Review: Dylan's Visions of Sin and Reviewery by Christopher Ricks

The lack of context is more of a problem in Christopher Ricks's latest paean to Bob Dylan, Dylan's Visions of Sin, than in his collection of essays, Reviewery, says Andrew Motion

Dylan's Visions of Sin
by Christopher Ricks
517pp, Viking, £25

by Christopher Ricks
385pp, Penguin, £9.99

Good critics lead double lives. On the one hand they are conservators, bent on preserving and interpreting the past. On the other hand they are pioneers, breaking open the present and telling us what matters. Christopher Ricks has combined the roles better than most. His early books on Milton, Tennyson and Keats gave wonderfully acute re-readings of past masters, but for the past 40-odd years he has also been a sharp reviewer of new things; he was quick to spot Seamus Heaney, and to see what mattered most about Larkin.

But his reputation as an adventurer-critic depends mainly on his writing about Bob Dylan. To start with, this provoked a good deal of antagonism, even disbelief. What was he doing deserting the groves of academe for someone so...well, so popular? A rock star. Or at best a folk singer, whose surrealist rhymes made a very different kind of sense, and maybe none at all, when compared with "poetry proper". Had Ricks lost the plot? Or was he just being trendy? To make matters worse, Dylan himself seemed opposed to the whole enterprise, lashing out at critics whenever the occasion presented itself. "The Ballad of a Thin Man" introduces the thin end of a thick wedge, as Neil Corcoran reminded us last year in the collection of essays about Dylan he called Do You, Mr Jones: "You walk into the room / With your pencil in your hand / You see somebody naked / And you say 'Who is that man?'/ You try so hard / But you don't understand / Just what you'll say / When you get home."

The whole business seemed all the more risky since Ricks made no distinction between the critical language he used for Keats et al, and the one he applied to Dylan. And no one else writes criticism like Ricks. Over the years he has evolved from someone who took a pretty plain approach to things into a supreme dandy. He doesn't so much analyse as dance (one hand waving free). He opens a text by pestering it with puns, allusions and jokes. He relishes its layerings and simultaneous meanings. He is as finely tuned to alternatives as actualities. His close readings make most other peoples' look standoffish.

His enemies - and he has a few - accuse him of having more manner than substance; of writing pages that are a kind of substitute for the ones they're meant to grapple with; of being competitive rather than properly complicit. His admirers feel they've been taken inside the cave of making, rather than left at the cave's mouth and handed privileged information. And what's his response to the controversy? He's kept on keeping on, making his style even more self-consciously stylish, and his advocacy of Dylan even more adamant.

Dylan's Visions of Sin is a labour of love, and a proof that he's won (though not by himself) the argument about his man. These days no one would think - would they? - that it's doubtfully transgressive or suspiciously cool to call Dylan a genius. Perhaps for this reason one of the most exciting things about the book is its air of vindication. "I've told you before, and now I'm going to tell you good," it seems to say at the outset, before unspooling at great length and with a mixture of skittishness and seriousness heady even by Ricks's standards.

The rewards are just as one would expect: a bracing attention to artfulness, a wonderful sensitivity to nuance, and a particularly brilliant sympathy with the purpose and effect of Dylan's rhymes. The big figures in Ricks's pantheon - Empson, Eliot and (yes) Keats - are repeatedly invoked to give a context other than the ones in which Dylan usually appears, and generous attention is given to less familiar songs as well as the more famous ones.

The overall structure, too, is appropriately fixed and capacious: realising that "the word 'sin' haunts [Dylan's] songs" Ricks gives seven chapters on the deadly sins themselves, four on the virtues, and three on the heavenly graces. In each case, he discusses lyrics that illustrate the theme in question - "Song to Woody", "Positively 4th Street", "Blind Willie McTell" and "Handy Dandy" for envy, "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" for covetousness, and so on. Just as the governing idea of embarrassment in his Keats book allowed him to keep a clear end in view and also to wander, so these divisions maintain a definite shape while making space for diversions, asides and elaborations.

Inevitably the book raises some general issues, especially about writing that is fundamental to Dylan: the Bible heritage, the folk heritage, and the moral universes of these things. But it's the close readings that matter most. Conceding that some songs are what Dylan called "chains of flashing images" and others are more like "novels...I can my head a lot", Ricks burrows down through their multiple levels, more concerned to revel in variety than emerge with a single definitive meaning. And where he detects a specific text behind Dylan's own - which is often the case - he resurrects it to complicate things even more resonantly. (The chapter on "Not Dark Yet" and Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" is a case in point.) If Ricks did any of this solemnly it would travesty the original - but while some of his passages will seem fantastical to sceptics, no one will think them po-faced. Visions of Sin wears a smile of concentration throughout.

But there's a price to pay. As Ricks's admirers would expect, and his detractors too, there's precious little in the way of background: almost no biographical context or interest in mapping the political, social and domestic aspects of the songs. There are times when he comes close to admitting there might be something dodgy in Dylan's attitude to women, and others when he squares up to the born-again Christian phase. But as a general rule Dylan's words are left blowing in the wind of their own making, or in the slipstream of other writers' words. It makes for a form of criticism that has all the merits of purity, but can also feel partial - vulnerable to the charges of airy-fairyness that Ricks's opponents have frequently made against him.

There's a particular problem when it comes to the relationship between Dylan's words and his tunes (and how he sings them). In his opening chapter Ricks speaks about the ways in which Dylan does and doesn't see them as being interdependent, but when it comes to analysis we're invited to think of them as page-poems before anything else. We don't hear enough about the quality of Dylan's voice, about how his voice changes between different versions and across time, about the connections between meaning and inflection. It's a significant lack.

Reviewery , which in all but one of its sections concentrates on writers, doesn't have this problem - though the other, missing contexts, remains an issue. For all that, it's a big-hearted and heartening collection, tight in its focus and large in its scope. There are sections on "Lives", "Arguments", "Critics" and "Novelists and Poets" as well as "Other Arts", and in each of them Ricks shows an exemplary "custody of the eyes". (The phrase is Hopkins's, for whom it meant the penance of looking nowhere but at the ground: for Ricks it means revelation.)

Given the shimmer and scintillation of his own style, the writers who benefit most from his attentions are those who share his qualities - Hopkins, James, Joyce, Beckett, Eliot, Compton-Burnett. Their blend of density and lightness is the grist in his mill. But he's also very good on those who deal with the world differently - Larkin and Brian Moore, for instance - allowing us to appreciate the delicate shades of feeling that lie within and behind their comparatively plain façades. The reason, once again, has to do with concentration. Although Ricks's style always draws attention to itself, it does not come between him and his subjects. "No criticism," he says in a smart essay about John Crowe Ransom, "is long worth much that does not arise from and return to the words." His own practice exactly.

· Andrew Motion's latest collection of poetry is Public Property (Faber).

Andrew Motion

The GuardianTramp

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