What do a Victoria's Secret pitchman and Shakespeare have in common?
If you ask Christopher Ricks, one of the pre-eminent scholars of English literature, both are great poets. That is, if the man in the women's underwear ads you're talking about is Bob Dylan, who seemed to speak for a generation when he burst on the folk music scene in the 1960s and continues to be an enduring icon, despite repeatedly transforming himself for four decades.
Ricks is no stranger to such monster muses. A professor of English and director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University and a former professor of English at the universities of Bristol and Cambridge in England, he has written masterful studies of such superstars from earlier eras as John Milton, John Keats, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett — all firmly entrenched in the literary canon.
Now he has added a 500-page study of the nasal-voiced folk singer, Dylan's Visions of Sin, published by Ecco. The close reading of Dylan's songs explores his examinations of sins, virtues and graces, and unapologetically places him in the company of the masters of English poetry, like Shakespeare.
Well, maybe, but he still had to wait his turn. When Ricks was ready to start the Dylan book, T.S. Eliot's widow asked him to edit a selection of previously unpublished poems by her husband. The folk singer was put on hold.
"I just think when the widow of T.S. Eliot asks you to do something, you do it, don't you?" he said.
Still, Ricks said he sees no contradiction between writing great poetry and selling one of those poems — in this case along with the music — to be used to sell dainty underthings. It may not be so different from Shakespeare's approach.
"I think Shakespeare sought the widest possible constituency," Ricks said. "One reason I keep mentioning Shakespeare is not because I think Dylan is a genius, which I do, but because I think that like Shakespeare he sought the widest possible constituency."
In other words, Shakespeare didn't have any problem with his work being popular — indeed, that's just what he sought, mixing the vulgar and scandalous with the sophisticated and psychologically complex.
Blurring the Lines
So if Shakespeare — not to mention Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and the Bronte sisters, just to name a few — all wanted their work to be popular and wrote for as wide an audience as possible, then is there any real difference between Shakespeare and Dylan, between Milton and Bruce Springsteen, between Tennyson and Eminem or Emily Dickinson and Christina Aguilera?
The question of whether there can be any blurring of the line between popular and serious seemed to be at the heart of the controversy when Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections was chosen for Oprah's Book Club, and the author then got uncomfortable with the celebrity status the selection would give him, at first agreeing to go on her television show, then at the last minute pulling out. Finally, he agreed.
"It's complicated," Franzen said in an interview with The Independent newspaper of London. "I don't have anything against her. She, from her side of the great gulf created by television between kinds of reading audiences in the U.S., was reaching out towards me, and I wish I'd reached out more towards her. But I was having to accustom myself to success, after 20 years of reconciling myself never to having it. There was a delay of some weeks while I was still imprisoned in old attitudes of resentment and doubt."