Dylan's Visions of Sin
By Christopher Ricks, Ecco, 528 pp., $26.95
Good criticism is a kind of magic. Some have said it's akin to pulling rabbits from a hat -- the hat being a sonnet, a novel, or a song provided by the mad hatter artist. But what should a critic do when the magic seems to have run out -- the work is already popular and the rabbits seem to have been pulled? What happens, for instance, when an iconic rock star like Bob Dylan goes under the kind of close reading usually reserved for "serious" poets?
Distinguished British literary critic and Boston University professor Christopher Ricks answers this in his spirited new book, "Dylan's Visions of Sin." He approaches Dylan's hat and finds it brimming, just as in the past he has found Keats, Milton, and Tennyson worthy of close reading.
Within this hefty tome, protest songs, love songs, and folk songs -- many so familiar that to think that they once didn't exist is dizzying -- become fresh and new in a flurry of puns, wordplay, and webs of allusions that stretch from the Bible to Clint Eastwood to "Pilgrim's Progress."
Ricks, an imaginative scholar, fights off ardent fans who might take the book as a challenge, an attempt to change firmly held opinions about the folk god. His mission is unrelated: Ricks includes almost no background about Dylan, and no history or context to the songs that he examines. Instead, he attempts to reveal the source of the songs' power by demonstrating how they work as poems.
Using his athletic style of literary criticism, Ricks riffs on Dylan's poetry and transforms an experience of the songs with the sheer force of his appreciation. "I think of what I am doing as prizing songs, not as [prizing] open minds," he writes playfully in the introduction.
He organizes his project around human experience, choosing to trace Dylan's work through the seven sins, the four cardinal virtues, and the three heavenly graces. The sheer scale of the book demonstrates the breadth of Dylan's work and supports Rick's argument that this scruffy folk singer belongs on a level with the most revered poets in the English language.
But most of the evidence comes from Ricks's play in Dylan's work. As Ricks mucks through the sins (never slothfully), it is as if he has taken away the face of the watch so that readers can see the gears inside. The songs are working, ticking, grinding together with complex coordination that seems effortless from afar.
The seemingly casual rhymes scattered through Dylan's lyrics are impossibly complex, Ricks shows us. The nuances signal emotion to us, cue us to understand that the song will end, play with our sense of the word. Dylan's uncouth voice and the lazy slowness of some of his pronunciations are, it seems, laboring to great effect. Of the line "Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed," Ricks writes: "He sings the word `bed' king-sizedly. It's not a monosyllable when he signs it, something happens to it."
Dylan, Ricks argues over and over, is no slouch. Frequent word-by-word comparisons show a linguistic lineage connecting Dylan with bits of John Donne, A. E. Housman, Swinburne, and the Bible. The impressive thing is not that Dylan might have plumbed the depth of English literature for his songs, but that these coincidences exist -- some intentional and some not -- as an almost genetic link between gifted word
smiths. Fortunately, despite the constant footnotes, Ricks is funny. In his chapter on lust, he explains to readers the rather complicated set of emotions conveyed by the song "All I Really Want to Do," in which Dylan's rough-edged voice sings, "I ain't lookin' to compete with you / Beat or cheat or mistreat you . . . All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you."
Ricks's explanation? "Strictly speaking (but do you really want to speak strictly?), it is not true that All I really want to do is, baby, be friends with you. But nor is score the only thing I really want to do."
This kind of humor ensures that the formidable literary critic's expansive intelligence never undermines his less well-read and less well-listened readers. He never lords his encyclopedic literary knowledge over them, and his modesty is magnanimous. When Ricks feels puzzled or thrown off or blown away by Dylan, he isn't afraid to admit it. "And yet the lines . . . continue to rob my peace. Not that the song offers itself as a peace-maker."
Perhaps most importantly, Ricks respects his material. Although he playfully questions, teases, and prods the songwriter, he never yields to the temptation to overshadow Dylan. "Of course I have to concede at once that my imagination is immensely smaller than his, and it would serve me right, as well as being wonderfully right, if he were to prove me wrong," he writes.
Bob Dylan is more likely to be proved right by Ricks. He received his second honorary doctorate of music in June, from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. After receiving his first honorary doctorate, from Princeton in 1970, "Doctor of Music" Dylan wrote the song "Day of the Locusts": "I put down my robe, picked up my diploma . . . Sure was glad to get out of there alive."
Luckily, Dylan escapes Ricks's imagination more than alive. Magician and musician seem to be inescapably and inevitably linked. Or as the man himself might put it: "But if you do right to me, baby / I'll do right to you, too."