Bob Dylan’s song’s Desolation Road is dense with allusions to mythical, fictional and historical subjects. When a reporter asked Dylan where desolation row was located he was told, “Oh, that's some place in Mexico, it's across the border.”
We’ll start with the allusion to, “Ophelia” who is a tragic character from Shakespeare’s hamlet. The reason she is simply tragic instead of a tragic heroine, is because instead of overcoming her weaknesses and overcome her adversaries, she crumbles into insanity. That fits in with mold of the song. T
The song establishes the theme with when Dylan sings about the “Factory where the heart attack machine is strapped across their shoulders.” It is a song that sings about industry and how it relates to the “common man.”
The density of the song is staggering. Take one verse, which has, to my count has seven allusions in only a few more lines:
Praise be to Nero’s NeptuneThe Titanic sails at dawnAnd everybody’s shouting“Which Side Are You On?”And Ezra Pound and T. S. EliotFighting in the captain’s towerWhile calypso singers laugh at themAnd fishermen hold flowersBetween the windows of the seaWhere lovely mermaids flowAnd nobody has to think too muchAbout Desolation Row
We’ll begin with the first line, where Nero and Neptune are mentioned. Neptune is a planet and also a figure of Roman mythology. Because it is “Nero’s Neptune” and Nero was a tragic dictator with wild and cruel whims, we can assume that the Roman God is being alluded to. One person opining on SongFacts.com thought that these figures combine and relate to the band that played aboard the Titanic as it was sinking.
Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot were important literary figures at the time. “Calypso singers’ is another mythological reference from the Greek tradition. She was a nymph who detained Odysseus.
Other references in the song that seem to support the thesis that it is a song about tragedy, is the reference to Einstein, “disguised” as Robin Hood, who did work that led to the knowledge that atomic weapons were possible. Einstein disguised as Robin Hood
An introduction to Ophelia from Hamlet by William Shakespeare. (n.d.).Shakespeare Online. Retrieved March 30, 2013, from http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/opheliacharacter.html
Dylan, B. (n.d.). Bob Dylan - Desolation Row Lyrics. Lyrics.com - your music community with the largest searchable lyrics database.. Retrieved March 30, 2013, from http://www.lyrics.com/desolation-row-lyrics-bob-dylan.html
Latinus, s. a. (n.d.). Calypso (mythology) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 30, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calypso_(mythology)
Neptune (mythology) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 30, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neptune_(my