Analysis of “John Brown” by Bob Dylan

“John Brown” is an anti-war song written by Dylan in 1962. This song was never included in Dylan’s official studio albums. It is basically a recorded song in the form of a ballad. This song consists of twelve verses written in a simple and easily comprehensible language. John Brown is the titular hero of Dylan’s song. This song brings into limelight Dylan’s deep-rooted pacifism. Literature has often glorified and romanticized war as a heroic deed. Writers have idealized war heroes, celebrated their triumphs and disregarded the defeated enemies. However, after the world war, war poets in literature have significantly changed the perceptions about war by displaying the horrifying aspects of war. Dylan, in this poem, tries to highlight the fatality of war.

John Brown by Bob Dylan Analysis

He points out the tragic aspect of wars. “ John Brown,” tells the story of a young soldier who was proudly sent off to war by his mother expecting to find glory and recognition and win medals but returned many months later in a distorted shape, “all shot up”. He returned with a disfigured face that even his mother couldn’t recognize. Thematically, this song resembles the old Irish folk song “ Mrs. Mcgrath. The false notion of glorification of war is eliminated by this realistic representation of the people who take part in a war. The young soldier tells his mother of all the horrors and terrors of his experiences on the battlefield.
The critical use of dialogues between the mother and son expresses different viewpoints in the song. The mother speaks in the first person to her son and expresses the desire to possess and display the medals that his son is going to achieve after the war is won. His mother’s dialogues in the first few stanzas embody her sense of pride and joy in seeing her son serve the nation. However, John Brown’s dialogue on returning home from war reveals his disgust and horror against the glorification of war.

“But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”.

The poem John Brown by Bob Dylan expresses how soldiers are just treated like puppets in the hands of warmongers. They are expected to obey their orders and slaughter their enemies without a hint of remorse or sympathy. The gruesome reality of war is vividly depicted in this song. John Brown’s mother proudly sends him off to war with a hope of possessing and displaying the medals that her son would acquire after the war is over. She is extremely proud to see her son in the uniform but is totally ignorant of the harsh reality of the war. She anticipates her son’s return in the same condition as she had seen him last, “tall” and “straight”. All her hopes and illusions are shattered as she sees her son with his disfigured face, blown up arms and “all shot up”. The war didn’t kill him but it has left him hopeless and shattered. He is unable to even gather his strength to speak in an audible and recognizable voice. All these images add up to build the horrifying aspect of war.

The universality of this poem lies in the fact that does not refer to any particular war as such. Any kind of war in any country is as terrible as it gets. Soldiers are affected both physically and psychologically in any war they participate in.

Poetic devices in John Brown by Bob Dylan

The poetic devices used are alliteration, repetition, exclamation, and irony.

1. Alliteration- It is the close repetition of consonant sounds in a sentence. Instances of alliteration in the song are-
“ …to fight on a foreign shore”
“He stood straight…”

“That I was just a puppet in a play.”

2. Exclamation- Exclamation is an expression of a sudden cry or remark expressing strong emotions, surprise or pain.
For instance-
“Oh, lord, not even recognize his face!”
“While she couldn’t even recognize his face!”
“Oh, lord, just like mine!”

3. Repetition– It is a literary device used to repeat the same words or phrases in order to emphasize an idea. For example –
“Oh, lord, not even recognize his face!”
“Oh, lord, just like mine!”

4. Irony- An instance of irony can be seen in the last paragraph of Bob Dylan’s “John Brown”. The poem begins with an enthusiastic and positive note. John Brown’s mother is extremely proud of him for seeing him in the uniform. She is proud of being the mother of a soldier and asks him to bring medals after his victory on the battlefield. Ironically, when John returns from the war, he hands over the medals to his mother but his condition is pathetic. The medal that was supposed to bring joy and pride to his mother only served to leave his mother in shock.