Dylan's Visions of Sin

Dylan's Visions of Sin

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by Christopher Ricks

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Letham
[Ricks] has, seemingly, merely wished to test the songs he loves against his own pre-existing context, which happens to be Philip Larkin and Matthew Arnold, not Blind Willie McTell. In doing so he's found the songs all the more extraordinary, not wanting in any measure. Fair enough. Any critic's a blind man, faced with an elephant as formidable as the collected works of Bob Dylan. But some blind men have extraordinarily sensitive hands, and it is not impossible to imagine an elephant's pleasure at their touch.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Ricks, a professor of humanities at Boston University, allows his own musings about Bob Dylan to go "blowin' in the wind" in this love letter to the enigmatic bard. Focusing on the centrality of the seven deadly sins (pride, anger, lust, envy, sloth, greed, covetousness), the four virtues (justice, temperance, fortitude, prudence) and the three graces (faith, hope, love) in Dylan's writings, Ricks confirms Dylan's poetic genius and elevates the poet of the north country to canonical status alongside Tennyson, Shakespeare and Milton. Through a series of closely engaged readings of selected songs, Ricks demonstrates how each reflects a concern with sin, virtue or grace. Thus, "Lay, Lady, Lay" becomes an anthem of lust, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" a paean to fortitude and "If Not for You" a tribute to love. In every reading of the songs, he compares Dylan's poetry to the work of other poets, often finding either explicit correspondence or structural echoes of earlier works. For example, Ricks contends that the structure of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" mimics the structure of the early Scottish ballad "Lord Randal." Sometimes Ricks strives to be too hip and precious as when he characterizes "Lay, Lady, Lay" as "erotolayladylaylia," and when he concludes that there are similarities between other poems and Dylan's by providing a list of one word correspondences, as he does with "Lay, Lady, Lay" and Donne's "To His Mistress Going to Bed." Nevertheless, Ricks's affectionate critical tour-de-force reminds readers why Dylan continues to encourage our "hearts always to be joyful" and our "songs always to be sung" as we remain "forever young." (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Literally hundreds of books have been written about Bob Dylan and his music, but very few have considered his lyrics as works of literature. One notable exception is John Hinchey's fine Like a Complete Unknown: The Poetry of Bob Dylan's Songs 1961-1969 (2002). Ricks (humanities, Boston Coll.; formerly English, Cambridge) takes things a step further with his scholarly approach to over three decades of Dylan's music. Ricks, who has previously written about Keats, Browning, Milton, and Eliot, is an old-school literary critic more interested in understanding and appreciating the works at hand than in deconstructing them. His criticism is erudite and incisive, his writing witty and enjoyable, and his analysis broadened by comparisons to the poetry of canonical writers such as Eliot, Hopkins, and Larkin. The title is, however, a bit of a misnomer. While the book takes a thematic approach based on the seven deadly sins, it also covers the four virtues and the three graces. Highly recommended for academic libraries and for public libraries with strong literature or music collections.-Alison M. Lewis, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A gifted poetry critic takes on the lyrics of rock bard Bob Dylan. Ricks (Humanities/Boston Univ.) has penned tomes on Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Tennyson, but he has long been fascinated by Bob Dylan: His 1984 essay "Cliches and American English" was a much-lauded textual reading of the singer-songwriter's work. In this ambitious and intellectually freewheeling work, Ricks takes a full-length look at the poetic and moral underpinnings of Dylan's songs. Selecting tunes both well-known ("Positively Fourth Street," "Lay Lady Lay") and obscure ("Clothes Line Saga," "Handy Dandy"), Ricks analyzes them lyrically and structurally in terms of their relationships to the Seven Deadly Sins, the four virtues, and the three heavenly graces. This approach is sometimes strained, and some of the songs don't sustain the author's thematic scrutiny. Ricks nonetheless proves to be a lively and learned guide through the sometimes-daunting thickets of Dylan's compositions. He is especially astute at picking apart the musician's rhyme schemes and turns of rhythm, and he is an especially lively and (surprisingly, for an English poetry scholar) playful guide through the mechanics of the work. A chapter doesn't pass without some deft and amusing allusion to other pertinent numbers in the Dylan canon. But the author is less skilled at discussing the meaning and moral weight of the songwriter's oeuvre. Unlike most Dylan pundits, he completely eschews a biographical reading of the texts; while that might open the door for a fresh consideration, Ricks's interpretations often seem too open-ended and airless. The reader-especially one with a nonacademic bent-may ultimately wonder for whom this was written. Its length,intellectual density, and plentiful citations of poets both ancient and contemporary will probably put off all but the most devoted Dylan enthusiasts, while poetry buffs will likely ask themselves if a musician, even one of Dylan's caliber, is worthy of something as weighty as this. A diverting and occasionally revelatory stroll through a master's work, but one that will have a difficult time finding an audience.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dylan's Visions of Sin

By Ricks, Christopher


ISBN: 0060599235

Songs, Poems, Rhymes

Songs, Poems

Dylan has always had a way with words. He does not simply have his way with them, since a true comprehender of words is no more their master, than he or she is their servant. The triangle of Dylan's music, his voice and his unpropitiatory words: this is still his equilateral thinking.

One day a critic may do justice not just to all three of these independent powers, but to their interdependence in Dylan's art. The interdependence doesn't have to be a competition, it is a culmination -- the word chosen by Allen Ginsberg, who could bean awe-inspiring poet and was an endearing awful music-maker, for whom Dylan's songs were "the culmination of Poetry-music as dreamt of in the '50s & early 60s". Dylan himself has answered when asked:

Why are you doing what you're doing?

[Pause] "Because I don't know anything else to do. I'm good at it."

How would you describe "it"?

"I'm an an artist. I try to create art."

What follows this clarity, or follows from it, has been differently put by him over the forty years, finding itself crediting the words and the music variously at various times. The point of juxtaposing his utterances isn't to catch him out, it is to see him catching different emphases in all this, undulating and diverse.


"I consider myself a poet first and a musician second."

"It ain't the melodies that're important man, it's the words."


"Anyway it's the song itself that matters, not the sound of the song. I only look at them musically. I only look at them as things to sing. It's the music that the words are sung to that's important. I write the songs because I need something to sing. It's the difference between the words on paper and the song. The song disappears into the air, the paper stays."


Do you prefer playing acoustic over electric?

"They're pretty much equal to use. I try not to deface the song with electricity or non-electricity. I'd rather get something out of the song verbally and phonetically than depend on tonality of instruments.


Would you say that the words are more important than the music?

"The words are just as important as the music. There would be no music without the words."

"It's not just pretty words to a tune or putting tunes to words, there's nothing that's exploited. The words and the music, I can hear the sound of what I want to say."

"The lyrics to the songs ... just so happens that it might be a little stranger than in most songs. I find it easy to write songs. I have been writing songs for a long time and the words to the songs aren't written out for just the paper, they're written as you can read it, you dig? If you take whatever there is to the song away -- the beat, the melody -- I could still recite it. I see nothing wrong with songs you can't do that with either -- songs that, if you took the beat and melody away, they wouldn't stand up. Because they're not supposed to do that you know. Songs are songs."


Excerpted from Dylan's Visions of Sin by Ricks, Christopher Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Christopher Ricks is a Warren Professor of the Humanities, codirector of the Editorial Institute at Boston University, and a member of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He was formerly professor of English at the universities of Bristol and Cambridge.

Ricks is the author of Milton's Grand Style (1963), Tennyson (second edition, 1989), Keats and Embarrassment (1974), The Force of Poetry (1984), T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988), Beckett's Dying Words (1993), Essays in Appreciation (1996), Allusion to the Poets (2002), and Reviewery (2003). He is also the editor of Poems of Tennyson (second edition, 1987), The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987), A.E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose (1988), Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909–1917 by T.S. Eliot (1996), The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999), Selected Poems of James Henry (2002), and Decisions and Revisions in T.S. Eliot (2003).

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Dylan's Visions of Sin 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is for those who enjoy academic and overzealous analytical writing. It is neither a quick nor enjoyable read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love Bob Dylan's voice and his lyrics. He really can change you with his music. His life is just amazing. He is a wonderful artist with a lot of soul. And his son and his band are my favorite. Breach is my favorite Wallflowers cd. Jacob gets his passion from his dad. Their music will change your life if you give it a chance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sorry but no cigar for this scholar's one o'clock failed attempt. Is there anything more useless than a critic. No one ever built a statue to a critic. Any good Dylan biography is better than this critical mess. Written for academics only. Please enough is enough. Just get the song books and read the lyrics for your self. Stay away from professors. Dylan does. He wont go near them. He hates those who anaylze his works. Anyway there is nothing here that Paul Williams of Crawdaddy didnt cover years ago. Stay clear of this awful tome.