Writers and Company

Christopher Ricks on why Bob Dylan is "the greatest living user of the English language"

Literary critic and scholar Christopher Ricks discusses why Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan deserves to be included among the greatest writers of all time.
Christopher Ricks is a British literary critic and scholar who currently teaches at Boston University. (Photo: http://arneisquartet.com/christopher-ricks-lecture/)

On Oct. 13, 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the first singer-songwriter to receive the honour, and the announcement came as a surprise to many, but Dylan's lyrics have been celebrated by literary scholars for decades. In 2005, Eleanor Wachtel spoke with Christopher Ricks, a professor at Boston University and the author of Dylan's Vision of Sin. In the interview, Ricks explains why he regards Dylan as "the greatest living user of the English language," and compares him to such authors as Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Eliot, and — as he puts it — "that Dylanesque writer, William Shakespeare."

Christopher Ricks has written groundbreaking work on Milton, Keats, Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. He was described by W.H. Auden as "the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding." Ricks first wrote about Bob Dylan more than 40 years ago, in 1972.

On March 27, 2020, Dylan published a previously unreleased song called "Murder Most Foul" — his first new release in eight years. The 17-minute song centres on the 1963 assassination of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy. 

What makes Bob Dylan a genius

Dylan has a purpose. There's an extraordinarily powerful sense of mission in him. The generosity of him, in what he gives in the creation of these songs and the performance of these songs, the range and variety of what he has undertaken, the extraordinary balance and reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities — that's what Coleridge says imagination is: a more than usual state of order, with more than usual excitement. And he goes through a whole series of things that would be very, very hard to bring together in the ordinary way. It's genius to be able to put these things together in balance and reconcile them.

On hearing Dylan for the first time

As many people had before and have since, I heard an extraordinary new version, an enduring version, of what Eliot captures in The Waste Land or what Pope, in the 18th century, had captured in The Dunciad: a whole vision of a civilization falling apart. It's surrealist art. Like a lot of the greatest art, it loves combining exact draftsmanship with the amazing or the impossible to visualize. It begins always with something that is simply the case. As so often with good surrealism, you have something that is in touch with a very faithful, down-to-earth and well-observed [reality], and then sees it under an extraordinary aspect.

Why "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is a perfect song

I think it's the relation of its delicacy of feeling to the terrible brutality and indelicacy of what happened. It never mentions that Hattie Carroll is black, it just knows you will know that and it hopes you will think about the implications of your knowing that. The way in which it's come up with a cadence that's given to him purely coincidentally by the names — Hattie Carroll's first and her second name both have unstressed final syllables. The man who killed her, William Zantzinger, has that same pattern. It's a newspaper item that gives him a cadence and a rhythm. There's an extraordinary playing of one thing against another, of black against white, of young against old, of man against woman, of rich against poor, and — simply technically — of one kind of way ending a line against another ending a line. The amplitude of the song, the scale and depth of the song are really extraordinary.

Christopher Rick's comments have been edited and condensed.