Books: Echoes of the ancients

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: February 6, 2018 Last modified: February 7, 2018

Why Dylan Matters
by Richard F Thomas
William Collins £12.99

In her 1974 song ‘Diamonds and Rust’, Joan Baez sang of Bob Dylan, ‘You, who are so good with words and at keeping things vague.’ In turn Dylan described Baez as ‘a Siren. You’d have to get yourself strapped to the mast like Odysseus and plug up your ears so you wouldn’t hear. She’d make you forget who you were.’

In Why Dylan Matters, Dylanologist and professor of classics at Harvard, Richard Thomas, attempts to explicate Dylan’s ambiguity by panning the diamonds from the rust, and in doing so, prove his thesis that Dylan is the inheritor of the revered poets of antiquity, Ovid, Virgil, and Homer too.

Slipping seamlessly from fandom to professorial and the tenuous to the compelling, Thomas takes us from Dylan’s membership of his high school Latin club, and Saturday mornings spent watching Hollywood’s Roman epics The Robe and King of Kings at the movie theatre owned by his uncle, through to the lyrical musings on lost love he shares with the poet Catullus. On that basis every lyricist in the history of popular song could be said to have chanelled the muse of the ancients, but none has articulated that muse as enduringly as Dylan. Thomas argues that the devil lies in the detail, or more precisely in the structure of Dylan’s work.

With a level of forensic analysis more commonly associated with the business of digging actual things out of the ground Thomas, an expert in intertextuality, juxtaposes the greatest of Dylan’s songs, with works of the canonical poets, and finds a remarkably high incidence of appropriation. TS Elliot famously remarked that ‘Immature poets borrow. Mature poets steal,’ a line Thomas himself borrows to head a chapter in which he details many of these acts of larceny. In The Aeneid Virgil writes:
Remember Romans, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer.
To spare defeated peoples. Tame the proud.
In ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ Dylan sings:
I’m going to spare the defeated – I’m gonna speak to the crowd.
I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered
I’m going to tame the proud.

In Virgil’s allusion to the civil wars fought by Julius Caesar, Aeneas disregards his father’s counsel and goes on to kill his defeated enemy anyway. Thomas believes Dylan was writing about Vietnam, the war of his own generation but concludes that ‘once we recognise the Virgilian intertext …something happens to the song’s meaning … Rome and America merge and make the song about no war and every war, as happens so often with Dylan’s lack of specificity around time and place in his songwriting’.

Later in this book Thomas argues that Dylan’s method of composition is not mere quotation or citation. ‘Rather it is a creative act involving the transfiguring of song and of literature and of characters going back through Rome to Homer.’

Dylan’s lack of specificity in general means that any attempt at biography (and this is a biography of sorts) is akin to picking mercury off the floor with your fingertips, but Thomas’ dedication to the task he has set himself never wavers.

Of course every thesis proves an antithesis, and at times while reading Why Dylan Matters I couldn’t help but feel Thomas’ reductionism obscures the essential genius of Dylan’s art, rather than making it more accessible. But then, as an academic who founded Harvard’s first course on Dylan perhaps that was Thomas’ intention. Certainly as I listened again to the title track of Dylan’s masterful 2012 album Tempest  (containing 45 verses, it is long enough to read the entire chapter ‘Dylan and Ancient Rome’ while you listen) I was so caught up in the references to Juvenal I barely noticed the sinking of the Titanic, which is what the song is actually about.

That is not to say that even the casual Dylan fan (if such a thing exists) won’t find this trip from Hibbing, Minesotta to the Colosseum, Rome anything less than captivating. “I’m a long time a ‘coming” sang Dylan. But probably no longer than this book, which you sense Thomas has been working towards his entire professional life.

The awarding in 2016 of Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature can be seen not only as vindicaction for the Harvard professor but for every fan who recognises Dylan as the greatest lyric poet of our time. Indeed in his chapter on Dylan’s performance Thomas likens the buzz surrounding Dylan’s shows to the excitement of  ‘getting ready for the visit of the itinerant lyre players of ancient Greece’. And from the Greek for lyre we get ‘guitar’. And lyrics.

One poet not mentioned in Thomas’ suberb analysis is Byron, who said, “I wish to tune my quivering lyre / to deeds of fame and notes of fire’. It’s hard to believe those words were not somewhere in the back of Dylan’s mind, as he eventually turned up to collect his Nobel prize.
In his acceptance speech, and well aware of the debate raging about the merits of his award, or even the definition of literature, Dylan displayed great humour in referencing not the Romans, or the Greeks, but Shakespeare: ‘The thought he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of things. “How should this be staged? … Do I really want to set this in Denmark?….Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was “Is this literature?”‘

Thomas’ outstanding, eminently readable, and beautifully bound work, answers that question in relation to his subject with a resounding ‘Yes’. Dylan matters. Emphatically.


About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist