‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan is an anti-war poem that ironically refers to a mother and her soldier son. The poem creates a stark contrast between the fascination of war and the futility of it. This imaginary story about John Brown is a portrayal of all the soldiers wounded or suffered in war. The war, however important for the contesting nations, is a bane to those who give everything for their countries’ sake. Bob Dylan, through this poem, shows the harsh reality of war and its aftermath.
Summary of John Brown
‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan presents an imaginary story about John Brown who has become a soldier and how he gets injured in an “old-fashioned war”. The conversation between the mother of John Brown and his soldier son depicts how common people respect the magnitude of such a nationalistic service. But, in the end, they both suffer, the son physically and his mother mentally, for the war in which they have invested so much fascination and passion. Ironically, the war offers them some medals only along with lifelong suffering and agony.
You can read the full poem John Brown here.
Structure of John Brown
‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan consists of twelve verses and three refrains. Each verse of the poem contains four lines in it. There isn’t any specific rhyme scheme in this poem. Being a song, the flow of the stanzas depends on the internal rhythm. However, there are some instances of slant rhymes in the text. As an example, in the third stanza “neighborhood” rhymes with “understood”. And, in the following stanza, “door” and “war” somehow rhymes together. The line lengths of the poem are irregular. Some lines are long in comparison to the line following it. Apart from that, the poet mostly uses the iambic meter in the poem.
Literary Devices in John Brown
‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan contains several literary devices. Likewise, there is an exclamation in the second line of the first verse. Here, it is meant for the sake of emphasis. Moreover, the poet uses alliteration, consonant, and caesura in the poem. As an example, “stood straight” is an example of alliteration. And, the second verse begins with caesura. However, the poet, in most cases, makes use of irony. As an instance, “You make me proud to know you hold a gun” contains irony. The use of the word “old” in phrases such as “old train” and “old-fashioned war” is important. It is a metaphor for the wars that were fought before. The sense used here reflects a continuation of a process that existed before. Apart from that, the poet also uses anaphora in the poem in the fourth, sixth, and eleventh verses.
Themes in John Brown
‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan revolves around the theme of the futility of war as a whole. However, the poet also presents the themes of nationalism and disillusionment in this poem. The futility of war is an important element of the poem. The first few verses of the poem reflect the fascination of commoners with war. The last few sections of the poem, how such an attitude towards war proves to be catastrophic for a soldier and his closed ones. However, the poet uses the theme of nationalism to create an ironic effect in the poem. The mother’s reaction to her son becoming a soldier depicts how nationalism plays with the sentiment of common people like John Brown and his mother. Moreover, the exclamation of John Brown, “Oh! Lord! Just like mine!”, presents his disillusionment about war and how he reacted while facing the harsh truth.
Analysis of John Brown
John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama’s face broke out all in a grin
‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan introduces the titular character and his mother in the first verse. John Brown joined the military and went off to a war on “a foreign shore”. His mother, fascinated with the national services, was happy to see his son in the uniform. Naturally, she was proud of her only son who was about to bring glory to the nation.
“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”
In the second verse of ‘John Brown’, Bob Dylan presents the conversation between the son and the mother. John Brown’s mother was glad to see her son in a soldier’s uniform. She was proud of her son holding a gun and fighting for her country. The second line is rather ironic. Moreover, she advised her son to obey the orders of his senior. If he performed his duty well, he would get medals to adorn the wall of his house. The sense associated with this line presents a paradox.
As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout
She made well sure her neighbors understood
In the third section of ‘John Brown’, Bob Dylan depicts the scene of John Brown’s departure. His mother was elated to see her son leaving the station. The use of a personal metaphor in the phrase “old train” reflects a sense of continuity that happened with other soldiers. Moreover, the mother told everyone in the neighborhood about her son joining the military. The last line is humorous as it says, “She made well sure her neighbors understood”.
She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile
And these things you called a good old-fashioned war
Oh! Good old-fashioned war!
In the fourth verse of ‘John Brown’, the mother’s happiness with the letters sent by John Brown. The letters somehow made her so happy that she even showed them to the neighbors. However, in the third line, the use of the words “uniform” and “gun” presents how infatuated she was about the service John Brown opted for. In the last two lines, there is a repetition of the phrase, “good old-fashioned war”. The repetition emphasizes the underlying idea of the phrase.
Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come
Your son’s a-coming home from the war”
In the fifth verse of ‘John Brown’, the war had already broken out. Consequently, letters ceased to arrive. More than ten months had passed still John Brown’s mother got no response. At last, a letter came. The letter contained the message of her son’s arrival from the war. However, this section creates a tense mood in the poem.
She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around
When she did she could hardly believe her eyes
In ‘John Brown’, the mother became happy after getting the letter. She quickly went right down to the station and looked everywhere for her son. But, she could not find her son there. After the station became clear, she saw her son. But, she wasn’t happy with what she saw. She couldn’t believe that she had to see her son in this condition.
Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
While she couldn’t even recognize his face!
Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face
In this section of ‘John Brown’, Bob Dylan depicts the brutality of the war. John Brown’s face was severely damaged and he lost his hand in the war. Moreover, there was a metal brace around his waist to support him while walking. He whispered something to his mother but she couldn’t hear his voice. She couldn’t even recognize the face that once made her happy.
“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done
And the mother had to turn her face away
In this section of ‘John Brown’, the mother of John Brown laments the condition of her only son. The fascination with the war had faded from her mind. And, she understood the harsh reality of war. However, in the last two lines, the poet says that John’s condition was so bad that her mother couldn’t even look at him.
“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”
In this section of ‘John Brown’, the poet presents the disillusionment of John Brown. John Brown told his mother about her fascination with him joining the military. She was rather proud of her son. But, on the battlefield, John wasn’t proud of his service. He was rather agitated with the brutality of the war. For this reason, he says to his mother, “You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”.
“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
Oh! Lord! Just like mine!
This section of ‘John Brown’ also contains the confession of the titular character. According to him, when he was on the battlefield, he didn’t know what he was doing there. The situation made it clear that John Brown had to kill his enemy or he would be killed by someone else. It’s the truth of the war. There is no glory in it. In the last three lines, the poet presents the revelation of Brown when he came across one of the enemies. He felt that his enemy was another human being just like him.
“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink
And a cannonball blew my eyes away”
In this section, John Brown refers to the image of the battlefield and says that he was just “a puppet in a play”. The “play” is a metaphorical reference to politics. At last, he refers to the “cannonball” that blew his eyes away.
As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock
And he dropped his medals down into her hand
In the last section of ‘John Brown’, the poet refers to the mother’s reaction. She was in shock to see her son standing with the help of the metal brace. He couldn’t even stand on his feet after returning from the war. This thought made her feel broken. Moreover, the “medals” which Brown dropped down into his mother’s hand is an ironic reference to the futility of war.
Historical Context of John Brown
‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan talks about the vanity of war. It was written in October 1962 and recorded in February 1963. Being written in the postmodern period, the song reflects a detachment from the extremism of war. The poet through this anti-war song voices the agony of the soldiers who suffered in war. However, this song of Dylan is very similar to the old Irish folk-song ‘Mrs. McGrath’.
Like ‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan, here is a list of a few poems that are similar to Dylan’s song.
- After Blenheim by Robert Southey – Here, Robert Southey, one of the romantic poets, talks about the futility of war.
- Mother and Poet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – In this one of her best poems, Elizabeth Barret Browning presents an agonized mother who had lost her sons in the war.
- Attack by Siegfried Sassoon – Here, Siegfried Sassoon presents the brutality in the battlefield.
- Futility by Wilfred Owen – Here, Wilfred Owen talks describes the aftermath of a war.
You can read about 10 of the Best War Poems here.
You can also read about 10 of the Best British Wartime Poets here.