Open the Door Homer: Dylan, Yeats and the Blind Poet
1. Songs of Myself
“I Contain Multitudes”, the opening song on Bob Dylan’s 2020 album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, its title inspired by fellow American master Walt Whitman, is a concise distillation of a life long-lived. It is filled with inspirations, with culture, with the personal and the political, love and death, from 'today, tomorrow and yesterday'. Dylan's opening lines, 'the flowers are dying, like all things do' is a distinct echo of Whitman's 'the past and present wilt' from Section 51 of his epic "Song of Myself" and the same section of the poem that gives Dylan's song its title: 'I am large, I contain multitudes'. But as the title suggests, there is far more buried within.
Upon the song’s initial release, commentators remarked upon the song's following lines’ reference to Ballinalee, a quiet town in central Ireland, and its links to “The Lass from Ballynalee”, an English translation of an Irish poem written in the 19th century by blind travelling poet Anthony Raftery. Dylan’s ‘follow me down to Ballinalee / I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’ is an intriguing reversal of Rafterys narrative in his work about the bewitchingly beautiful peasant girl Mary Hynes. In the poem, it is the poet who falls madly in love with the girl, who has a satisfied mind, and follows her to his fate:
I met a maid with wind-wild hair
And madly fell In love again.
I spoke with learning, charm and pride
And, as was fitting, answered she:
'My mind is now well satisfied,
So walk with me to Bally-na-Lee.'
"The Lass from Ballynalee" continues with the girl leading the poet to her secret cellar, overflowing with alcoholic delights, where she proposes a toast: ‘so drink a wet to love’s demands’. The tale it tells is not as innocent as it seems, inspired as it is by a man’s drowning in the bog on the way to catch a glimpse of the almost mythical beauty. In an essay written as a young man, “Dust Hath Closed Helen’s Eye”, fellow Irish poet William Butler Yeats writes of how an old weaver explained to him the events that may have inspired Raftery:
‘There was a lot of men...one night, sitting together drinking, and talking of her, and one of them got up and set out to go to Ballylee and see her; but Cloon Bog was open then, and when he came to it he fell into the water, and they found him dead there in the morning...Another old man says he...remembered that 'the strongest man that was among us, one John Madden, got his death...crossing rivers in the night-time to get to Ballylee.'
Decades later, in the long poem, “The Tower”, a multitudes-containing reverie of his career to date, Yeats returns to and adapts this tale as one part of a long sequence of memories he relates to the listener:
And certain men, being maddened by those rhymes,
Or else by toasting her a score of times,
Rose from the table and declared it right
To test their fancy by their sight;
But they mistook the brightness of the moon
For the prosaic light of day –
Music had driven their wits astray –
And one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone.
“The Tower” also provides the title for one of Yeats’s most admired volumes. Published in 1928, this was his first substantial collection of new writing since being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. In the words of the committee, "for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. This recognised how his life’s work was both influenced by and in turn commented upon the tumultuous changes that occurred in his homeland over the course of the previous half century.
In his earlier work, Yeats was greatly influenced by the folk legends of Ireland, and the mythologies which he and his compatriots felt might form the foundation for a cultural and national revival for his country, a nation that was, given its history, made up of a patchwork of peoples and traditions. As the decades passed, he learned to use these forms and those he came to create himself to comment upon and critique the new nation. In later years, as in the great poems contained within “The Tower” he came to incorporate all of these, while also looking back to both local folk myth and ancient classical influences. It is a collection that yearns to prove that the mature artist, bedecked with awards and worldwide recognition, can still address the modern world in a spirit approaching the fire of his youth.
Reading the title poem again, Yeats makes a courageous attempt to explore his creative past, present and future in some detail. In the short opening section he writes of how he must ‘bid the Muse go pack’ and ‘choose the sages Plato and Plotinus for a friend’, perhaps a reflection on how the Nobel recognition has now trapped him, has in effect made him into a kind of monument or mausoleum. In the long middle section he describes memories inspired by the world that surrounds his dwelling place, the old tower at Ballylee in County Galway, or Thoor Ballylee as he named it. He writes of ladies and servants, of gamblers and madmen, and soldiers past and present. And he writes of the peasant girl who used to drive men mad with her beauty, and of the blind poet who immortalised her. The final section looks at the future, at the ‘wreck of body’ and the ‘slow decay of blood’, and ends with the image of a lone bird offering a ‘sleepy cry / among the deepening shade’. Written in his sixtieth year, it is one of his most profound statements and most remembered works. Like Whitman's great work from decades before, it attempts to sum up the poet's thoughts as he surveys both the world around him, and the world within his memory, as the prospect of the light surrounding him dwindles.
2. Another Ship Going Out
Yeats’s collection opens however, with the sublime “Sailing to Byzantium”. One of his most studied works, it is a meditation on the diminishing effects of age on both the physical body and the creative impulse. The poet fantasises about an escape, not just to the holy city of Byzantium, but to an earlier age more amenable to his kind. More than this, he considers how his decrepit body might escape itself, and be reborn as something both more ephemeral and eternal than how he perceives himself: an old artist past the point of his best years.
As the poem opens, we meet him as in frustration he observes the young of the newly-created nation of Ireland following the sensual ways of nature, with the fish of the lakes and seas, with the birds of the sky, his old man’s eyes more than a little envious, and more than a little judgemental that these unbridled creatures seem to be blinded to matters of a more profound nature. They seem entwined within a music of their own making:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
The second stanza finds our poet commenting on his uselessness, a scarecrow-like figure, ‘paltry’ and ‘tattered’. He can rely only on himself to reclaim his place, for there is no ‘singing school’ that might teach his soul to sing again. Wrapped up in their obsessions with the study of the things past, that offer no sense of forward creation (‘monuments’ of their own ‘magnificence’), the poet must metaphorically set his soul away upon a voyage to the ancient city of Byzantium:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
Yeats moves on to speak of those who came before, those who worked to build the classical cultures to which he yearns the present world could return. Philosophers, poets; those who told the stories of ancient heroes, who found themselves after death immortalised in the art of that greater age, preserved in gold as if coming through some ‘holy fire’. His desire: that his aging body might also be consumed in that holy fire, that such a reconstruction will free him and grant him entry to that same eternity those ancients now dwell within.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Finally freed from the bounds of physical existence, the poet promises to never again succumb to the temptations nature offers, but to remain as an artefact crafted by masters, a thing beautiful that might be contemplated by those who are so inclined; a golden bird (echoing the ‘birds in the trees’ of his opening stanza) to sit on a branch and sing harmoniously to ease the days of those who sit and listen; songs of today, tomorrow, and yesterday.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
We circle back then, following the path. ‘Today, tomorrow, and yesterday too’ are the words that open Bob Dylan’s first collection of new songs after his Nobel investiture in 2016. That they are a close echo of the final words of the opening poem in Yeats’s first collection after his may be a coincidence. That Dylan follows this with a reference to Raftery’s lass from Ballynalee mentioned in the title poem in Yeat’s volume may be a further coincidence. But then he closes ‘I Contain Multitudes’ with an imperative, a command:
Get lost Madam, get up off my knee
Keep your mouth away from me.
This is an echo of another Raftery poem, “Raftery’s Dialogue with the Whiskey”, wherein the poet debates the merits of alcoholic inebriation with the drink itself, personified as a tempting partner. ‘So I dismiss you’, the poet exclaims, ‘here! Take your mouth from my mouth!’ It may appear to be an incongruous lift from Raftery, but the poem can be read as being a sequel of sorts to "The Lass From Ballynalee". In the former, the besotted man is invited to drink with the beautiful lass, whereas in the latter, we are made aware of the dangers of too much of such enjoyments. 'Follow me down', indeed. There is more happening here than the simple borrowing of random lines and ideas from older writers. Rather, might we see these as deliberate signposts towards how Dylan might regard his own latter-day works as having something in common with those of Yeats?
3. Wandering Heroes
Later in “The Tower”, Yeats further reflects on Raftery, and links him to another poet from another age, one who told tales of another dangerous beauty:
Strange, but the man who made the song was blind;
Yet, now I have considered it, I find
That nothing strange; the tragedy began
With Homer that was a blind man,
And Helen has all living hearts betrayed.
Following this path brings us to one of the most intriguing songs on Dylan’s collection, “Mother of Muses”, and its invocation towards Calliope, the Greek Muse of epic poetry, commonly said to be the muse of Homer when he crafted his great works, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The song is the most direct statement yet of how seriously Dylan has mediated upon the Nobel honours. Its central verses seem to suggest that he sees himself as undeserving of such high recognition, mentioning heroes both named and unnamed who might be more worthy:
Mother of Muses sing for my heart
Sing for a love too soon to depart
Sing of the Heroes who stood alone
Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone
Who struggled with pain so the world could go free
Mother of Muses, sing for me
Sing of Sherman - Montgomery and Scott
Sing of Zhukov and Patton and the battles they fought
Who cleared the path for Presley to sing
Who carved out the path for Martin Luther King
Who did what they did and then went on their way
Man, I could tell their stories all day
He invokes the muse in these lines to sing of heroic generals, from across two great wars, generals who made the world safe for two kings who followed in Dylan’s own time, men whom he regards perhaps as having made more societal and cultural impact, but who ‘went on their way’ long before their time.
When Homer invoked Calliope in his own works, it was not so much that she should sing herself, but sing through him, and in so doing enable him to tell the heroic tales of the Trojan Wars and their aftermath. Dylan’s acceptance of Calliope’s aid in the following lines is almost begrudging, ‘why not give her to me...I’ve grown tired...wherever you are...I’ve...outlived my life’.
I’m falling in love with Calliope
She doesn’t belong to anybody - why not give her to me
She’s speaking to me, speaking with her eyes
I’ve grown so tired of chasing lies
Mother of Muses wherever you are
I’ve already outlived my life by far
The last of these lines, with its intimations of his own mortality, brings us song back to Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”, with its evocation of there being ‘no country for old men’ and ‘an aged man’ being but a ‘paltry thing’. Yeats calls for the soul to ‘clap its hands and sing, and louder sing’, and calls for the immortals to ‘be the singing masters’ of that soul. He calls for their fires to ‘consume [his] heart away’, to take his mortal form ‘out of nature’, and to rebuild it in ‘such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make...of hammered gold’. What does Dylan ask then?
Mother of Muses unleash your wrath
Things I can’t see - they’re blocking my path
Show me your wisdom - tell me my fate
Put me upright - make me walk straight
Forge my identity from the inside out
You know what I’m talking about
Take me to the river and release your charms
Let me lay down in your sweet lovin’ arms
Wake me - shake me - free me from sin
Make me invisible like the wind
Got a mind to ramble - got a mind to roam
I’m travelin’ light and I’m slow coming home
Dylan calls for the Muse to ‘forge’ his identity too, to remake him, to put him upright, make him ‘walk straight’, rebuild him ‘from the inside out’. But he doesn’t yearn to become the decorous object of Yeats’s desire, a golden bird to sing for ‘lords and ladies’ and a ‘drowsy emperor’. Dylan’s soul wishes to be taken by his muse ‘to the river’ and ‘lay down’ in her ‘sweet lovin’ arms’. He wants to be a part of the country from which Yeats is longing to escape, the one where ‘the young in one another’s arms...commend all summer long...caught in that sensual music’. Or at least for a while. For he then requests that he be made ‘invisible like the wind’, perhaps the same wind that eventually carried Homer’s great hero Ulysses home after his long years of wandering following the Trojan Wars. We cannot help but also comment here on Dylan's recognition of the achievements of his then recently-passed friend and contemporary Leonard Cohen, in listing three of Cohen's late-period songs in that final line.
We end with the beginning of Dylan’s song, as he requests the Muse to sing of the mountains and the sea, the lakes and the forest, and of honour, and fame, and glory. Not ‘for’ honour, fame, and glory, but ‘of’ them. Finally, he asks not that she sing ‘of’ him, but ‘for’ him.
Mother of Muses sing for me
Sing of the mountains and the deep dark sea
Sing of the lakes and the nymphs in the forest
Sing your hearts out - all you women of the chorus
Sing of honor and fame and of glory be
Mother of Muses, sing for me
‘Follow me close, I’m going to Ballynalee’, sings Dylan, ‘I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me’. Raftery’s lustful farmer’s son was lost in the dark, and drowned in the bog, or in a flood of alcohol. ‘O may the moon and the sunlight seem one inextricable beam’ writes Yeats in “The Tower”, as if the light will guide him on his way, before coming to a conclusion: ‘for if I triumph I must make men mad’. Whitman writes 'I bequeath myself to the dust to grow from the grass I love'. Life and death, in the same bed. It is for such stuff as this that we keep returning to such works as these immortal wordsmiths, to either find our rewards or drown in their pursuit.