Shakespeare in the Alley

resources about Bob Dylan


A new look at Dylan

Prof's perfect for uncovering "Visions of Sin"

By Bill King
Special to The Denver Post

The Bob Dylan book industry, like Dylan's touring, is never-ending. It produces mainly biographies, casual behind-the-scenes recountings of tours and collections of interviews and articles. Over the past few years, however, several new books worth the attention of serious fans of this legendary and almost mystical figure have appeared.

"Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan," by Howard Sounces (2001), uncovers Dylan's second marriage, which the reclusive Dylan had managed to keep a secret for almost two decades. David Hajdu's "Positively Fourth Street" (2001) gives an interesting look at the early Dylan and his relationship with the Baez sisters and Richard Farina. More important than these is Mike Marqusee's "Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art" (2003), placing Dylan's early songs in the context of the '60s political movements.

For an understanding of the sheer poetry of the lyrics, the most important book is Christopher Ricks' "Dylan's Visions of Sin."

"Visions of sin?" you ask. "Yes," replies Ricks, the Boston University professor of humanities and next professor of poetry at the University of Oxford, joining the ranks of of Seamus Heaney, W. H. Auden and Matthew Arnold. "Dylan's is an art in which sins are laid bare (and resisted), virtues are valued (and manifested), and the graces brought home."

As Ricks says, he's not so much showing us that a song is good poetry as "showing how it comes to be good, so very good."

The book is lengthy (517 pages) and challenging, but its method allows the reader to skip from song to song - or sin to sin. After a wonderful chapter on rhyme (both a Dylan and Ricks forte), Ricks turns to the seven cardinal sins. We cleverly ask, "Sins which cardinals commit?" Ricks anticipates and heads off such puny punning. "Many of Dylan's songs hinge upon the cardinal virtue that is justice ('cardinal' means pertaining to a hinge)." Not that Ricks abhors puns; he delights in them, but only when they are not merely witty but also wise.

In his discussion of the sin of envy as seen in "Positively Fourth Street," Ricks quotes the line "one who tries to hide/ What he don't know to begin with" and suggests the song is addressed directly to a "you," making this line what he calls "contemptuous third person - especially if 'third' is pronounced in the Irish fashion."

Covetousness presents a challenge. Ricks selects "You Gotta Serve Somebody" but overlooks the wonderful line in "Gates of Eden" about paupers exchanging possessions, "each one wishing for what the other has got." Even more of a challenge is greed: Ricks finds no songs on this sin, exclaiming, "Oh, my divine scheme ... may suffer, but just think how my reputation for critical probity ... is sure to wax."

The sin of sloth allows Ricks to consider the distinction between sloth and leisure, between laziness and what Wordsworth called "wise passiveness" - as in "just sitt(ing) here so contentedly/and watch(ing) the river flow." Sloth was never a sin to tempt Dylan, even if he does call on the Tambourine Man to take him disappearing through the smoke rings of his mind.

"I Want You" explores a sin more in tune with today's mores: lust. For those who doubt an elder British literary scholar can catch Dylan's subtle street language and innuendos, take note of his comment on the second line, "The lonesome organ grinder cries": "Touching, and the more so for the hint of touching oneself."

Another modern sin, anger, we might expect to be a long chapter, since Dylan has vented anger at so many, like the "masters of war," but Ricks focuses on one song. "Only a Pawn in the Game" depicts the anger of the poor white man who shot Medgar Evers and the hell to which he is condemned by this sin.

Finally, that chief of all sins, pride, gets fuller treatment. In "Like a Rolling Stone," we see Miss Lonely after the fall pride precedes: "People'd call, say, 'Beware doll, you're bound to fall' ... How does it feel?" Ricks praises Dylan's deft avoidance of pride in "Day of the Locust," a song based on Dylan's receiving an honorary doctorate degree in music from Princeton University in 1970.

Ricks' unique approach delights in its eccentricity and produces fascinating results for the dedicated reader. He insists on both a sense of humor and careful attention to detail; he demands a wide range of interest and a long attention span. While an Oxford-educated Brit, Ricks surprises with the breadth of his sources, quoting The Onion and Rolling Stone along with his favorite sources, the King James Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary. The irony of a book titled "Dylan's Visions of Sin" by an atheist adds even more flavor to this tasty treat.

Bill King, on sabbatical writing "Shakespeare in the Alley," a series of radio shows on Dylan as poet, teaches English at Western State College in Gunnison.

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