The alarm woke me from a dream where I was playing at an outdoor festival. I was sitting in with a couple of people that I didn't know well. It was just past dusk, and the stage lights were coming on. Naturally, I was strumming a Dylan song. ("Tangled Up In Blue," in fact, which I haven't played in quite awhile.)
No doubt this comes from having finished Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin last night. I'd started it on the plane back from Honolulu and have been reading a bit every evening since. I had a great time, but I have to think that the audience for it is pretty limited. And that it is likely one of those books that far more people acquired than actually read.
No matter. Ricks was clearly writing for the love of it, and it's a tour-de-force of close reading. He uses the trope of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Heavenly Graces as an organizing principle. But his interest is not so much what Dylan has to say about each of these, but to examine, in detail, how he achieves the poetic effects he does, particularly with his use of rhyme. Ricks loves the mysteries of rhyme.
He sees things that I never would have noticed -- how, for example, the mix of masculine and feminine rhymes in a song can intensify the impact, and how different that impact would be if the mix were different. Or, in noting the difference between a poem (meant to be read from the page), and a song (meant to be heard), how the singer's drawing a syllable across several beats can create an entirely different effect from what the words on the page alone would achieve.
Ricks takes pains throughout the book to make it clear that he is not suggesting that Dylan was consciously creating these effects -- at least not always. Right at the beginning he addresses the question of intention:
Ricks reveals himself to be a fine artist as well, dancing across the service of Dylan's lyrics with a light touch, throwing out a bouquet of allusions, puns, and startling correspondences with T.S. Eliot, Keats, and, of course, the Bible. He liberally quotes the critic William Empson, the novelist Samuel Butler, and the dyspeptic poet Philip Larkin.
In the 40 years that separate his first book, Milton's Grand Style, from Dylan's Visions of Sin, Ricks has established himself as one of the premier British literary critics of the second half of the 20th century (and into the 21st, as he is still going strong, having just recently finished a term as Oxford's Professor of Poetry). But here, he writes as a fan -- a fan who just happens to know more about the ways that poetry actually works than just about anybody else who might be inclined to try to write about Dylan.
So what's the point of reading a book like that? Did I come away from it with an enhanced appreciation for Dylan's prosody? Will it increase my appreciation for his songs? Probably not, actually. It'll make me listen a little differently, I suppose. Mostly, it was just great fun.