Do 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.
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.