Like Ice, Like Fire
(Addressing The Night in ‘Visions of Johanna’)

by J. R. Stokes


Part 14. Parlez-vous Francais? 

In my own personal never ending tour of ‘Visions of Johanna', it is time for some colour. With all that has gone before I have really only made rough sketches for what will, one day, become the final picture: a picture that be framed and hung with pride or, more likely, be stacked somewhere in the attic among other creations, some of which are fine feather edged but others unfinished, unframed, unfathomed, unnecessary and unlikely to see the light of day whilst I still can.

Before the colour however, let me review my sketch book. In the first 12 parts of this series on what has been lauded as Dylan's ‘most perfect composition’ I have related what many others have found in ‘Visions of Johanna' both in respect of performance and by way of their own interpretation of the lyric. This culminated in part 12 of my series where I referred to the articles in previous Freewheelin’s by Russell Blatcher and Patrick Webster: the former disclosing a particular insight to the song that was suggested by the article’s subtitle ‘Through Pain to Salvation’; and the latter dealing with the ‘ambiguity of gender’ displayed, not only in ‘Visions of Johanna' but also in other songs from ‘Blonde on Blonde'.(91) Then came a large character sketch: that of Joan of Arc, aka ‘Saint Joan’, ‘The Maid of Orleans’ ‘La Purcelle’ and, as she named herself in her own shaking hand on the 24th May 1431, ‘Jehanne’. For those who needed to be reminded and for others who needed to be informed, I provided a short history of the life and times of Joan of Arc who was burned alive at the age of 19 years for being an unacceptably successful, although female, Knight at Arms; for having visions and for being a transvestite(92). Saint Joan certainly suffered serious mental and physical pain before she found salvation and she was the epitome of gender ambiguity. She was set on fire because of it. She was burned as a martyr which was in no way accidental. And, of course, died because of those mystical visions.

So Joan of Arc is my constant monochrome background; my skeleton key. Now is the time for some flesh and some colour. That comes in the shape of a few more players:

2. Enter Clinton Heylin, John Keats, George Bernard Shaw and a host of French Kings

I suppose that, in the Dylan fraternity, you can’t get much more colourful than ‘Mad Dog’ Clinton Heylin. He has provoked and provided us with all manner of thoughts and material that must have enhanced our appreciation of the art of Bob Dylan over the last 20 years. I have taken a little of Clinton’s colour and added it to my own palette. This is however strictly for the purpose of legitimate review and criticism only. No breach of copyright is intended: in other words, I couldn’t afford to defend a law suit!

It is of one of those strange coincidences that what caused the break in my series on ‘Visions of Johanna' i.e. my review of a John Green Day, is also where I bring Clinton Heylin into my picture. The said break however was caused by the Second John Green Day held in August 2002 whereas the start of my reference to Clinton Heylin arises from his talk given at the first John Green Day held in March 2001 when Clinton endeavoured to further a topical debate which compared the works of Bob Dylan to the great Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821).

Clinton’s talk at the first John Green Day followed hard on the airwaves of the Radio 3 programme ‘Dylan Among The Poets’ that was written and presented by Professor Christopher Ricks and was broadcast in February 2001. With one eye open to the ‘Is Dylan better than Keats?’ debate that had previously been raised in the media, Professor Ricks’ stated intention in his programme was to set Dylan among the poets… ‘and in the immediate vicinity of Keats,…….. because of what one of Dylan’s great songs of recent years owes to a great poem by Keats. Dylan: ‘Not Dark’ from ‘TimeOut Of Mind’ – 1997 -; Keats: ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ – 1819’.

Professor Ricks then went on to compare and draw interesting and very convincing parallels between these two compositions and indeed I have previously written at some length about that particular broadcast(93). I am not however here to discuss a Dylan song from the nineties: my time on that is done. I am of course concentrating on a perhaps more popular song from the sixties and in fact other works by John Keats have been specifically linked to that song. Remember this extract from Robert Shelton’s ‘No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan’:

‘Bill King’s doctoral thesis, “The Artist in the Marketplace” calls “Johanna” Dylan’s most haunting and complex love song and his “finest poem”. He finds that the writer “constantly seeks to transcend the physical world, to reach the ideal where the visions of Johanna become real. That can never be, and yet life without the quest is worthless: this is the paradox at the heart of ‘Visions’, the same paradox that Keats explored in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.’’ In the final two ambiguous lines of the song, King is tantalized by the Keatsian ambiguity of the skeleton-key image, “suggesting both death and the key which opens every door.”’’(94)

Or, when considering the use of the word ‘nightingale’ by Dylan in a Dylan song, how about this from Michael Gray’s doorstop publication ‘Song & Dance Man III – The Art of Bob Dylan’:

‘This is not Bob Dylan’s first use of the nightingale in his compositions, nor the first to encourage a sense of the presence of Keats behind the lines: a sense that Dylan is consciously reusing Keats’ association of the nightingale with the muse, the inspirational power of nature and mystery. There is an early draft of ‘Visions of Johanna’ – a song that details a particular kind of life in the contemporary city and speaks of the haunting visions that float above it – a draft which Dylan records on two occasions ahead of the main ‘Blonde on Blonde’ sessions……in which he begins the final verse like this:

The peddler he (now) steps to the road
Knowing everything’s gone which was owed
He examines the nightingale’s code
Still left on the fish truck that loads
My conscience explodes’.

That key phrase ‘the nightingales code’, a lovely and wonderfully short encapsulation of the core idea of how unknowable is the mystery of nature’s music, is founded upon a familiarity with another of Keats’ four great odes, the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ a poem about both poetic inspiration and the fear of it’s loss.’

As I said when I previously referred to this extract from SADManIII(95), it was quite an easy connection for Michael Gray to make: ‘nightingale’s code’ (Bob Dylan) – ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ (John Keats); nothing that required amazing insight or profound understanding of Dylan’s work there. Incidentally, Gray also repeats part of Bill King’s doctoral thesis, “The Artist in the Marketplace” that was previously included in Robert Shelton’s biography on Dylan.

So there are some respected writers who have linked works by John Keats to Dylan songs and indeed two separate works specifically to ‘Visions of Johanna'. There is however a third and, in my view, more important poem by Keats that has been specifically linked to ‘Visions of Johanna' and this is where Clinton Heylin re-enters the frame and I return to his talk given at the First John Green Day in March 2001. I can do no better than repeat here the commentary that I wrote in April 2001 about Clinton’s talk:

Now one person who certainly does not like the aforementioned business of Performer versus Poet is Clinton Heylin. In an engagingly scornful talk given at the First Annual John Green Memorial Convention held at The Moat House Hotel, Northampton on the 31st March 2001, Clinton took the debate full head on. In fact his stated method in the debate was to ‘ dissolve the relationship between Dylan and Keats’. Now you always have to listen to Clinton because 90% of the time he is right and even in that wayward 10% can be found some pearls of wisdom. Strangely, in my view, Clinton did not ‘dissolve the relationship’ at all but instead added a substantial and highly meritorious contribution to the debate. I do no not intend to over simplify matters when I say that Clinton’s stance was that it was incorrect to compare Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’ to Keats’ ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ because, amongst other things, Keats’ poem was written when Keats was in his 20’s and Dylan’s song was written when Dylan was in his 50’s. If a comparison should be made at all then, Clinton contended, a fairer deal would be struck if you compared works by the artists when they were at about the same age and in similar command of their artistic powers. Following this argument, which has tremendous validity, Clinton went on to say that there are indeed two pieces of work by Dylan and Keats that can be properly compared namely Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’ and Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad’ . Despite the presence of the wonderfully acerbic M.C. Keith Agar, Clinton was unafraid to disclose his feminine side by reading two verses from Keats love poem/ballad.’(93)

Although Clinton read only two verses of Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad’ , I intend to go the full hog and quote the entire poem as published in ‘The Oxford Book of English Verse’ which is edited, incidentally, by Professor Christopher Ricks:

O what can ail thee knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee Knight at arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep
And there I dreamed – Ah! Woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hillside

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Clinton did not expand upon why he considered ‘Visions of Johanna’ could properly be compared to ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad’; perhaps he thought that, from the extracts of the poem that he read, the link would be quite obvious. My link however is more literal and much more direct. It simply relates to the words used in the first line of each composition:

Keats: O what can ail thee, knight at arms?
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?’

The common denominator is in the words ‘night/knight’ and here, at the very beginning, is my first perversion of the Dylan song because I want to lay down the idea that what Dylan could be singing is:

‘Ain’t it just like the knight to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?’

the ‘knight’ of course being Saint Joan!

Now that clearly is impossible but there is in fact a famous literary precedent of Saint Joan returning, after her death, to ‘play tricks’ on someone who is quiet in study. The ‘incident’ occurs in what is probably one of the most famous fictional works about Joan of Arc namely George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Saint Joan’ written in 1924. In his play Shaw deals with Joan’s story from her being a maid enthusiastic for battle in accordance with the requirements of her visions, to her transformation as a fantastically successful knight at arms which saw the return to France of it’s rightful King, to her betrayal and death by fire. Then there comes the epilogue, which is opened by Shaw’s graphic description of how the scene should be set:

‘A restless fitfully windy night in June 1456, full of summer lightning after many days of heat. King Charles the Seventh of France, formerly Joan’s Dauphin, now Charles the Victorious, aged 51, is in bed in one of his royal chateaux. …….Charles is not asleep: he is reading in bed, or rather looking at the pictures in Fouquet’s Boccacio with his knees doubled up to make a reading desk. Beside his bed on his left is a little table with a picture of the Virgin, lighted by candles of painted wax. The walls are hung from ceiling to floor with painted curtains which stir at times in the draughts. At first glance the prevailing yellow and red in these hanging pictures is somewhat flamelike when the folds breathe in the wind.

The door is on Charle’s left, but in front of him close to the corner farthest from him. A large watchman’s rattle, handsomely designed and gaily painted, is in the bed under his hand. Charles turns a leaf. A distant clock strikes the half hour softly……..’

The tranquil mood set by the opening lines of ‘Visions of Johanna' is similar to Shaw’s scene settings, including those ‘flamelike’ (Shaw) ‘lights flicker’ (Dylan) images and, after the entrance of a servant in Shaw’s play, Saint Joan appears to play tricks on the King’s mind. Her entrance is eerily set as follows:

‘A flash of summer lightning shews up the lancet window. A figure is seen in silhouette against it. ….. She is dimly seen in a pallid greenish light by the bedside.’

So what is good enough for George Bernard Shaw must be good enough for Bob Dylan. The knight, as in Joan of Arc, enters to disturb the tranquillity of mind in Shaw’s play and, as I have painted it, that very same knight (not ‘night’) enters in the first line of Dylan’s song.

But this perversion of vocabulary does not end there. In the third line of the song there is a ‘handful of rain’ and the temptation to defy it. That handful of ‘rain’, in my picture, is not a handful of ‘rain’ at all but a handful of ‘reign’. The words sound the same but their meanings are of course entirely different and this was one of the main aspects of Joan’s visions: to alter the reign of the Kings of France and England: to defy the reign of the victorious English by seeing to it that the deposed Charles VII was crowned King of France. It is significant, to continue with my use of combat khaki and parlance, that Dylan uses the word ‘conquer’ in the final line of his first verse. To ‘conquer’ (a word derived from the Old French ‘conquerre’) is usually associated with the act of overcoming an enemy in the course of war which was exactly what Joan of Arc was about: through the temptations of her visions. And continuing further this sense of nobility brought about the reign of King Charles we have, of course, later in the song, Dylan’s ‘Countess’. But perhaps more of her another time.

Now I came into this section of my picture on the back of John Keats poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad’ and before I move on I wish to add a couple of additional strokes which relate to the French Connection. The first is plainly obvious and it is that the title of Keats’ poem is, uncommonly for Keats, in French; the second is in that name ‘Louise’, the girl who holds a handful of reign. I wanted to find out more about the actual name ‘Louise’ so I asked Jeeves on the Internet.

The only information he could provide was that the name ‘Louise’ is the female version of the name ‘Louis’. Now, on asking him about ‘Lois’ Jeeves told me:

‘ an extremely common French name……..From the early Middle Ages onwards, it was very frequently used in French royal and noble families. An archaic Latinized form of the name is Clovis, and this is the form generally used for the Frankish leader (?466-511) who ended the Roman domination over Gaul: Clovis defeated rival Germanic tribes, married the Burgundian princess Clothilde, and founded the Frankish monarchy in what is now France. In 496 he and his followers were converted to Christianity. Louis I (778-840) was the son of Charlemagne, who ruled both as King of France and Holy Roman Emperor. Altogether, the name was borne by sixteen kings of France up to the French Revolution, in which Louis XVI perished. Louis XIV, 'the Sun King' (1638-1715), reigned for seventy-two years (1643-1715), presiding in the middle part of his reign over a period of unparalleled French power and prosperity’.

So, in any ones book, but in particular in that massive encyclopaedia tucked under the arm of cybergiant servant Jeeves, the name ‘Louise’ has a lot to do with the reign in France. And so, of course did the visions of Joan of Arc.

(91) Freewheelin 202. Part 12. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire.’
(92) Freewheelin 203. Part 13. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire.’
(93) Freewheelin 188
(94) Freewheelin 190. Part 2. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire.’
(95) Freewheelin 192. Part 4. ‘Like Ice, Like Fire.’