Week 181: Masters of War, by Bob Dylan

‘Just how good a poet is this Bob Dylan chap?’, I have sometimes been asked by those wanting my ‘professional opinion’. Not an easy question – there is a lot of Bob Dylan, and indeed it could be argued that there are a lot of Bob Dylans. And how do you separate the words from the music, and how fair is it even to try? I can only say that the question seems to me well worth asking, and that personally as a poet my preference is for Bob Dylan the apparently sober writing under the influence of ancient ballads over Bob Dylan the apparently stoned writing under the influence of Dylan Thomas. So, for example, I take ‘Masters of War’, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Girl from the North Country’ over ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’, tunefully compelling though the latter two may be. So where does that leave us? With lyrics a bit rough-hewn in places, and sometimes having all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but maybe none the worse for that, and I for one can never forget being stopped dead in my tracks one afternoon in the early sixties by my first encounter with Dylan in the shape of ‘Masters of War’. Popular music with content – whatever next? As it turned out, there was quite a lot next.

Masters of War

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
While the young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

Bob Dylan