by Jim Gillan


Whilst Dylan himself is famously dismissive of attempts to understand him and explain his art, the fact remains that such is the complexity and audacity of his work that he, and it, have been subjected to an examination so relentless, so searching that it makes the Inquisition look careless and the electron microscope seem crude. Over the years, a steady stream of slender pamphlets, weighty tomes and, more recently, ephemeral postings on a promiscuously accommodating Internet have attempted to shed light, though many authors seem to have been unable to locate the switch. Bob of course simply can’t be doing with any of it. 

Here be Christopher Ricks, author of Dylan’s Visions Of Sin, which offers a detailed look at Bob, the poet.  BIG subject, which is why I suspect he excludes virtually everything else.  It’s a decision of his that will doubtless get a good savaging – as ever, the opportunity to learn anything being lost because people are too busy bickering. For once it’s not a Bob thing; humanity being demonstrably incapable of acting sensibly anywhere.  Back to Ricks, who as Warren Professor of the Humanities, and Co-director of the Editorial Institute, at Boston University, can claim an authority associated (not always deservedly) with office. But there is more.  Chris is also a member of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and was formerly Professor of English at the universities of Bristol and Cambridge.  He is also the author of a number of critical works on poetry, including the efforts of your man, T S Eliot, a name that crops up with the inevitability of a spelling mistake in a first daft of anything written about Bob. All of which might mean that as an acclaimed academic (rather than a disdained polemicist), he is better equipped than most to offer that rarest of things, real insight. 

His book has already attracted mixed reviews. At over 500 pages, Dylan’s Visions Of Sin is a substantial work that clearly requires careful reading, something that takes a lot of time. The truly serious (and/or utterly deranged) may also want to follow up its many references in order to check context, interpretation and relevance, though a lifetime might not be sufficient. All of which might imply that (a) few, if any, of those critics who have rushed in with an opinion can have read it in any depth. Paddled maybe, totally immersed, probably not. And (b) it’s a book that might daunt those many who whilst hooked on Dylan’s music, are selective about which, if any, commentaries they might read. Obsessives, scholars and ‘world authorities’ on Dylan, especially those who get a mention and/or have a work in progress, will buy Dylan’s Visions Of Sin, and many will doubtless rush with an opinion on it’s merits, or, more likely, the lack of them.  

Are you going to buy it? Did you read the reviews in The Observer and elsewhere? Have you trawled the web and listened hard to Radio 3 and BBC 2 arts programmes? Next stop the bookshop, and a possible purchase. But as with anything that has some inherent appeal, it still needs to be weighed up before parting with the cash. Everyone has their own way of doing this, but an admittedly cursory evaluation might involve a read of the dust jacket, a look at the chapter headings, a quick glance at the Introduction to see what it’s all about and a dip in at a couple of places to assess its readability. How long have you got? Five minutes? Fifteen? More? What’s your £25 worth to you? Which is what it will cost if you want to take it home with you. Join me in Waterstones. 

The dust jacket sports a photo of Bob at his home in Woodstock, taken in 1968. One of a series by Elliott Landy that captured Dylan hiding from the insanity of it all. Maybe it’s a picture of a young family man with too many memories. A man yearning for simplicity and a time of innocence. Is this photograph supposed to convey anything in the context of the title, Dylan’s Visions Of Sin, and the six extracts of lyrics that all include ‘sin’ on the back? Does it offer a clue to something profound or is it a red herring? Once Dylan said something to the effect that “the most important part of the record is the cover,” so perhaps Ricks and/or the publisher are paying homage to that, or maybe trying to convey some of the contradictions, ambiguities and playful deceptions that have always been characteristic of Bob. No photos, other than that on the dust jacket.  But academic works are often sniffy about pictures. 

Now to the Contents page. Ah! No Introduction, at least not of the usual form, instead there are a couple of short preambles. Then three main sections: ‘The Sins’ (seven of); ‘The Virtues’ (four of); ‘The Heavenly Graces’ (three of).  129 pages, 100 pages and 114 pages respectively. So, a symmetry of sorts, indicating perhaps that Ricks has given equal weight to all parts of the book. How odd! It’s usually the case that 90% of the space is devoted to the sixties and the rest to the next thirty-plus years. I exaggerate, but not by much. 

Time for a flick through the back bits. Nine pages of Acknowledgements, mostly of Dylan’s songs, though Housman, Yeats, Empson and T S Eliot (what a surprise) get a mention. On to the General Index, where those four have LOADS of entries. Matthew Arnold, Samuel Beckett, the Bible, Keats, Philip Larkin, Tennyson, Shakespeare and Wordsworth also feature, so the good and the great are in. But what of the goo and the grate? Michael Gray gets a goodly sprinkling of references. Robert Shelton not so many, but numbers add up to nothing. Wilfred Mellers, he’s in. As is Paul Williams. But no Andrew Muir. Nor is Clinton Heylin. No John Gibbens, someone who Ricks is said to admire, though I disremember who by. Robin Witting, Ken Brooks? Assuredly not. 

Nor has Ricks bothered much with those who contributed to that other recent(ish) professorial foray, Neil Corcoran’s Do You Mr Jones: Bob Dylan With The Poets And Professors. So then: Lots of food for thought, not least in respect of who Ricks has included and who he has left out. Some scribblers will doubtless be offended, but so it goes.  Life isn’t the only thing that is precious. 

The Introduction tells me less than the jacket inner, so it’s time to delve deeper. Turn at random to page 114, ‘Sloth’. This opens with: ‘If some particular sin – sloth, say (no longer sayable, “sloth”, too old-world a word) - isn’t for you, good for you.’ And later (p118) ‘Houseman’s is a stoically doleful challenge.’ I feel a furrowed brow and a deep breath…Skip the pages, eye falls here, eye falls there. Skim read. Skip some more. Courage, mon brave! Go back and try again… 

This won’t do, it needs a more disciplined approach. This time it’s page 329 and a bit on ‘Fortitude’. How apt. ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ is the focus and fifteen pages are devoted to it. I read them propped up against the bookshelf, until a bored assistant invites me to sit on one of the easy chairs thoughtfully provided by the shop. An hour later I’m still there and running late.  Time for a decision. 

Christopher Ricks isn’t an immediately accessible writer, though he is arguably relatively easier to read than many others who write about Dylan. With a big book this is a major consideration. He expresses himself with authority, his somewhat pedantic style occasionally relieved by the kind of witticisms you might expect to find in the Senior Common Room. He writes as one who is very familiar with his quoted sources and what must be a considerable body of related material. He has the confidence of one certain that he is making the proper connections, reaching rigorous conclusions, offering vigorous and unimpeachable argument. He lectures, rather than converses, but with a book, the reader can interrupt and disagree as often as she/he likes without risking ire. Is he spot on, or off the wall? Do I understand the questions, the propositions, the links? Does Ricks? I find myself more distracted than engaged by the structure Ricks has adopted for the book, unconvinced that it’s really anything other than a clever, but ultimately superficial, contrivance. Why not ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’, ‘Charity’? 

Key question: Will reading Dylan’s Visions Of Sin add anything to what I get from listening to the CD’s and watching Dylan in performance? Maybe, but it’s way too early to tell. 

Dylan’s Visions Of Sin is a book that will probably reward and infuriate in equal measure. It might stimulate new lines of thought, but could close down others. It’s one to digest over time, rather than try to swallow whole. Recommended on an initial, inevitably limited, acquaintance. Come back in a year or two for a more considered take.. 




  Christopher Ricks - Dylan's Visions Of Sin