Dylan's Visions Of Sin: Christopher Ricks

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DYLAN’S VISIONS OF SIN, Christopher Ricks (Penguin)

There are too many books about Bob Dylan. Encyclopedias, rough guides, biographies, songbooks, photo essays, road diaries and weightily-titled tomes with heavy agendas, whether religious (Bob Dylan Approximately: A portrait of a Jewish poet in Search of God) political (Chimes Of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art) or esoteric (Dylan & The Frucht: The Two Wits).

So when Christopher Ricks’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin drops into an already well-served market, why does it generate more excitement than any recent work of Dylanology, barring Chronicles Volume 1, the first volume of Dylan’s own memoirs?

For one thing, it’s had a good build-up. Ricks has been offering occasional jottings and lectures on Dylan since 1972, but this is his first sustained piece of Bobwork.

He also occupies a significant place in the academic world, hence the amount of coverage this book has had in the major literary journals. A former Professor of English at Bristol and Cambridge universities and current professor of humanities at Boston, Ricks has published acclaimed volumes on Milton, Keats, Tennyson and Eliot. If he is not the first person to proclaim Dylan’s place in the pantheon of great poets, he is perhaps the best qualified to explain why he might belong there.

Ricks’s device for discussing Dylan is a novel one. Identifying the moral thread that runs all the way from ‘Masters Of War’, which Dylan wrote at the age of twenty, to ‘Cross the Green Mountain’ four decades later, he sorts Dylan’s songs in terms of the four cardinal virtues (Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude), three heavenly graces (Faith, Hope, Charity) and the seven deadly sins (Envy, Covetousness, you know the rest). This construct places some borders around a subject that, even thus contained, makes – at 500-plus-pages - a long, dense read. It allows Ricks to be playful, selective and free-associating.

In the chapter entitled Sloth, for instance, he links songs as monumental as ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, uneventful as ‘Clothes Line Saga’ and slight as ‘All The Tired Horses’.

Ricks persuasively argues the point that Dylan, in his own way, addresses the great poetic themes, and, consciously or otherwise, often parallels the work of the acknowledged giants of literature. In one of the most convincing chapters, he draws a line-by-line comparison between Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’ and Keats’s ‘Ode To A Nightingale’, concluding that “…’Not Dark Yet’ stands to Keats’s ode very much as Keats’s ode, in its turn, stood to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73”.

His reputation is as a close reader of English poetry, and he certainly zooms in on the microsyllabic details of Dylan’s lyrics. For example, ‘All The Tired Horses’, though comprised of only two lines (‘All the tired horses in the sun/How’m I supposed to get any riding done?’) is discussed for several pages. Ricks draws comparisons with Browning, Marlowe and Tenyson, and muses at length on the different pronunciations of ‘tired’.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if the close reader has buried himself so deeply in the page that he fails to notice what else is going on. He finds significance in what anyone using their ears rather than eyes would immediately identify as simple mistakes; a flubbed word, a plural accidentally sung as singular. These are simply the results of Dylan’s recording style in which capturing the feel, the spontaneous moment of creation, is more important than honing a flawless (and potentially soulless) performance.

But because Ricks’s references tend to be literary rather than musical he can miss what the pop fan doesn’t. He compares the line “If this is love/gimme more’ in ‘You Angel You’ to Shakespeare’s ‘If music be the food of love… play on’, but fails to note its far more obvious source, Lennon/McCartney’s ‘I Should Have Known Better’ (‘If this is love/you gotta give me more’).

To be fair, the author concedes his unequal emphasis on the literary aspect of Dylan’s work. And perhaps it’s just as well he hasn’t tried to balance words and music, as on the rare occasion when he does venture into the mechanics of Dylan’s music his prose clanks unmelodiously. In discussing the song ‘Watching the River Flow’, he makes much of what he calls the ‘choppy’ arrangement and how it works against the lyric. But he lacks the rudimentary rock’ ‘n’ roll vocabulary to identify the song as a blues shuffle; essential if one is to understand how Dylan borrows and adapts the traditional forms.

That Ricks loves Dylan is obvious; so much so that it’s hard to read Sin as a work of criticism. He makes little distinction between major and minor Dylan works. One would think Dylan had never written a throwaway line, something merely functional to flesh out a verse, or a song that failed. By the end of the book Ricks has extracted so many meanings, symbols and allusions Dylan could never have consciously intended, that I begin to wonder what hidden depths he might find should he train his lenses on the lyrics of, say, Britney Spears? 

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