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America's Poet?

From the July 5 / July 12, 2004 issue: Bob Dylan's achievement.

Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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Having said that distinguished academics ought not to try and be ingratiating with the young, I pull myself up a bit and realize that true Dylan fans are probably well into their fifties by now. It must have been in 1965 that I first heard what Philip Larkin called, in a quasi-respectful review of Highway 61 Revisited, his "cawing, derisive voice." And it will be with me until my last hour. Some of this is context. The "sixties" didn't really begin until after the Kennedy assassination (or "Nineteen Sixty-Three," as Larkin had it in another reference), and Bob Dylan was as good a handbook for what was supposedly happening as Joseph Heller. Much of it of course also had to do with the sappiness, in both "sap" senses, of adolescence. Yet even at the time, I was somehow aware that Dylan wasn't all that young, and didn't take "youth" at its face value. A good number of his best songs were actually urging you to grow up, or at any rate to get real. Dylan respected his elders, most notably Woody Guthrie. And he was braced for disillusionment. How does it feel? Don't think twice, it's all right. It's all over now, baby blue. I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.

Ricks essentially wants to argue that Dylan has always been swayed by the elders and that his verses consistently defer to the authorities. How else to explain, for example, the many latent affinities between "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and the Book of Ezekiel? The kings of Tyre, the dying music, the futility of earthly possessions. . . . That's Covetousness taken care of, with Pride (or at any rate hubris) given a passing whack into the bargain. Six sins to go.

Ricks has no success with Greed (as he admits) and not much with Sloth, either. There is a good deal of anomie and fatalism in Dylan; a fair amount of shrugging and dismissal and an abiding sense of waste and, equally often, of loss. It's pervasive but nonspecific in "Time Passes Slowly," which Ricks interrogates without any great profit. So I pushed on to "Lust," and was taken aback.

"Lay, Lady, Lay" is one of the great sexual entreaties, and it has in common with "I Want You" and "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" a highly ethical reliance on the force of gentle persuasion. There is no blackmail, moral or otherwise, and no hint of a threat or even a scene in the event of nonconsummation. But nor is there any doubt of what the minstrel wants: His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean. / And you're the best thing that he's ever seen. Of this false modesty and abject flattery, Ricks astonishingly says that "his hands are clean because he is innocent, free of sin: no lust, for all the honest desire, and no guile." Had Dylan written "his clothes are dirty but his mind is clean," this might have been believable. And is there no guile in the succeeding stanza?

Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile

Why wait any longer for the world to begin?

You can have your cake and eat it too.

Why wait any longer for the one you love

When he's standing in front of you?

Ricks then moves to a laborious comparison with Donne's "On His Mistress Going To Bed," at which point I thought, well, as soon as I turn the page he'll stop clearing his throat and make the obvious metaphysical connection to Andrew Marvell and "To His Coy Mistress." But no. And here's the clue to Ricks's method. The words "bed," "show," "see," "man," "hands," "world" he says all appear in both Donne and Dylan, while the words "unclothed" and "lighteth" appear in Donne, balanced by "clothes" and "light" in Dylan.