Waiting for the End: Ginsberg, Dylan and the Poetry of Apocalypse

Waiting for the End:

Ginsberg, Dylan and the Poetry of Apocalypse

Laurence Coupe

The English Review, 9, 1 (September 1998), pp. 6-8


Laurence Coupe argues that what Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem ‘Howl’ and Bob Dylan’s lyrics have in common is that they belong to a visionary tradition which goes back to the ancient scriptures.



There are certain parts of the Bible which we call ‘apocalyptic’, from an ancient Greek word which means ‘unveiling’, because they offer to ‘reveal’ the secret of the last days of history. Over the centuries, many poets have been inspired by these writings – most recently the ‘Beat’ poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-97) and the singer Bob Dylan (b. 1941). Ginsberg’s most famous poem, ‘Howl’, uses the long line and expansive rhetoric associated with biblical verse, although he himself was not an orthodox believer. Dylan, while working within the short lyric form associated with secular poetry, has never strayed far from the biblical view of the world — alternating between, and sometimes even fusing, the values of Judaism and Christianity. Thus, we might consider them as two complementary kinds of apocalyptic poets.

Oppressed by Babylon

The most famous apocalyptic work of all is the Book of Revelation, which completes the Christian Bible. But the Judaic scriptures — the ‘Old Testament’ of Christianity — also contain much apocalyptic material. For example, the Book of Isaiah includes a prophecy of the fall of the Babylonian empire, the oppressor of the Israelites. Since Revelation was written much later than Isaiah, at the time of the Roman persecution of the early Christians, ‘Babylon’ is used as a code word for Rome, which in turn is associated with all the forces opposed to Christ himself.

We might take Revelation as representative of the apocalyptic genre. It is written in the form of a vision: the author, known popularly as ‘John the Divine’, claims to have understood God’s hidden plan to bring the present order of things to an end and establish his kingdom. He warns of imminent catastrophe — plague, famine, war, death — but he also promises ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. At first, the forces of evil seem to be triumphing, with ‘that old dragon, Satan’ threatening to devour the male child born to the ‘woman clothed with the sun’. But the boy is rescued, growing up to become the Messiah. As such, he will subdue the dragon and all those who serve it: for example, the ‘harlot’ whose ‘name is Mystery’, living in luxury made possible by the toil of the oppressed, and the ‘beast’ whose ‘mark’ they are forced to wear. Looking forward, John promises the fall of Babylon and, after the final battle on the field of Armageddon, the establishment of God’s city of Jerusalem.

Thus, the apocalyptic vision may be seen as both negative (denouncing Babylon) and positive (announcing Jerusalem). But perhaps the most important thing about an apocalypse is that it should unsettle us: it should throw into doubt everything we have taken for granted. This is not a matter of specific symbols but of a general stance.

A Beat apocalypse

Allen Ginsberg first declaimed his long, visionary poem, ‘Howl’, in San Francisco in 1955, and it was published in Howl and Other Poems the following year. At first, it seems to explore only the negative dimension of apocalypse, and that in its most extreme form: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.’ But when we come to consider its overall structure, we see that there is a definite movement towards spiritual affirmation. We have not only the castigation of Babylon — here closely identified with the materialism of the United States of America — but also the proclamation of a spiritual future. Ginsberg’s three-part poem ends with a ‘Footnote’ which proclaims: ‘Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!’ Significantly, this line is adapted from a work by the unorthodox Christian poet, William Blake (1757-1827), rather than from the Bible itself. Like other Beat writers, Ginsberg was drawn to Buddhism (though he did not commit himself to that practice until the early 1970s), and he wished to avoid being identified with any belief in the God of either the old or New Testament.

Thus, when the ‘best minds’ are referred to, we are not to think of orthodox saints any more than conventional intellectuals. Rather, they are ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’. We may regard them as Beat in two senses (apart from the obvious allusion to the music played in bohemian jazz clubs in the late 1940s and early 1950s). On the one hand, they are ‘dead beat’ or ‘beaten down’, victims of the rule of Babylon. On the other hand, they are ‘beatific’, holding the key to an alternative spirituality beyond the constraints of ‘straight’ America. Both senses are implied in a line near the end of Part I: ‘the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death’.

The monster of the mind

To prevent his rhetoric becoming too diffuse, Ginsberg in Part II of ‘Howl’ uses one dominant image: that of a terrible, devouring god. America/Babylon is depicted as serving ‘Moloch’, whose demand for sacrificial victims is insatiable. Actually, Moloch was a deity sacred to the Ammonites, not the Babylonians, but Ginsberg is only following the example of John the Divine in his creative play with time and place. The transposition works well, with the furnace which consumed the ancient god’s victims being identified with the contemporary military-industrial complex of the United States — the large corporations profiting not only from the exploitation of industrial workers but also from the production of weapons of mass destruction. Hence we read: ‘Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!’ Moreover, he makes it clear that all such barbarism is only made possible because people mentally assent to it. Hence we read: ‘Moloch whose name is the Mind!’ This monster, while being manifested outside ourselves, has its source deep within ourselves.

The alternative to the deadly logic of Moloch is suggested in Part III by the poet’s message of sympathy and solidarity to his friend, detained in a mental hospital near New York: ‘Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland, where you’re madder than I am.’ Here, of course, madness is not an accusation: Ginsberg is praising Solomon for his holy, visionary powers, which Babylon tries to classify and control as ‘insanity’. The positive apocalypse is expressed in the poet’s very expression of love for his friend, and in the affirmation of imagination. But we should note also the persistence of biblical language, albeit dramatically updated, in and among the local references: ‘I’m with you in Rockland, where you will split the heavens of Long island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb.’

‘Howl’, then, is all about the resurrection of the world and of the mind, epitomised by ‘angelheaded hipsters’ who, though themselves ‘destroyed by madness’, find that their lunacy turns out to be ‘holy’ — pointing forward to a new life unimaginable to the inhabitants of Babylon. Following the Bible and Blake, we can call this Jerusalem, or we can simply refer to the closing line of the poem: ‘Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul’.

Songs of ending

Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ uses extended and excessive language, as is appropriate for a poem written to be declaimed in public rather than read in private. Dylan’s poems are also written for performance, but in his case the discipline of the song means that he often uses language in a highly compressed form. Sometimes we may not notice this. When, for example, in ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ (1968), we are told that worldly visions ‘in the final end/Must shatter like the glass’, the word ‘final’ may seem redundant. But Dylan is implying an important distinction: that between a temporary cessation and an ultimate fulfilment. He is, in fact, being very precise, and is trying to stress the second sense, that of apocalypse.

One of Dylan’s most famous songs of ending is ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ (1963). First drafted at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was widely thought to be imminent, it is full of foreboding: ‘I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warning, / Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.’ The language is clearly apocalyptic, but only intermittently derived from the Bible.

However, it was followed shortly by the consistently scriptural vision of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ ‘ (1963; released 1964). Early on identified with the cause of civil rights for black Americans, this song survives for other occasions and causes because it is so firmly rooted in the biblical tradition. Inspired by Isaiah 24.1 (‘Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty … and turneth it upside down’), it uses the symbolism of flood (‘accept it that soon / You’ll be drenched to the bone’) and warfare (‘There’s a battle outside / And it is raging’). Even-handed in his use of Judaic and Christian scripture, Dylan ends with an invocation of the Gospels. In Matthew 19.30 we read: ‘But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.’ Dylan declares: ‘The order is rapidly fading / And the first one now shall later be last.’

Such apocalyptic allusions proved very useful to the early Dylan in his denunciation of injustice and oppression in his contemporary America. But even after rejecting the title of ‘protest singer’, he continued to draw on the biblical language of imminent doom. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (1968) is based on the two different sets of writing which make up the Book of Isaiah. The first set warns of the oppression of Israel by the Babylonians, but also of the demise of the oppressors’ empire: ‘Watch in the watchtower … arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.’ The news of Babylon’s fall will be brought by ‘a couple of horsemen’ seen riding in from the wilderness at the same time as a lion is heard calling. The second set is written after that event, and concerns the attempt to rebuild Israel when the period of oppression is over. Though a stranger ‘shall be your ploughman’, his sons ‘shall not drink your wine’.

Dylan’s song economically fuses the two historical moments to create an overwhelming sense of ‘too much confusion’: ‘Businessmen, they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth,’ even while the ‘princes’ who are keeping watch see ‘Two riders … approaching’ and hear a ‘wildcat … growl’. The general effect is sinister and compelling: America is in the balance, and is being found wanting. It is left to the listener to decide whether the unstated news that the riders bring (‘Babylon is fallen’, in Isaiah) carries with it the positive promise of the divine kingdom. It is as if Dylan is despairing of the United States — which, at the time the song was written, was waging a futile war of obliteration against the people of Vietnam.

Answers and questions

In 1979 Dylan surprised many people by becoming what is called a ‘born-again’ Christian. But as the above evidence indicates, he had always worked within the biblical idiom and had, unlike Ginsberg, frequently appealed to the justice of the father-God worshipped by both Jews and Christians. The difference now was that he seemed to be interpreting the symbolism of the scriptures entirely literally. In doing so, he alienated many of his early admirers, who did not take kindly to being warned, in songs such as ‘Slow Train’ and ‘Precious Angel’ (1979), that they might not find themselves ‘saved’ once the battle of Armageddon had been fought. In another song from the same year, he asked his listeners, in an echo of Revelation: ‘When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?’

However, even here we may note that the wish for an ultimate answer is, paradoxically, expressed in the form of a question. The ‘things that remain’ after hearing many of Dylan’s ‘fundamentalist’ lyrics are not doctrines but feelings, yearnings, doubts. Thus, a song with a title of apocalyptic certainty, ‘When He Returns’ (1979), is actually an exploration of the very disquiet from which the apocalyptic vision springs: ‘How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?/How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?’ And it is this capacity for uncertainty which characterises much of Dylan’s subsequent work.

Most fascinating of all, perhaps, is his long and complex song, ‘Jokerman’ (1983), which concerns both the human need to depict and explain divinity and the difficulties and dangers of doing so. The paradox is focused on the central figure. Who exactly is the character of the title? He may be Jesus (‘Standing on the waters’): but then, his miraculous powers have their demonic aspect (‘Manipulator of crowds’). For in the ‘slippery world’ of this song, nothing is certain. Where we look for a righteous Messiah who will destroy Babylon, we may only see a holy fool, dancing to ‘the nightingale tune’. Meanwhile, we are told: ‘A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet. / He’ll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat, / Take the motherless children off the street / And place them at the feet of a harlot.’

To all this, ‘Jokerman’ does not ‘show any response’. If he is the Christ, why does he not oppose the Antichrist whom Christian legend associates with the ‘beast’ of apocalypse? The song provides no answers to such questions. Rather, it subverts the symbolism of Revelation – for example, making the woman’s child a satanic rather than a sacred prince, born to collude with the ‘harlot’ — in order, perhaps, that we might ponder our own collusion with the rule of Babylon. But then, as we have already noted, that is exactly what the apocalyptic genre is all about. Thus, Dylan’s song, ‘Jokerman’, with the other lyrics we have discussed, may take its place alongside Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in that great visionary tradition of creative challenge which goes all the way back to the Bible.


Further reading:

Laurence Coupe, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat spirit and popular song (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)