I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine


I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine is one of the finer songs on John Wesley Harding. With this song, Dylan truly exceeds his stated goal of writing songs where there is “no line that you can stick your finger through; there’s no hole in any of the stanzas. There’s no blank filler.” (Goldmine Magazine, May 24 2011)

if I had to criticize it in some way, it’s that a person can listen to this song a thousand times and really not be sure what exactly he’s getting at. It’s not obvious, and even after engaging in considerable background research, it’s still not. The song is subject to many interpretations, many lines can be argued in many ways. But that’s part of its beauty I guess.

Confessions of Saint Augustine
Confessions of Saint Augustine

So on to the research project. This first question most have, including me, is who the heck was St. Augustine? And right away we run into problems because there have been several St. Augustine’s. Most likely Dylan had in mind St. Augustine of Hippo, author of the well-known Confessions. Follow this link if you are really interested in knowing – in academic detail – who St. Augustine was. The short answer, from Wikipedia, is below.

Augustine of Hippo was an early Christian theologian whose writings are considered very influential in the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy….. Among his most important works are City of God and Confessions, which continue to be read widely today….. After his conversion to Christianity and his baptism in 387, Augustine developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and different perspectives.[7] He believed that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom and he framed the concepts of original sin and just war.

In the narrator’s dream, he sees St. Augustine running around in a very agitated state, frantically searching for souls that have “been sold”. In the second stanza, he loudly cries that although there no “martyr is among you now” (I would presume this is a reference to Christ), they should know that they are “not alone”. They are not alone, I would think because Christ is with them.

The last few lines:

Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried

I must confess – even though I’ve listened to this song a thousand times – never really made much of an impression on me. This is where having a library of Dylan-related books comes in handy.

From The Nightingales’s Code, by John Gibbens (p. 262)

When, at the end of the song, he puts his fingers “against the glass” and cries, we might think of the glass through which St. Paul says we see god “darkly”. In other words, it is the separation of God and man and of man from man which, in resisting the Pentecostal fire of Augustine, he was accepted instead.

From Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man III (p. 225)

[Dylan has] a perennial fascination with mirrors and the odd, playful way in which they call reality into question – as they have done in life and art over many centuries. Dylan shares with Alice [in Wonderland] the idea that you should be able to pass through mirrors to another reality on the other side… [The song] ends with Dylan therefore unable to pass through the mirror:

I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried.

Wilfrid Meller, the author of A Darker Shade of Pale, has an interesting take on the song.

“The song is about guilt – who better to have in the song than Augustine, the author of Confessions”. He also says that Augustine is Dylan (“I awoke in anger” and “I put my fingers up against the glass”. ).

The music of I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine was clearly based on the well-known folk song, I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night, famously performed by Joan Baez at Woodstock.

I dreamed, I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” says he
“I never died” says he

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe”
“They shot you Joe” says I
“Takes more than guns to kill a man”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”

And standing there, as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Says Joe “What they can never kill
Went on to organize
Went on to organize”

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me,
“Joe Hill ain’t never died.
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side,
Joe Hill is at their side.”

From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where working folks defend their rights
It’s there you find Joe Hill
It’s there you find Joe Hill

I dreamed I saw, I dreamed I saw, Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” says he, “I never died” says he
“I never died” says he”

Joe Hill

Joe Hill was a songwriter, itinerant laborer, and union organizer. He became famous around the world after a Utah court convicted him of murder. Hill claimed that he was not guilty, and at least some of the evidence backs him up. Many of the historians came to the same conclusion. In 1930, Alfred Hayes wrote a poem entitled “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”. Earl Robinson turned the poem into a song in 1936.

Dylan doesn’t play it a lot. The most well-known alternate version was done for the unreleased version of the TV special done in 1976, Hard Rain, a duet with Joan Baez. She makes a quip at the beginning concerning Dylan’s habit of not rehearsing.

It was also released on the Alternate Self-Portrait, Bootleg Series Volume 10. That version is from the Isle of Wright Festival, a concert Dylan did with The Band. Not a bad version, but like most of the songs done for that concert, it’s a little ragged.


I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold

“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone”

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried

3 thoughts on “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”

  1. Some biblical quotes that led to his conversion…

    “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:13-14).


    Not everything that feels good ends well. “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top