“‘Unheard Melodies’: Ekphrasis and Possible Gaze in Dylan’s Lyrics.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Raphael Falco, University of Maryland


In recent decades, Dylan has exhibited his painting and sculpture at major venues around the world. But this efflorescence of artistic production shouldn’t come as a surprise. The 1973 publication of Writings and Drawings indicated that he’d always sketched, and by Dylan’s own assessment, his painting lessons with Norman Raeben in 1974 had a significant influence on his songwriting. The intensity – and success – with which Dylan “performs” in the visual arts should encourage us, in turn, to focus on passages in his songs where he describes or discusses works of visual art.


These passages – which, in critical terminology, would be called ekphrases – are often brief, but they inevitably reveal a valuable relationship between the work of art and the observer. That relationship is based on what I will refer to in this paper as “possible gaze” – specifically, Dylan’s lyrical awareness in describing visual artifacts that every description is an interpretation and every interpretation is conditional, inevitably to be superseded by the next one.


The term ekphrasis has a long history as a rhetorical figure. During the Greco-Roman period ekphrasis referred to any sort of discrete description of things appearing within different forms of discourse, from narrative poetry to formal argument. Renaissance authors inherited this broad definition of ekphrasis and, gradually, the notion of “verbal pictorialism” developed from it. Christopher Johnson explains the use of the term this way:


An “ornamental digression that refuses to be merely ornamental,” ekphrasis often provides a “rival narrative” that sets image and word at odds, partially because the static, spatial nature of the image tends to forestall the passage of narrative time…The mimesis of a mimesis, ekphrasis generally suspends narrative time and flow, as the reader’s attention is redirected towards a physical object, whose connection with the narrative, at first glance, is only ornamental.[1]


If we think of ekphrasis as what Johnson calls a “mimesis of a mimesis,” then the idea of an ornamental digression inevitably expands into something much more than simply a rhetorical ornament.


In fact, “things have changed.” In today’s literary-critical terminology the term ekphrasis refers almost exclusively to descriptions of art in poetry or prose. The term is best understood as a set piece within a large work, an automatically problematized ornamental digression, such as Homer’s description of Achilles’s shield – which is the foundational model of all ekphrasis in western literature – or Virgil’s description of the Trojan wars on the walls of Juno’s Temple, Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra’s barge in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Milton’s description of Satan’s shield, or Ludovico Ariosto’s description of the terrestrial palace in the Orlando Furioso. Here is Gustave Doré’s engraving inspired by the passage, which constitutes an illustration of an ekphrasis. The translation is by A.S. Kline:


Black and white image of a figure riding a winged animal through an ancient town

Gustave Doré, Orlando Furioso, 34: 51-52


There, on the heights, a palace, with its towers,
Uprose, to which some living flame had lent,
It seemed, such splendour, a glow so bright
That, beyond mortal fashion, shone its light.
It covered more than thirty miles around,
And towards it Astolfo turned his steed,
Moving slowly, at his ease, o’er the ground,
(All, to his gaze, seemed beautiful indeed)
And thought that all that down below was found
In wrath Heaven and Nature had decreed;
Brutish and ugly, this sad world we face,
So sweet and clear and happy was that place.
(Orlando Furioso, 34: 51-52)


As with most ekphrases, Ariosto’s description of the palace serves as a structural mirror – a mise en abyme – in which the palatial architecture represents the poem’s structure as well as the journey toward heavenly grace. Leave your stepping stones behind, mount your hippogriff, and fly toward the moon.


Dylan has no extended passage of ekphrasis to match Ariosto or other epic poets. His ekphrastic phrases are much briefer, tucked into a line or two, yet it nevertheless makes sense to analyze his allusions and references to art in ekphrastic terms. Claire Preston distinguishes what she calls “iconic, referential ekphrasis” from longer “fully enumerated” descriptions.[2] The former type would apply to Dylan, while the latter might apply to Homer and Shakespeare, or, for example, to John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” one of the most famous “enumerated” ekphrastic meditations in English.


Keats’s poem offers a kind of clinic in ekphrastic perspectives. As you might recall, the poem’s narrator stares at a scene painted on an ancient piece of pottery and remarks “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” The unheard melodies in the ode amount to the narrator’s speculations – or fantasies – about the “leaf-fringed legend” of shepherds and coy shepherdesses dallying “In Tempe or the dales of Arcady.” The image of a priest with his sacrificial heifer inspires the question – “To what green altar, O mysterious priest, / Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies”? In fact, the whole poem is a question, a speculation on what’s going on in the urn’s pastoral scene – “Cold Pastoral,” the narrator calls it, because the painted figures lack the heat of living flesh.


The poem in its entirety is an ekphrasis, a description of a work of plastic art. But, at the same time, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is more than merely a description: it is an open-ended interrogation of visual representations. And, like most ekphrastic passages, Keats’s poem asks a double question: First – how should the narrator inside the poem interpret the different images on the urn? And – second – how should the reader interpret the narrator’s interpretation of the visual images?


This doubleness is a good starting place to understand how Dylan uses his referential ekphrastic passages to destabilize the idea of the gaze. In his most familiar ekphrasis, Dylan chooses to give a highly normative slant to his narrator’s interpretation of arguably the most renowned portrait in the world. Here are the famous lines from “Visions of Johanna”:


Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”…
(“Visions of Johanna,” my emphasis)


Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503)


a cultural icon and an art historical topos when Dylan wrests it away from the academic critics and places it firmly in a genealogical line with Cisco and Sonny and Lead Belly too. Moreover, the self-consciously anachronistic “highway blues” highlights how personally tailored the speaker’s interpretation is, how tenuous, and how different an interpretation the gaze of the “jelly-faced women” – and all the rest of us who haven’t done any hard travelin’ – might produce.


In a brilliant analysis, Stephen Scobie reads the word “f-r-e-e-z-e” as “f-r-i-e-z-e,” which he defines as “a horizontal band of painting or decoration on a wall.” In this reading, Scobie awards Dylan another ekphrastic line to follow those pertaining to the portrait. According to Scobie, “These two senses [of freeze/frieze] coexist in the line, neither one canceling out the other. What we are asked to ‘see’ is something we can only hear: the indeterminacy of the freeze/frieze pun. Both senses convey an image of delicacy and fragility – the wallflower frozen out at the dance, the frieze preserved in the museum – which stands in stark contrast to the grossness of the image that immediately follows – the ‘jelly-faced women.’”[3] Scobie’s “two senses” are a perfect model of the instability of the gaze–both theoretically and in terms of an individual viewer. They mirror each other as versions of ekphrastic perspective and, at the same time, as evidence of an alternating possible gaze. Moreover, the homonymic pun doubles up Johnson’s notion of a mimesis of a mimesis, adding an extra layer of ekphrastic complexity to the Mona Lisa passage.


But there’s more to the pun than just this added complexity or mimetic ornamentation. And perhaps this is the place to recall that the working title of “Visions of Johanna,” after all, was “Seems Like a Freeze-Out.” While it might be true that neither sense of “freeze/frieze” can cancel out the other as long as we’re listening to the lyrics and not reading them, more than delicacy and fragility are conveyed by the double image. Linking a human wallflower with a wallflower mural enforces the idea that art is somehow tantamount to being trapped by social neglect or personal ineptness. This ekphrastic re-interpretation connects the narrator’s skeptical, tendentious observations about the Mona Lisa’s smile with the beginning of the stanza: just as the primitive wallflower – in both senses of “freeze” – is trapped, Infinity itself is trapped and judged inside the museums.


The theme of entrapment in connection with the plastic arts recurs in “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” from Infidels. This is perhaps Dylan’s most radical, and puzzling, image of possible gaze. The speaker in the song finds himself trapped, not only inside a museum, but also inside a painting, and maybe even inside his own self-portrait:


it’s like I’m stuck inside a painting
That’s hanging in the Louvre
My throat start[s] to tickle and my nose itches
But I know that I can’t move


The “Louvre-move” rhyme superbly posits opposite ideas. It captures a mirror image: on one side there’s the museum as a straitjacket for art and artist alike, a place where the wallflowers freeze and Infinity goes up on trial. Reflected on the other side of the mirror, in the word “move,” there’s the opposite image: physical freedom and, just possibly, freedom from self portraiture. Heard as ekphrasis, this passage is a kind of parody of indeterminacy and plausible interpretations – the art object itself has a perspective and, cartoonishly, is coming to life as the song’s speaker starts to sneeze. A museum-goer (or a jelly-faced woman) might be fooled by convention into thinking that the work of art was static and observable, when in fact the painting is alive and trying to escape the entrapment of the paint, the frame, and the Louvre museum.


The song “Jokerman,” also from Infidels, contains two brief ekphrastic passages. In the first Dylan might well be playing on Claire Preston’s idea of an “iconic” ekphrasis by describing a literal idol:


Standing on the waters casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing


Dylan uses the ekphrastic line to introduce a possible, or alternative, gaze on religion. The two images of religious figures abut in the passage, one standing on the waters, the other with glowing eyes. On an album called Infidels the irony is thick. Which of the two religious figures, the Christlike one casting bread or the iron-headed sculpture, do non-believers worship?


In the MTV video of “Jokerman” George Lois, a well-known Madison Avenue advertising figure, compiled a collage of lyrics and still images. For the first ekphrastic passage he inserted the following image:


Photo of a statue with large eyes. The text on the image reads "While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing"

Sumerian Idol (2700 BCE)


Unfortunately, the image preempts the interpretative quandary suggested by the ekphrastic passage.


Lois’s image for the second ekphrastic passage in the song is less preeemptive, though somewhat less readable. The lines are:


In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features


A close-up of the right hand of Michelangelo’s David statue

Michelangelo, David (1504)


The image in the video is a detail of Michelangelo’s David showing a close-up of the right hand, although you’d probably have to be Irwin Panofsky to identify the sculpture’s fleeting appearance on the screen. Most importantly, however, the passing image cannot capture the conditional tense of Dylan’s verb in the lyric. To say that Michelangelo could have carved out the Jokerman’s features places the action in an unseeable context, a timeless imaginary. The name Michelangelo becomes a kind of metonymy for the artist – otherwise the Jokerman would have had to live in the sixteenth century. As a result of this metonymic naming, we can hear Dylan’s ekphrastic passage as the consummate embodiment of a possible gaze – only “possible” because the ekphrastic model in fact does not exist. There is no Michelangelo artistry. The ekphrasis is simultaneously a pseudo-ekphrasis and a proto-interpretation of a yet-to-be-sculpted Jokerman statue.


In an interview conducted by Mitch Blank (and available on expectingrain.com), Larry Sloman claims that he and George Lois – who is usually credited as the sole producer of the video – decided that “we would use great artworks to illuminate [Dylan’s] art.” Sloman has it backwards, however. The images in the MTV video, which, along with those already shown, include a Henry Turner landscape, a Blake painting, and the famous Milton Glaser poster, illustrate the ekphrastic passages in “Jokerman.” They don’t illuminate them – in fact, the video images are often a distraction, undermining the lyrics with a distracting and incoherent visual narrative. Dylan’s ekphrastic passages are swallowed up in this irrelevant narrative. Lois interpolates what purport to be matching images for Dylan’s ekphrases, and, but, ironically, this is a case of illustration, not ekphrasis: “Jokerman” supplies the description that Lois later uses for his image.


Another example of a conditional predicate in an ekphrastic passage occurs in “Angelina,” from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.


His eyes were two slits that would make a snake proud
With a face that any painter would paint as he walked through the crowd
Worshipping a god with the body of a woman well endowed
And the head of a hyena
(“Angelina” The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3)


The conditional verb “would paint” again, as in “Jokerman,” confounds time: it is impossible to determine the occasion of the observer’s description. And again, this is an example of ekphrasis produced by a possible gaze, a possible sighting of the “eyes with two slits” and the Jokerman’s face. But the speaker’s observation – which is also an interpretation of the facial features – is inevitably tenuous and impermanent, a stopgap until the painter, or the next observer, sees the face. The indeterminacy of the ekphrastic moment in “Angelina” seems resonantly to confirm what I suggested at the beginning of this paper – that Dylan is “lyrically aware” of a possible, indeterminate gaze when describing visual artifacts.


In conclusion, I’d like to note that, ironically, there is no truly ekphrastic passage in “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” But maybe there’s a reason for this. Maybe there’s no space for indeterminacy or possible gaze in a masterpiece. Maybe – at least in the streets of Rome – a masterpiece is a fixed commodity, always already complete and, for that reason, already in ruins. The possible gaze in the song cannot be found in ekphrastic passages but in the very elusiveness of the masterpiece itself. The entire song suggests a kind of future conditional context – an ekphrasis yet to come.



Raphael Falco is Founding Editor of the Dylan Review. Although it is normally our policy not to publish articles by our editors, Falco contributed this paper to the World of Bob Dylan 2023, and we felt it appropriate to reproduce it for this special section.


[1] Christopher Johnson, “Appropriating Troy: Ekphrasis in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece.” in Fantasies of Troy: Classical Tales and the Social Imaginary in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Edited by Alan Shepard and Stephen D. Powell (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2004), 193-212.

[2] Claire Preston, “Ekphrasis: Painting in Words,” in Renaissance Figures of Speech (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 115.

[3]Stephen Scobie, Alias Bob Dylan Revisited, (Calgary Alberta Canada: Red Deer Press, 2003), 267-68.