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Editorial

Dylan’s unlikely muse

John Greenleaf Whittier

Handout

John Greenleaf Whittier

Can Bob Dylan revive John Greenleaf Whittier’s reputation? The 19th Century Massachusetts poet, who was born in Haverhill and spent most of his life in Amesbury, makes an unlikely cameo appearance on the latest Bob Dylan album, “Tempest.” According to the Globe’s James Sullivan, the lyrics of one of Dylan’s new songs, “Scarlet Town,” draw heavily from three of Whittier’s lesser-known poems, “The Chapel of the Hermits,” “A Spiritual Manifestation,” and “To Avis Keene.”

At a time when poetry enjoyed much wider cultural appreciation than it does now, Whittier served as a state representative on Beacon Hill and was a founder of the Republican Party. His passionate anti-slavery poems made him among the most acclaimed writers of the Civil War era, but he has faded into relative obscurity in the years since his death in 1892. That is unlikely to change. But Dylan’s fans, known for scrutinizing his lyrics with forensic intensity, might now pay a few extra visits to the Whittier home in Amesbury, or crack open a copy of Whittier’s poetry.

As usual, Dylan’s reasons for picking Whittier are a bit inscrutable. He performed in Boston last Sunday night, but didn’t play “Scarlet Town.” And Dylan’s endorsements have not always been unqualified boons — it’s a miracle Victoria’s Secret is still in business after Dylan made a disastrous cameo in one of their ads in 2004. But hopefully Dylan’s homage to Whittier will cause at least a few of his listeners to revisit an iconic Massachusetts figure.

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