- Why Bob Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology”(Bob Dylan [Thomas 129, 328])
In this labor of love, Harvard’s Richard Thomas provides a treasure trove of information on the echoes of classical poetry in Bob Dylan’s music. His book, an outgrowth of his course (“affectionately dubbed ‘Dylan 101’” [his publisher’s words]), sets the echoes (with all the Greek and Latin citations translated into English) against a background of key moments in Dylan’s life.
Early in his book, Thomas refers to Dylan’s days at Hibbing High in Minnesota, where he studied Latin and became a member of the Latin Club. Dylan once played the part of a Roman soldier in South Dakota’s Black Hills Passion Play when it visited Hibbing, where he also saw some of Hollywood’s films of the 1950s set in ancient Rome, including Quo Vadis and The Robe. Among his early hits, like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” one also finds “Goin’ Back to Rome,” a song showing how his youthful exposure to classical culture influenced his music.
Seeing Dylan as a performer in the tradition of the Greek and Roman poets, Thomas describes how (on the Greek side) Dylan occasionally echoes Homer. In “Early Roman Kings” (from the album Tempest), echoing Odysseus’ taunt to the Cyclops in Od. 9.523–24, Dylan sings: “I can strip you of life/ Strip you of breath/ Ship you down/ To the house of death”—lines from a song about ancient Rome’s kings and/or the 1960s–1970s New York gang “Roman Kings.” Across “Tin Angel,” “Narrow Way,” and “Pay in Blood” (also from Tempest), Dylan scatters five verses from Odysseus’ speech to his Phaeacian detractor during the discus-throwing contest (Od. 8.166–185)—a speech appealing to Dylan, an older man silencing his younger critics with his superior expertise.1 [End Page 587]
Thomas also demonstrates how (on the Latin side) Dylan incorporates in his songs reminiscences of Catullus, Vergil, and Ovid, his kindred spirits. For Thomas, no poet other than Catullus, except perhaps Dylan, conveys so intensely the deep pain caused by the loss of love: compare miser Catulle, desinas ineptire (Cat. 8) with Dylan’s “’Til I Fell in Love with You;” and Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli (Cat. 11) with Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello.” Echoing Vergil’s verses a number of times, Dylan makes striking use of Aen. 6.853 parcere subiectis et debellare superbos in the tenth stanza of “Lonesome Day Blues”: “I’m gonna spare the defeated . . . I’m gonna tame the proud,” linking the civil wars of Vergil’s day with the Vietnam War of his own youth. Dylan echoes Ovid’s exile poetry: for example, Trist. 2.51–52 qui nec contraria dicor / arma nec hostiles esse secutus opes in “Workingman’s Blues #2”: “No one can ever claim/ That I took up arms against you”—one of many Ovidian echoes in the album Modern Times, revealing Dylan’s own inner, self-protective exile.2
While placing Dylan in the tradition of poets like Homer and Vergil, Thomas dismisses the charge of plagiarism sometimes leveled against Dylan. Calling him “the supreme artist of the English language of my time” (322), Thomas points quite appropriately to how Dylan reuses available texts to transform the thought and diction of his classical predecessors into the idiom, rhymes, and music that constitute an essential aspect of his creative genius. His creative genius goes hand in hand with his sustained interest in a wide range of great modern authors, over fifty of whom are mentioned in Thomas’ volume or in Dylan’s 2004 memoir Chronicles, Volume 1—authors including Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Whitman, Eliot, Faulkner, and Hemingway.
When Dylan received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, Swedish Academy Secretary Sara Danius compared his verses to those of...