Bob Dylan’s date with The Faerie Queene (1596)
BY Harriet Archer, University of St Andrews
While comparisons between Bob Dylan and Shakespeare are commonplace, and Dylan’s lyrics have been profitably read alongside Petrarch, Rimbaud, and others in recent work, this article advances the first sustained analysis of potential Spenserian echoes in Dylan’s oeuvre. Rereading Dylan and Jacques Levy’s southwestern quest ballad “Isis” (Desire, 1976) alongside the “Isis Church” episode in The Faerie Queene (1596), it argues that attention to the song’s resonances with Edmund Spenser’s reworking of the Egyptian Isis Osiris myth sheds light on how both texts engage and subvert the romance mode to theorize historical mimesis and allusion. The texts are understood as parallel articulations of their authors’ analogous archaeological poetics, which foreground their shared responses to intertextuality and colonial encounter.
The poet lives in a daydream that is awake, but above all, his daydream remains in the world, facing worldly things. It gathers the universe together around and in an object. We see it open chests, or condense cosmic wealth in a slender casket. If there are jewels and precious stones in the casket, it is the past, a long past, a past that goes back through generations, that will set the poet romancing … Here the past, the present and a future are condensed. Thus the casket is memory of what is immemorial.
– Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.
Come here you, Set said in his John Wayne voice.
– Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo.
The liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Desire (released January 5, 1976) pose a question, “Where do I begin,” and offer the beginnings of an answer: “on the heels of Rimbaud.” The record is set up as a metaliterary pursuit, from Dylan’s “bathtub in Maine” to “the historical parking lot in sunburned California;” “from Brooklyn to Guam, from Lowell to Durango.” The liner notes assert that “Romance is taking over,” and its songs are readily characterized as preoccupied with romance of various kinds, from “themes of passion, seduction, and, well, Desire” to “the literary form of romance – stories of quests into enchanted worlds and battles against unknowable enemies.” It is striking, however, that critical engagements with the album have not so far explored this characterization in relation to specific manifestations of the form, whether classical, medieval, or modern, and instead maintain a general acceptance that its evocation of travel, mysticism and love has to do only in a loose way with literary romance conventions.
For Timothy Hampton, Desire’s romance rings hollow: Dylan and his collaborator Jacques Levy offer “a set of exotic adventures,” but their quest narratives collapse under the imposition of phony enchantment, “which wants to conjure up magic but constantly calls attention to its own conjuring.” Hampton persuasively suggests that “These songs are caught between, on the one hand, a vision in which all cultural memory … is already a media creation and, on the other hand, a set of tales which longs to deny that fact.”6 However, he goes on to argue that “the album shows the limits of a cultural production that is merely spatial (geography, ethnography) without being truly historical.” This essay contends instead that it is Desire’s engagements with romance as a mode – with the mode’s interests in geography and ethnography – which allow it to comment on what it is to experience and constitute history. Specifically, Desire’s second track, “Isis,” coauthored by Dylan and Levy, is reconsidered in relation to Edmund Spenser’s engagement with that Egyptian goddess in Book 5 Canto 7 of his Elizabethan romance-epic in verse, The Faerie Queene (1596), a poem which, to borrow Gordon Teskey’s assessment, “does not set the past at a theatrical distance but entangles past and present in the signifying procedures of allegory and in the randomizing patterns of narrative romance,” such that romance is used “actually to think about history.”8 In a 1991 interview with Paul Zollo for SongTalk, Dylan describes “Isis” as,
a story that … just seemed to take on a life of its own [laughs], as another view of history [laughs]. Which there are so many views that don’t get told. Of history, anyway. That wasn’t one of them. Ancient history but history nonetheless … it seemed like just about any way it wanted to go would have been okay, just as long as it didn’t get too close.
With Dylan’s play on the layered connotations of “ancient history” in mind, I understand the record as offering a spectrum of mimetic degrees, from the anti textual “One More Cup of Coffee,” fictive “Romance in Durango,” irreverently misdirected “Mozambique,” and oblique “Oh Sister,” to the postmodern “Black Diamond Bay,” revisionist “Hurricane” and “Joey,” and baldly autobiographical “Sara.” These juxtaposed shades of retelling unpick the sociological demands visited on the poet-prophet persona that, by the mid-1970s, Dylan was hard at work to shrug off. But for Desire, romance is not a means of sidestepping the responsibilities of the chronicler, of retreating into digression and dissipation, but of engaging a series of contrasting narrative modes which by turns document and occlude its preoccupations. In this sense, the album anticipates Scott Black’s account of romance as “formed of the seams of time, of temporal knots, loops, or vortices that register and provoke an experience of transhistorical reading,” while foregrounding each song’s distinct approach to historicity.
Where Dylan’s “absolutely modern” electric period was influenced by Rimbaud and Baudelaire’s visionary poetics, and Blood on the Tracks (1975) moves backwards from Rimbaud to Petrarch to repudiate the visionary in favor of love lyric, for Hampton, Desire returns to Rimbaud “not as the rebel poet of the senses … but as adventurer.” The album presents a collage of itinerant, transnational, and transtemporal vignettes, inflected as Hampton notes with ironic disenchantment and an awareness of formal limitation. By contrast with Hampton’s interpretation, though, this essay reads Desire’s play with themes of containment and limitation as a productive reflection on its cognate concerns: genre and adaptation. It suggests that Dylan and Levy’s hallucinatory imaginary finds kinship, in the turn to “short novel[s] in verse,” with Spenser’s own ironic early modern adaptations of medieval and classical romance, and posits a valuable discursive relationship between Dylan and Spenser as artists who both theorize mythopoeic nation-forming and both inaugurated new ages of lyric possibility in their respective cultures. Like T. S. Eliot’s Joyce in “‘Ulysses,’ Order, and Myth,” both “manipulat[e] a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” by adopting what Eliot, in relation to Joyce’s 1922 adaptation of the Odyssey, dubs “the mythical method.” But, rather than following twentieth century Black artists’ subsequent, comparable treatment of the Isis-Osiris myth, in novels such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) which align the legend with Black musical culture, Dylan and Levy’s romance ballad engages with this method on markedly Spenserian terrain.
Dylan and Levy’s “Isis,” and Spenser’s account of his questing knight Britomart’s experiences at “Isis Church,” marry romance’s traffic with displacement, dislocation and untimeliness to explicit scenes of excavation and ethnographic encounter in order to reflect on the intersection of space and place, history and storytelling. These parallel reiterations of the myth, which at once critique and revel in romance tropes, speak to an affinity of structural imagination, rearticulating the received narrative through a punning lexicon of spatial and social relationships. Archetypal relational structures – journey, gender, revelation, and resurrection – are picked up and remade in starkly architectural environmental terms, to make sense of the narrative through position, direction, aspect and containment. In both adaptations of the Isis myth, a hero’s journey through a perilous, imaginary landscape combines focused searching with digressive wandering, and a series of mercurial encounters which pose risk and challenge, and ultimately lead to self-knowledge, providential victory and prodigal return – so far, so faithful to the trope of the romance quest anatomized by theorists like Vladimir Propp, Northrop Frye or, in oppositional vein, Frederic Jameson. Indeed, both Britomart’s quest for her prophesied husband Artegall, and the heroic adventures which populate Desire have been read in terms of archetypes. For Janet Gezari, “Isis” “is about occupying opposing positions or seeking opposite objectives.” Likewise Aidan Day, in the most sustained analysis of the song to date, suggests that as
An image of the union of lover with loved one, of masculine with feminine, of self with soul, it is an image of the suspension of difference between outer and inner, between object and subject. An image of the redemption of self-alienation, it is an image of the assimilation of impurity and incompleteness to ideal form, of complex to archetype.
Looking back on his earlier creative practice, Dylan himself invokes the value of archetypes in his account of anglophone folk music in the provocatively-titled quasi-autobiography Chronicles, Volume One, recalling that “I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity.”
Readings of Dylan and Levy’s “Isis” which have prioritized its symbolism have often done so as part of the late twentieth century scholarly project to ratify Dylan’s status as legitimate literary voice, of which there is now no serious doubt. By writing “Isis” back into the realm of the mythic and archetypal, though, such readings have neglected the song’s own adaptation of the original myth in dialogue with the genre of the western, and its lineage in John Lomax’s collected Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (first published 1910), as well as its contribution to Desire’s prismatic vision of historical mimesis. In Allen Ginsberg’s liner essay “Songs of Redemption,” “One More Cup of Coffee,” tellingly, is identified as “sort of an archetypal song,” whereas Ginsberg notes of “Isis” and “Hurricane,” “I’m in sympathy with them in historical terms.” Closer to the mark, then, is Denning’s observation that “Dylan’s road film [Renaldo and Clara] ended up half roman à clef … and half archetypal fiction,” an assessment echoed in Black’s account of romance itself as “an irresolvably double genre” mediating between fiction and empiricism. “Isis” both embodies this antithesis and contributes to its expression on Desire at large. Spenser’s “Isis Church” episode has been shown to operate in much the same way as part of Book 5’s allegory of Justice, containing both its own topical resonance and a critique of the book’s ostensibly transparent mythic historiography, through its deconstructive reworking of the Isis myth rather than its own aspiration to the mythic. Just as the emphasis on archetypes has been surpassed in Spenser studies, Dylan and Levy’s “Isis” also repays the kind of critical attention which allows Spenser’s dealings with romance to be understood as making specific arguments about the writing of history through their sidelong interrogation of romance conventions, rather than as a pure iteration of the form.
Symbols are key to both works’ approaches to adaptation, but not always as they have been critically apprehended. Hampton dismisses Ginsberg’s “O Generation keep on working!” in Desire’s liner notes as a “nostalgic call to arms:” “Ginsberg was a bit out of touch or behind the times” since, by now, “Dylan had already bundled up the 1960s generation and moved on.” By refocusing understanding of “Isis” through the lens of an early modern engagement with the ancient Egyptian myth, however, it is possible to read the resonance of the symbol not as a retrogressive appeal to Dylan’s late-1960s Symbolist imaginary, but of a piece with “a new age, a new Dylan again redeemed … it’s the real Seventies.” In 1975, Beat poet Diane di Prima added a preface to J. W. Hamilton Jones’s translation of John Dee’s Elizabethan Monas Hieroglyphica, which drew attention to the text’s pictographic “thinking in symbols.” Like Ginsberg, di Prima used this prefatory platform to mount a rallying cry to her contemporaries, demanding that, “We must seek once again to read the direction of the Invisible in its material forms, so as to rescue and redeem the Earth”; “hopefully,” through a process which di Prima calls “creative memory,” “the full meaning of this work will re-surface for us.” Both the “Isis Church” episode and “Isis” use the tropological landscape of romance to enable acts of “creative memory,” sewing their symbols into a visionary narrative which foregrounds the place of mystical interpretation in the reconstruction of the self, through their oblique relationships to their mythic basis.
Whether or not we conclude that Spenser’s poem, the emphasis on early modern mysticism in its mid-century critical reception, or his works’ unexpected traces amongst the American avant-garde, became a part of Dylan and Levy’s esoteric cultural raw material, reading them side by side illuminates the works’ comparable treatment of their shared sources. Judith H. Anderson proposed that Spenser derives from Chaucer his ability “to imbibe” a source’s “spirit without being stagnated by its letter,” and Britomart’s dreamed encounter with the goddess Isis in Book 5 of The Faerie Queene offers a particularly compelling example of this tendency. Dylan and Levy’s “Isis” bears reinterpretation along similar lines. Dylan’s art has been shown to “succeed in looking, Janus-faced, towards a very wide audience on the one hand, while simultaneously inviting a more recherché, specifically literary gaze on the other,” and in recent years, scholars have read Dylan’s lyrics in relation to canonical antecedents including John Milton, Edgar Allen Poe, Joseph Conrad, Jack Kerouac, Petrarch, Rimbaud, and Wallace Stevens; studies of allusions to Walt Whitman and Shakespeare, as well as self-reflexive references to Dylan’s own oeuvre, in Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020), are surely forthcoming. So it is remarkable that Spenser has not featured in such “source studies,” given the strong Spenserian echoes across Dylan’s lyrics. Most explicitly, the eponymous, but forever absent, heroine of Spenser’s Elizabethan romance-epic potentially coexists alongside the more readily inferred Shakespearean referents on Tempest (2012). “It’s soon after midnight,” Dylan sings, “and I got a date with the fairy queen” (916). Dylan’s lyrics are peppered with queens: Mary, Anne, and Jane, gypsy queens, and the card-deck queens of the gambler and the fortune teller, who perhaps make up “All the old queens from all my past lives” in “I Contain Multitudes.” The “fairy queen” of “Soon After Midnight” might be Shakespeare’s Titania or the fairy Queen Mab, but possibly also Spenser’s Gloriana, a colloquial homosexual allusion, or even the poem itself. The song begins in Petrarchan fashion, evoking, too, the Elizabethan sonnet sequences of Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare, whose interest in their female subject is so often secondary to metatextual reflections on their own production: “I’m searching for phrases / To sing your praises” (916). They also, however, recall the opening stanza of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, whose speaker proposes now to “sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds; / Whose prayses [have] slept in silence long” [emphasis added]. Such lexical resonances invite further parallels to be drawn.
Dylan’s mid-1960s lyrics presage the interest “Isis” develops in doubled identities, and historiographical limitations, in startlingly Spenserian terms. “Ballad in Plain D” writes its domestic tension into a romance landscape of fallen queens and kings, battlegrounds, and mysterious allegory, while its doubling of sister and parasite sister picks up the Faerie Queene’s fear of simulacra. Like Spenser’s witch Duessa, Una’s malevolent counterpart in Book 1, the False Florimel of Book 3, a deviant replica of the original, or the text itself which allows Elizabeth I “in mirrours more then one her selfe to see,” the woman who closely resembles Carla Rotolo “reflect[s]” “countless visions of the other,” her sister Suze (156). Louise in “Visions of Johanna” is a benign analogue, who “seems like the mirror,” but like Spenser’s prismatic reflections of Elizabeth I she “makes it all too precise and too clear that Johanna’s not here,” highlighting the song’s absent center (242). The “foggy ruins of time” (184) in “Mr Tambourine Man” cannot help but recall Spenser’s dream vision, The Ruines of Time (1591), where an idling narrator follows a muse-like apparition who, “sorrowfullie wailing,” mourns her lost city and Rome’s lost imperial standing (“Where my high steeples whilom usde to stand…There now is but an heap of lyme and sand”), working with the model of Joachim du Bellay’s Antiquitez de Rome (1558). She anticipates both thematically and lexically the song’s “empire … returned into sand” which “Left me blindly here to stand,” although Dylan’s speaker cautions, “if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme … I wouldn’t pay it any mind” (184), advocating inattention in place of Lady Verlame’s plea for remembrance. As “Tangled Up In Blue” suggests, by the 1970s at least Dylan was aware of the canonical continental writing – “poems … written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century” (480) – which Spenser also knew well. Hampton notes that “when questioned later in an interview about the ‘Italian poet’ Dylan slyly answered, ‘Plutarch. Is that his name?’” Conventionally read as an example of Dylan’s puckish wit and anti-autobiographical evasiveness, the elision of Plutarch and Petrarch is also reminiscent of Spenser’s own framework of analogues, his tendency to provocative errors of allusion, and Britomart’s encounter with the goddess Isis in particular. My aim here is not to make the case that Dylan and Levy had The Faerie Queene in mind when composing their own version of the Isis myth, but rather to posit that the suggestive similarities between the texts speak to a shared response to romance’s historiographical potentialities.
I. “there’s a body I’m trying to find”
The ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, perhaps dating to the Old Kingdom period (conventionally c. 2686–2181 BCE), is notably recorded in the classical tradition in Plutarch’s Moralia (first century CE ) and the Biblioteca Historica of Diodorus Siculus (first century BCE); Isis also appears as a pivotal figure in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (second century CE), translated into English in 1566 as part of the Elizabethan revival of ancient prose romance. In Plutarch’s version of the myth, Osiris has led an esteemed life as king of Egypt, “reducing the whole earth to civility, by … effectuall remonstrances & sweet perswasion couched in songs, and with all maner of Musicke: whereupon the Greeks were of opinion, that he and Bacchus were both one” according to Philemon Holland’s early seventeenth-century translation. He is tricked by Typhon (also known as Seth or Set) into climbing into a burial casket at a banquet; Typhon has it nailed and soldered shut, and hurls it into the Nile. Isis “immediatly cut off one of the tresses of her haire … [and] wandred up and downe in great perplexity” searching for Osiris’s body, eventually finding it inside the coffer, only for it to be cut into fourteen pieces and scattered by Typhon. Later, in some versions, the pieces are gathered and reconstituted to resurrect Osiris as god of death. Osiris’s loss and return are tied symbolically to the Nile’s ebb and flood, and to the turning of the seasons. Isis, Osiris and Typhon are all the children of the earth-god Seb and the sky-goddess Nut, their equivalents Cronos and Rhea according to Diodorus Siculus, or Mercury and Rhea in Plutarch; some accounts suggest that Isis and Osiris’s romantic relationship begins in the womb. Isis approximates Demeter/Ceres, as a goddess of corn, spring and healing, as well as bearing parallels with deities like, among others, the Cretan cult goddess Britomartis.
Since Isis is identified with the moon, the sowing of seeds and the consecration of temples, as well as the recovery of Osiris’s coffer, enclosed spaces recur in her iconography: the Moralia notes that “if we enter into that sacred place and holy religion of this goddesse … we shall atteine to the understanding of all things,” while the priests of Isis are those “that cary in their minde, and keepe enclosed as within a box or casket, the holy doctrine of the gods.” As a result of Isis’s success as a monarch, according to Diodorus, “it was ordained that the queen should have greater power and honour than the king and that among private persons the wife should enjoy authority over her husband” (Bib. Hist. 1.27), an ordination brought to bear on the problematic nexus around Elizabeth I’s royal authority and resolute celibacy in relation to Britomart’s present martial dominance and future marital subordination in Spenser’s epic. The “horned moon-goddess Isis,” and her equivalents Hathor and Astarte, are pivotal to Robert Graves’s account of the divine feminine principle in The White Goddess, a text which, in Chronicles, Dylan describes having read. Graves does not retell the myth of Isis and Osiris directly, but delineates its permutations and parallels amongst British/Celtic legend, notably the echoes of Osiris’s rebirth as Harpocrates or Horus (Isis and Osiris’s child in the classical versions) to take his revenge on Set. The Welsh Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Llew Llaw as Graves has it) likewise emerges re-born from a chest, after the death of his former persona, named, as it happens, Dylan.
Co-written with Levy, like much of Desire, “Isis” riffs on the myth in terms too broad to attribute to an individual source, but with its key building blocks integrated and transposed. The distance between the song’s lyrics and the form of the myth, though, aside from a single reference to the pyramids and the name of its female antagonist (and any resonances we might heed between Isis’s wandering, Dionysian musician husband and the troubadour persona of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue performances), has restricted the critical exploration of its relationship to textual precedents. Indeed, Hampton proposes that “the literary subtext would seem to be Jack London – himself a writer of romance tales in prose – as we meet a hero who leaves the woman he loves in search of adventure in the North.” Without discounting London, it is possible to recenter the story of Isis by considering Spenser’s means of integrating it into his own narrative, as explored below. It is difficult to pinpoint a single convincing reason why Dylan and Levy turned specifically to Egypt in the mid-1970s, although Cleopatra, self-styled new Isis, would have been a prevalent figure in popular culture thanks to the foregoing decade’s spate of classical blockbusters. Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has been shown to adapt the Isis myth in a way which might be presented as comparable to Dylan and Levy’s practice, and was enjoying renewed critical attention in the mid 1970s, although it does not share further similarities with the song.51 It may be a stretch to suggest that the song’s composition was informed by the 1975-76 TV series, The Secrets of Isis, where the discovery of a magical amulet during an archaeological fieldtrip imbues chemistry teacher Miss Andrea Thomas with crime-fighting superpowers, and transplants the goddess to suburban Los Angeles, although as Ginsberg’s esoteric gloss stresses, after Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” in “Song of Myself,” the work “now lets loose his long-vowel yowls & yawps over smalltowns’ antennaed rooftops, To Isis,” perhaps integrating but also transcending contemporary pop cultural reference points.
While a nexus of analogues does coalesce in 1975, it would seem as though Isis’s iconography had been on Dylan’s mind since at least 1974, as the “she” of “Shelter from the Storm” shares many of Isis’s conventional characteristics: for example,“With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair,” she offers shelter to a protagonist who has been “Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn,” two of Isis’s accustomed accouterments (494). Dylan explains to the interviewer Zollo that the name “Isis” was simply “familiar. Most people would think they knew it from somewhere,” and “according to Levy, the Egyptian iconography was mere cover” for the “hills of Wyoming.” Unacknowledged here and in existing criticism, too, though, is a potential debt to Reed’s African-American westerns. In the poems “The Jackal-Headed Cowboy” and “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra” (Conjure, 1972), for example, Reed elides Egyptian myth with a Black reworking of North American settler-colonist narrative and literary canon. These reflect, as I will suggest below that Spenser, Dylan and Levy also do, on “America, the mirage of a / naked prospector, with sand / in the throat.”
In Dylan and Levy’s song, both Isis and her husband the narrator leave, one way or another, after their marriage:
I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her for very long
So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away
To that wild unknown country where I could not go wrong. (516)
He reaches a town where a stranger invites him to join an unspecified expedition; the narrator imagines a search for treasure, but learns that his companion intends to exhume a corpse from “the pyramids all embedded in ice.” As such, the narrator who had been aligned with Osiris by virtue of his status as Isis’s husband takes on Isis’s role in his search for a body, similarly cutting off his hair at the beginning of his journey, in what Day suggests is “a ritualistic act of head-shaving … that implies at once a loss of creative energy and a purification.” But it also carries suggestive echoes of the female lover, Nancy, in the traditional Scots ballad “The Banks of the Nile” (in turn redolent of the cross-dressed Britomart) who proposes disguising herself as a soldier so as to accompany her beloved on his Napoleonic campaign:
Oh, but I’ll cut off my yellow hair,
and I’ll go along with you.
I’ll dress myself in uniform,
and I’ll see Egypt too.
While fighting their way into the pyramid overnight during a storm, the stranger dies. Alone, the narrator “broke into the tomb, but the casket was empty” of both jewels and human remains, so he casts his companion’s corpse into the hole instead, perhaps taking on Typhon/Set’s part in Osiris’s interment. He then rides back to find Isis, and effect the remarriage which hovers beyond the song’s end. Both Dylan and Levy’s, and Spenser’s, dealings with Isis dramatize such ontological uncertainty and delay, in an unwonted Egyptian context.
The listener is shown five aspects of Isis: the elusive bride of the first verse; the partial creature of the singer’s memory (“I still can remember the way that she smiled” / “I still can’t remember all the best things she said”); the goddess-like apparition “there in the meadow where the creek used to rise”; something of an unprepossessing interlocutor in the penultimate verse (“Where ya been?;” “You gonna stay?”); and audience to the final verse’s apostrophe: “oh Isis, you mystical child.” This shifting focalization and the cycling through of reported, free indirect, and direct speech results in a visionary iridescence, highlighted in Ginsberg’s gloss, “Moon Lady Language Creator Birth Goddess. Mother of Ra. Saraswati & Kali-Matoo. Hecate. Ea. Astarte. Sophia & Aphrodite. Divine. Mother,” and recalling Apuleius’s Isis who describes herself as “naturall mother of all things, mistresse and governesse of worlds, chiefe of powers divine, Queene of heaven.” While we do not hear more about Isis’s appearance, this shimmering multiplicity captures Plutarch’s claim that “the habilliments of Isis be of different tinctures and colours: for her whole power consisteth and is emploied in matter which receiveth all formes, and becommeth all maner of things, to wit, light, darknesse, day, night, fire, water, life, death, beginning and end.”
“Isis” sees its speaker undertake a quest cognate with the goddess’s, but crucially finds a casket empty rather than occupied. Critical treatment of the song has read the narrative, compellingly, as a search for the self, in terms also redolent of Street Legal’s “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat),” and its fight “with my twin, that enemy within” (557), making sense of the Osiris persona’s discovery of “his own” casket, although this resolution is not made explicit in such interpretations. Casting the speaker and his companion necessarily as two sides of the same coin, or brothers Osiris and Typhon/Set, though, occludes the significance of Isis and Osiris’s mystical twinning, and Isis’s own “double nature, male and female.” The undercurrents of transvestism and brother-sister incest which resonate with Desire’s “fusion of sister and wife, brother and husband, in ‘O Sister’,” and across the aesthetic of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, where Joan Baez dressed up and performed onstage as Dylan, align further with Spenser’s cross-dressed knight of chastity, Britomart.
II. “you mystical child”
In Spenser’s poem, we first encounter Britomart when she is shown a vision in Merlin’s mirror of her destined husband, the knight Artegall. Like Osiris, Artegall has been tricked, this time by the Amazon Radigund, and has been imprisoned and forced to serve in Radigund’s castle, dressed in women’s clothing. Britomart, consumed by an erotic depression, rides out to search for him, dressed as, and frequently mistaken for, a male knight. She is approached on her journey by a stranger, Dolon, who offers her lodging; where Dylan and Levy’s “man in the corner approached me for a match,” with intimations of romantic pairing, mistaken identity and pugilism, Dolon also “weend, that this his present guest / Was Artegall” (5.6.34), remaking Artegall’s “match” with Spenser’s persistently fiery Britomart on a new semantic level. By chance, she escapes Dolon’s attempt to trap her in his castle’s oubliette under a concealed hole in her bedchamber (5.6.27), and manages to throw him, in turn, into a river (5.6.40), having sought him and his sons through a sequence of empty rooms (5.6.35). Later she arrives at Isis Church – whose presence in the mythical British landscape, and conspicuously Catholic character, go as unexplained as Dylan and Levy’s frozen pyramids – where, exhausted, she sleeps and dreams of a surreal interaction with the temple’s gods, in the midst of “an hideous tempest” (5.7.14), where she takes on the appearance of the goddess herself, and is threatened, then inseminated, by Isis’s crocodile, to conceive a lion child (5.7.16). Her dream is interpreted by one of Isis’s priests as symbolic of her successful, procreative marriage to Artegall, whom she subsequently rescues from Radigund and restores to his former status. This restoration, though, precipitates Artegall’s departure “Vppon his first aduenture, which him forth did call” (5.7.43). As a result, “hoping that the change of aire and place / Would change her paine, and sorrow somewhat ease,” the canto closes as “She parted thence, her anguish to appease” (5.7.45), ending much as the Dylan-Levy song begins, with “a recurrent pattern of separation and return,” elaborated by Scarlet Rivera’s vertiginous violin accompaniment. Interpretation is theorized as the plot unfolds, in markedly distinct terms from the workmanlike topicality of Book 5’s wider allegory, as Britomart is drawn into the “inuent[ed]” (5.7.2) world of Egyptian myth.
Spenser’s Isis is an elusive figure present only in Britomart’s vision at Isis Church, when her dedicated statue, “framed all of siluer fine” (5.7.6), seems to come to life. For Bart van Es, “Isis Church is an exemplary site for the action of allegory … In a manner characteristic of the whole of The Faerie Queene, fictions and histories intertwine to the point where they become almost inseparable.” Spenser does not dwell on the wider context of Isis’s legend, beyond noting that “Isis doth the Moone portend; / Like as Osyris signifies the Sunne” (5.7.4). But as Audrey Shaw Bledsoe first argued in an unpublished 1975 dissertation, Isis’s significance in Spenser’s poem is more than that of an orientalist set piece, and the myth of Isis and Osiris plays out more substantially in the story of Britomart’s quest to find Artegall across Books 3 to 5. The myth’s shape is retraced not in the literal appearance of Isis, but through the two separate sequences which play on themes of loss and restoration, and intermediary chance meetings. Britomart is perhaps named after Britomartis, the Cretan goddess held to be equivalent to the ancient Greek Artemis, Roman Diana, and Isis herself, as well as carrying connotations of a martial Briton, and echoes of Ariosto’s Bradamante. In addition to embodying the goddess as part of her dream, and mirroring her statue’s affective legibility (5.7.17), Britomart is “paralleled with Isis by the purpose of her journey” and, like Isis who epitomizes the union of masculine and feminine, “is both lover and beloved” according to the construction of Spenser’s chivalric world. Building on Bledsoe’s analysis, I would suggest that both Dolon’s oubliette and the church itself function as figures for Osiris’s casket, where Britomart risks being lost and found respectively, such that she, like Dylan’s narrator, synthesizes Isis and Osiris’s roles.
Lexical and thematic reverberations proliferate between the texts’ handling of personal transformations, brought about in the course of quests initiated by estrangement from a – once and future – romantic partner. Britomart, “By change of place seeking to ease her paine” (5.6.15), “streight her selfe did dight, and armor don; / And mounting to her steede bad Talus guide her on” (5.6.17), while Dylan and Levy’s protagonist follows suit, cutting his hair, washing his clothes and leaving on horseback “straight away.” The song’s “place of darkness and light” mirrors Spenser’s depiction of Britomart “Now seeking darkenesse, and now seekinge light” (5.6.14) in the physio-psychological torment of jealousy, fearing that Artegall has been unfaithful with Radigund (as Isis suspects Osiris of infidelity with their sister Nephthys). Just as the song has Isis (or perhaps the narrator) “blinded by sleep,” Britomart “Of sencelesse sleepe did deeply drowned lie,” “After that long daies toile and weary plight” (5.7.12), such that Spenser’s stanza and Dylan and Levy’s verse combine the revocation of sensory perception with their respective visions; an old trope, juxtaposing the loss of sight with vision of another sort. When Britomart finds Artegall, dressed by Radigund in women’s clothes, she asks in more homespun terms, “What May-game hath misfortune made of you?” when, likened to Homer’s Penelope, she sees “her Lord” “Come home to her in piteous wretchednesse, / After long trauell of full twenty yeares, / That she knew not his fauours likelynesse” (5.7.39). The Dylan-Levy speaker, too, Odysseus-like, appears changed at the moment of their reunion, and Isis’s series of questions and combative statements in the penultimate verse (“Where you been?”; “You look different;” “You been gone”) recalls Britomart’s questions of Artegall: “Where is that dreadfull manly looke?” “Could ought on earth so wondrous change haue wrought, / As to haue robde you of that manly hew?” (5.7.40). Spenser is at pains to emphasize how their gender roles switch back the longer Britomart spends in Artegall’s company, and, as Artegall is able to throw off his female clothing, “she reverses his reversal.” The song’s narrator’s dominance over Isis is also reestablished in their final exchange, when her final question, “You gonna stay?,” gives him the last word.
Romance’s characteristic juxtaposition of narrative digression with intensity, or outrage, is brought to the fore by the two works’ parallel climatic diversity. Hanging over Dylan and Levy’s adventure narrative is the “drizzlin’ rain” which concludes the last verse. Discordant in the song’s quasi-Egyptian setting, this meteorological oddity either adds to the off-beat glamor of Isis’s wedding day, emphasized in performance by Dylan’s paradoxically euphoric delivery, or repositions the song in its final words as an act of recall located in a new, atmospherically distinct moment. Its particular quality in Dylan’s song, though, echoes the climate of Spenser’s Cantos 6 and 7, also beset with drizzle: “shady dampe had dimd the heauens reach” (5.6.21), and “the day with dampe was ouercast” (5.7.8). Bledsoe notes that rainfall additionally heralds Britomart’s martial success and rescue of Artegall at the end of Book 4, augmenting her association with the fertility goddess, and, we might add, the seasonal desiccation of desert landscapes:
Like as in sommers day when raging heat
Doth burne the earth, and boyled riuers drie,
A watry cloud doth ouercast the skie,
And poureth forth a sudden shoure of raine,
That all the wretched world recomforteth againe.
So did the warlike Britomart restore
The prize, to knights of Maydenhead that day. (4.4.47-48)
By contrast, the canto’s climax is accompanied by the “hideous tempest” and “stormy stowre,” just as snow and howling wind encircle the song’s central expedition (redolent of the Forty-Niners and their antecedents beset by snow en route to California). For Britomart, the temple of Isis is ignited in her dream by the holy fire of its altar, going up in “outragious flames” (5.7.14); for Dylan and Levy’s narrator it is the snow which is “outrageous.” These oppositional extremes, ice and fire, frame the protagonists’ encounters with their Egyptian monuments, the connotations of excess and externality in tension with the enclosing dimensions of temple and icy carapace. Dylan’s excess is external and played for laughs, while Spenser’s is internal and all the more troubling for its multiple evocations of enclosed space.
Such containment is a pivotal trope in both sequences, as well as key to the “romancing” Gaston Bachelard notes as a function of enclosure in this essay’s epigraph. “Isis” frames the quest story between its two marriages, one past and one anticipated, and two references to the same wedding day, one in the first and one in the final verse, such that its account of the opening of the empty casket is itself enclosed formally. Britomart’s dream vision is embedded within the canto, book, and poem, but also within the structure of the temple, and imagines the conception of her child, the smallest in a sequence of narratological matryoshka dolls. Spenser’s use of “enwombed” to indicate Britomart’s insemination, after the crocodile itself had “deuoure[d] both flames and tempest” and “gan to threaten her likewise to eat” (5.7.15), sharpens the sense of layered containment through its aural proximity to the more conventional “entombed,” while Britomart’s account of the vision in turn renders the temple’s priest “fild with heauenly fury” (5.7.20, emphasis added). This in contrast to Britomart herself, who decides, looking at Isis’s temple, “that she thereon could neuer gaze her fill” (5.7.5), an aside in the stanza’s hexametric final line which restates her subjunctive role as dynastic vessel.
Both texts, then, adumbrate nested fantasies of contents, and both protagonists find themselves dismayed the following morning, awaking from those fantasies. Britomart is troubled by her “uncouth” vision, and Dylan and Levy’s narrator by misguided credulousness: the song punningly echoes Britomart’s dream of consummation, when the narrator claims he “thought [he]’d been had.” Bachelard’s Poetics of Space invites readers to reframe their understanding of containment in language which sheds light on both structures: “Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being. But what a spiral man’s being represents! and what a number of invertible dynamisms there are in this spiral!” Taken as a relational spiral, rather than opposition, the texts’ spatialities further support the holographic identities of their characters, and the varied material of their composition.
III. “I came in from the east with the sun in my eyes”
Among his “panoramic” collaborations with Levy, “Isis” is one of Dylan’s “westerns,” “a distinct musical genre” within Dylan’s oeuvre, prompted by his involvement with Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and his collaboration with the playwright Sam Shepard during the 1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Like Spenserian romance, the western amalgamates narrative and landscape, exploiting the relationship between myth and territory, to situate the song’s happenings at once in a dreamlike utopia, and amid the historical specificity of the nineteenth-century west and Dylan’s own failing marriage to his then wife, Sara. For Katherine Weiss, Shepard and Dylan share an interest in making “familiar sites – historical landmarks that make up the myth of America – mysterious and mythic,” nowhere so clearly as in Dylan and Shepard’s co-written “Brownsville Girl” (Knocked Out Loaded, 1986), which weaves together an account of a half-remembered western movie with the narrator’s own romantic adventures in the American southwest.
But the parallel texts’ adaptive practice more decisively recalls Christopher Hjort and Roger McGuinn’s accounts of Jacques Levy’s composition of Gene Tryp, a reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867) which “transposed the setting to the American Wild West of the 1850s.” Hjort foregrounds the multiplicity of the original in his retelling, citing Ibsen’s “wildly changing backdrop: the Norwegian mountain wilds; the coast of Morocco; the Sahara Desert,” and Peer’s assorted identities: “a fortune hunter, a bridegroom, a seducer, a troll prince, an outlaw, a businessman, a prophet, a Bedouin chief, a historian, and an old man.” McGuinn, similarly, highlights this eclecticism in interviews about the project, telling John Carpenter of The Los Angeles Free Press, for example,
It’s set in the 1800s in the Southwest. It’s about this Bob Dylan-type cat who steals this bride away from this marriage, goes off into the hills, drops her, and finally falls in love with this other girl … He becomes an Elmer Gantry-type preacher, runs for president, goes through all these different scenes.
Levy and Dylan’s interests in accumulative multiplicity and the southwest setting coalesce in “Isis,” which subjects the legend to a comparable process. As in Spenser’s poem, the myth’s components are fragmented and reconfigured, fusing its Egyptian architecture with the monumental geology of the western, and the sociology of the gold rush frontier with biblical cycles of burial and resurrection.
Dylan and Levy’s surreal superimposition of Egyptian mythology onto the mythopoeic landscape of the west, perhaps following Reed in ballad form, readily maps onto Britomart’s encounter with the goddess in the foundational romance-epic of ancient Britain. Both texts play out in a setting that is alien to the protagonist, yet native to its audience, in as much as the environment of the western or romance is aesthetically and generically familiar yet situationally unknown. In this way, both conform to Bakhtin’s “chronotope” of the road, which “passes through familiar territory,” even as the “sociohistorical heterogeneity of one’s own country…is revealed and depicted,” as befits the national myth-making that both poets pioneered.  I want to suggest that this has more to do with the play of narrative frameworks in which Desire as a whole is so invested, than with the allure of romantic topography alone: drawing on Bachelard’s proposition in the Poetics of Space that “we think we know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being’s stability…. In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time,” we may find compressed in Spenser, Dylan and Levy’s spaces their play with styles of retelling, where Bachelard’s “alveoli,” cavities or pockets in biological structures like the lungs, again captures the centrality of containment and enclosure to the workings of each of their journeys.
Mark Sutton describes Dylan’s early songs as operating within an “unstable … epic landscape,” and claims that Dylan “is emphatically a rider,” transforming the landscape as he moves through it. In “Isis” the narrator, transformed himself, is literally a rider: of ponies, not motorcycles, boxcars or semi cabs, although Ginsberg elides these tropes when his liner essay claims that “Old bards & Minstrels rhymed their years’ news on pilgrimage road – Visitations town to town singing Kings’ shepherds’ cowboys’ & lawyers’ secrets.” Ginsberg’s list, and its evocation of The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), in which kings’, shepherds’ and lawyers’ stories told aloud during a pilgrimage provide the vehicle for Chaucer’s capacious poetics and metatextual critique of narrative modes (not least the ironic pseudo-romance tale of Sir Thopas with its elusive elf-queen), in turn underlines Levy’s use of the romance mode to transpose eclectic but specific historical fragments, embedded in Desire’s sequence of assorted narratological experiments. Like Sir Thopas, and Spenser’s questing knights at their most hapless, Dylan and Levy’s narrator parodies his antecedents in epic and romance as the song takes aim at topographical allegory literalized in “the dividing line … through the center of town,” while potentially invoking the serious shadow of historical segregation.
Sutton locates the origins of Dylan’s 1960s highways in Whitman and Emerson, and the nation-building of the Puritan settler colonists, but “Isis” has its roots more securely in the cattle trading and gold mining frontiers of the cowboy ballads. Those songs tell stories of life on the trail, frequently punctuated by dramatic weather events, tensions between static domesticity and rootless masculine individualism, lonely graves, and failed prospecting. It seems clear that Dylan and Levy draw on this tradition here and elsewhere, but what is particularly striking is the writing of chivalric romance into the characterization of these songs and their protagonists by the Lomaxes’ editorial commentary, and even in some of the songs themselves: the hero of “The Cowboy and his Love” is a “knight of the saddle leather,” while John Lomax draws comparisons between the cowboy and King Arthur, calling the former “truly a knight of the twentieth century.” Throughout, the mythic Englishness of the ballads themselves is emphasized. The notoriously extractive Lomax notes that the cowboy songs “brought the gallantry, the grace, and the song heritage of their English ancestors”; and taking a more ostentatiously white-imperialist line, “Out in the wild, far-away places of the big and still unpeopled West … yet survives the Anglo-Saxon ballad spirit.” In these terms, the evident debts of “Isis” to the cowboy ballads in fact shore up its generic affinity with Spenser’s romance-epic, and allow the song’s own assimilation of colonial assault as literary allusion to be thrown into sharper relief.
Arguably carried along in the same inexorable current of the translatio imperii from the ancient Mediterranean empires to Renaissance England to colonial Ireland and the American frontier, Spenser and Dylan-Levy’s spaces can therefore be read as both generative symbolic landscapes which mythologize their nations’ histories, and very real coordinates on the same map of Anglo expansionism, which subsume their cultures’ colonial violence against Native Americans into confrontations with north African iconography. Richard Brown notes insightfully that “Dylan’s ‘roadmaps for the soul’ … enter a critical dialogue with the post-modern world and its phenomena of mediatedness by spectacle and simulacrum.” However, the dazzle of postmodern arbitrariness distracts from the specific valency of the southwest’s material history, with which “Isis” obliquely engages, when Brown argues that “Isis”’s locations “have the character of a Gothic or medievalised Tolkienian landscape of fantasy.” The archetypes brilliantly anatomized in Day’s analysis of the song, which sees “the much-prized attributes of the heroic ego … stripped to expose an aggressive, imaginatively barren and ultimately life-denying acquisitiveness,” may be said to speak directly to the clash between the frontier’s mythos and reality, effecting a historiographical, not a mythographical, intervention. In Spenser’s Isis Church, too, the impact of the scene’s allusive collage is to bury the real plunder of the colonized west, whether Ireland or America, by combining European romance tropes with the appropriated otherness of the east, split off from its own originary significance. These stories’ assemblages of literary and material spoils expose how the “adventure” fundamental to romance reproduces the accumulation of capital.
Imperial acquisition transposed onto an ancient context renders its treasure-gathering archaeological, a move which foregrounds the slippage across the colonial and curatorial, while occluding the history of enslavement, human trafficking and Black objectification which this nexus of tropes works to center in Reed’s hands. “Isis” reveals the queasy overlap between archaeology and grave robbing tacitly posited here, just as Chronicles would later voraciously recount the contents of Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel’s apartment: “There were other things laying around that would catch your eye – chalk sketches of Ferraris and Ducatis, books about Amazon women, Pharaonic Egypt, photo books of circus acrobats, lovers, graveyards.” The narrator of “Isis” lists the eye-catching loot he imagines ahead of him (“I was thinking about turquoise, I was thinking about gold / I was thinking about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace”), like Spenser’s Britomart, who “ioyed to behold / Her selfe, adorn’d with gems and iewels manifold” in her dream, both reveling in the imagined acquisitive pay-off latent in their wandering. The song’s turquoise, gold and diamonds elide southwestern and Meso-American territories and layer Egyptian myth with echoes of the gold rush, the European invasion of the Americas and the Spanish Entrada into New Mexico, while Spenser’s Isis establishes its own tensions between ancient, recent and current material cultures. The Protestant hero Britomart observes imagery and artifacts inappropriate to post-Reformation devotional practice in the idol’s temple (5.7.9-10), and in doing so identifies Catholicism with the “fayned,” “Old Ægyptian” religion (5.7.2), as well as figuring the cultural dislocation of colonial encounter. Spenser’s writing itself has been understood in terms of the poetics of ruins, or of the archivist, and a similar aesthetics of allusion may be employed to describe the claim in Chronicles that “There was no noise in Ray’s place … only a graveyard silence and I’d always return to the books…dig through them like an archaeologist.” In addition to modeling the assimilation of colonial plunder to an archaeological poetics, though, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Dylan-Levy “Isis” plunder not only antiquity’s textual artefacts, but also its models of adaptation and generic play. If we understand the excavated artefact as a metaphor for the mechanism of literary allusion, the empty casket in “Isis” comes to read like a metaliterary joke, of a very Spenserian kind.
IV. “things will be different the next time we wed”
On December 4, 1975, Dylan opened his performance of “Isis” at Montreal with the words, “this is a song about marriage.” The claim is a piece of serio ludere, wryly acknowledging the audience’s appetite for confessional, and its own ironic inadequacy. This final section will consider the centrality of marriage to both Isis narratives, and how their authors’ negotiations of romance tropes put pressure on the ways in which a text may be “about” its subject. Like Dylan and Levy’s song about marriage, Spenser’s reworking of the Isis-Osiris myth also sets out “to symbolize the right relationship between man and wife,” and Spenser, Dylan and Levy compound the goddess Isis’s iconographic freight with layers of esoteric reinforcement, revivifying the number symbolism familiar from romance emblems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s pentangle with recently published (or re-published) mystical lore. Day expands on the numerological import “of the fifth day of the fifth month of the Gregorian calendar”:
associated with the universal figure of the Great Goddess … five is also the mystic number of the hieros gamos, the archetypal Sacred Marriage of Heaven and Earth, the fruitful union of opposites, of sun and moon, of male and female principles.
As such, the date contains “an image of a state of completed desire, of wholeness, of unified personality … though such a motif … far from controls the range of signification in the lyric.” The song’s allusive vocabulary encompasses the unification of personalities but also of bodies, through marriage and sex as well as onomastically and anatomically. In the mid-1970s, for example, Dylan draws attention to the incestuous dynamics of romantic partnerships, claiming “I still believe she was my twin” in “Simple Twist of Fate” (482), and noting that Sara Dylan “has the same last name as Bob Dylan, but we may not be related.” The Faerie Queene stresses the familial bond between the sun and moon, twins “sprong … in womb of Chrysogone” (3.11.9), and Artegall and Britomart’s comparable pairing. Spenser may well have had John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in mind in his conception of Britomart’s mystical merging with Isis, and its foreshadowing of her marital union with Artegall, since he places Britomart’s visionary transformation in the canto’s Stanza 13, echoing the union of the soul with the moon as expressed in Dee’s thirteenth theorem. We can only speculate as to whether Dylan and Levy had sight of the 1975 edition of Dee which bore di Prima’s preface, perhaps via her Naropa University colleague Ginsberg, but it is also the thirteenth verse of their song which contains the narrator’s apostrophe to Isis, “you mystical child / What drives me to you is what drives me insane.” Here, the antanaclastic repetition of “drives” captures the song’s circularity, reflecting the “out-and-back” structure of the romance quest, its foundation in seasonal cycles, and the etymological basis of the lover’s lunacy in the cyclical phases of the moon.
However, while representing a union of masculine and feminine, Isis is also associated with bifurcated femininities; as Dave Marsh has it in his 1976 review of Desire for Rolling Stone, “‘Isis’ is on one of its several levels a sendup of the whole bitch/angel routine.” The goddess Isis mirrors Nephthys, the sibling with whom she suspects Osiris has been unfaithful, just as Britomart and Radigund are, in Katherine Eggert’s words, “scarcely distinguishable … Britomart’s task is, evidently, to subdue herself.” Britomart also acts as a counterpoint to Book 5’s Mercilla, another cipher for Elizabeth I and the center of the book’s most transparent allegory of justice, shadowing Elizabeth’s dealings with her own Scottish counterpart, Mary Stuart, in the baldest of terms, where Isis’s numinous allegory of equity is stripped away in favor of the personified “Iustice,” who “charged [Duessa] with breach of lawes” (5.9.44). While these layered pairings evince the formative freight of Isis’s double signification across the structure of Book 5, the stylistic, methodological opposition between Spenser’s treatment of Britomart as against Mercilla has laid the poem open to accusations of aesthetic collapse. I would like to situate Eggert’s response to these claims, that “we should see Book 5’s historical allegory … as an experiment whose failure is allowed to stand for all failures to impose univocal meanings upon complicated poems” alongside Marsh’s observation that Desire “only falters, in fact, when it attempts to write or rewrite real history,” in order to consider the relationship between “Isis” and the record’s final track, “Sara.”
Hampton calls “Isis” “the mythic counterbalance to ‘Sara,’” highlighting the former’s opposition to the stark, poignantly quotidian detail of the latter, another song about marital separation. However, this is to downplay the mysticism of “Sara” itself, and its participation in the tension between history and romance sketched out across the album at large. Where Isis is a “mystical child,” Sara is “mystical wife,” “radiant jewel,” and “Scorpio Sphynx” (530), emphatically reintegrating “Isis”’s esoteric tenor in an explicitly autobiographical setting; “glamorous nymph with an arrow and bow” adds the iconography of Artemis/Diana, or an Amazon warrior, in parallel to Britomart’s double in the Amazon Radigund. So, “Sara” cannot be said to renounce romance or the mythic; rather it turns these devices to the service of true, instead of fictive, history. However, the song seems willfully to pit autobiographical detail against metrical decorum, as in the overcrowded meter of,
Sleepin’ in the woods by a fire in the night
Drinkin’ white rum in a Portugal bar
Them playin’ leapfrog and hearin’ about Snow White
You in the marketplace in Savanna-la-Mar.
Real life cannot, it seems to insist, be committed to lyric; romance strains against the formal limitations of the song, and its circumstances. It is in this respect, I would argue, that “Sara” counterbalances “Isis,” presenting a failed biography whose romantic motifs are persistently out of sync with the song’s resolute rhythm, where the historical romance (and metrical organization) of “Isis” succeeds. In the same way, the adherence in “Sara” to postcard detail and emotional transparency confounds its legibility. The juxtaposition of “wherever we travel we’re never apart” with “don’t ever leave me / don’t ever go” in “Sara” does not restate but rather fumbles the point made by “Isis” about the mystical twinning of marital partners, and while Sara gives the speaker “a map and a key to your door,” the hermeneutic clarity for which these questing tools seem to stand remains, paradoxically, out of reach for the song’s audience, by contrast with the rich, multiple symbolism of “Isis”’s esoterica.
“Sara” must also be a song about marriage, but here the discourse of romance shuts down rather than opening up its mimetic potential, and instead marshals aesthetic failure to stand in for the limits of representation and reading. Just as Spenser’s Britomart and Isis provide a more potent interrogation of equity in their elision of history, mysticism and legend, “Isis” and “Sara,” heard together, point up the affective impact of history’s imaginative reworking through the adaptive technologies of what romance has come to mean.
Unlike the “embedded quotation” found in Dylan’s later work, “Isis” does not allude conclusively to Spenser. However, if we hear “Isis” as a visionary reworking of the story that Spenser also retells, the song comes close to the spirit in which Spenser’s text responds to the Isis myth, bringing together Dee, Apuleius and Plutarch in a visionary miasma which is nonetheless structurally precise. Reading either quest as an escapist experiment obscures the precision of their operation within romance’s acknowledged usefulness as a tool for meta-historiographical insight, and the texts’ parallel articulations of their authors’ analogous archaeological poetics. In their recourse to romance, Spenser, Dylan and Levy’s Isis episodes bear out Bachelard’s injunction that in order to address a narrative’s historicity, “Each one of us, then, should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside benches; each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows.” In its non sequitur, “I said, ‘Where are we goin’?’ He said we’d be back by the fourth,” the song encapsulates this essentially romantic entanglement of space and time.
I would like to thank Raphael Falco and my anonymous readers for their helpful suggestions for revision. I am also very grateful to Matthew C. Augustine, Abe Davies, Seamus Perry, Giulio J. Pertile, Neil Rhodes, and J. W. Hanson for their support of this project and comments on earlier drafts, as well as to the staff at the Norlin Library, University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Beat Book Shop, Boulder CO, for accommodating some esoteric enquiries.
 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (London: Penguin, 1964), 105.
 Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (London: Penguin, 2017 ), 166.
 Bob Dylan, Desire (1976), liner notes, in Bob Dylan, The Lyrics, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Simon and Schuster, 2004; 2014 edition), 512. All citations of Dylan’s lyrics before 2020 are taken from this edition, and page numbers are indicated in the main text.
 Timothy Hampton, Bob Dylan: How the Songs Work (New York: Zone Books, 2019), 144.
 Hampton, Songs, 146-147.
 Hampton, Songs, 152.
 Hampton, Songs, 152.
 Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 330-31. All citations from The Faerie Queene are from Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (Harlow: Longman, 2001); book, canto and stanza numbers are indicated in the main text.
 Interview with Paul Zollo, SongTalk (1991), in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, ed. Jonathan Cott (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006; 2017 edition), 389-413, at 405-6.
 Scott Black, Without the Novel: Romance and the History of Prose Fiction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019), 1.
 Timothy Hampton, “Absolutely Modern: Dylan, Rimbaud, and Visionary Song,” Representations 132 (2015): 1-29; Hampton, Songs, 145.
 Allen Ginsberg, “Songs of Redemption” (1975), https://allenginsberg.org/2016/08/allen-ginsberg-on-bob-dylans-desire-2/, last accessed 18/10/21.
 T. S. Eliot, ““Ulysses,” Order, and Myth,” in Frank Kermode (ed.), Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 1975), 177; 178.
 See Teskey, Moments, 331; Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2004), 40.
 See also Dore J. Levy, “Female Reigns: The Faerie Queene and the Journey to the West,” Comparative Literature, 39, no. 3 (1987): 218–36; D. A. Carpenter, “Restless Epitaphs: Revenance and Dramatic Tension in Bob Dylan’s Early Narratives,” in Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, ed. Nduka Otiono and Josh Toth (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 37.
 Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), 98-100. See also Jeff Dolven, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), especially Ch. 2; Andrew King, The Faerie Queene and Middle English Romance: The Matter of Just Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
 Janet Gezari, “Bob Dylan and the Tone Behind the Language,” Southwest Review, 86, no. 4 (2001): 480–99, at 489.
 Aidan Day, Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 42.
 Dylan, Chronicles, 236.
 Allen Ginsberg, cited in Michael Denning, “Bob Dylan and Rolling Thunder,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, ed. Kevin J. H. Dettmar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 28-41, 38.
 Denning, “Rolling Thunder,” 40; Black, Without the Novel, 8-9.
 Katherine Eggert, Showing Like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 49.
 See, for example, Harry Berger, “‘Kidnapped Romance’: Discourse in The Faerie Queene,” in Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance, ed. George M. Logan and Gordon Teskey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 208-256, at 235-236.
 Timothy Hampton, “Tangled Generation: Dylan, Kerouac, Petrarch, and the Poetics of Escape,” Critical Inquiry, 39, no. 4 (2013): 703–31, at 730.
 Ginsberg, “Redemption.”
 Diane di Prima, preface, in John Dee, Monas Hieroglyphica, ed. J. W. Hamilton Jones (1975), .
27 See, for example, Blossom Feinstein, “The Faerie Queene and Cosmogonies of the Near East,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 29, no. 4 (1968): 531–50; Giulio J. Pertile, “Ashbery’s Pastoral Art,” The Yale Review, https://yalereview.yale.edu/ashberys-pastoral-art, last accessed 1 March 2018.
 Judith H. Anderson, “‘Myn Auctour’: Spenser’s Enabling Fiction and Eumnestes’ ‘immortal scrine’,” in Unfolded Tale, ed. Logan and Teskey, 16-31, at 31. Alice Miskimin, “Britomart’s Crocodile and the Legends of Chastity,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 77, no. 1 (1978): 17–36, at 32-33. See also A. C. Hamilton, “Spenser’s Treatment of Myth,” English Literary History 26, no. 3 (1959): 335–54, at 335
 See Andrew Muir, Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing of It (Red Planet Books, 2019), 229; also Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture (Farnham: Routledge, 2014), 188; Seth Rogovoy, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (New York: Scribner, 2009), 6; Christopher Rollason, ““Tell-Tale Signs” – Edgar Allan Poe and Bob Dylan: Towards a Model of Intertextuality,” Atlantis 31, no. 2 (2009): 41–56.
 Aidan Day, “Satan Whispers: Bob Dylan and Paradise Lost,” The Cambridge Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2010): 260–80, at 279; Rollason, “Intertextuality;” Allan H. Simmons, “‘Read Books, Repeat Quotations’: A Note on Possible Conradian Influences on Bob Dylan’s ‘Black Diamond Bay’,” The Conradian 20, no. 1/2 (1995): 103–8, Jim Salvucci, “Bob Dylan and Wallace Stevens in Conversation,” Dylan Review, no. 3 (2021); Raphael Falco, No One to Meet: Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2022).
 See Muir, Dylan and Shakespeare, especially 279-352.
 Bob Dylan, “I Contain Multitudes,” Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia Records, 2020).
 See Hampton, “Tangled Generation,” at 724.
 Edmund Spenser, “The Ruines of Time,” in The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 225-261, at 233, 238.
 See also Ayesha Ramachandran, “Spenser’s Petrarch,” Spenser Studies 30 (2020): 205-214.
 “Italian Poet,” Expecting Rain, expectingrain.com/dok/who/who.html, cited in Hampton, “Tangled Generation,” at 716.
 The slippage also potentially hints etymologically at the shifting import of the source material from foundation stone to cash cow.
 Plutarch, Moralia, trans. Philemon Holland (London: Arnold Hatfield, 1603), 1292-1295.
 Plutarch, Moralia, 1292. See Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), 187.
 See Stella P. Revard, “Isis in Spenser and Apuleius,” in Tales Within Tales: Apuleius Through Time, ed. Constance S. Wright and Julia Bolton Holloway (New York: AMS Press, 2000), 107-122, at 109.
 Plutarch, Moralia, 1293. See also Diodorus Siculus, Bib. Hist. 1.22.
 James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, ed. Robert Fraser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 362.
 See Robert Viking O’Brien, “Astarte in the Temple of Venus: An Allegory of Idolatry,” Studies in Philology 96, no. 2 (1999): 144–58, at 146-47.
 Plutarch, Moralia, 1288. Cf. Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, 182: “He fished her temple good. She showed him all her rooms.”
 See Eggert, Showing, 40-41.
 Graves, White Goddess, 98, 267; Dylan, Chronicles, 45.
 Graves, White Goddess, 312. In the Mabinogion tale “Math fab Mathonwy,” Dylan ail Don and Lleu are twin brothers.
 On Levy’s co-authorship see Day, Jokerman, 176.
 Hampton, Songs, 152.
 Interviews with Dylan also illustrate his preoccupation with the Egyptian contralto Umm Kulthum, of whose death in February 1975 he seems to have been keenly aware: see for example, interview with Ron Rosenbaum, Playboy (March 1978) Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, ed. Jonathan Cott (New York, 2006; 2017 edition), 214-250, 228.
 See Tina Barr, ““Queen of the Niggerati” and the Nile: The Isis-Osiris Myth in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Journal of Modern Literature 25, no. 3/4 (2002): 101-113. Their Eyes would be reprinted in 1978, following a dedicated Hurston seminar at the 1975 meeting of the Modern Language Association; see Hazel V. Carby, “The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston,” in New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God, ed. Michael Awkward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 71-93.
 Day, Jokerman, 42-48; Ginsberg, “Redemption;” cf. Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (London: Harper Collins, 2017), 102.
 Essential Interviews, ed. Cott, 406; John McCombe, “Bob Dylan’s ‘Westerns:’ Border Crossings and the Flight from ‘the Domestic’,” in Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, ed. Nduka Otiono and Josh Toth (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 121-140, at 135.
 Ishmael Reed, “The Feral Pioneers,” in New and Collected Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1989), 13-14 at 13.
 Day, Jokerman, 38.
 The song was performed by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger on Classic Scots Ballads (1956), and Sandy Denny on Fotheringay (1970). A version appears in Bothy Songs and Ballads, ed. John Ord (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1930), 298.
 See Teskey, Moments, 439; 442. Suggestively, Teskey wonders of the Faery Queen, “Perhaps she is an African queen and painted up in whiteface” (441), as Dylan was for many of his Rolling Thunder Revue performances. See also Day, Jokerman, 43.
 Ginsberg, “Redemption;” Apuleius, The Golden Ass, quoted in J. David Macey, ““Fowle Idolatree” and Fair: Apuleius and the Idol of Isis Church,” Comparative Literature Studies 36, no. 4 (1999): 279–93, at 282; Graves, White Goddess, 67-68.
 Plutarch, Moralia, 1318.
 Hampton, Songs, 153-54; Day, Jokerman, 41.
 Plutarch, Moralia, 1304. See also Day, Jokerman, 41.
 Denning, “Rolling Thunder,” 39. See also Macey, “Fowle Idolatree,” at 281.
 See Artegall and Britomart’s contest, 4.6.18.
 See James E. Phillips, “Renaissance Concepts of Justice and Structure in The Faerie Queene, Book V,” Huntington Library Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1970): 103-120, at 113.
 Day, Jokerman, 45; see also 68.
 See Miskimin, “Crocodile,” at 19. See also René Graziani, “Elizabeth at Isis Church,” PMLA 79, no. 4 (1964): 376–89.
 See Jill Delsigne, “Reading Catholic Art in Edmund Spenser’s Temple of Isis,” Studies in Philology 109, no. 3 (2012): 199-224, at 214.
 Bart van Es, Spenser’s Forms of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 125; see also Carol A. Stillman, “Isis, Osiris,” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton et al. (Toronto, 1990), 407; A. C. Hamilton, “Spenser’s Treatment of Myth,” English Literary History 26, no. 3 (1959): 335–54, at 352.
 Audrey Shaw Bledsoe, “Spenser’s Use of the Myth of Isis in The Faerie Queene” (PhD diss., Emory University, 1975). See also Revard, “Isis in Spenser,” 118.
 See Solinus, ix.8; Judith H. Anderson, “Britomart,” in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton et al. (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1990), 113-115, at 113; Miskimin, “Crocodile,” at 21-22 and passim. See also Clifford Davidson, “Isis Church,” in Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. Hamilton et al., 407-8.
 Bledsoe, “Isis,” 50; 54.
 Britomart also notably spends time in her father’s closet, at 3.2.22.
 Levy, “Female Reigns,” at 225.
 See also Denning, “Rolling Thunder,” 30-31.
 Bledsoe, “Isis,” 66.
 Cf. Mark Sutton, “‘Roadmaps for the Soul’: History and Cartography in Bob Dylan’s Early Songs,” Australasian Journal of American Studies 28, no. 1 (2009): 17-33, at 32-3.
 See Delsigne, “Catholic Art.”
 Bachelard, Space, 228-29.
 See also Bachelard, Space, 231.
 Essential Interviews, ed. Cott, 405; McCombe, “Westerns,” 122.
 See, for example, van Es, Forms of History, 59-77.
 Katherine Weiss, “‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard and the Question of American Identity,” in Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, ed. Nduka Otiono and Josh Toth (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 101-120, at 105.
 Christopher Hjort, So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star: The Byrds Day-by-Day 1965-1973 (London: Jawbone Press, 2008), 200.
 Hjort, Byrds, 200.
 Roger McGuinn cited in Hjort, Byrds, 200.
 See Tamsin Badcoe, Edmund Spenser and the Romance of Space (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), 148.
 M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas, 1981), 245. See also Eduard Vlasov, “The World According to Bakhtin: On the Description of Space and Spatial Forms in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Works,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 37, no. 1/2 (1995): 37-58, at 55.
 Bachelard, Space, 30.
 Sutton, “Roadmaps,” 19; 24. See also Sally Bayley, Home on the Horizon: America’s Search for Space from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), p. 18.
 Ginsberg, “Redemption.”
 Sutton, “Roadmaps,” 20. See also Frank Kermode and Stephen Spenser, “The metaphor at the end of the funnel,” in The Dylan Companion: A Collection of Essential Writing About Bob Dylan, ed. Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman (New York, 1990), 155-162, at 159-60.
 See McCombe, “Westerns,” 136. See, for example, “The Stampede,” in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, Revised and Enlarged, ed. John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax (New York, 1934), 100-101; “The Trail to Mexico,” 55; “Cowboy Jack,” 230; “Lone Star Trail,” 22; “The Dreary Black Hills,” 374; “The Fools of Forty-Nine,” 382. Cf. Paul Hodson, “Bob Dylan’s Stories About Men,” in The Dylan Companion: A Collection of Essential Writing About Bob Dylan, ed. Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman (New York, 1990), 183-189, at 184.
 Anon., “The Cowboy and his Love,” in Cowboy Songs, 313; John A. Lomax, “Collector’s Note,” in Cowboy Songs, xxix.
 John A. Lomax, “The Editor Again,” in Cowboy Songs, xv; xxviii.
 John A. Lomax, “Collector’s Note,” in Cowboy Songs, xviii; xxv.
 Richard Brown, “Highway 61 and Other American States of Mind,” in Do You, Mr Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, ed. Neil Corcoran (Vintage, 2002, 2017 edn.), 195-97.
 Brown, “States of Mind,” 213.
 Sutton, “Roadmaps,” 22; Day, Jokerman, 41.
 Walter S. H. Lim, “Figuring Justice: Imperial Ideology and the Discourse of Colonialism in Book V of The Faerie Queene and A View of the Present State of Ireland,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 19, no. 1 (1995): 45–70, at 67. See also Badcoe, Romance of Space, 4; 152.
 See Black, Without the Novel, 10-11.
 See Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones], Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper Collins, 1963; 2002 edition), 16.
 See Nicholas Roe, “Playing Time,” in Do You, Mr Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, ed. Neil Corcoran (Vintage, 2002, 2017 edn.), 81-104, at 86; Dylan, Chronicles, 41.
 See Day, Jokerman, 47.
 See D. Douglas Waters, “Spenser and the “Mas” at the Temple of Isis,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 19, no. 1 (1979): 43-53; Delsigne, “Catholic Art.” Cf. Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, 194: “1 of the brothers told us 1 night that even the Catholic Mass was based upon a Black Egyptian celebration.”
 Dylan, Chronicles, 39-40. See Harry Berger, Resisting Allegory: Interpretative Delirium in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, ed. David Lee Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 18.
 See A. E. B. Coldiron, “How Spenser Excavates Du Bellay’s “Antiquitez;” Or, The Role of the Poet, Lyric Historiography, and the English Sonnet,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 101, no. 1 (2002): 41–67, at 43.
 J. H. Walter, “Further Notes on the Alterations to the Faerie Queene,” Modern Language Review 38, no. 1 (1943): 1-10, at 4 n. 3.
 Day, Jokerman, 37. See also McCombe, “Westerns,” 134, on the significance of Cinco de Mayo.
 Day, Jokerman, 38. See also McCombe, “Westerns,” 137.
 Essential Interviews, ed. Cott, 193.
 Delsigne, “Catholic Art,” 219. See also Kent R. Lehnhof, “Incest and Empire in the ‘Faerie Queene’,” English Literary History 73, no. 1 (2006): 215–43, at 228.
 Marsh, “Desire,” Rolling Stone, March 11 (1976), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/desire-255500/, last accessed 18/10/21.
 Eggert, Showing, 41. See also Teskey, Moments, 436.
 See Eggert, Showing, 49; Marsh, “Desire;” see also Brown, “States of Mind,” 193.
 Hampton, Songs, 152; see also Richard Brown, “States of Mind,” 213. Cf. Day, Jokerman, 48.
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