Chapter 26
The many ways of stealing

I’VE MENTIONED IT before: I don’t mind Dylan lifting lines from Timrod. I do mind his uncredited appropriations of entire pieces of music, but little snippets of text here and there – that’s a completely different matter.

In all the many discussions and opinions about this matter, two areas have been mentioned with some frequency, either in order to emphasise the offense, or to diminish it. In each their way, they add some interesting twists to the case, although they don’t change my verdict concerning the musical theft.

Academic borrowing

One of the references is to the academic world. The argument goes that if something like this had happened there, Dylan would have been sent home with an F and a relegation.

I would argue against this, although in some cases he does, admittedly, come close. Plagiarism in an academic context is when one passes off someone else’s work as one’s own. If someone has written:

I have compared the lyrics on Bob Dylan’s Modern Times to Henry Timrod’s poetry and found a number of lines to be remarkably similar, beyond the coincidental.

and I write:

My scrutiny of the corpus of Timrod has revealed several lines borrowed by Bob Dylan on Modern Times. These are too conspicuous to be the result of chance.

this would be a clear case of plagiarism, and would obviously be worth an F, even though hardly a single word is the same.

However, what if I wrote:

I have compared the pictures in Andy Warhol’s exhibitions to shots of Marilyn Monroe and labels of cans of Campbell’s soup, and found a number of images to be remarkably similar, beyond the coincidental.

Most of the words are the same, and the structure of the sentence and the argument is identical, but I can hardly be accused of passing off someone else’s work as my own, because the “work” in this case is not the words themselves, but that which they express. The first text expresses that Dylan has used lyrics from Timrod, the second that Warhol has used images from other places. The obvious similarities are inconsequential, irrelevant for the statements’ status as academic texts.

One may lament this and think that the job of the academic should be not only to write stuff, but to write stuff; to shape sentences which are worth reading regardless of which ideas they express. But it remains a fairly established fact (or at least a convention), that if I rewrite a scholarly article and present the same evidence and conclusions with different words, it will still be the same article, whereas if I present the contents of one of Horace’s odes in other words, it will be a different poem. It would take a very strict definition of plagiarism to claim that I’ve plagiarized Horace.

Poetic language

A poem can not be separated from the words in it. It’s probably an exaggeration to say that the words are the poem, but at least one can safely say that whatever ideas are expressed in a poem, they are not the poem.

This distinction may get Dylan off the hook of academic plagiarism, but at the same time it may appear to strengthen the case against him on the poetical side. After all, didn’t I just say that the words are the poem?

Ehem, no, I didn’t. Without going too deeply into the history and theory of poetics, let’s just say that every text is a combination of words and ideas, and where the emphasis will lie closer to the “idea” side for an academic text, it will move closer to the word for a poem.

The “words” side should also be subdivided into the sounding part: rhythms and rhymes, letter sounds and word bounce; and the rhetorical part: how words are combined into figures of speech – the kind of metaphors one uses, rather than the meaning of the metaphors – and the choice of stylistical level: whether one says “gal” or “girl”, “babe” or “sweetheart”, “woman” or “lady”, “ma’m” or “ma dame”.

A poetic text will also usually involve some kind of meta-reflection: a consciousness about the combination of word and idea itself, so that the words not just point to the corresponding ideas or are to be enjoyed for their sonorous qualities – more like a musical work – but also point to this very relation: e.g. the absurdity of having a sequence of sounds stand for something as silent as a rock; the meaningful coincidence of the first letters in “frail” and “flower” or “silent” and “stone”.

So whereas an academical text would be judged primarily according to the ideas expressed in it, the judgement on a poem will be based on the combined effect of all three elements, in some mixture or other. Thus, taking over the words but putting them in a different context where they present another idea; placing them in a startling new metrical context or embedding them in a different sequence of allitterating words; or turning their metaphorical reference upside down through a combination with other words and ideas than in the original – all this would constitute a change in poetic substance.

The proof of the pudding

Is this what Dylan has done? Let us take a closer look at some of the borrowings. Here is Timrod, some lines from his “Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”:

A round of precious hours
Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked
And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers

Timrod’s “I” spends the hours of his summer days in heated, desperate speculation, trying to get to grips with something, but that something eludes him; rational thought can only get us so far, and beyond a certain point, logic proves to be a weak helper – frailer, even, than the flowers.

Then Dylan:

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
(“When the Deal Goes Down”)

We are no longer in the baking sunlight of noon but in the heatless moonlight at night; there is an echo of desperation here, but more of an afterglow, won over in calm and wisened subordination to fate and to the necessities of life: forgiveness and the need to take some road, no matter where it leads and what injustices and tribulations have brought us there in the first place; what is important is to belong together with someone, and although it may be a disheartening observation that the tight bonds are indeed frailer than flowers, the other option is also open: to regard it as a comforting paradox of life that even though the bonds seem frail, they are after all tight enough to hold.

The differences between the two texts are marked also on the rhetorical level, where Dylan introduces paradox as the carrying figure (inviting us to ask, “how can something so frail bind so tight?”), and the sounding level, where he has straightened out Timrod’s disrespectfor the line boundaries and instead brought the two rhyming words together in a rapid sequencee of half-lines.

No matter which interpretation we choose, it is evident that the only things that remain are the phrase “frailer than the flowers”, and its companion rhyme “precious hours”. It is the exact opposite situation to Dylan’s own introduction to his topical songs in live performances in the 60s (was it Hattie Carroll?), that “Nothing has changed, except the words.” Here, instead, “Everything has changed, except the words”.

The same goes for many of Dylan’s other borrowings:

My memories are drowning
In mortal bliss
(“Beyond the Horizon”)

says something quite different than Timrod’s

Which drowned the memories of the time
In a merely mortal bliss!
(“Our Willie”)

These examples may show that although Dylan has taken over one of the three elements of a poetic text, he has indeed made something new out of it: he has not passed off Timrod’s work as his own. Other borrowings are less clear in this respect. In these lines from “When the Deal Goes Down”

In the still of the night,
in the world’s ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife

the last line is a single unit, both of words, ideas, and imagery, which differs little from Timrod’s:

There is a wisdom that grows up in strife
(“Retirement”)

And the strange line from “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”

Well a childish dream is a deathless need

takes everything, including its strangeness, from Timrod, who says:

A childish dream is now a deathless need
(“A Vision of Poesy, Part 1”)

Dylan doesn’t add to this: he has stolen the line.

Doubts and Benefits: Allusion or theft?

I’m nevertheless tempted to give him the benefit of some kind of doubt: as isolated examples, they may be illegitimate appropriations, but seen in combination with the other examples, they merely appear as unsuccessful applications of his poetic technique. In many/most cases, he has “appropriated” the lines in the literal sense of the word: made them his own. In some cases, he has tried, but not quite succeeded. The important thing is that he has tried. The “benefit” I offer him, then, regarding these particular examples, is the choice between being a thief or a bad poet.

I have disregarded the question whether Dylan’s textual borrowings should be seen as allusions rather than theft. I’m inclined to think not – that an allusion would require a source which was fairly well known (cf. Christopher Rick’s distinction between allusion, where you want the source to be known, and plagiarism, where you don’t), so that the play between the different fields of meaning, the original and the new text, will have a chance of being recognized. This would be the case if one uses phrases from the Bible, Shakespeare, or Homer, but not in the case of Henry Timrod.

Again, there is a benefit of doubt: one can certainly allude to or play around with things which are known to oneself regardless of whether it is familiar to one’s audience, i.e. the reader who is supposed to spot the reference and take pleasure in the subtle intertextuality, may very well be the author himself. I know, because I’ve played this kind of game too: while I was finishing my dissertation in medieval musicology, during the final dreary weeks the only fun left was to put in hidden allusions to Dylan, which nobody in that field were ever likely to discover.

More important is that the criterion of analogy is a blunt knife, and the decision (from latin: caedo: cut) will inevitably have unsharp edges, with blurred lines towards the area of ethics and honour, whereas an argument based on a comparison between academic and poetic language works without this criterion.

The major question which remains for me is the double: why has he done it? And how? In his blog Ralph the Sacred River, Edward Cook lists some passages in Chronicles which are also borrowed from previous literary works.1 The passage

Walking back to the main house, I caught a glimpse of the sea through the leafy boughs of the pines. I wasn’t near it, but could feel the power beneath its colors. (Chronicles, p. 162)

has borrowed quite a lot from Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove:

But when, Mme. de Ville-parisis\u2019s carriage having reached high ground, I caught a glimpse of the sea through the leafy boughs of trees, then no doubt at such a distance those temporal details which had set the sea, as it were, apart from nature and history disappeared ... But on the other hand I was no longer near enough to the sea which seemed to me not a living thing now, but fixed; I no longer felt any power beneath its colours, spread like those of a picture among the leaves, through which it appeared as inconsistent as the sky and only of an intenser blue.

How have Proust’s words entered into the text of Chronicles, at that particular place? Has it made it easier for Dylan to write? Hardly. It seems more like he has shaped the surrounding text particularly to make space for the quotation – he has wanted those words there, and thus had to write the rest of the sentence to make a spot where they would fit. In none of the references that Edward Cook has found in Chronicles do the borrowed phrases seem necessary. On the contrary: it would have been easier to write this without the Proust reference – it is there only through an effort on Dylan’s part.

One uncomfortable suspicion only remains for me: if all the poetic ideas in Chronicles – all those ideas, that is, which sets the book apart from a run-of-the-mill academic biograpy where the words don’t matter, only the ideas – are borrowed, wouldn’t that affect our appreciation of the book’s merits, and of Dylan as the author of a remarkably readable biography, negatively?

This, I would say, depends on three things. First, the amount and general character of the borrowings: are most of them of the “frail flowers” kind or the “deathless need” kind? are the borrowings found so far all there is or just the tip of an iceberg? This will surely be studied more closely in the future, so the jury’s still out on this one.

Second: even if every single poetic image in Chronicles, on Modern Times, and “Love & Theft” were found to be borrowed from somewhere, the mere act of bringing them together and reshaping them in the way I have indicated above would still make it a major creative act. The means and materials that have been used may lie on the border to the illegitimate, but precisely since we then move from the area of aesthetics into the related but separate area of ethics, the judgement will have to be for everyone to make, individually.

Third, if the one who says the things that make these texts into more than a transmittal of information and ideas isn’t Dylan after all, doesn’t that constitute a breakdown of communication? Again, communication is an individual matter, and so is the feeling that one is left out of it. Is this important? Depends. This will be the topic of my next post about Modern Times and plagiarism, where I will discuss the second main area: whether Dylan is a postmodernist.

Thanks to Scott Warmuth and Edward Cook, without whose discoveries this post would have been impossible to write