In 2003, Richard F. Thomas, classics professor at Harvard, proposed a course on Dylan to the freshman seminar program board. It was approved with some trepidation. One member remarked incredulously if students were going to listen to Highway 61 Revisited. Another reportedly defended the idea, comparing Dylan to T.S. Eliot, almost. The course was approved and has been running since. But this can be taken to be something of a precursor to the reactions around the world when, in October 2016, the Nobel Committee announced their decision to give Dylan the Nobel in literature. Many were gleeful at the news, but more than a few questioned it. The Irish critic Edna Longley termed it “an insult to real poets”.
Thomas isn’t a sceptic, however, when it comes to weighing Dylan’s work against the many deserving (and few undeserving) writers who have been bestowed the Nobel before him. Here, he marries his academic credentials as someone who knows his Greek and Latin backwards with his deep involvement in Dylan’s music for half-a-century—his book is a fan’s book to begin with, but also demonstrates the academic ability to prise out from Dylan’s considerable oeuvre meanings and inferences that hark back to Virgil, Ovid, Catullus and the other past masters, who are known to the public only by their exalted names.
The book’s thesis is simple: Dylan’s body of work is comparable to the ancient poets of Rome and Greece. Ergo, his Nobel is well-deserved and his work, much more than the stuff of mere ‘popular music’ and therefore, Nobel-undeserving, according to some. By presenting us with a lengthy discussion of Dylan’s lyrics and many comparisons with the poetry of great classical poets, Thomas makes his case gently, but firmly.
Beginning with talking about the songs of his first phase (1961-65), marking him out as a worthy successor to his predecessors in the American folk song tradition, Thomas patiently snakes his way through the songs of all of Dylan’s phases, ferreting out the many connections (and there are many) that lend credence to his thesis. By way of evidence for his thesis beyond just the words and themes of his songs, Thomas also offers several interesting snippets.
This is a fan’s book, but it demonstrates the academic ability to prise out from Dylan’s entire oeuvre inferences that hark back to Virgil, Ovid, Catullus and other classical poets.
One such snippet is about Dylan’s first trip to Rome in January 1963, which in popular lore was ostensibly to pursue a girl he was involved with, but Thomas hypothesises that it wasn’t so. The girl was already back in the States. The trip even resulted in a song called Goin’ Back to Rome, something that has fallen off the Dylan map and is now preserved only on a bootleg recording. In Thomas’s telling though, it appears that the song deserves a closer look for the clues it provides to Dylan’s connections with the ancient Romans (as also a few details about the nature of his involvement with the girl, Suze Rotolo).
More than one chapter details how Dylan has extensively reworked lines from the Roman poets and other more recent ones too, as we learn. One such stanza that unmistakably comes from Virgil and that Thomas presents on one more than occasion, is from Lonesome Day Blues. The lines: I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd/I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered/I’m gonna tame the proud, clearly hark back to these lines from the Aeneid: But yours will be the rulership of nations; Remember, Roman, these will be your arts: to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer; to spare defeated peoples, to tame the proud. There are several other instances that are littered throughout the book.
Why Dylan Matters is equally a book that one could read to understand the making of the artiste. Dylan himself has spoken very little about how he writes, preferring to leave it to critics to flesh those details out, without bothering to confirm their veracity. Thomas hits the road to go back to Dylan’s roots in Hibbing, Minnesota, where he grew up and went to high school and detailing his early involvement with the Latin club, the movies that he is likely to have watched at that time and so on, thus enabling us to make something of the influences that a young Dylan is likely to have imbibed.
Thomas is a fan. He is also someone who teaches the Classics. In Why Dylan Matters, he brings together leisure and work. It’s a merry achievement to link traditions separated in time by almost a couple of thousand years. Thomas pulls it off, almost.