Sunday, May 17, 2015

Introduction to Dylan's Visions of Sin by Sir Christopher Ricks

One thing each of the books I've read about Dylan has in common is this: the author has attempted to find a new angle from which to approach his life or his work. David Kinney's The Dylanologists sheds new light by pointing the lens toward Dylan's fans. Betsy Bowden's Performed Literature makes a case for the study of his performances. Scott Marshall's Restless Pilgrim focuses on the spiritual themes in his music.

My current read, Dylan's Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks, offers readers an in-depth look at Dylan's lyrics through the eye of a man intimately acquainted with the history of poetry and literature as well as the lyrics and writings of Bob Dylan. A former Professor of Poetry at Oxford and immediate past-president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics he's most relevant to Dylan fans for having edited the massive 13-pound volume of Dylan's work called The Lyrics, which was completed this past fall.

Essentially, what Ricks has done is use the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Virtues and Three Heavenly Graces as a means for sorting and classifying  the themes addressed in Dylan's songs. Here's the outline:

The Sins
Envy
Covetousness
Greed
Sloth
Lust
Anger
Pride

The Virtues
Justice
Prudence
Temperance
Fortitude

The Heavenly Graces
Faith
Hope
Charity

It's a novel approach to Dylan, but it works. The title of the book no doubt creates an inquisitiveness when one sees it on a bookshelf.

Ricks doesn't write about every song Dylan has written, for it's only a 516 page book and Dylan has written over 600 songs. But the songs he writes about are often given an in-depth analysis by an expert poetry scholar. Often he spends more than five pages on a song, sometimes ten and in some case as many as fifteen pages (e.g. "Precious Angel" in his chapter on Faith).

What adds to the book's value is the extensive reference helps at the back of the book. The General Index helps readers find where Ricks mentions Blake or Byron. Reading the index gives a quick insight into Dylan's inspiration, whether the Bible, John Donne, Samuel Beckett or T.S. Eliot

This general index is followed by an index of Dylan's songs and writings, so if you haven't the stamina to read it straight through you can use this volume to get insights on songs when in the mood to reflect on them more deeply as I am sometime inclined to do.

A Publishers Weekly review states "Ricks confirms Dylan's poetic genius and elevates the poet of the north country to canonical status alongside Tennyson, Shakespeare and Milton." I know a few folks who might balk at this, but when you see the analysis Ricks provides here you'll discover even the simple songs often have remarkable degrees of innuendo, wit and structural brilliance.

A reviewer from The Guardian writes, "The rewards are just as one would expect: a bracing attention to artfulness, a wonderful sensitivity to nuance, and a particularly brilliant sympathy with the purpose and effect of Dylan's rhymes."

An Amazon.com reviewer with the handle R Mumma wrote, "You'll be a little jealous, of course, wishing you had the literary storehouse of information and insight that Christopher Ricks has at his disposal from which to gather literary parallels, borrowings, and coincidences. I have never been more impressed by ANY book of criticism written about a modern writer or musician."

I agree with Mumma on both counts. being jealous of Ricks' "literary storehouse of information and insight" and impressed by his book.

All this to say that if you've been a fan who collects Dylan volumes, this one is a worthy addition to your collection.

* * * *
Tonight is the official opening event for Duluth Dylan Fest, Dylan Trivia at Carmody's. The answer to one of the questions is actually found in this blog entry. (Yes, I wrote the trivia questions this year again. Too many people got high scores last year, so this one will be a bit harder. Good luck.

Here's the poster outlining this year's schedule. Hope we'll see you on the scene.


Meantime, life goes on all around you. Embrace it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ricks and those others like him represent all that dylan and his contemporaries were rebelling against poetically. like most professors he is stuffing the new into an old bag.

as for betsy bowden she is egregiously meaningless. The other two i am thankfully unfamiliar with

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