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Bob Dylan: Henry Timrod Revisited

When Bob Dylan lifted lines from an obscure Civil War poet, he wasn't plagiarizing. He was sampling.
Bob Dylan at Massey Hall, Toronto, April 18, 1980 Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin

Why, out of the kaleidoscope of influences that Bob Dylan has drawn from over the years, was it the almost forgotten Civil War era poet Henry Timrod that finally had critics calling foul? Robert Polito takes a look to see what wasn't left on the cutting room floor.

These happy stars, and yonder setting moon,
Have seen me speed, unreckoned and untasked,
A round of precious hours.
Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked,
And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers,
To justify a life of sensuous rest,
A question dear as home or heaven was asked,
And without language answered. I was blest!
                  —Henry Timrod, “A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night,” from Poems (1860)

. . . and at times
A strange far look would come into his eyes,
As if he saw a vision in the skies.
                  —Henry Timrod, “A Vision of Poesy,” from Poems (1860)

The moon gives light and it shines by night
Well, I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O’er the road we’re bound to go
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down
                  —Bob Dylan, “When the Deal Goes Down,” from Modern Times (2006)


As a culture we appear to have forgotten how to experience works of art, or at least how to talk about them plausibly and smartly. The latest instance is the “controversy” shadowing Bob Dylan’s new record, Modern Times, wherein he recurrently adapts phrases from poems by Henry Timrod, a nearly-vanished 19th-century American poet, essayist, and Civil War newspaper correspondent.

That our nation’s most gifted and ambitious songwriter would revive Timrod on the number-one best-selling CD across America, Europe, and Australia might prompt a lively concatenation of responses, ranging from “Huh? Henry Timrod? Isn’t that interesting. . . .” to “Why?” But to narrow the Dylan/Timrod phenomenon (see the New York Times article “Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines from Henry Timrod?” and a subsequent op-ed piece, “The Ballad of Henry Timrod,” by singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega) into a story of possible plagiarism is to confuse, well, art with a term paper.

Timrod was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1828, his arrival in this world falling two years after Stephen Foster but two years before Emily Dickinson. His work, too, might be styled as falling between theirs: sometimes dark and skeptical, other times mawkish and old-fashioned. (Dylan, I’m guessing, is fascinated by both aspects of Timrod, the antique alongside the brooding.) Often tagged the “laureate of the Confederacy”—a title apparently conferred upon him by none other than Tennyson—Timrod still shows up in anthologies because of the poems he wrote celebrating and then mourning the new Southern nation, particularly “Ethnogenesis” and “Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery.” Early on, Whittier and Longfellow admired Timrod, and his “Ode” stands behind Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (and thus in turn behind Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”).

On Modern Times Dylan avoids anthology favorites, but his album contains at least ten instances of lines or phrases culled from seven different Timrod poems, mostly poems about love, friendship, death, and poetry . Dylan also quoted Timrod’s “Charleston” in “Cross the Green Mountain,” a song he contributed to the soundtrack of the 2003 Civil War film Gods and Generals; two years earlier he glanced at Timrod’s “Vision of Poesy” for “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” on his CD “Love and Theft.” (Various Dylan Web sites annotate his lyrics, but I found these two related sites invaluable: http://republika.pl/bobdylan/mt/ and http://republika.pl/bobdylan/lat/.)

From the dustup in the Times—after our paper of record found a middle-school teacher who branded Dylan “duplicitous,” Vega earnestly supposed that Dylan probably hadn’t lifted the texts “on purpose”—you might not guess that we’ve just lived through some two and a half decades of hip-hop sampling, not to mention a century of Modernism. For the neglected Henry Timrod is just the tantalizing threshold into Dylan’s vast memory palace of echoes.

Besides Timrod, for instance, Modern Times taps into the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, John, and Luke, among others), Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Kokomo Arnold, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Stanley Brothers, Merle Haggard, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and standards popularized by Jeanette MacDonald, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra, as well as vintage folk songs such as “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “Frankie and Albert,” and “Gentle Nettie Moore.”

It’s possible, in fact, to see his prior two recordings, Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft,” as rearranging the entire American musical and literary landscape of the past 150 years, except that the sources he adapts aren’t always American or so recent. Please forgive another Homeric (if partial) catalog, but the scale and range of Dylan’s allusive textures are vital to an appreciation of what he’s after on his recent recordings.

On Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft,” Dylan refracts folk, blues, and pop songs created by or associated with Crosby, Sinatra, Charlie Patton, Woody Guthrie, Blind Willie McTell, Doc Boggs, Leroy Carr, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, Blind Willie Johnson, Big Joe Turner, Wilbert Harrison, the Carter Family, and Gene Austin alongside anonymous traditional tunes and nursery rhymes.

But the revelation is the sly cavalcade of film and literature fragments: W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, assorted film noirs, As You Like It, Othello, Robert Burns, Lewis Carroll, Timrod, Ovid, T.D. Rice’s blackface Otello, Huckleberry Finn, The Aeneid, The Great Gatsby, the Japanese true crime paperback Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga, Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Wise Blood. So pervasive and crafty are Dylan’s recastings for “Love and Theft” that I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we learn that every bit of speech on the album—no matter how intimate or Dylanesque—can be tracked back to another song, poem, movie, or novel.

One conventional approach to Dylan’s songwriting references “folk process” (and also, in his case, “blues process”) and recognizes that he’s always acted as a magpie, recovering and transforming borrowed materials, lyrics, tunes, and even film dialogue (notably on his 1985 album Empire Burlesque). Folk process can readily map early Dylan, the associations linking say, “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Go ’Way from My Window” with his current variations on traditional blues couplets in his update of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” for Modern Times.

Yet what about Twain, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Confessions of a Yakuza, and Timrod? If those gestures are also folk process, then a folk process pursued with such intensity, scope, audacity, and verve eventually explodes into Modernism. As far back as “Desolation Row,” Dylan sang of “Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower / While calypso singers laugh at them / And fishermen hold flowers.” Dylan’s insistent nods to the past on Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft,” and Modern Times can probably best be apprehended as Modernist collages.

To clarify what I mean by Modernist collages, think of them as verbal echo chambers of harmonizing and clashing reverberations that tend to organize into two types: those collaged texts, like Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s “The Waste Land, ” where we are meant to remark on the discrepant tones and idioms of the original texts bumping up against one another, and those collaged texts, composed by poets as various as Kenneth Fearing, Lorine Niedecker, Frank Bidart, and John Ashbery, that aim for an apparently seamless surface. A conspicuous model of the former is the ending of “The Waste Land”:

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—
O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
            Shantih     shantih      shantih

The following passage by Frank Bidart, from his poem “The Second Hour of the Night,” actually proves as allusive as Eliot’s, nearly every line rearranging elements assembled not only from Ovid, his main source for the Myrrha story, but also from Plotinus and even Eliot. But instead of incessant fragmentation, we experience narrative sweep and urgency:

As Myrrha is drawn down the dark corridor toward her father

not free not to desire

what draws her forward is neither COMPULSION nor FREEWILL:—

or at least freedom, here choice, is not to be
imagined as action upon

preference: no creature is free to choose what
allows it its most powerful, and most secret, release:

I fulfill it, because I contain it—
it prevails, because it is within me—

it is a heavy burden, setting up longing to enter that
realm to which I am called from within. . . .

Dylan’s songwriting tilts toward the cagier, deflected mode that Bidart is using here. We would scarcely realize we were inside a collage unless someone told us, or unless we abruptly registered a familiar locution. The wonder of the dozen or so snippets that Dylan sifted from Confessions of a Yakuza for “Love and Theft” is how casual and personal they sound dropped into his songs—not one of those songs, of course, remotely about a yakuza, or a gangster of any persuasion.

Some of Dylan’s borrowings operate as allusions in the accustomed sense, urging us back into the wellspring texts. Timrod, I think, works as a citation we’re ultimately intended to notice, though no song depends on that notice. Dylan manifestly is fixated on the American Civil War. In his memoir Chronicles, Volume One, he recounted that during the early 1960s he systematically read every newspaper at the New York Public Library for the years 1855 to 1865. “The age that I was living in didn’t resemble this age,” he wrote, “but it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot. There was a broad spectrum and commonwealth that I was living upon, and the basic psychology of that life was every bit a part of it. If you turned the light towards it, you could see the full complexity of human nature. Back there, America was put on the cross, died, and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”

His 2003 film Masked and Anonymous takes place against the backdrop of another interminable domestic war during an unspecified future. Dylan clearly sees links between the Civil War and America now—and once you consult a historical map of the red and blue states, would you contradict him? The echoes of Timrod help him frame and sustain those links. For Dylan, Modern Times (and this is the joke in his title, along with the reference to the Chaplin movie) are also old times, ancient times. “The age I was living in didn’t resemble this age, but it did. . . .”

Other borrowings, such as the tidbits of yakuza oral history, aren’t so much formal allusions as curios of vernacular speech picked up from reading or listening that shade his songs into something like collective, as against individual, utterances. But here, too, it’s hard not to discern specific designs. On recordings steeped in empire, corruption, masks, male power, and self-delusion, aren’t Tokyo racketeers (or Virgilian ghosts) as apt as Huck Finn, Confederate poets, and Charlie Patton?

Without ever winking, Dylan is inveterately canny and sophisticated about all this, though after a fashion that recalls Laurence Sterne’s celebrated attack on plagiarism in Tristram Shandy, itself plagiarized from The Anatomy of Melancholy. On “Summer Days” from “Love and Theft,” Dylan sings:

She’s looking into my eyes, and she’s a-holding my hand
She looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand,
She says, “You can’t repeat the past,” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you
      can’t? Of course you can.”

His puckish, snaky lines dramatize precisely how one could, in fact, “repeat the past,” since the lyrics reproduce a conversation between Nick and Gatsby from chapter 6 of The Great Gatsby. On “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” from Modern Times, Dylan follows another oblique intimation of Timrod with the confession “I’ve been conjuring up all these long-dead souls from their crumbling tombs.” The quotation marks in the title of “Love and Theft” signal Dylan’s debts to Eric Lott’s academic study Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class; the secondhand title of the CD also specifies his status as a white blues and rock ’n’ roll performer inside an American minstrelsy tradition, as well as his songwriting proclivities (loving stuff enough to filch it).

In a 1996 interview for Newsweek, novelist David Gates asked Dylan what he believed. He replied, “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

Let’s presume that by “songs” Dylan also now must mean poems, such as Henry Timrod’s, and novels, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, as well as traditional folk hymns and blues. His invocation of that expanded “lexicon” might be surprising, and daunting, but it certainly isn’t plagiarism. Who else writes, has ever written, songs like these? Poems, novels, films, songs all partake of a conversation with the great dead—a “conjuring,” as Dylan would say. The embodiment of his conjuring, those conversations with his dead on his recent recordings are among the most daring and original signatures of his art.

Illustration by Tom Bachtell.


  • Poet and scholar Robert Polito was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his PhD from Harvard and has served as director of Creative Writing at The New School for two decades. Polito served as president of the Poetry Foundation from July 2013 through June 2015. Polito’s collections of poetry include Hollywood...


Bob Dylan: Henry Timrod Revisited

When Bob Dylan lifted lines from an obscure Civil War poet, he wasn't plagiarizing. He was sampling.


  • Poet and scholar Robert Polito was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his PhD from Harvard and has served as director of Creative Writing at The New School for two decades. Polito served as president of the Poetry Foundation from July 2013 through June 2015. Polito’s collections of poetry include Hollywood...

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