Dylan’s “No Time To Think”: reversing the sonnet with internal rhymes, and Eliot’s cats

by Jochen Markhorst

In November 2015, Andrew Lloyd Webber is considering adding yet one more cat in a subsequent revised version of Cats, one in every of the most profitable musicals of all time. The musical is predicated on T.S. Eliot’s playful Previous Possum’s Guide Of Practical Cats, a set of poems a few dozen cats and their lives. Initially, Eliot wrote the verses in letters to his godchildren and, as it seems, typically also to buddies. The compilation of those poems, in 1939, becomes a hit.

The consideration of Andrew Lloyd Webber is because of the discovery of an as yet unknown poem about an as but unknown cat, in a recovered letter from 1964, a letter of thanks from T.S. to his good friend Anthony Laude for a dinner at his house. In it he additionally expresses his admiration for Anthony’s cat, the “particularly fastidious eater” Cumberley, a “dignified and beautiful cat”, whom he then honours with a pleasant ode on “Cumberleylaude”, a “gourmet cat” who enjoys life’s little joys:

The gourmand cat was in fact Cumberleylaude,
Who did little or no to earn his dinner and board,
Certainly, he was all the time out and about,
Patronising the haunts where he would discover,
Individuals are beneficiant and nice and variety,
Serving good meals to this culinary lout!

With care he chooses his place to dine,
And clothes accordingly, if he has time,
Tasting all that Neville Street provides,
With never a thought for anyone’s coffers!
The perfect is simply fit for the greatest he opines,
When he needs salmon, or duck, or costly French wines.

Witty, elegant, and clearly just a scribble; Eliot would undoubtedly have repaired the crippled meter for Previous Possum’s E-book and in all probability also added a couple of stronger rhymes. Exceptional, nevertheless, is the antique-looking but recent rhyme scheme, a rhyme scheme that one won’t discover anyplace in the world literature: aab-ccb dd-ee-ff.

Not anyplace? Properly, one single time, virtually completely: in “No Time To Think”, Dylan’s verbose masterpiece on Road Legal.

In printed type, in Lyrics and on the website, the textual content is introduced in eighteen four-line verses and thus it isn’t instantly noticeable:

In dying, you face life with a toddler and a spouse
Who sleep-walks by way of your goals into partitions
You’re a soldier of mercy, you’re chilly and you curse
“He who cannot be trusted must fall”

Loneliness, tenderness, high society, notoriety
You struggle for the throne and you journey alone
Unknown as you slowly sink
And there’s no time to assume

… however it’s after rearranging the words like Dylan sings them:

In demise, you face life
with a toddler and a spouse
Who sleep-walks by means of your goals into partitions

You’re a soldier of mercy,
you’re chilly and you curse “He
who cannot be trusted must fall”

high society,

You battle for the throne
and you journey alone
Unknown as you slowly sink
And there’s no time to assume

The primary quatrain, with those two internal rhymes, is subsequently truly two terzetto’s. Precisely how Thomas Stearn Eliot in anapestic tetrameters “actually” writes tercets in his cat poem Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town.

In the entire of St. James’s the smartest of names is
The identify of this Brummell of Cats;
And we’re all of us proud to be nodded or bowed to
By Bustopher Jones in white spats!

… which, identical to the officially four-line couplets of “No Time To Think”, feels like:

In the entire of St. James’s
the smartest of names is
The identify of this Brummell of Cats;
And we’re all of us proud to
be nodded or bowed to
By Bustopher Jones in white spats!

Similar rhyme scheme, equivalent meter, equal creative enjambements … if Dylan did not use Previous Possum as a template, we see a minimum of illustrated: nice minds assume alike.

Dylan the Poet does go one step additional, though. Eliot’s cat poems remain playful and entertaining, not only content-wise, but in addition with regard to type, the type of youngsters’s songs and people songs. Dylan, on the different hand, isn’t only much heavier in content, but after two tercets he takes a flip to an octave, to two quatrains, thus setting up “reverse sonnets”.

And this applies to each pair of couplets: the lyrics truly include nine inverted sonnets – first the sestet, then the octave. The format hides how tightly the word artist and rhyme champion Dylan adheres to that medieval-looking poetry sample, solely the recital reveals the sensible rhyme finds. Especially these syntax-breaking enjambements of mercy / curse He in the first verse, or like in the last verse, the place the reader unsuspectingly reads:

Stripped of all virtue as you crawl via the dust
You may give but you can’t obtain

… while the listener gently rocks along with:

Stripped of all virtue
as you crawl by way of the dust You
may give but you can’t receive

Identical to, once more, T.S. Eliot lavishly infuses his Previous Possum’s Guide Of Practical Cats with these sensible rhymes by means of enjambment:

He is equally crafty with dice;
He is all the time deceiving you into believing
That he’s only looking for mice.
He can play any trick with a cork
Or a spoon and a little bit of fish-paste;
In the event you look for a knife or a fork
And you assume it is merely misplaced

(Mr. Mistoffelees)

… or:

Gus is the Cat at the Theatre Door.
His identify, as I should have informed you before,
Is actually Asparagus. That’s such a fuss
To pronounce, that we often call him simply Gus.

(Gus: The Theatre Cat)

… with which both Dylan and Eliot show being soulmates of the grandmaster Cole Porter, who constructs even more excessive hyphenations to rhyme weirdly naturally:

When ev’ry night time the set that’s sensible is in-
Truding in nudist events in
Anything goes.


When Rockefeller nonetheless can hoard en-
Ough money to let Max Gordon
Produce his exhibits,
Something goes.

Fantastic, sparkling and expert finds. But right here too: Dylan’s “No Time To Think” is extra formidable. Reversing the basic Petrarcan sonnet is already an unique trick, unusually sufficient. Although dozens of sonnet variants have been conceived since Petrarch, the reversal of octave and sestet truly never happens. Rilke typically comes shut and Dante also does something comparable twice (however then writes two sestets, followed by an octave). Both occasions, by the way, in the assortment La Vita Nuova, the anthology that may be a candidate for that well-known “book of poems” that is “written in the soul” of the narrator in “Tangled Up In Blue”.

And it doesn’t cease there; the industrious Dylan strings together no fewer than nine sonnets, and in reality produces an entire collection of sonnets for one music – fairly a singular feat in music artwork.

Though the work idiomatically is at the very least as formidable, it’s less revolutionary on that exact entrance. Bible references, echoes of historic mythology, uncommon word mixtures (so-called catachresis) and replicated fragments from previous songs … T.S. Eliot’s method, and one among Dylan’s type traits since the mid-60s.

Previous track fragments seem to return from Cole Porter too, as the German Dylanologist and folklorist Jürgen Kloss notices in his exceptional article Rhyming With Bob (2007). A bit reworked, but the spirit of “Let’s Not Talk About Love” (1941) leaves traces, to say the least:

No honey, I think you all
Of being mental
And so, as an alternative of gushin’ on
Let’s have an enormous dialogue on
Timidity, stupidity, solidity, frigidity
Avidity, turbidity, Manhattan and viscidity
Fatality, morality, legality, finality
Neutrality, reality, or Southern hospitality
Promposity, verbosity
Im dropping my velocity
But let’s not speak about love

The opposite two verses are perked up with comparable phrase processions (And write a drunken poem on / Astrology, mythology / Geology, philology / Pathology, psychology / Electro-physiology / Spermology, phrenology).

The influence is in fact radically totally different. In Cole Porter’s music (first efficiency Danny Kaye, in the musical Let’s Face It!), the lyrics are aiming at laughter, and it succeeds on this space – this barrage of -idity’s, -ality’s and -osity’s does have a comic book impact. Dylan can, obviously, not be accused thereof, of humour.

In essence, that is the criticism from many disillusioned fans, Dylanologists and critics; Road Legal is “dead air”, Dylan feels like a nasty parody of Dylan, the poet overstretches, he produces empty poetry. And especially “No Time To Think” will get a bashing. One in every of the stupidest songs of his profession, aimless abstractions, long-winded, melodically weak, just one lengthy litany – it’s only a small selection from a rubbish bag crammed with hate mail and insults.

The criticism may be felt, but in addition demonstrates superficiality. The lyrics are elaborate, formidable, intellectually challenging and anything but aimless. Lack of coherence, that would still be a justified reproach – but then once more, that isn’t mentioned anyplace.

Type prevails, that a lot a considerably extra distant analysis appears to verify.

When it comes to content material, it appears that evidently Dylan had a sort of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in thoughts: a slalom alongside eternal, universal vices, along temptations that threaten human salvation, doom prophecy wrapped in poetic pictures and literary beauty. By the poet who once promised “t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening.”

This time he casts his artist’s gaze on the Large World and data materialism, identical to in “It’s Alright Ma”, but now with a gorgeous, vintage metaphor (Mercury rules you) and determined violence (stripped of all virtue). He heralds destruction (the moon shinin’ bloody and pink is Joel’s climate forecast for Judgment Day: “The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord,” Joel 2: 31), and he denounces human failures reminiscent of hypocrisy, selfishness and infidelity.

Right here, and in that the disenchanted do have some extent, the poet typically opts for perhaps too cryptic wording and too misty symbolism. That fifteenth and sixteenth verse, for instance (or slightly: the eighth sonnet), with that bloody moon of Joel, seems to condemn human susceptibility to outer appearances and superficial pleasures. We are on our solution to the Babylon woman, to the Whore of Babylon, to ethical decay, and we can’t resist taking a ultimate take a look at  “Camille”. Camille? La Dame aux Camélias, La Traviata? Or Camille from Kerouacs On The Street? She is, in any case, a lady who is repeatedly deserted (by Dean), and who is usually given a last look. The canon does not supply many other Camille’s – this can be a lifeless finish.

The Biblical references on this verse (Babylon, starlight in the East, the blood moon) pressure the associations with the verse You turn around for one actual last glimpse in the direction of Lot’s spouse, who takes a last take a look at Sodom, on moral decline, and subsequently turns right into a salt pillar (Genesis 19:26). However that’s one real last glimpse on Sodom. Or does the poet right here mean a look forged by “Camille”? In that case this poet is the only one who knows the identify of Lot’s housewife; the Bible reveals neither her identify nor the ones of their daughters.

Enigmatic. But: what lovely, flowing, singing verses –

You flip around for one real final glimpse of Camille
’Neath the moon shinin’ bloody and pink
And there’s no time to assume

Nonetheless, this enigmatic quality can also be the major pain for the dissatisfied. It’s too much. Whereas with a masterpiece reminiscent of “It’s Alright Ma” impermeability contributes to the beauty (The handmade blade, the youngster’s balloon / Eclipses both the sun and moon), it stimulates resistance right here – perhaps the critics perceive the chosen pictures as too educational, too synthetic, not poetic sufficient:

Warlords of sorrow and queens of tomorrow / Will supply their heads for a prayer.

Properly. Nobility and humility, the poet helpfully explains in the following verse. But that basically does not assist that much. “Warlords of sorrow”? It does not evoke an image, no. The reversal – the sorrow of warlords – would, however alas: that does not circulate as nicely. And that in all probability demonstrates a decisive inventive argument, illustrates the poet’s artwork conception:

“It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They… they… punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose.”

That’s what Dylan says in the Playboy interview with Ron Rosenbaum in November 1977 – around the similar time he writes “No Time To Think”. “Words don’t interfere,” more necessary is how they sound. And nicely, sure, in that respect the poet succeeds. Warlords of sorrow and queens of tomorrow sounds fantastic and runs like a appeal, certainly; a waltz, the dactyl, all those internally rhyming, assonancing o’s, the nice rhyme of sorrow – tomorrow … lovely, but on a semantic degree the phrases actually stand in the method; their which means doesn’t contribute anything.

The phrases that “don’t interfere” appear, in any case, not a lot to have come up after an actual sense of emotion or a genuine ethical outrage, but relatively have been picked from numerous sources which apparently float in the air, today. Songs by Cole Porter, studying T.S. Eliot, and yet once more pinches of Proust, by the look of it.

Dean in Kerouac’s On The Street all the time carries À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu throughout America as properly, and from Dylan we all know for positive that he has been shopping the guide back and forth for more than half a century. We now have seen Dylan’s fascination with misplaced time since the 1960s (“Don’t Think Twice”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, “Odds And Ends”), the place not solely an growing “sense of Proust” might be registered, but in addition extra and extra Proust jargon and idiom is penetrating. Quite clear in late work resembling “Summer Days” and “Floater”, irrefutable in Chronicles (during which Dylan hijacks complete sentences from Proust’s masterpiece).

Here, in this seventies music, the resonances are more obscure still. The expression no time to assume might be discovered twice in the Temps Perdu, for instance, and all thirty-two nouns from those phrase processions in each second verse (memory, ecstasy, tyranny, hypocrisy, and so forth.) are also current in Proust’s masterpiece – including somewhat unusual terms akin to epitome and materialism. Only a China doll just isn’t mentioned (although abundantly clothes, porcelain, umbrellas, puzzles, painting and what-not from China). Nicely, the doll is perhaps introduced in by Chekhov then.

The only artists who danger a cover are brother and sister Gruska from The Belle Brigade, for the Amnesty Worldwide tribute venture Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan (2012) and that is truly a very nice model. The singing of Barbara and Ethan comes close to the magical shine of the Everly Brothers, the guitars have a Ry Cooder-like vibe, and the dry drums and the warm electric piano create a gorgeous, autumnal color – no, there’s nothing flawed with the sound and the phrases, with The Belle Brigade.

Nevertheless, the cowl does not result in a revaluation. “No Time To Think”, like most songs from the underappreciated masterpiece Road Legal, continues to shine lonely and alone in a not often visited, forgotten nook in the cellar.

Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber could possibly be persuaded to turn it into a musical.


  • There’s an index of the songs reviewed on this collection in: Dylan in Depth

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