How Dylan Thomas Influenced Bob Dylan

Dylan Thomas and Bob DylanDo not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

How Dylan Thomas Influenced Bob Dylan

Today would have been the 97th birthday of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, one of the most well known and influential poets of the twentieth century. American poet Sylvia Plath famously cited Thomas as one of her influences. Before she developed the dark, confessional poetic style that she would be known for after her death, her style mimicked that of the late Thomas. But, today, we want to talk about another American poet, one whose poetry can be seen as a sort of evolution of Thomas’ work. I’m talking, of course, of Robert Zimmerman. Or Bob Dylan, as some of you might know him.

In 1959, Robert Zimmerman began introducing himself as “Bob Dylan” while performing on the Dinkytown folk music circuit. It would later be revealed in his autobiography that this was a nod to Dylan Thomas, whose poetry had influenced the songwriter. This influence extended beyond Dylan’s stage name, going so far as to shape his lyrical style and even the types of songs he chose to write.

A central theme in most of Thomas’ poetry is conflict: conflict between the content and the structure of the poem, conflict between the speaker and subject being spoken to, etc. In some poems, such as “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “And death shall have no dominion,” the speaker is obviously at odds with death while, in other poems, the conflict is less evident. This same theme of conflict can also be seen in the work of Bob Dylan, who many consider to be the greatest protest songwriter of all time. Dylan always seems to be at odds with something, whether it be racism in “Oxford Town” or war in “Masters of War.” Dylan’s poetry, just like Thomas’ poetry, is a poetry of conflict. In many ways, you can even argue that the protest song is just an evolution of Thomas’ poetic style.

But, the presence of conflict in Dylan’s work is not the only indicator of Thomas’ influence. Thomas’ poetry is also notoriously lyrical; there is a music to his poems that can be heard when the words are read aloud that is not present in the work of other poets. This same lyrical style can be found in the lyrics written by Bob Dylan. Even without musical accompaniment, Dylan’s lyrics sound like music. Lines from Thomas like “Under the windings of the sea/They lying long shall not die windily” sound like they could have been pulled directly from one of Dylan’s songbooks. On the other hand, lines from Dylan like “You fasten all the triggers,/For the others to fire,/Then you set back and watch,/When the death count gets higher” could have easily been written by Thomas later in life.

It’s difficult to say how much Dylan Thomas’ poetry actually influenced Bob Dylan. Dylan’s work may be full of conflict and lyricism, but so is the work of countless others.  At the very least, however, we can say that Thomas did influence his name, and if inspiring one of the greatest American poets of all time to change their name to match yours isn’t influence, I don’t know what is.

17 replies
  1. auramac
    auramac says:

    It sounds as if this article were written before Dylan went electric. Why only references to the early, “protest” songs?…

    Reply
    • Alexander Poirier
      Alexander Poirier says:

      Good point Auramac. I only focused on Dylan’s early work because, by the time Dylan had moved on to some of his more experimental later stuff, he had become the influencer, not the influenced. I’m sure some of the influence Dylan Thomas had on him can still be seen in some of his later songs, but I think it’s more readily apparent in his early work. What do you think?

      Reply
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  4. J M Haynes
    J M Haynes says:

    When Robert Shelton was writing a biography of Bob Dylan in the mid 1960s, the singer instructed his biographer to “Straighten out in your book that I did not take my name from Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas’s poetry is for people that aren’t really satisfied in their bed, for people who dig masculine romance.”

    A former girlfriend of Robert Zimmerman (Dylan’s birth name) told Shelton that Bob came up with the new last name in high school–he thought it sounded cool–but he spelled it Dillon (same as the TV western character of that era–the sheriff on Gunsmoke–Matt Dillon). He later changed the spelling to Dylan–perhaps in honor of Dylan Thomas–although other comments by him further undermine that premise.

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  8. Noah Heise
    Noah Heise says:

    Is there a particular song that Dylan sang that was influenced by “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas?

    Reply
    • Alexander Poirier
      Alexander Poirier says:

      Noah,

      I’m not sure if any of Dylan’s songs were directly influenced by “Do not go gentle into that good night,” but many of his songs do follow the villanelle format of a repeating refrain that “Do not go gentle” employs. Are there any songs you can think of that show a direct influence?

      Reply
      • mike
        mike says:

        There was once a film – I guess this goes back 20 or 30 years – about a young woman schoolteacher in a poor American neighbourhood: she has to try and bring back a dead-beat, totally uninterested bunch of teenagers from the edge of boredom and civil strife. She somehow manages to get them interested in poetry and she sets them a project which is to bring together a connection between two Dylans and death. One group of her class (and this was before the internet – so they laboured in the library) works out the connection between Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and ‘Do not go gently…’ I am pretty sure that there was a specific Bob Dylan song that was quoted in the film.

        I have just been given a complete collection (I think) of Bob Dylan songs and I am trying to work out which one it was.

        Reply
        • mike
          mike says:

          OK, I got it: the film was Dangerous Minds made in 1995, with Michelle Pfeiffer. Don’t know which Dylan song it was, though. There is a Wikipedia page about the film and it mentions Dylan Thomas’ poems being used as a teaching medium.

          Reply
        • Shelley S
          Shelley S says:

          The movie is called “Dangerous Minds” Staring Michelle Pfeiffer (1995) And the Teacher is Ex-Marine. And is based on a True Story. In the Movie she gives her students a Dylon-Dylon Contest. To Find the song that Bob Dylon and Thomas Dylon have in common. In other words, find the poem both wrote that is almost identical, not in words but in meaning. SPOILER: Is the “Do not go gently into the Night”.

          Reply
  9. Vanessa Byington
    Vanessa Byington says:

    And all this time I was thinking Michelle Pheifer was the one who made the connection..lol jk but seriously who remembers the movie Dangerous Minds from mid 1990s…that movie was my first exposure to the fact that this poet n rocker actually had any sort of connection whether their name or their lyrics or themes…it’s all very interesting almost makes me wish I had majored in English back in college instead of psychology

    Reply

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