BOB DYLAN’s’ NEW SONG ‘I CONTAIN MULTITUDES’ – FROM WALT WHITMAN TO EDGAR ALLAN POE

Hard on the heels of Bob Dylan’s recent, epic on-line song ‘Murder Most Foul’ (see entry on this blog for 28 March 2020), and still in this difficult springtime of 2020, comes another previously unreleased number, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, clocking in at 4:36 minutes and, while shorter than its lengthy predecessor, still replete with allusions in numbers enough to keep the planet’s Dylanites happily occupied.

 

Like ‘Murder Most Foul’, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ takes its title and refrain from the literary tradition: if the first was from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, the second honours another national bard nearer home, being taken from ‘Song of Myself’ by the poet often considered America’s finest, Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes)’.

Intertextuality inhabits the new song, albeit a shade less thickly than in ‘Murder Most Foul’. Dylan mines the British poetic tradition declaring: ‘I sing songs of experience like William Blake’, thus echoing a Blakeian title (he had earlier quoted the great poet and mystic in ‘Roll on John’ on ‘Tempest’). There is also an indirect Dylan self-reference in the line ‘Red Cadillac and a black moustache’, which is the verbatim title of a song of 1957 from the Sun Records stable, which Dylan covered on a tribute album in 2001. There is even a reference back to ‘Murder Most Foul’ in the line ‘I play Beethoven’s sonatas, Chopin’s preludes’: the earlier song mentioned Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, and indeed ‘Chopin’s preludes’ could be traced back to T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’.

However, arguably the greatest intertextual find in the new song comes in the line ‘Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr Poe’. Edgar Allan Poe allusions in Dylan songs are hardly new (most recently, ‘Tempest’ contains several), Dylan evokes Poe in his prose works and in interviews, and indeed I have myself studied the Dylan/Poe connection in an article of 2009 at: www.atlantisjournal.org/old/ARCHIVE/31.2/2009Rollason.pdf

Nonetheless, unless I am mistaken this is the first time Dylan has actually *named* the celebrated Bostonian in the text of a song (the Beatles did so years ago in ‘I Am the Walrus’). The allusion is of course to Poe’s tale of 1843, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, whose title Dylan cited in his song ‘Need A Woman’ (as sung on the record, though not in the print version in ‘Lyrics’) and which also gave him the name of his 2008 compilation ‘Tell-Tale Signs’. As if all this were not enough, the line immediately following, ‘Got skeletons in the walls of people I know’ also has Poesque connotations, recalling the fate of the immured Fortunato in another of the author’s most famous tales, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.

‘I Contain Multitudes’ can be approached from multiple perspectives: Bob Dylan has always contained multitudes. Meanwhile, that at this late stage in his career a song should surface containing a direct invocation of ‘Mr Poe’ marks a delightful and unexpected gift to his followers from the greatest English-language songwriter of modern times.

 

Note added 29 June 2020: See also my post of 28 June 2020 on Rough and Rowdy Ways.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Gisbert Horn on 20 April, 2020 at 10:26

    Thanx for your nice first reading Mr Rollason !
    Everybody who knows a bit about Dylan will not be surprised by all the poetic references
    in ´Multitudes ´. As you say we’re lucky to have some more to bite 😉
    Greetings from Germany
    Gisbert Horn

    Reply

  2. https://www.facebook.com/groups/edlis.cafe/permalink/3022461121125733/

    Very good, this and the earlier Poe article.

    More on this song in the thread at the EDLIS Café, including Tara & Rob’s podcast…

    EDLIS Café

    http://www.edlis.org/cafe

    Reply

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