(Reflections on a Red Flower)
by J. R. Stokes

There is a satisfying glow of human warmth to man(woman)kind that permeates Chronicles Volume 1. Indeed I can’t recall Dylan having a bad word to say about anyone in the first installment of his autobiography.  Gone are the pointed threats of youth that once bluffed with scornful ripostes such as ‘You gotta a lot of nerve to say you are my friend. When I was down you just stood there grinnin’’ or ‘Now you don’t talk so loud, now you don’t seem do proud about having to be scrounging around for your next meal. HOW DOES IT FEEL?’.  Perhaps, looking back on all those faces from the viewpoint of age, Dylan decided that they weren’t so ugly after all. 

I don’t think that Harry Belafonte ever caused the young Dylan any grief but the way Dylan writes about him in Chronicles is somewhat exalting as will be seen from the following passage from chapter 1, a passage which also provides a good example of how Dylan treats most of  the book’s dramatis personae: 

‘His presence and magnitude was so wide. Harry was like Valentino: as a performer, he broke all attendance records. He could play to a packed house at Carnegie Hall and then the next day he might appear at a garment center union rally. To Harry, it didn’t make any difference. People were people. He had ideals and made you feel you’re a part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry. He appealed to everybody, whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby - soxers, even children—everybody. He had that rare ability. ….Everything about him was gigantic. … Harry was that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope that some of it rubs off on you. The man commands respect. You know he never took the easy path, though he could have’. 

So although it is a case of hats off to Harry and anyone else you care to name, as I have mentioned in my introduction, things haven’t always been so amicable between Dylan and his fellow (wo)man. If we get sucked into the idea that a lot of Dylan’s songs are also auto biographical and, in the course of that vacuum of notions, we believe the common myth that Dylan’s classic album ‘Blood on The Tracks’ is about the breakdown of Dylan’s relationship with his former wife Sara, then she, poor girl, has certainly been the victim of Bob’s vitriol. You can’t get much worse than this from Idiot Wind: 

‘You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies.
One day you'll be in the ditch, flies buzzin' around your eyes,
Blood on your saddle.

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb,
Blowing through the curtains in your room.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.’

If this string of hatred was truly direct towards Sara (and if not then who else if the album is really about the breakdown of the Dylan’s marriage to the mother of most of his children?), then 30 years on things have certainly changed. In the chapter entitled ‘New Morning’ Dylan writes this, one of the most heart warming sentences in the entire book: 

‘After a while I bought a red flower for my wife, one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women, and we got up on our feet and left, said goodbye to Frank’ 

When I had read the book for the second time, it was this particular sentence that, for some reason, seemed to strike a chord with me and I searched it out to read again what Dylan actually said. Or what I thought he said. It then occurred to me that Dylan had clearly chosen his words very carefully and perhaps this was representative of the care he has taken with the entire book. For a start, although Dylan describes his wife as a lovely creature, he limits that loveliness to ‘the world of women’. You would have thought that it would be more magnanimous to say that Sara was one of the loveliest creatures in the world.  Full stop. By confining her loveliness to the world of women only, that merely takes into account about half of the population. And how would her loveliness stand up in the world of nature? In the world of nature may be she wouldn’t be a lovely creature at all! Perhaps he originally wrote ‘in the world’ (full stop) but then, on reflection and taking into account the bad times, he added ‘of women’ thus imposing a limitation. 

The point that really got to me however was this business of the ‘red flower’.  Now if you go into a florists and ask for a red flower for your wife who you consider to be a lovely creature, what, without hesitation, would you be offered? Absolutely: a red rose. Every time. There are of course other red flowers: carnations, begonias, salvias  (any others Paula?)  but surely when writing about love and red flowers, it has to be a rose. After all isn’t there a song about your love being like a red, red rose? And it is not as if Dylan hasn’t used the image of a rose in his songs. To name but a few, there were the people who: 

‘Carry roses and make promises by the hour.’ 

There was 

‘The smell of their roses that did not remain.’ 

There was that  

‘Big bouquet of roses hanging down.’  

There was the Babylon girl with a rose in her hair’  

And, from the New Morning period itself, 

‘Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day,
Time passes slowly and fades away’. 

An image  was repeated in ‘I’ll Remember You.’

‘When the roses fade
And I'm in the shade’.

So why does Dylan merely refer to a ‘red flower’ and not the symbol of love, the red rose? Again perhaps he actually did write ‘a red rose’ originally but changed it when he remembered the painful period of breaking up. 

In my view a ‘red flower’ is nowhere near as emotive or evocative as a red rose but I believe that there is a connection between the subject of flowers and the ‘New Morning period’ during which the incident of the lovely creature and the red flower occurred.  I have written reams (and I won’t bore you any further thereon) linking most of Dylan’s songs on New Morning to the work of William Blake. It is known that, during this period, Allen Ginsberg visited Dylan in Woodstock and brought him books on Blake and other poets which clearly made an impression on Dylan. Most other writers on Dylan’s work have neglected the connection between Dylan and Blake during this period – partly because New Morning has been written off as candy floss and not worthy of serious consideration. One song that has been strongly tipped however by all known authorities, and Michael Gray in particular, as having a direct pipe line from Dylan to Blake is the song ‘Every Grain of Sand’ from the 1981 album ‘Shot of Love’. 

Dylan does of course mention ‘flowers’ in ‘Every Grain of Sand’ but in a somewhat depressive way. They appear in the third verse as follows: 

‘Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear,
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer’.
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.’ 

The ‘memory of decay’ can perhaps be likened to the situation of flowers fading before they die as in ‘Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day/ Time passes slowly and fades away’ or  (from ‘I’ll Remember You’) ‘When the roses fade/ And I'm in the shade’, but the verse really centres on the notion of good times being choked by unfortunate experiences. The ‘breath ..of good cheer’ , perhaps representing joy and laughter being silenced or choked by the excesses of materialism (the flowers of indulgence) and the characters or painful events that have deprived and destroyed the continuance of joy (the weeds of yesteryear). 

In 1794 William Blake published a series of illustrated poems with the title ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. One of the ‘Songs of Experience’ also centred on the notion of the joys of love and laughter being destroyed by materialism and painful experiences. Blake called the song ‘The Sick Rose’ and, being an engraver by trade, Blake used to illustrate his poems by engravings from which coloured plates could be printed. Here is a copy of the illustration of ‘The Sick Rose’.

The Sick Rose

The wording of the poem is as follows: 

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm, 

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Writing a commentary on Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, the author and critic Sir Geoffrey Keynes said of the ‘The Sick Rose’: 

‘This poem is usually interpreted as an image, of the troubles of earthly love. The symbolism of a red rose for corporeal love and of the worm (or the flesh) for the source of the sickness is plain. In the illustration a worm (banded like an earthworm in some copies) is entering the heart of the rose and simultaneously the spirit of joy is extruded. The ‘howling storm’ in which the worm comes is a symbol of materialism. The bush from which the rose has bent down to the ground presents several other details. …  Further down the stems are two figures in attitudes of despair. The menacing thorns scattered along the whole length of the stems emphasize the pains of love on earth’. 

Not perhaps wishing to rekindle those attitudes of despair and the pains of earthly love that he shared with one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women’  (the very same creature who hurt the ones that he loved best and covered up the truth with lies), in his autobiography  Dylan dispensed with the ‘red rose’ which had clearly become very sick and, instead, adopted the nondescript ‘red flower’. Whatever the reason for the choice of words, it is nice to see Dylan admitting that he is the romantic kind of guy who buys flowers for his wives.