by Bob Dylan
First stanza .. A naive mother enthusiastically sends off her son to the line of fire.
John Brown joins the army to go and fight in a battlefield far away from his country. Far from being sad or anxious, his mother enthusiastically lets him go. She is excited because she feels a soldier’s job to be glorious and gallant. It filled her heart with pride to see her son standing tall before her in the soldier’s uniform. A sense of satisfaction and pride is palpable in her smiling face.
2nd stanza .. She feels it’s all glory and no blood in the battle field.
Sounding euphoric, she says how proud she is to see John going to battle with a gun in hand. She asks him to be a dutiful and obedient soldier, obeying the orders of his captain to the hilt. She exalts John to fight gallantly, and win medals after medals. These would be hung in the walls of the house as testimony to John’s chivalry.
3rd Stanza .. She is triumphant as she sees John Brown off at the station.
The train for John steamed in. It was time to depart. John’s mother was on cloud nine. She could barely hold back her glee to see her soldier-son going to the call of duty. She said she will loudly tell everyone in the neighbourhood that her son was a soldier now. Her pride and elation was limitless.
4th Stanza .. The mother proudly reads out John’s letters from the battle lines to her neighbors.
John’s letters trickled in from the battlefront from time to time. His mother read them with a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Her son was fighting! She took the letters and showed them happily to her neighbours. She was quite vocal in her praise of her son’s duty in the war. He was fighting with guns in hand. ‘How manly was it!’, she wondered before her community. He was a warrior, fighting in a ‘glorious’ war. For her, it was a ‘good old-fashioned war’—honourable, and romantic.
5th Stanza .. Letters stop coming.
Letters from John stopped coming. Months rolled by. No letters even after the tenth month. Finally, a communication came asking her to go to the railway station and receive her John returning from the battle.
6th Stanza .. The train carrying back a battered and broken John arrives.
With great relief and expectation, she rushed to the station. Anxiously, she looked around, but there was no sign of John. All the passengers left soon. Finally, she was able to spot her son, brutally disfigured and barely recognizable. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
7th Stanza .. John’s disfigured face and crippled frame shocks his mother.
John’s face had been very badly bruised, and one of his hands was not there at all. Perhaps, the enemy ammunition had sheared it off, and his doctors had amputated the rest. To bolster his broken waist, he wore a metal brace. It just enabled him to trudge along. John was too enfeebled to speak. He managed to whisper something to his mother. His voice was barely recognizable. It was a very rude shock to the mother. She lamented his son’s sad plight, and kept saying to herself that John’s face had changed forever – for the worst! The sight of her crippled John left her shell-shocked.
8th stanza … John’s battle field ordeal and his lament plunge his mother in a sea of grief.
She begged her son to tell her how he had come to such a pass. She choked with grief as she spoke. John struggled to speak about the events that had led to his misery. In a voice filled with melancholy, he reminded his mother that he had so willingly marched to the war front, thinking it to be a glorious thing to do. Looking into her mother’s tearful eyes, he asked her if she had not assumed that a soldier’s life is all thrill, glamour and glory.
9th Stanza .. John narrates how he lost his sense of purpose when he had either to inflict death or suffer it, as the savagery peaked in the fighting.
Then John proceeded to give the harrowing details of what had happened. He bemoaned that while he braved the horrors of war, she was safely at home dreaming about his heroics. In the thick of battle, dilemma had gripped his mind. He was confused about the purpose of his being there. He was in a situation where he either killed his foe, or get killed himself. The self-doubt deepened when the foe came nearer. The enemy looked so similar to him! A fellow human being just like him!
10th Stanza .. With death so near, the mind wavers. It left John perplexed.
With bullets flying and guns roaring, John’s sense of purpose went awry. His power of judgment faltered. He wondered why he was there, and what for he had to fight, — for whose victory. The realization dawned on him that he was just a puppet in the war – a young man sent to kill or be killed. Why? He didn’t know. Lost in such bewilderment and numbness, he stood there, when a salvo from the enemy cannons ripped his eyes.
11th Stanza .. John trudges home, passing off his gallantry medals to his mother. Both reflect if the war had any purpose.
Narrating these harrowing details, John began to walk. His flummoxed mother was still lost in her thoughts. With the metal brace weighing him down, John began to stagger forward. Calling his mother to his side, he dropped the medals he had won on her hands. It was the most valuable gift of a broken son to his devastated mother! The futility of war pounded their hearts.
Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in 2016. His selection for the highest literary award surprised many, but for his countless fans he deserved it. For more than half a century, he has composed, and sung poems that are pacifist, free-wheeling, and anti-war.
John Brown is a poem that blisters with anti-war sentiments. It has satire, irony, pathos, and a barely-concealed appeal to the readers to see the futility of wars. Like all mothers, John Brown’s mother wanted her son to return home with gallantry medals hanging from his chest. She was naive, and ill-informed. In wars, soldiers die painful deaths. Only a miniscule number survive and are decorated. John Brown survived and returned with medals, but for the rest of his life, he would hate wars. Such was his tragedy. Bob Dylan seems to have captured the emotions of a WW1 soldier with remarkable sincerity. That’s why, his underlying message appears so powerful.
John Brown, like the only son of Rudyard Kipling, heard a highly romanticized version of war from his mother. War was portrayed as honorable, chivalrous, patriotic, and masculine. Every young man should cherish a chance to fight for their motherland. It was an utterly convoluted perception cultivated by the war-time leaders. But, the realities of the battlefield, the slush, the mangled body parts of friends, and the roar of enemy guns nearby completely disorients a young soldier. Kipling, was so disenchanted with the war that he wrote,
|And there lay gentlemen from out of all the seas
That ever called him King.
‘Twixt Nieuport sands and the eastward lands where the Four Red Rivers spring,
Five hundred thousand gentlemen of those that served their King.
|— from the poem “The King’s Pilgrimage”, by Rudyard Kipling
Brown survived the war unlike Rudyard Kipling’s son, but he was too crippled to be identified even by his mother. The bedraggled son drops his war medals on his mother and walks off. The irony of this scene is hard to ignore.
In the same way, one can refer to Alfred Owen’s poem where he writes,
“My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”
Wilfred Owen wrote these lines in May 1918. He has escaped death, and had come home badly bruised, just like John Brown.
In all the three cases cited above, it is the mothers who bore the worst fate. Kipling’s son died in the battlefield. Owen suffered the same fate. Only John Brown could manage to return.
BoB Dylan is a non-conventional person who wants to sing and dance with his audience. So, he picks up themes that are universal in appeal. Before the war, nationalistic sentiments are whipped up to reach a crescendo, and thousands of un-suspecting young men jump to the fray, only to be disillusioned soon as the war’s ugly face unfolds.
Bob Dylan’s poem touches a raw nerve in the readers’ minds and convinces them about the futility of war. So, we all owe Bob a sense of gratitude for driving home this message so effectively.