On Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’ and John Milton’s ‘Lycidas’

I had probably listened to ‘Murder Most Foul’, Bob Dylan’s elegy for John F. Kennedy, some fifty times before it put me in mind of ‘Lycidas’, John Milton’s elegy for Edward King. The latter is a favourite poem of mine (not to mention one of the best-known poems in the English language) and so I probably should have spotted the similarities between the two more quickly!

In what follows I will briefly discuss some of these similarities (and a key difference) between the last poem in Obsequies for Edward King, lost at sea (1638) and the last track on Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020).

First off, both are elegies in an epic mould, and both lament the death of a young man taken before his time: Edward King (referred to as “Lycidas” throughout Milton’s poem), a contemporary of Milton’s at Cambridge University, who was drowned in the Irish sea at age 25; and John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America at the beginning of Dylan’s career, assassinated at age 46.

Milton:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.

Dylan:
[Kennedy w]as a hard act to follow, second to none
They killed him on the altar of the Rising Sun

Both works are more than purely elegiac, however—they are also social commentaries. (Another way to put it might be that both lament certain social conditions as well as lamenting the death of their respective individual subjects.) Milton contrasts King, as promising young pastor and poet, with those left in his place, and in fittingly Biblical terms has St Peter excoriate the hierarchy of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. Dylan, ever apocalyptic, also makes use of Biblical language to present the assassination of the 35th US President as the beginning of a national decline.

Milton:
[St Peter] shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
“How well could I have spar’d for thee, young swain
Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck’ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said[”]

Dylan:
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”
[…]
What’s New Pussycat – wha’d I say
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day

As well as being social commentaries, both of these works are also highly self-conscious pieces of art. Against the darkened scenes in the aftermaths of their respective deaths, both works question the place of art in society and ask what good it is, especially in times of tragedy. Milton explicitly poses this question in terms of the value of poetry, “the homely, slighted shepherd’s trade”, in the face of (early) death.

Milton:
Alas! what boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done, as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra’s hair?
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life.

At this point Milton has the ancient Greek god Apollo interrupt to answer that fame will bring an eternal reward: Your life may be cut off, but “the praise” that is earned for legitimate art will live on. The god of poetry having spoken, the poet proceeds with his song (and through its beauty and depth alone succeeds in legitimising art itself, at least for this reader).

Dylan is more outwardly circumspect not only in addressing the question of art’s importance but also in his framing of the question. Initially, after describing the assassination in grim detail, he seems quite cynical about the place of art.

Dylan:
Hush li’l children, you’ll soon understand
The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand

This glib dismissal of a people’s pain both infantilises the society and suggests that the comfort to be offered by the contemporary culture is hollow. The sinister powers-that-be, a shadowy “they” in the song, are telling us “shut up, here’s a pop song!” And we listen.

But this is not Dylan’s answer, this is his framing of the question, to which he responds at length in the form of a litany of cultural references, most of them to other songs. This litany, interspersed with more musings on the assassination, seems to suggest that while the consumption of art cannot provide a pure escape from tragedy, it can act as a kind of comfort through sheer immersion.

Dylan:
Wake Up, Little Suzie, let’s go for a drive
Cross the Trinity River, let’s keep hope alive
Turn the radio on, don’t touch the dials
Parkland Hospital’s only six more miles
You got me Dizzy Miss Lizzy, you filled me with lead
That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head

As Dylan requests track after track from the song’s resident DJ, the song’s hypnotic, incantatory style exemplifies this comfort of cultural immersion, much in the way that the accomplishment of ‘Lycidas’ itself is the best answer to the question of art’s importance.

But let’s turn fully to the technique of litany, which is another key similarity between the two works. For one, both share a litany of speakers: Milton’s scene is pastoral and classical—he calls on nymphs and rivers, and we hear from figures such as Apollo and St Peter; Dylan’s scene is urban and modern—he calls on anonymous speakers and on ’60s DJ Wolfman Jack, and we hear from Kennedy and his assassin(s). But both works also share a litany of allusions, and here the most striking similarity for me is between the catalogue of flowers in ‘Lycidas’ and the playlist of 20th Century popular song in ‘Murder Most Foul’.

Milton:
And call the vales and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flow’rets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamel’d eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak’d with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well attir’d woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.

Dylan:
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play that Only The Good Die Young
Take me to the place where Tom Dooley was hung
Play St. James Infirmary in the court of King James
If you want to remember, better write down the names
Play Etta James too, play I’d Rather Go Blind
Play it for the man with the telepathic mind
Play John Lee Hooker play Scratch My Back
Play it for that strip club owner named Jack
Guitar Slim – Goin’ Down Slow
Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe
And please, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Play it for the First Lady, she ain’t feeling that good

Dylan’s litany of requests goes on for another 50 or so lines, with the word “play” being repeated some 60 times in all. “Yet once more, […] and once more”, as Milton would have it.

There are other similarities too—for instance both works share an often bleak focus on the body of the deceased, such as when Milton imagines King’s drowned corpse visiting “the bottom of the monstrous” ocean, and when Dylan repeatedly refers to Kennedy’s head and brain, “mutilated” by assassin(s) and pathologists alike—but instead of labouring the point, I would like to turn finally to some differences between the two works. Not least among these is that one is written by a poet relatively early in his artistic life, the other by a singer-songwriter in the later stages of his.

At the outset of ‘Lycidas’, Milton doth protest that he is being forced to embark upon his poetic career too early and is not yet ready for the task (a strikingly false “denial” of his actual abilities). Dylan, with a lifetime of acclaimed work and even a Nobel Prize for Literature in his rear-view mirror, doesn’t bother with any such Miltonic “coy excuse”. This gives each work a different feel in terms of their internal developments, and obviously has an impact on how both are received in the context of each artist’s career.

But the difference I would like to end on is this: the shift in tone near the end of ‘Lycidas’, a movement towards hope and redemption, is entirely absent from ‘Murder Most Foul’. At the end of Milton’s elegy we are encouraged to “weep no more”, and a somewhat paganised version of Christianity is offered as our consolation. More remarkably, in the last eight lines of the poem, a final speaker is revealed at a structural remove from the lament and is presented as quite literally moving on.

Milton:
Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals gray;
He touch’d the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay;
And now the sun had stretch’d out all the hills,
And now was dropp’d into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch’d his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

Milton is already elsewhere, carrying on with his Virgilian poetic progression which will indeed lead him from the lowlands of pastoral to the heights of epic, culminating in Paradise Lost. In ‘Murder Most Foul’, however, we are left where we began, in that “dark day in DallasNovember ’63”. Dylan eschews Milton’s hopeful ending and any sense of progress or of linear movement through our history. The Kennedy assassination is not simply a past event to be overcome—it ushered in the “age of the anti-Christ” but was not itself swept away in the process. It plays over and over, like Zapruder’s film or a popular song.

Temporally, then, for the singer in ‘Murder Most Foul’ it is both that dark day in 1963 and “thirty-six hours past Judgement Day”, which in a fittingly circular manner brings to mind a line from the first track on Rough and Rowdy Ways: “everything’s flowin’ all at the same time”. Unlike Milton, Dylan does not end his elegy at a structural remove, and there is no fresh new scene on the horizon. His last line urges us not to move on but rather to relive the experience all over again, albeit through the artwork itself.

Dylan:
Play Moonlight Sonata in F sharp
And Key to the Highway by the king of the harp
Play Marchin’ Through Georgia and Dumbarton’s drum
Play Darkness and death will come when it comes
Play Love Me or Leave Me by the great Bud Powell
Play the Blood Stained Banner – play Murder Most Foul

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