Simon McAslan teaches English Literature (including a course on Bob Dylan) at Vanier College in Montreal. He is currently writing a book on Dylan.
Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, whenever Bob Dylan was mentioned in the context of academic English studies, invariably someone would question the relevance of Dylan as a poet, attempting to diminish the importance of Dylan's work and to ensure that the canon was protected.
Over the past few decades, however, the canon of what is considered literature has been broken down and opened up, becoming more inclusive and diverse. Literature seems now as vast as life itself. The definition of literature has changed from works that are morally uplifting to works that express what it means to be a human being in all our complexity.
Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, is quite simply the most important literary artist of our time. His use of language is extraordinary, and he has created a substantial body of poetic work unlike any other. Although his primary medium is music and performance, his transcribed work demonstrates a sophisticated poetic sensibility and skill. His poetry is primarily concerned with the interplay of words: figures of speech, rhyme, diction, and an awareness of language as both a form of expression and as a thing in itself; the language of poetry is both the cart and the load. Dylan comes from a tradition of performing poets, going all the way back to the minstrels reciting their poems to music. The live performances of his songs often have variant lyrics that sometimes are drastically altered.
The notion of the oral and the written is always at play in Dylan's work, whether as counterparts or counterpoints. Dual or treble meanings of homophones are not necessarily mutually exclusive; in fact, often the denotations and connotations of a single word or phrase create an interpretation larger than either of the individual definitions. Of course, this relationship between the seen and the heard is by no means unique to Dylan; it is one of the fundamental aspects of poetry itself. What does distinguish Dylan from many other poets, though, is that his words exist primarily in an oral context, the supplement of which is the written text. His live performances, his unreleased studio recordings, his out-takes, are all versions that offer not only variant lyrics but also necessarily variant meanings since the base text itself is altered. Dylan's songs are mutable, in constant flux.
To understand why Bob Dylan's work is important, we should consider not just a handful of songs that he wrote in his 20s (brilliant though those pieces were) but his writing as a whole, following his recurring themes, styles and techniques, as they have changed throughout his career. His 2012 album Tempest, for example, is remarkably different from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, although it still contains echoes of that very early album. Bob Dylan is a major writer in English literature, rather than just a "the voice of his generation" who wrote several influential songs in the 1960s. Dylan will most likely always be remembered for these songs, since they were so powerful and came at a crucial time in American history, but his really revolutionary act is reclaiming poetry and redefining it; and it is precisely for doing this that Dylan has been firmly placed as one of the most important figures in the history of English literature.
In his entire writing career of over 50 years, we can acknowledge the importance of the wonderful songs from the 1960s, but we should also consider his most recent and – arguably – strongest work from 1997 to the present. These latter works are those of a master craftsman with a poet's eye and skill. Dylan's work has changed from the minimalism of songs like Blowin' in the Wind and Oxford Town (both from 1963), through the use of symbols and imagery in A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (1963) and Jokerman (1983), to the intertextuality of Desolation Row (1965) and Early Roman Kings (2012). There really is no denying that the work he created in his first decade was important, essential and wonderful stuff. This is when his brilliance emerged, when he caught fire and invited the world to blaze with him; this is also when he was then trapped, frozen, preserved. His early songs were a reflection of his times, and many of them were considered "protest" songs since they overtly spoke out against injustice. When Dylan went electric in 1965, many people felt betrayed and considered Dylan to have abandoned them. It could be argued, though, that when he plugged in, his words too became more electric as the breadth of his vision expanded.
People accept on faith that Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever in the English language, precisely because he actually is the greatest. Unfortunately, with Bob Dylan, we are dealing with a different fish altogether. I am using Shakespeare not as a parallel to Dylan in some devious way to imply that Dylan is as great a writer as Shakespeare, but rather to shine a light on understanding the importance of Dylan's contribution to literature. Because of the ways in which he has redefined what poetic literature is, he has often been called "the Shakespeare of our time." Like Shakespeare, he writes most of his work primarily to be heard and performed, not read. In the same way that focusing on A Comedy of Errors rather than on King Lear and The Tempest would not give a full picture of Shakespeare, associating Dylan only with his early songs would also leave us bereft.
His early songs, though, are powerful. Perhaps his best known piece from that time is Blowin' in the Wind, a song that in three short verses manages to encapsulate the struggles against war, racism, and injustice, without telling us what to do or think, but demanding that we do think. He uses metaphor and symbol to capture the trials of his age – and ours too. With no reference to anything that sets the song in 1963, the speaker asks us not only "how many times" these things will happen, but more importantly he asks how long can we let this happen. And he leaves the questions of responsibility for us to answer. Dylan never underestimates the intelligence of his audience. All his songs ask the same thing in different ways: what do you think? how does it feel? And they ask us to answer these questions ourselves. In essence, Dylan is always asking, What is it to be human?
In a 2015 interview, Dylan said, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd be a schoolteacher – probably Roman history or theology." That he would want to be a teacher is telling, particularly because it seems he has already been doing that. One song that especially embodies both of Dylan's pedagogical specializations is Early Roman Kings from his 2012 album Tempest, the title of which he was quick to point out bears no similarities to Shakespeare's: "[His] last play was called The Tempest. It wasn't called just plain "Tempest." The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It's two different titles." The title of the song hints at theological concerns, in its allusion to Romans and Kings in the Bible. Perhaps, then, Early Roman Kings might have less to do with the early kings of Rome and more with the Bronx gang called Roman Kings, less with worldly governance and more with spiritual transgression and redemption. However, like many Dylan songs, perhaps it is all these things.
Like many of his songs, time and place shift and morph. In the first verse, we are told that the "early Roman kings" wear "sharkskin suits . . . bow ties and buttons . . . high top boots," only the latter of which might actually pertain to ancient Rome. This anachronistic opening to the song invites us to embrace the possibilities of multiple notions of not only Roman kings, but the words early, Roman and kings.
The word early has several definitions, and its connection to the other words and to the song suggest even more. The Roman kings in the song, then, could be any of these, all the way from "the initial stage of a historical period" to being "near at hand; imminent." This song conflates past, present and future, owing not only to anachronisms throughout, but also to the nuances of the word early itself. The lyrics also draw attention to this word, by repeating it in the first line of the second verse: "All the early Roman kings in the early early morn," a repetition that perhaps gives a nod to Little Richard's line in Good Golly Miss Molly, "from the early early morning to the early early night."
The lines "Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings / I'm gonna break it wide open like the early Roman kings" allude to Nero, not a Roman king and certainly not the earliest of the Roman emperors (who were much later than the kings). In this allusion, Dylan seems to be conflating the notion of the kings and emperors, kingdom and empire; this song evoking the past becomes very much a song for our times.
Bob Dylan is not the voice of his generation; he is a poet whose work has continued beyond his initial star status of the 1960s – both acoustic and electric – and resonates today. As Ben Jonson said of William Shakespeare, "He was not of an age, but for all time!"