Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks

Christopher Ricks is an intellectual authority, a literary critic, a scholar, an academic. The highfalutin credits abound — he’s been professor of English at the universities of Bristol and Cambridge, Warren Professor of the Humanities and co-director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University, is a member of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, and has recently been named Professor of Poetry at Oxford. His publications include editions of T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Milton’s Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained, and most grandly The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Now, he devotes this canonical authority to an extended close reading of Bob Dylan’s lyrical career.

At root, I’m happy about this development, glad to see the heavily-credentialed scholarly community have one voice dip its toe (actually, Ricks does more of a cannonball) into popular music, and is symptomatic of a trend which seems to grow more and more evident — and accepted — over the last decade or so: the meeting of “high” and “low” culture. Look at this magazine, among others, and look at the series of books which has spawned Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy. What is popular is no longer automatically without depth, and can often sustain the same kind of attention as the most enduring works of literature.

With this giddy possibility of thoughtful, widely popular art becoming the new norm, a few questions still remain: Might we be a bit skeptical? Should other established lit-crits pooh-pooh the notion of talking through Dylan’s work so thoroughly? Should music fans be bummed out by some stuffy suit butting his head into a rock icon’s catalog? Should hardcore Dylan fans sift through the 40+ songs Ricks lectures on? Might someone like me, who fits into each category, be turned on? And does Ricks botch the whole operation?

The answer to all of these: Yes.

You don’t read this book from cover to cover for several reasons — it’s too long, you don’t know all the songs, you don’t get all of Ricks’ references, his wordplay-laden style and obsession with rhyme scheme get in the way, his structural thesis is interesting but less than crucial, and finally, it’s not the best way to use the book.

The big structural, thesis-issue? Ricks fits 40-some Dylan songs into the veins of the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues, and the three heavenly graces, which he believes “make up everybody’s world — but Dylan’s in particular.” One might easily agree with this, but Ricks never really grounds the distinction, or convinces us why Dylan’s work truly compels this particular scheme (couldn’t we do this with the Beatles? The Stones? James Brown? Marvin Gaye?). Furthermore, a few songs into the book, a reader just drops any over-arcing concern with pride, temperance, or charity, and simply swims around with Ricks’ discussion, which and Dylan’s lyrics.

This can be fun, especially if you allow yourself to simply browse, looking around for your favorite songs — and there are plenty of hits along with some obscure songs.

I checked out “Not Dark Yet,” one of Dylan’s most poised and profound recent works, one that stands up to just about anything he’s recorded. Ricks’ aligning of the song with Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” makes Ricks look something like a conspiracy theorist as he diddles through line-by-line parallels in word choice, and stanza-by-stanza content analysis. Still, he does begin an intriguing discussion of literary influence.

But influence is probably the toughest issue here. Ricks makes link after link to poets, but the reasons are a little unclear: is it to “legitimize” Dylan as a poet, showing he has numerous affinities with a literary tradition? If so, couldn’t he also discuss the lyrical traditions of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly? Or is poetry the only handle Ricks has, and so his specialty sadly undermines his attempt to cross over?

This is why T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land has ruined poetry for so many — the dangerously high ratio of footnotes and references to actual poetry. The ancillary material (in both Ricks and Eliot) is perfectly interesting and enlightening, but it mustn’t get in the way of the voice, of the images, of the mind. So goes Ricks’ taste for rhyme scheme, allusion, and point of view. Surely, the interaction with great art shouldn’t hinge on a discussion of terminology.

Ricks has a lot going for him. His wordplay is often invigorating, probing, and funny, and his knowledge of literature is top-notch. He also tries to rein himself and readers in early on, stressing how the critical act should be one of finding a good handle for a piece of art: practical, and in good faith. I admire these qualities, and I admire Ricks for attempting this work, but ultimately, he has abused these qualifications. He takes displaying linguistic dexterity and literary education several horizons too far — far too often, this loses Dylan and it loses readers.

Finally, it’s something in the angle of the book that frustrates; I can’t imagine anyone settling into a nice chair and saying, “OK then, let’s see what Dylan’s songs have to say about sloth.” There is a great proverb emerging from a famous correspondence between poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson during the 1950s: “Form is never more than extension of content.” I see next to nothing in Dylan’s music that demands this critical approach, and I see little in the final product that rewards such a scheme.

Because of this structure which is ill-matched to its substance, readers will do best to move through this book using their own song preferences as a guide. It’s doubtful many will get all the poetic references, and even formalist poets have a threshold of pain when it comes to discussing rhyme scheme (Ricks is monomaniacal with this in the section on “One Too Many Mornings”). And it’s almost certain that many Dylan or even general music fans will long for more detailed discussion of folk and blues.

With a title so tasty, it’s unfortunate how this restaurant fails to deliver. You will leave full, and mildly interested, but not satisfied.