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The Things That Remain

Dylan's Vision of Sin.

by Christopher Ricks. Ecco  517 pp. $26.95

reviewed by Sean Curnyn

In October 1985, Bob Dylan was interviewed on television, and among the questions posed was this: “There have been times when born-again Christianity, orthodox Judaism, both of those were important to you? Or is it a broader thing for you?” (Broader, you see; not narrow Judaism or cramped Christianity.) Dylan replied courteously, “No. I want to figure out what’s happening, you know, so I did look into it all.” The journalist probed for a reason for this narrowness of belief. “Did it make life easier?” he asked with some sympathy. Dylan responded, “Not necessarily.”

Dylan’s Visions Of Sin is not, despite its title, an investigation of Dylan’s religious beliefs, though in the course of its pages it sheds some light on the religious elements of his art. It is a study of the poetry of his songs, written by a renowned literary critic who is the author of highly regarded books on Milton, Tennyson, Keats, and T.S. Eliot. (W. H. Auden called Christopher Ricks “the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding.”)

In considering an artist who in the past forty years has published about five hundred songs, as well as miscellaneous poetry, it is wise to have an organizing principle. In Ricks’ words (paraphrasing William Empson), “handling sin may be the right way to take hold of the bundle.” But not sin alone. Ricks will employ “the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues (harder to remember?), and the three heavenly graces: these make up everybody’s world, but Dylan’s in particular.” Ricks finds this approach apt because “Dylan’s is an art in which sins are laid bare (and resisted), virtues are valued (and manifested), and the graces are brought home.” This happens not by deliberate plan, but in the course of Dylan’s creation of what many listeners find to be his remarkably true, abiding, and insightful songs.

For Ricks’ purposes, then, it is not necessary that a sin be specifically attacked or (scandalously) practiced in the course of a song—it may be the notable absence of that sin, or some surprising resistance to it, that constitutes its presence. It may be “the only person on the scene missing,” so to speak, as in Dylan’s “Jack Of Hearts.” And while envy is not what Dylan conveys when he sings “and I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” it provides Ricks with his jumping-off point to explore that haunting lyric of slave ships, chain gangs, and corruptible seed.

An obvious and legitimate question posed by the appearance of a book judging Dylan’s songs by the standards of poetry is: What’s the point? Is not Dylan’s art a musical one, and so isn’t this effort doomed to fall short, or to overreach? Ricks acknowledges that Dylan’s art is threefold, involving music, words, and his voicing of those words. He acknowledges that he is not the critic who can integrate a study of all three into one overarching whole, but he is convinced that it ought to be possible “to attend to Dylan’s words without forgetting that they are one element only, one medium, of his art.” The test of this book is whether—with so little reference to musical elements—it is able to expand the reader’s appreciation of how Dylan’s words work their particular magic. In this limited but challenging task, Ricks largely succeeds.

Ricks allows from the outset that he sees his job as “prizing songs, not as prizing-open minds.” (Such wordplay is one of Ricks’ charms.) Ricks is not trying to argue with convinced non-aficionados and dedicated deniers of Dylan’s poetic worth. He takes it as given that those reading his book already derive enjoyment from Dylan’s songs, but “may not always know quite why they feel it.” The casual fan of Dylan’s music might be advised to approach this book, CDs in hand, as an opportunity to become familiar with many neglected Bob Dylan albums. The book is well indexed, but a deep familiarity with Dylan’s lyrics comparable to Ricks’ own would serve a reader well. Phrases in the book that may appear to be non sequiturs are often the author’s unannotated references to the works of the prolific troubadour. Ricks starts his piece on “The Times They Are A-Changin’” with this: “When I paint my masterpiece, I had better acknowledge that one day it may need to be restored.” Readers unfamiliar with Dylan’s 1971 song “When I Paint My Masterpiece” might mistake this for an annoyingly quirky beginning, but even for them Ricks brings it all back home by making one of Dylan’s oldest classics sound fresh and new to the attentive ear. Ricks maintains that the title-refrain itself is anything but a casual construction:

Times change
The times change
The times are changin’
The times are a-changin’
For the times they are a-changin’

Something dynamic has developed from a commonplace phrase; as Ricks puts it, “the acorn has grown into a royal oak.”

In the course of a fairly technical exploration that includes reference to the “durative or continuous aspect” of the present tense as employed by Dylan, Ricks notes that “Children of the sixties still thrill to ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ kidding themselves that what the song proclaimed was that at last the times were about to cease to change, for the first and last time in history.” Dylan likely knew his song’s durability then, and the sixty-three-year-old Dylan knows it now, as he sings it in concerts to audiences that may include the grandchildren of those children of the ’60s: “The line it is drawn / The curse it is cast / The slow one now will later be fast / As the present now will later be past / The order is / Rapidly fadin’ / And the first one now / Will later be last / For the times they are a-changin’.” The echo of Matthew 19:30 cannot be missed (“But many that are first will be last, and the last first”), and Ricks points out that this is the last verse of that chapter and likewise “the last admonition of the song.” This is just one of the always interesting, if sometimes audacious, direct comparisons Ricks makes between a Dylan lyric and Scripture.

Of course, when Dylan wrote these lines, most of his listeners had no knowledge of the former Robert A. Zimmerman’s Jewish background—and who in the ’60s would have prophesied his later public acceptance of Jesus? Ricks finds Scripture both under and on the surface of much of Dylan’s work, both before and after his overtly Christian songs were written. In “I Believe in You,” as in many other songs, Ricks finds echoes of the Psalms. In “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” from 1966, the “sad-eyed prophet” is identified by Ricks as Ezekiel, a claim he supports with detailed comparison of the song lyrics to that book of the Bible, from the explicit borrowing of “kings of Tyrus” to the stylistic echo of the “wealth and wares” of the city of Tyre in Dylan’s list of the belongings of his sad-eyed lady. (Covetousness is the sin of moment here.)

Most daring perhaps is Ricks’ comparison of Ecclesiastes, chapter 12, to Dylan’s jaunty song “I Want You.” Ricks’ litanies of coinciding words and images seem to prove his case, even as they may lead the reader to question, “Well, and what of it? Are we supposed to applaud Dylan for his holy larceny?” And then there are his line-by-line comparisons of specific Dylan lyrics to poems of the past (e.g., Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” and Keats’ “Ode To A Nightingale”). Should Dylan be admired for modeling his song on this poem, as Ricks believes he does? Not necessarily. The point is that by understanding the artist’s internalization of the Bible (Dylan has called it “the founding book”) and his absorption of the lyrical work of predecessors, we may appreciate better the power of his songs. His deepest sources are not to be found in the transient but in the “things that remain” (“When You Gonna Wake Up?”).

Interviewed in London in 1981, Dylan mused on his chosen profession and said that he thought a doctor was someone who would be truly worthy of admiration, someone who “can save somebody’s life on the highway.” He went on: “Not to say, though, that art is valueless. I think art can lead you to God.” The interviewer asked if he thought that this was art’s purpose. “I think so. I think that’s everything’s purpose. I mean, if it’s not doing that, it’s leading you the other way. It’s certainly not leading you nowhere.”

“Faith” is the first of the heavenly graces and so has its own chapter in Ricks’ book, which he begins with this statement of full disclosure: “I am not myself a Christian believer, being an atheist.” This does arguably give him a more impartial perspective from which to defend the worthiness of Dylan’s gospel-based material from those he calls “illiberal liberal” critics who, when these songs first began to appear, dismissed their former idol as a crazed fundamentalist. By the time of his third album containing explicitly Christian themes ( Shot Of Love, 1981), Dylan had been so marginalized that nothing he did got much consideration in the popular media. (He lamented a few years later that Shot of Love’s remarkably live sound, of which he was so proud, had been ignored by critics: “It was just ‘Jesus this, Jesus that,’ as if it was some kind of Methodist record.”) In this chapter, Ricks shows how Dylan restores the sacred meaning of the phrase “saving grace” in his song of the same name. It is here not just “a” saving grace but “the” saving grace, which, as Ricks points out, was in older linguistic times, “a term of deep redemption, alive to damnation and to salvation.”

For those (not just a few) believers who find nourishment in Dylan’s songs, this treatment by a nonbeliever may actually reinforce the value and centrality of faith in Dylan’s work. Ricks’ broader achievement is to illustrate and explicate how Dylan’s chosen words fall upon the ear and wend their way into the heart in their peculiar and beguiling fashion. Dylan’s Visions of Sin is not the last word on Dylan’s art, nor is it meant to be. But the book does uncover levels of Dylan’s artistry that Ricks is especially qualified to explore.

Back to that 1985 television interview: in it Dylan was asked if he considered himself to be a poet. It’s a question that Dylan had memorably evaded (1965: “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, you know”). On this day he replied straightforwardly. “I don’t know if I’d call myself a poet or not. I would like to—but I’m not really qualified I think to make that decision, ’cause I come in on such a back door, that I don’t know what a Robert Frost or a Keats or T.S. Eliot would really think of my stuff.” Ricks has, in a way, addressed Dylan’s doubts with this book.

Sean Curnyn is writing a book on political and moral themes in the work of Bob Dylan.