John Keats and Bob Dylan
Christopher Ricks has always had to put up with a fair amount of flak for comparing Bob Dylan with John Keats. As someone who has written one of the best books ever written about Keats, he’s supposed to know what he’s talking about. One rather jaundiced commentator decided to simply print Keats’ sonnet on reading Chapman’s Homer alongside the words to “Wiggle Wiggle” by way of sneering at the deluded academic.
Not fair, of course, to quote some of Keats’ best lines opposite some of Dylan’s worst, but I started to think about how the comparison could be made fairer. How about comparing the work of Dylan up to the age of 25 with the work of Keats up to the age of 25? If the two are to be compared, then how about imagining that the motorcycle crash was fatal. If Dylan had died in 1966, at the same age that Keats had died, then people less critically astute than Ricks would be comparing the pair of them all the time. The work of Dylan would have a kind of pristine perfection to it. There would be no weak albums, no uncertain fumblings, but a brief and dazzling career that had its own tragic beauty to it.
Instead the comparison between Keats and Dylan involves comparing someone with a four year career with someone with a fifty year career. More like the comparison between Keats and Wordsworth, in fact. I for one am not sorry that Dylan did not perish in a motorcycle accident (I don’t want anyone to perish in a motorcycle accident – there – I said it), since the frustrations and disappointments of his ensuing career create a narrative of their own. And Dylan has found a happier identity right now. Being a young folk singer was cool – being an old blues singer is cool. Being a middle aged rock star was less cool.
Of course, the real argument is whether you should rip lines from a song and put them into a slim volume and call them “poetry” to begin with. Dylan’s relationship with the words of his songs is less consistent than many others. Apparently there was at least one serious argument between Dylan and John Lennon – Lennon who declared that the words of songs detached from musical context were completely meaningless and that the total impact of the song was all that mattered. It’s easier to follow Lennon’s logic than Dylan’s – but perhaps Dylan’s continual mangling of tunes on stage is a way of testing how well his words can survive without the predictive support of well known melody.
Keats’ poetic life was perfect. That’s why it was short. “Ode to Autumn” is regarded as one of the very few completely perfect things ever conceived of by a human. To live much longer would have sullied that perfection with the compromises of maturity and adulthood. If Keats’ career had been as long as Dylan’s, many wonderful poems never to be heard, would populate the planet. But an exemplum of literary perfection would be gone.
The issue is not really whether Dylan and Keats deserve to be compared, but rather why we want people to die in motorcycle accidents to serve such literary ideals as “perfection”.