Posts Tagged ‘Ovid’

Thomas: Why Bob Dylan Matters

October 10, 2018

Why Bob Dylan Matters
Richard F. Thomas
(Dey Street, 2017)
368 p.

Book publishers know their business, and no doubt the title of this book will succeed in drawing readers. It worked for me, and it is apropos: certainly the author believes that Bob Dylan does matter. But a more informative title might have been Dylan and Greco-Roman Poetry, or even Intertextuality as a Literary Device in the Works of Bob Dylan. But books bearing such titles might remain on the shelf, unread, and that would be a shame.

The principal argument of the book is that Dylan’s penchant for drawing on traditional songs in his own songs — a practice well established and recognized as part of his art — has expanded, especially in the last two decades, to an engagement with the poets of classical antiquity, and especially with Ovid, Virgil, and Homer. It’s a startling claim on first blush, perhaps, but Thomas makes a convincing case, and he knows whereof he speaks: he is George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard, an accomplished Virgilian, and trustee of the Loeb Classical Library. (In a fit of distraction, I wondered if, given his interest in popular music, he might prefer to be George Martin Penny Lane Professor?)

The evidence comes from the last three collections of original songs: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012). This in itself makes the book interesting and valuable; it is the only book on Dylan of which I am aware (though, admittedly, there are many that have escaped my notice) that focuses principally on this period.

Thomas first suspected that Dylan might be taking an interest in the classics when he heard “Lonesome Day Blues”, from “Love and Theft”, in which one of the stanzas is:

“I’m gonna spare the defeated
I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud”

which reminded him of a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid, in which Virgil writes:

“Remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
To spare the defeated peoples, tame the proud.”
(Aeneid, Bk VI)

It can’t be a coincidence, and it was intriguing enough that he began listening to the new songs with ears open to further allusions to classical poetry. These efforts were bountifully rewarded with Modern Times. By his estimation, the songs on that record make over 30 references to the exile poems of Ovid. And on the most recent record, Tempest, Thomas finds numerous references to passages in Homer’s Odyssey woven into the fabric of the songs. The same record has a song, “Early Roman Kings”, that leans toward making an interest in antiquity overt.

Given this evidence, a few questions arise. One, perhaps, is a doubt: is it possible that, on the principle that one wielding a hammer sees nails, a classics professor might hear echoes of antique poets that are not really there? If there were but one or two examples, this doubt might be worth entertaining, but having reviewed the evidence Thomas provides, I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that Dylan is actually doing this.

Indeed, among the most interesting aspects of the book is Thomas’ further argument that this interest in antiquity is not new for Dylan. The evidence extends beyond the texts of his songs. For instance, we learn that back in Hibbing, MN, when young Dylan was still Robert Zimmermann, he was a member of his school’s Latin Club, and in 1963, on his first trip to Europe to play for the BBC, he afterwards took a flight to Rome, where he stayed for a few days, plausible evidence that he had a special interest in the city. There is even an early, unofficial song called “Goin’ Back to Rome” (in which, winsomely, Dylan contrives to rhyme “Colosseum” with “always see ’em”).

There is not much evidence from Dylan’s early and middle career that he was thinking of things Greek or Roman. We have “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, which is set in Rome, and Thomas informs us that in draft “Changing of the Guards” has a stanza that seems to have Virgil’s famous fourth Eclogue in mind, but beyond that the pickings are slim.

Yet, consistent with the book’s overall thesis, the evidence picks up since 2000. Dylan has chosen Rome as the site for a number of major press conferences in these years and, even more interesting, the playlists for his concerts in the city have differed radically from those he played in other cities. There does seem to be something special about the place for him. The image on the cover of Tempest is of a statue of Minerva; this same statue is on stage with Dylan on his recent tours. In interviews he has hinted that his most recent work might be rooted further back in history than the folk traditions of American music that everyone associates with him, making references to “the ten hundreds”, or times when “people had only one name”. As always with Dylan, his interviews are elliptical performances, very much part of a cat-and-mouse game with the reporters and fans, and hard to interpret, but it is plausible, at least, that he might be dropping clues for those who have ears to hear.

The bigger question is: why is he doing this? The first part of an answer has to be that, in a sense, this is nothing new for him. His songs have always been in conversation with the folk tradition, with the blues, and with the Bible; fragments of old songs have been worked into his own songs from the beginning. This is an act of creative appropriation of the tradition. We don’t think of his songs as pastiches because he has made these sources his own, and his own artistic voice can be heard through them. A good recent example is “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, which, as Thomas makes clear, is a veritable tapestry of references to Woody Guthrie songs and old folk songs collected by Alan Lomax, yet the result is a powerfully unified original song. As T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In these songs, Dylan steals.

So, granted that he has an established history of creatively stealing from other sources, why has he begun to steal from the Greco-Roman poets? Here, I think, any answer has to be tentative. Perhaps, as Thomas argues, the exile poems of Ovid that pervade the songs on Modern Times appeal to Dylan because he feels himself to be in exile in the world, cut off by his celebrity and his itinerant life from normal relationships and a home. Likewise, perhaps the Odyssey is important to him because he, too, travels the world with nowhere to rest. Perhaps. Or perhaps it is simply that, having spent his life writing verse and song, he has felt an attraction to returning to the original sources of the poetic tradition within which he has worked. In any case, I find it heartening to think that Dylan is grappling with the legacy of these poets, absorbing and transmuting them through his own distinctive artistic pursuits.

I have said that Thomas is a distinguished classicist, and evidently he is also an avid Dylanologist. The great danger to such enthusiasts, that uncritical acclaim I call Dylanitis, is occasionally in evidence, as when he describes Dylan’s widely panned film Masked and Anonymous as “hugely underrated”. But, on the other hand, people who don’t love Dylan don’t write books about him, so we simply keep a few grains of salt on hand, and take one when, for instance, we read that Dylan compares with Eliot in his genius for appropriating the Western tradition.

There is plenty of backward and forward in the book’s argument, which is not presented as neatly as I’ve tried to make it here, and not all of the book’s contents are straightforwardly related to its thesis. At times Thomas pursues a particular line of inquiry at a length beyond what would be perfectly judicious by classical standards. At a few points the book’s argument seems to circle back on itself, with the same evidence coming up again. The result is a book that feels a bit of a jumble, but a jumble of good things. There is a fascinating section, for instance, on the wonderful song “Highlands”, which is obviously in conversation with Robert Burns, but also, Thomas argues, with Dylan’s own “Tangled Up in Blue”. There is an excellent analysis of Dylan’s “autobiography” Chronicles, Vol.1, which, following Clinton Heylin, Thomas considers to be a cunningly constructed blend of truth and fiction, and there is a very good discussion of Dylan’s Nobel speech (which, given the attention it pays to Odysseus, could also be marshalled as evidence of Dylan’s interest in the classics).

When I picked up the book I thought I would simply glance through it, but once I began reading I became interested in the argument, and was happy to read the whole thing. Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it has convinced me to listen again to the most recent albums, which, with the exception of Time Out of Mind, I have not loved. I approach them now with fresh ears.


For an envoi, here is the song that sparked this line of thinking: “Lonesome Day Blues”.

Ovid: Metamorphoses

September 30, 2012

Publius Ovidius Naso
(Norton, 2004) [8 A.D.]
Translated from the Latin by Charles Martin
623 p.

Of course I have known that Ovid is counted among the most important Latin poets, and I had planned, in a hazy way, to read him someday. Then, when reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, I was surprised to see Lewis remark that the most important sources for understanding the art and literature of the Middle Ages are the Bible, Virgil, and Ovid. At that, I bumped Metamorphoses forward in my reading queue, and at last I have completed it.

The organizing premise of the work is well-known: Ovid recounts stories in which the characters undergo some sort of change — usually, but not always, a literal change of shape. Since such stories were common in the annals of Greek and Latin mythology, the poem serves as an idiosyncratic whirlwind tour of the mythological corpus. Some of these stories were familiar to me — Orpheus and Eurydice, Icarus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Narcissus, Midas — but most were not, and reading them has been a good, if steep, education.

While I wouldn’t describe Ovid as a comic poet, he does have a whimsical, irreverent sense of humour in some of the stories. There are several violent battle scenes reminiscent of Homer, but Ovid’s descriptions of the brutal deaths of the warriors are so extravagantly gory that they become something akin to a spoof. Similarly, there was a well-established technique in the epic tradition, inherited from both Homer and Virgil, of conveying descriptions using elaborate similes. Ovid follows suit, but not infrequently his similes have something peculiar or inappropriate about them. Consider this example, taken from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus, thinking that Thisbe has been eaten by a lion, slays himself with his sword. Then:

It was as when a water pipe is ruptured
where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:
a column of water goes hissing through the hole
and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;
splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grow dark;
blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye
the hanging berries purple with its color.

It’s like a death scene from Monty Python. Similarly, he is sometimes irreverent in his treatment of the gods, as in this passage describing the homely vanity of Mercury:

He left the sky and came down to the earth
without disguise, so great his confidence
in his own beauty, which, though not misplaced,
was aided by the care he took of it,
smoothing his hair, which had been mussed in flight,
arranging his cloak so that it hung just so,
letting its pricey golden border show,
and making sure that the wand in his right hand
(with which he brings sleep on or drives it off)
was freshly shined, and seeing that the wings
were gleaming brightly on his shapely feet.

At other times, however, he is sober in his telling, and he is well able to do justice to a tragic tale. Towards the end of the poem Ovid gives a long speech to Pythagoras in which he discourses on the mutability of all things — the apotheosis of the metamorphosis, so to speak. This, too, is written with dignity and without facetiousness.

Being but a middling Latin scholar, I am ill-equipped to judge the merits of Charles Martin’s translation. I can say that the English reads easily and gracefully, and sometimes rises to the level of eloquence. I have no desire to seek out another version (though I’d be interested to know if I should have such a desire).

[The house of Sleep]
There is a hollow mountain near the land
of the Cimmerians, and deep within
there is a cave where idle Sleep resides,
his special place, forbidden to the Sun
at any hour from the dawn to dusk;
the earth around it breathes out clouds of fog
through dim, crepuscular light.
No wakeful cock
summons Aurora with his crowing song,
no restless watchdog interrupts the stillness,
nor goose, more keenly vigilant than dogs:
no wild and no domesticated beasts,
not even branches, rustling in the wind,
and certainly no agitated clamor
of men in conversation.
Here mute repose
abides, and from the bottom of the cave,
the waters of the sleep-inducing Lethe
flow murmuring across their bed of pebbles.

Outside, in front, the fruitful poppies bloom,
and countless herbs as well, that dewy night
collects and processes, extracting Sleep,
which it distributes to the darkened earth.
Doors are forbidden here, lest hinges creak,
no guardian is found upon the threshold;
but on a dais in the middle of the cave
a downy bed of blackest ebony
is set with a coverlet of muted hue;
upon it lies the god himself, at peace,
his knotted limbs in languorous release;
around him on all sides are empty shapes
of dreams that imitate so many forms,
as many as the fields have ears of wheat,
or trees have leaves, or seashore grains of sand.

[Ovid’s last word]
My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove
nor sword nor fire nor futurity
is capable of laying waste to it.
Let that day come then, when it wishes to,
which only has my body in its power,
and put an end to my uncertain years;
no matter, for in spirit I will be
borne up to soar beyond the distant stars,
immortal in the name I leave behind;
wherever Roman governance extends
over the subject nations of the world,
my words will be upon the people’s lips,
and if there is truth in poets’ prophesies,
then in my fame forever I will live.