(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

Christopher Ricks is a well-known literary critic who has previously published penetrating studies of John Milton, John Keats, and T. S. Eliot, among other English poets. Now he has turned the full arsenal of his critical intelligence on the songs of Bob Dylan, including both the poetic form and the emotional and intellectual content of these lyrics. The result, Dylan's Visions of Sin, is a stimulating study which will send Dylan fans back to the songs with a fresh appreciation for the singer-songwriter's genius.

As his title suggests, Ricks sees Dylan as an essentially moral or religious songwriter, an artist who raises fundamental human questions about belief, behavior, and values in his songs, and the structure of the study follows this view. The first two chapters set up the framework within which Ricks will discuss Dylan. The first chapter, “Sins, Virtues, Heavenly Graces,” lays out Ricks's central understanding that Dylan writes songs “in which sins are laid bare (and resisted), virtues are valued (and manifested), and the graces brought home.” In particular, Ricks argues, these songs often exemplify the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues, and the three heavenly graces of religious belief.

The second chapter shifts from the content to the complex form of Dylan's poetry and explains the tools of poetic analysis Ricks employs, the examination not only of rhyme and rhythm but the linguistic devices of alliteration, assonance, consonance, and so on, as well. Ricks validates this analytical method with a five-page reading of the twentieth century British poet Philip Larkin's “Love Songs in Age.” Ricks, in short, discusses Dylan the same way he has discussed Milton, John Donne, Eliot, and other poets he has written about in the previous forty years. He sees Dylan's songs as carrying messages of ethical and religious significance, and he analyzes their form for the nuance and complexity expected in the work of any serious poet. In more than five hundred pages, Ricks subjects Dylan's lyrics to exhaustive and penetrating exegeses.

The plan of the book follows this fundamental view of Dylan's work. Seven chapters cover the deadly sins: envy, covetousness, greed, sloth, lust, anger, and pride, and each chapter usually includes analyses of from two to five of Dylan's songs, both the substance of their messages and the subtleties of their expression. (In one case, Ricks asserts that there are no songs of any kind about greed in Dylan's opus—which does not keep him from writing five pages about related matters.) Each song analysis can run from ten to fifteen pages, and each page usually contains in addition several footnotes to other poets (such as Donne; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and Gerard Manley Hopkins) to biblical passages or to other studies of poetry which only confirm Ricks's elevation of Dylan to the pantheon of poetic art.

The second third of the book contains chapters on the four cardinal virtues (justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude), and the last third covers the three heavenly graces (faith, hope, and charity), and these seven chapters contain examinations of some of Dylan's best-known songs. (The appendices list some 170 Dylan song titles Ricks mentions or considers—of the five hundred or so Dylan has penned—and he probably examines only a quarter of those fully in this study, from “Song to Woody” in 1962 through “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1964 to “Hurricane” in 1975 and “Handy Dandy” in 1990.) The reader finishes Dylan's Visions of Sin with a new understanding and appreciation of Dylan's genius.

The heart of the study lies in the analyses themselves, and these are the best place to see what Ricks has accomplished here. His first full-scale discussion under “envy” is of “Song to Woody,” which appeared on Dylan's first album in 1962 (one of only two songs Dylan himself penned for that record), and which is, of course, a tribute to the legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie. Ricks reprints the entire song and uses his analysis to highlight the sin of envy, mainly how Dylan avoids it. The reading of “Positively 4th Street” (1965) highlights the song's praise of friendship over pride and includes a complex examination of the song's musical and verbal structure and counterpoint. Likewise, his discussion of the later (1983) “Blind Willie McTell,” a tribute to another earlier folk performer Dylan admires, illustrates the same sin, but here the analysis is bolstered by serious comparisons to Milton and...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)