Book Review: Phases & Stages

Sheet music

Phases & Stages

Dylan's Visions of Sin

by Christopher Ricks

Ecco, 517 pp., $26.95

In May, while Dylan's people were putting the finishing touches on his upcoming minor league baseball stadium tour with Willie Nelson – making sure yogurt, raisins, and Wild Turkey are on the rider at Applebee's Park in Lexington, Ky., possibly – Christopher Ricks became professor of poetry at the University of Oxford. During the past four decades, the 70-year-old author, teacher, and editor has written expertly and eloquently on the likes of Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Beckett, and most notably, Eliot. His most recent undertaking, however, concerns a 63-year-old singer-songwriter whose latest pronouncement was as follows: "What we aim to do with this tour is hit the ball out of the park, touch all the bases, and get home safely." You could almost hear Harold Bloom's chins quivering. As it turns out, guardians of the canon needn't have worried: Ricks' refraction of Dylan's work through the prism of the seven deadly sins (why and how "Positively 4th Street," for instance, evokes Envy), the four cardinal virtues ("The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Justice), and the four heavenly graces ("One Too Many Mornings," Hope) within the contextual legacy of the Romantics is convincing, although what results is less a major achievement than a major release. As befits literary criticism, Ricks' appreciation is an almost strictly textual one, and as such all but ignores notions of influence and environment, not to mention the illumination that, say, Paul Butterfield's guitar or Richard Manuel's piano provide. Ricks is up front about all of this, though – he essentially sets himself up for failure – and to the professor's credit, Visions, albeit full of faulty digressions, bad fanboy puns, and missed opportunities, is a fascinating excavation, and a welcome one. "An unclear story is the point," writes the author about the underrated "Handy Dandy," off of 1990's Under the Red Sky, "with sharp vignettes glimpsed within the murk. ... Many sins, and some guilt perhaps, and all this then set against a disconcerting reminder of innocence." Thus a 500-page case becomes a far shorter one.

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