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.
”I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is a song by Bob Dylan that was originally released on his 1968 album John Wesley Harding. It was recorded at the first John Wesley Harding session on October 17, 1967. It has been covered by many artists, including Joan Baez, Vic Chesnutt, John Doe, Thea Gilmore and Adam Selzer. In addition, Jimi Hendrix at one point intended to cover this song, but felt it was too personal to Dylan and instead covered a different song from the album, „All Along the Watchtower”.
”I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is a pensive ballad. Like the rest of the John Wesley Harding album, the music of „I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” uses spare, unobtrusive musical accompaniment. The primary instruments are an acoustic guitar and drums. The lyrics describe a dream that is enigmatic and subject to interpretation. However, the lyrics do convey a deeply felt sense of guilt, as well as a vision of faith, righteousness, fear and betrayal. The sense of guilt is particularly prevalent in the final verse:
- ”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.”
The opening couplet of the song paraphrases the song „Joe Hill”, which beings with the lines „I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson. „Joe Hill” was a folk song written as a tribute to the union organizer Joe Hill, who was viewed by supporters as a martyr after he was convicted of a motiveless murder based on weak evidence. The reference is ironic, since the song seems to deny the existence of modern martyrs to lead humanity towards salvation.
The St. Augustine in the title has often been linked to St. Augustine of Hippo, although St. Augustine of Hippo was not martyred. He was, however, a philosopher who wrote about evil and guilt, and could have viewed himself as being martyred in the sense of being killed by his own sins. In the dream revealed in the song, St. Augustine wears a coat of solid gold, which may signify either the worldly excesses of mankind and the Catholic Church or St. Augustine's own spiritual wealth. He also carries a blanket, which may be a sign of asceticism or of his compassion. St. Augustine searches for „the very souls / Whom already have been sold,” a reference to the commercialization of mankind's inner self, a motif that will recur on later songs on the album such as „Dear Landlord” and „The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”. He tells „ye gifted kings and queens” that „No martyr is among ye now,” but consoles them with the knowledge that nonetheless they are not alone. But the dream ends with the narrator realizing that he himself is among those that put St. Augustine to death, initiating his feelings of guilt as he now sees the error of his ways.
One interpretation of the song is that St. Augustine is a stand-in for Dylan himself, who had been viewed as a prophet or messiah, was nearly „martyred” in a motorcycle accident a few months before the song was written, but in any case had come too late since mankind (including himself) had already sold its soul to many temptations.
In a 2005 poll of artists published by Mojo, „I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” was listed as the #76 greatest Bob Dylan song of all time. Dylan played the song live at the Isle of Wight in a slow waltz arrangement in 1969. He also played the song live on the Rolling Thunder Revue in the 1970s and with the Heartbreakers in the 1980s, but has rarely performed the song live since.