Dylan’s Visions of Sin

It too me a while but I just finished Bob Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks; a pretty intensive literary critique of some of Dylan’s work, and its poetry. It takes the idea of sins: envy, greed, sloth, lust and also some virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude to frame a close critique of Dylan as poet.

And, ultimately, that’s what I like most about this book; that it takes the idea of Dylan as poet completely seriously and begins from that premise. Ricks has written on Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Housman, Eliot and more and he weaves that understanding into the study of Dylan’s work as well as others too, like Larkin and Wordsworth particularly.

And, like all good criticism, it took me back to the original songs/poems again. To Dylan as an ‘heir to the romanticism’ of Blake and Keats, to the subtleties such as Ricks’s favourite Dylan rhyme, ‘Utah’ and ‘Pa’ in Sign on the Window and to extended explorations of key songs such as impressive extended line by line comparison of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and Dylan’s Not Dark Yet which sees Dylan as a natural ‘succession’ from the Keats poem, just at Keats himself might be seen as a successor of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73: ‘To set Dylan among the poets, there with Keats, is to give both poets their due. Not as a matter of the culture wars. But because gratitude to Dylan is at one with his gratitude to Keats. Gratitude disowns envy’. (369)

And, I wish I’d had this answer last year when I was asked by a student, for the twentieth time in my literature teaching career, ‘Do you think Shakespeare REALLY meant all this?’, about intention:

‘And then there is the age-old difficulty and problem of intention. Briefly: I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious. Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual. So if I am asked whether I believe that Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects and wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn’t. And if I am right, then in this he is not less the artist but more. (7)

I found new songs too; how did I miss ‘Blind Willie McTell’ all this time? In fact I’m putting a playlist together, based just on the songs that I’ve looked at freshly again from reading this book.