What does a Nobel prize winner do at 4 in the morning?

Well it’s four in the morning by the sound of the birds
I’m starin’ at your picture, I’m hearin’ your words
Baby, they ring in my head like a bell

So sings Dylan in “Under Your Spell”. So if you’re Dylan likelihood is you’ll be awake and listening to the birds and writing your next song.

Dylan comes in a long line of poets and singers who have taken inspiration from birds early in the morning, and identified with birds as singers. Here’s a section from “Understanding Bob Dylan” on this literary tradition. And if you want to read more about poets such as Rudyard Kipling, Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney and Bob Dylan gazing out their windows in the night and hearing the sound of birds, buy a copy of “Understanding Bob Dylan”.

I’m just like that bird

Name me a poet who hasn’t used the bird as a symbol of their art and ….. Our identification between birds and art goes way back, perhaps to the origins of literature, and we have long been fascinated by birds – their flight, their migration powers, their song. For the blind ancient Greek prophet Tiresias, the language of birds was the means to understand prophecy and the will of the gods, for example in Sophocles’ “Antigone”. In her feminist history of storytelling “From the Beast to the Blonde”, Marina Warner looks at the history of fairy tales, and in an extraordinarily wide ranging discussion from the Sibyl in her labyrinth of caves in Cumae, to the stories of Angela Carter, she touches on the relation of birds and storytelling. She writes about the origins of “Mother Goose” tales, and the relation between what men deemed women’s idle chatter and the song of birds. “Contes de la cigogne” (Tales of the Stork) was an alternative to the French phrase for fairy tales in the seventeenth century. Fairy tales were attributed to storks and geese – the origins of the phrase “Old Mother Goose”, and the origins as well of the idea that storks bring babies, as women, including mid-wives, in Warner’s view, would often tell tales that subverted the patriarchal order during the laying-in before childbirth.[1]

Birds have been used in literature and song in so many ways that it would be impossible to capture all the varieties of use here. Fortunately Graeme Gibson has compiled a “Bedside Book of Birds” which gathers some of the exceptional writing about birds as birds, and birds as symbols:

At its heightened moments, birdwatching can encourage a state of being close to rapture. It is an ecstasy that is said to accompany the writing of poetry; sometimes it comes when we’re listening to music….

Somewhere along the way we identified ourselves with them, and came to associate birds with the realm of spirits, as opposed to that of bodies and their carnal appetites.

Perhaps for this reason, there’s an abundance of intriguing material about birds, from all times and all cultures. Not only do they feature in creation myths, in sagas and parables, in liturgies and in fairy tales, but poets, writers, story-tellers and artists in all ages have found them a fertile source of imagery and symbol.[2]

Gibson quotes the bibliophile Alberto Manguel, a writer who explores the history of writing on birds:

Outside my window is a cardinal. There is no way of writing this sentence without dragging in its tow whole libraries of literary allusions. The frame of the window and the margins of the page entrap the bird that serves as a sign for any bird, just as any bird serves as a sign for any idea. Noah’s dove, Macbeth’s rooks, Horace’s swans, Omar Khayyam’s pigeons, Theocritus’ nightingale, Count Fosco’s canaries – they are no longer birds, but usages of birds, feathered with words and meaning.[3]

Then there are the famous literary birds – Keats’ nightingale, Yeats’ golden bird of Byzantium, and Wallace Stevens’ blackbird. For the English Romantics, the bird, like the wind, is often a symbol of song or of the spirit, as in Shelley’s “To a Skylark”:

Like a poet hidden/In the light of thought, /Singing hymns unbidden, /Till the world is wrought….

Or in Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper”:

No Nightingale did ever chaunt/More welcome notes to weary bands/Of travellers in some shady haunt,/Among Arabian sands

Wallace Stevens was a poet concerned with reading, writing, communication and the meaning or meaninglessness of symbols or words. Every second poem of his contains a reference to a bird, often in association with writing, as in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

Icicles filled the long window/With barbaric glass/The shadow of the blackbird/Crossed it, to and fro.

Later in this book I write about one of Stevens’ birds in “Of Mere Being”, and also about ice, windows, wind and birds.

Add to the list of writers about birds one Bob Dylan. Dylan is knowledgeable about the uses of birds in folk songs, for example “Love Henry” which he recorded in 1993 on “World Gone Wrong” with a pretty acoustic backing, and which according to Gray dates back to at least 1827 as a Scottish folk ballad probably transferred to the Appalachians. The woman who kills her beloved Henry, who is about to leave her, appeals to a bird in the same way she has to Henry:

Fly down fly down pretty parrot she cried/And light on my right knee/The doors to your cage shall be decked with gold/And hung on a willow tree

I won’t fly down and I can’t fly down/And light on your right knee/A girl who would murder her own true love/Would kill a little bird like me.

What does the history of writing about birds tell us about these lines – which I keep coming back to – from “Love Minus Zero/No Limit “?:

The bridge at midnight trembles,
The country doctor rambles,
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection,
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.
The wind howls like a hammer,
The night blows cold and rainy,
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.

“My love she’s like some raven” – the raven is at best an ambiguous bird and not one normally compared to a lover. First, we have Poe’s raven, also discussed later in this book, and which Dylan knew, the “ungainly fowl” returning through the window to destroy the lover with the memory of love. Cawing ravens and crows are hardly sweet birds; Gibson quotes an eighteenth century passage about the raven[4]:

This bird has always been famous; but its bad reputation has been owing, most probably, to its being confounded with other birds, and loaded with their ill qualities. It has even been regarded most disgusting. Filth and rotten carcasses, it is said are its chief food.

Gibson also quotes from Audubon’s writing on the raven in the Bible, where Noah during the flood first sends a raven to seek land:

Then Noah must have remembered that raven is an eater of carrion and would have found plenty of such fare exposed by the falling waters….down through the ages the raven has had to bear the blame, becoming the symbol of ill omen and even death, the companion of witches and wizards and the embodiment of lost souls.

In the First Nations territory where I sit and write this book, the raven is both trickster and creator of humans. Ted Hughes follows this tradition in his book of poems, “Crow”. Dylan may have been attracted to the alliterative association between “love” and “raven” and “rainy” in this most alliterative of stanzas; but we are also reminded of the dubious qualities of the raven by the double simile in the last four lines – “The wind howls like a hammer”, “My love she’s like some raven”. As we saw in Chapter 2, this song is ambivalent at best about the loved one, as is the case in many of Dylan’s so-called love songs, and the image of the raven fits in well.

What of Dylan’s other uses of birds? Here are some other lines I keep coming back to:

Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence,
He’s singin’ his song for me at his own expense.
And I’m just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singin’ just for you.
I hope that you can hear,
Hear me singin’ through these tears.

What a painful, passionate song “You’re a Big Girl Now” is. Dylan chooses the image of the bird here to express his pain, the pain of lost love and the pain of singing. But it’s not the first bird on “Blood on the Tracks” – in fact Dylan is quite liberal with his use of birds on this album about the pain of love and singing. First in “Tangled up in Blue” the anonymous bird:

And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn,
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew,
Tangled up in blue.

Keeping on keeping on is at best an ambivalent response to becoming withdrawn, and the bird that’s flying in this song might be equally out of control, with the suggestion of “flying the coop”. In the next song, “Simple Twist of Fate”, what seems like a throwaway reference:

He hears the ticking of the clocks
And walks along with a parrot that talks,
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in.

Was Dylan just attracted to the alliteration here – “Ticking”, “Clocks”, “walks”, “talks”, “docks” – “docks” reminding us of the tick-tocking of clocks? Or is the parrot a reminder of the repetitions that are forced on an obsessed lover (“Blood on the Tracks” being among other things an album about different kinds of obsessive love), because the parrot is a bird that echoes what it hears. The parrot, a tropical bird, may also remind us of the hunting at the docks, and that parrots apparently become associated with pirates in the early 1700s when seamen traveling in the tropics would return home with the birds as souvenirs.

A couple of songs later were back at a softer comparison between bird and singer, on “Meet me in the Morning”:

Little rooster crowin’, there must be something on his mind
Little rooster crowin’, there must be something on his mind
Well, I feel just like that rooster
Honey, ya treat me so unkind.

There’s one more reference on “Blood on the Tracks”, part of the code Dylan talked about when referring to this album, on “Shelter from the Storm”:

I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love.

References to mourning doves frequently appear in North American literature, as it is one of the most common species here; for example Robert Bly’s “The Greek Ships”, which also makes that connection between a bird, writing and pain: “I’ve heard that the mourning dove never says/What she means. /Those of us who make up poems/Have agreed not to say what the pain is.” The wailing of the babies and bird song take us back to the other similes on the album – like the bird that flew, just like that bird, just like that rooster – all ancient literary symbol to which we instinctively respond.

There are no further references to birds on “Blood on the Tracks, but there is on one of the outtakes from that album, “Up to Me”, a song that repeats many of the images from the album – singing, time, money and lost love:

Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing,
Death kept followin’, trackin’ us down, at least I heard your bluebird sing.
Now somebody’s got to show their hand, time is an enemy,
I know you’re long gone,
I guess it must be up to me.

Clearly Dylan was pondering the processes of writing and singing, and their relation to lost love, through the image of the bird, one of the many “codes” which ties the album together, like the books discussed earlier in this chapter, and the road we will cover in chapter 4. What else has Dylan done with this most persistent of poetic images? …..

In a song on the same album as “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”, Dylan uses another bird to mark the passing of a relationship. “Don’t Think Twice” is partly a song about the difficulties of communicating, as I mentioned earlier in this chapter:

It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter, anyhow
An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I’ll be gone

You’re the reason I’m trav’lin’ on
Don’t think twice, it’s all right

Clearly the singer likes the idea of someone else looking out the window after him (if he’s gone, why bother to look out the window?). But why the reference to the rooster, apart from the idea that he’s leaving, romantically, before dawn, to head down the road. Like the dove, the rooster or cock has symbolic meaning. In the Talmud, the cock is seen as an indicator of the short moment in the day where God could be angry and would permit the cursing of a person by another (and there’s certainly a bit of cursing in the song). In the Bible, the rooster provides the music for Christ’s passion:

And Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.” (Mark 14: 30)

Wallace Stevens’ use of the bird image in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, a poem like many of Stevens’ about the act of creation and the gap between art and life, again using a bird image, is not incidental:

How long and late the pheasant sleeps…/The employer and employee contend,/…Spring sparkle and the cock-bird shriek./The employer and employee will hear/And continue their affair. The shriek/Will rack the thickets. There is no place,/Here, for the lark fixed in the mind,/In the museum of the sky. The cock/Will claw sleep…./Note in “Don’t Think Twice” it’s the lover and not the singer that is compared to the bird:

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I’ll be gone

He could have as easily sung “when that rooster”, so the possessive here again suggests betrayal. Blind Willie McTell in “Love Changing Blues”, recorded in 1929, made a similar comparison between the rooster and a perfidious women:

What do you want with a woman: when she won’t do nothing she say/What do you want with a rooster: when he won’t crow ‘fore day/…. My woman done left me: I got these love-changing blues

Weathercocks or roosters have adorned church steeples for centuries, a reminder of Christ’s passion, and possibly to ward off evil. King Lear exclaims during the storm scene in Shakespeare’s play:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

Dylan used Biblical imagery extensively in his early work, and throughout the album on which “Don’t Think Twice” song appeared in 1962, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. Dylan returns to a similar religious imagery in 1985 in “Dark Eyes” on “Empire Burlesque”:

A cock is crowing far away and another soldier’s deep in prayer,
Some mother’s child has gone astray, she can’t find him anywhere.
But I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise,
Whom nature’s beast fears as they come and all I see are dark eyes.

Talking of Blind Willie McTell, there’s another bird reference, linking singer and bird, in Dylan’s song of that name, written in 1983, but unreleased until the first three volumes of the Bootleg Series, in 1991:

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing/As they were taking down the tents/The stars above the barren trees/Was his only audience

No surprise to find a bird image in a song about a singer, but do owls really sing? And why choose the image of an owl in a song about a Blues singer? The owl is another ambiguous bird, bringer of doom and death, but also a wise bird, connected as a meditative bird to Minerva. Is that the dual image Dylan was trying to get across?

[1] Warner, M. (1995) From the Beast to the Blonde. On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. London: Vintage.

[2] Gibson, G. (2006) The Bedside Book of Birds. An Avian Miscellany. Anchor Canada, p. xii.

[3] Gibson, p. 17.

[4] Gibson, pp. 20 and 43.

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One response to “What does a Nobel prize winner do at 4 in the morning?

  1. Pingback: So what about Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind”? | A Fine Line

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