Dylan, Yeats, Shelley

2019, 1919, 1819

Matthew C. Borushko

What is it about the nineteenth year of a century that provokes artists?

Two poets Dylan admired, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Butler Yeats, took the opportunity in 1819 and 1919 respectively, to reflect directly on the world they were watching around them. Each marked their work with historical specificity: Shelley in poems such as “England in 1819” and Yeats in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem originally published under the title “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World.”

Shelley and Yeats both look out upon violent and tumultuous worlds. Shelley sees “a people starved and stabbed” in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre, while Yeats sees “Violence upon the roads” in the wake of the Great War and at the dawn of the Irish War of Independence. Both poets sense the potential for imminent, momentous, necessary change but diverge on the direction things will take after the change occurs.

That’s the feeling — existing on the cusp of dramatic historical change with unknowable consequences — that Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” exudes from its portentous first G-minor chord to its tone-setting opening lyric, “A worried man with a worried mind.” Dylan wrote “Things Have Changed” in 1999 (the eve of a new century, it’s worth noting) but has featured the song prominently in his 2019 set lists. In fact, Dylan appears to have opened around two-dozen consecutive sets with “Things Have Changed,” which is every single show he’s played in November and December of 2019. (That’s just a glimpse: the song was played a lot in 2019.) In other words, the song, due to its prominence is Dylan’s 2019 sets, is of 2019.

Dylan, Yeats, Shelley: worried artists looking at what’s going on around them with worried minds, asking similar questions about their own place — that is: the role of the individual — in the grand scheme of things. They are worried because nothing is certain.

“People are crazy and times are strange,” Dylan sang from stages across Europe and the US in 2019. Shelley and Yeats offered versions of this diagnosis. For Shelley in 1819, “an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King” is at the top of an unjust social order, where, one can hope, “a glorious phantom may / Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.” Shelley’s “may” is important in theses lines: illumination is not guaranteed. For Yeats in his long and complex meditation, “Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare / Rides upon sleep.” He then asks: “is there any comfort to be found?”

Dylan’s vision of the present state of the world in “Things Have Changed” is one that brings individual experience together with the general condition. In the first pre-chorus, Dylan sings:

Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose
Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose

The gallows and noose compose a metaphor for the feeling of living at a moment on the cusp of profound and worrisome change. Dylan, like Yeats before him, wonders if there is comfort to be found in times like these — comfort beyond those of a champagne-drinking companion. His speaker thinks about dancing: Gonna take dancing lessons, do the jitterbug rag. Yeats, in Part II of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” thinks about dance as well: All men are dancers and their tread / Goes to the barbarous clangor of a gong.

Dylan hears that barbarous clangor, too, and he, like Yeats, is trying to figure out how to live with it, to live with not knowing what it portends. For both artists, interestingly, it seems to require a trip away from oneself, as Dylan sings in the penultimate verse:

I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road
If the Bible is right, the world will explode
I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much
You can’t win with a losing hand

Yeats also thinks that the individual mind can only stand so much “art and politics.” These lines from Yeats in 1919 would not be out of place on Dylan’s sublime Love and Theft in 2001: A man in his own secret meditation / Is lost amid the labyrinth he has made / In art or politics. I can easily imagine these and other phrasings from Yeats’s poem performed in the dexterous style of Dylan in the Love-and-Theft- and Modern-Times-era. Yeats’s labyrinth is Dylan’s worried mind, the point being that the mind-as-labyrinth, despite its art or its politics, will not prepare us fully the “violence upon the roads” that Yeats saw in 1919, looking ahead to 1920 — or the breaking loose of “all hell,” as Dylan sings it in 2019, on the eve of 2020.

Works Cited

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “England in 1819”

William Butler Yeats, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”

Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed”

Thanks for reading,

MB


Welcome to Borushko Variorum, a collection of occasional writings (on music, books, sports) and reflections. Coming soon: on metaphors in Townes’s writing; on The Band’s The Band at 50; notes on listening to Travelin’ Thru; on Session Americana’s Northeast; on Dylan’s country covers; and more. You can subscribe to the newsletter version (it’s free) and get these as emails:

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