THE choice of Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize for Literature has led to raised glasses in some quarters, and raised eyebrows in others. Many admit Dylan’s genius, and concede the sheer range and sustained power of his achievement; but some have objected that this is a prize for literature, not songwriting, and should not be awarded to a singer-songwriter
This objection is groundless in terms of both precedent and principle. First, the Nobel Prize was awarded in 1913 to Rabindranath Tagore, who composed and performed more than 2000 songs, and whose unique style and delivery created its own musical genre, much as Dylan has done. Like Dylan, he combined literary excellence and religious sensibility with a particular power to give voice to the voiceless, which made him not only a great artist, but a popular one.
Second, Dylan is being awarded this prize as a poet, and he is, par excellence, a lyric poet. The literary term “lyric” is a direct reference to the lyre, the stringed instrument with which the early Greek poets accompanied their work. Even purely literary lyric poetry, with its strong rhythms and melodious form, has an implicit musical underpinning; so it is hardly surprising that many lyric poets — George Herbert among them — have also sung their own verse, accompanied by stringed instruments.
Dylan’s verse does not have to be printed on a cold silent page to qualify as poetry; for a great deal of its power and meaning derives precisely from its musical setting. But Dylan is also a literary craftsman, aware of the many traditions in which he works, and deftly alluding to the earlier masters of lyric poetry, especially Keats (as he does, for example, in “Forever young” and “Not dark yet”), and to Blake (as he does in his Christian masterpiece “Every grain of sand”).
LAYING these genre-based objections aside, there are aspects of Dylan’s achievement that Christians particularly might want to celebrate. First and foremost, it is the Bible, more even than the work of previous poets, that has inspired and informed Dylan’s best work; and this biblical strand in his poetry is not confined to the more obvious and dramatic quotations in the intense period of his Christian conversion (1979-82).
Throughout his work, from his earliest days to the present, he has been in an imaginative conversation with scripture. In his best songs, it is not only direct quotation, but subtle allusion, that informs and deepens the poetry. Dylan often allows a Bible passage to work quietly behind his song. We can hear and appreciate the song without at first hearing the biblical echoes, but, once we do hear them, the whole meaning of the song is enhanced.
TAKE Dylan’s most famous song “Blowing in the wind”, for example. It is a song about our failure to see and to hear, and it echoes Ezekiel 12.2: “Son of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not.”
This is a passage that Jesus takes up in the phrase “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11.15; Mark 4.9). But Dylan does not simply quote it. He turns it back into a question: “How many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry? How many times must a man look up Before he can see the sky?”
If we have ears to hear, there is also a subtler and all-pervasive biblical echo working behind this song, and that is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, especially the verse in John 3.8: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Here, the allusion, which is in the defining line of the song, is completely consonant with its original scriptural context. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a whole string of questions, which Jesus answers with another question: “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”
Further, everything turns on the way in which earthly images may or may not reveal heavenly truths. Jesus asks Nicodemus another significant “how” question: “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?”
Dylan’s song consists entirely of a series of “how” questions: How many roads? How many seas? How many times? All are answered by the cryptic and questioning “answer”: “The answer is blowing in the wind.” Here, the haunting sense of a vision that might be missed is present in both the biblical text and the song, and so they reinforce one another.
Dylan is a master of fruitful ambiguity, of withholding information precisely to increase the number of possibilities available in an open song; so “Blowing in the wind” never names either the questioner or the “friend” who answers in the chorus, but allows us to explore the possibilities of who here is Christ and who is Nicodemus.
Dylan does not need this latest accolade; for his work will always continue to inspire and inform new generations. But perhaps this recognition will enable some who turn only to the printed page for literary excellence to open their ears and hear.
The Revd Dr Malcolm Guite is the Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, and the author of several books of poetry, including Parable and Paradox (Canterbury Press, 2016).