The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe on Bob Dylan



by Larry Fyffe

The ghostly poetry of Gothic Romanticist Edgar Allan Poe howls in the songs of Bob Dylan, in songs that depict psychological forces demonic and dark in conflict with those godly and light. In the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, there’s often a male individual tormented by memories of a young and innocent female companion gone.

Like Annabella Lee in her sepulchre by the sea, a personal paradise lost that is so traumatic it leads to dreams filled with images of hell:

Ah, dream too bright to last
Ah, starry hope!; that didst arise
But to be overcast ….
And all my days are trances
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy gray eye glances
And where thy footstep gleams –
In what ethereal dances
By what eternal stream
(Poe: To One In Paradise)

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Bob Dylan reads The raven (E.A. Poe)


This article shows how the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) cast a long shadow over the work of America’s greatest living songwriter, Bob Dylan (1941-). The work of both artists straddles the dividing-line between ‘high’ and ‘mass’ culture by pertaining to both: read through Poe, Dylan’s work may be seen as a significant manifestation of American Gothic. It is further suggested, in the context of nineteenthcentury and contemporary debates on alleged ‘plagiarism’, that the textual strategy of ‘embedded’ quotation, as employed by both Poe and Dylan, points up the need today for an open and inclusive model of intertextuality.

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Poe is in Dylan’s song lyrics, too, and of all the writers Dylan’s used in his work, all the influences lurking there, Poe (along with Williams Shakespeare and Blake) is one of the most long-lived and consistent. The references Dylan makes to Poe don’t take an eagle eye to find — they’re in very plain view. “My love she’s like some raven /At my window with a broken wing,” (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” 1965); “Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue” (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” also 1965)



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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:



Haunting the album’s intertextual aisles is the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, whom I have discovered there no less than three times! The opening track, « Duquesne Whistle » (co-written by Dylan with Robert Hunter) has the phrase « at my chamber door », which, like the title track’s « nameless here for evermore », comes direct from Poe’s celebrated poem « The Raven » (as earlier referenced by Dylan in 1965’s « Love Minus Zero / No Limit »). It is worth noting that Poe’s poem itself includes the word « tempest » twice, and the song « Tempest » mourns the Titanic’s dead in a lament – « Sixteen hundred had gone to rest / The good, the bad, the rich, the poor / The loveliest and the best » – that recalls another poem by Poe, « The City in the Sea » (« Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best / Have gone to their eternal rest »). Poe’s own interest in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, besides, is clear from his borrowing of its protagonist’s name, Prospero, for his story “The Masque of the Red Death”. 

Bob Dylan: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

Many commentators have cited possible literary references, although they seem to be something of a stretch. “Rue Morgue Avenue” could be a reference to the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Rimbaud refers to himself as “Tom Thumb in a daze” in his poem, “My Bohemian Life (Fantasy)”. The poem, however, has little in common with the song, although it does have a guy playing a “lyre”, which is sorta like a guitar.

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