Dylan's Vision of Sin
by Christopher Ricks
(Ecco) $26.95

When it comes to critics writing books about an adored songwriter, it's nearly impossible for the author to avoid taking that rapturous leap into the abyss that is ardent pontification--an especially heinous result given that many of the readers who shell out for the hardback are already seasoned pontificators themselves, so it all makes for an odious cycle that goes on and on, so help us God.

The dust jacket of Christopher Ricks' new extrapolation on poetry (yes, poetry), Dylan's Vision of Sin, is tagged with a quote by the New Yorker's Alex Ross repeating Bob Dylan's opinion that most rock critics are 40-year-olds talking to 10-year-olds. Ross believes "Ricks writes for adults." Glory be! Until this most recent title, Ricks, a literary scholar, has published material focused entirely on poetry, with titles such as Milton's Grand Style, Keats and Embarrassment, and T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, as well as writings on several other notable poets. So to read a book on a singer that focuses specifically on the lyrics rather than the music is a godsend, because it's a different kind of pontification, one that is unsure in tone rather than righteous. Also, it's been my experience that asking contemporary songwriters what their lyrics mean is akin to pulling teeth. Most of the time, they don't want to spoil the listener's personal interpretation, which is admirable to a point. Other times, though, this reluctance is because the lyrics are nothing more than a banal accompaniment to the music. Without any disrespect to his subject, here Ricks cuts out the middleman.

Ricks has a great deal to say about Dylan as poet, and he does it with a good-natured pedantry that often makes the reader, as well as Ricks himself, laugh. He calls out the simplemindedness or mistakes in other books written by rock critics about Dylan, as well as Dylan's own changing interpretations of his songs over the years. Ricks has chosen to focus his book on the seven deadly sins, with chapters dedicated to Dylan's lyrical obsession with each, and he revels in infinite attention to detail (complete with observations of similarities to or inspiration by the works of lauded poets of the past). Anyone from the troubadour's most fervent fan to those who are more lovers of literature will find Ricks' tome a joy to read (despite its daunting page count).

The author defends Dylan as a true poet, arguing that although other scholars have said he is not, it is a preposterous opinion to hold: "The case for denying Dylan the title could not summarily, if at all, be made good by any open-minded close attention to the words and how he plays with them," he writes. Ricks also feels that Dylan's grasp of rhyme, cadence, and punctuation makes him "a performer of genius."

In the section dissecting envy, for instance, Ricks explores "Positively 4th Street," especially the lines "Yes, I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You'd know what a drag/It is to see you" as an example, faced against the earlier line about the reason Dylan wishes the person in question could stand inside his shoes "and just for one moment/I could be you," and ruins any argument that the song is one of contempt rather than envy. Aside from noting that there is a difference between "in my shoes" and "inside my shoes," it is Dylan's repeated use of know that Ricks is fixated on, a word that is meant to be corrosive, says the author, "a two handed engine that stands ready to smite more than once and smite some more."

A chapter on covetousness invokes not only the Bible, but also Samuel Butler when making a case for "Gotta Serve Somebody." With "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," Ricks points out Dylan's similarities to Algernon Charles Swinburne's 1866 poem "Dolores," and while taking on sloth he gets emotional (and rightly so) about "Mr. Tambourine Man" and quibbles over the line "My toes too numb to step." Writes Ricks: "I don't believe you, one is happy to report, since the gait of the song is quite other.... Refreshing and refreshed is how it sounds." He also skewers The Oxford English Dictionary, which concludes that the words "jingle-jangle" are lowly, when clearly in Dylan's hands they are mellifluous adjectives for idleness, a sweet explanation by an author with a mellifluous heart.