overjoyed, some discontent, though most are simply stunned by the artist’s most recent accolade.
In light of the prolific musician’s receipt of the Nobel Prize and to take our own lazy foray into assessing the merit of the committee’s decision, we will dual close read “Mr. Tambourine Man” and an excerpt by the Chorus in Euripides’ The Bacchae (lines 862-81)—both of which are monumental works that have earned their place in the human cannon. While “Mr. Tambourine Man” is an appealing call to liberate oneself from constricting realities (because tambourines), The Bacchae considers the space for the irrational in a society built on structure and rationale. Dylan’s powerful lyricism in “Mr. Tambourine Man” calls to mind the uninhibited joy of Dionysus—the patron of artistic creation and the Greek god of wine.
The dynamism of Dionysus is described by the Chorus in The Bacchae to be an embodiment of the mystical movements of the mind, from a place of reason to a place of uninhibited release. This sentiment perpetuates through both works. While Dylan sings, “Hey! Mr. Tambourine man play a song for me,” the speaker in The Bacchae calls upon the patron of creative energies for answers, “Will I dance and dance again soon!” whereas Dylan’s speaker urges the tambourine man to cast “a dancing spell” his way. The language of song and dance creates a dialogue amid the performing arts that traverses between Dylan’s lyrics and the ancient Greek play. Music is a form of transcendence, emotive in its abilities to intoxicate the senses and enchant the mind—comparable to the ritual madness and ecstasy of Dionysian celebration.
The parallels between the popular song and the ancient Greek tragedy are conspicuous. Foremost, they both engage in a sultry affair with escapism. Dylan’s speaker finds himself in a surreal state of mind, removed from the constraints of a sublunary world and enamored by “empty streets too dead for dreaming.” The still mystique of the night fosters a moment of carefree movement and expression for the speaker in The Bacchae, who is “whirling barefoot through the night, in the damp dawn air.” Like Dylan, the speaker loses himself in the mysterious dawn, barefoot, unbounded by material constraints and liberated by movements of the physical body and the raw awesomness of tambourines. As described in “Mr. Tambourine Man:” “laughin’, spinnin’ swingin’ madly across the sun / It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run.” The poetic rendering of liberation channels Euripides’ desire to be like the fawn, an innocent, unbridled baby deer: “Will I frisk like a fawn at play in the green joy of the meadow, a fawn who has fled from the chase.” While Dylan’s speaker longs to escape “the twisted reach of crazy sorrow,” Euripides’ also reimagines a reality where it is possible to roam free and leave behind a life of conventional restraint.
Surrendering to the physical act of Bacchanal, Dylan sings, “My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip / My toes too numb to step.” A transcending of consciousness, his gripping words embrace the Dionysian dictum to “forget thyself, all things in excess.” In the final verse of “Mr. Tambourine Man” Dylan sings, “Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind / Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves”—Euripides writes, “she darts free of man. In the joy of a dark wood she plunges and fuses with the forest of leaves.” For the musician, this is a movement through time and space. It is an evocation of the natural sense of artistic creation and it’s ability to transcend the mind to a far-off place. Dylan’s poetic words in the final verse reflect Dionysian celebration: “to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands / With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves / Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” An emulation of spirit, such release is indicative of Bacchic liberation and leads Dylan’s speaker to lose himself to the beautiful elements of nature, uninhibited and free.
Like the bardic musings of poets and playwrights of antiquity, the works of the idiosyncratic artist are written to be listened to and performed with instruments—like that of Homer and Euripides. Redefining the boundaries of literature to foreground the use of language, Dylan’s literary acclaim has led us to take a closer look at his work—an opalescent archive rich with literary reference. The only real irony we perceive comes from the richness of the compliment of his masterful contemporary Leonard Cohen, who upon learning of the committee’s decision remarked, “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the tallest mountain.“
Written by Jasmine Ashoori