Recommended CDs

Monday, 30 March 2009

Whan that April with his shoures soote...thanne longeth folk to buy new Dylan albums!

I was hoping to finish my piece on 'Joey' and post it here (see previous blog), but I am still unwell and can't spend too long on line these days. Thanks for the get well messages, I will respond to every one of them individually when I'm fully recovered.

One of the few things I've been able to do since getting out of hospital is sit up in bed and read. Over the past six weeks I've read lots of Dryden, Pope, Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Arnold, Plath and much more besides. I also ordered a new copy of my Riverside Chaucer, a splendid work of American scholarship that makes it easy to read Chaucer in the original almost as quickly as in a modernized version (and with a good deal more satisfaction). My old paperback version was falling to bits, so I got a lovely hardback one from Amazon at a very reasonable price.

This was before I heard about Dylan supposedly quoting Chaucer in a modern translation on his new album, Together Through Life
(link to the Deluxe Edition). However, it wasn't long before I stumbled across an earlier borrowing from England's greatest comic writer (bar Shakespeare) in The Franklyn's Tale:

Aurelius, with blisful herte anoon,
Answerde thus: "Fy on a thousand pound!
This wyde world, which that men seye is round

Bob quotes the italicised line in Ain't Talkin', of course. (Incidentally, it was well known in the Middle Ages that the earth was round -- the myth that before Christopher Columbus's voyage people believed that the earth was flat entered the popular imagination in the 19th century thanks to Washington Irving's novel about the explorer. Chaucer's tale is set in ancient Britanny and the line adds a touch of realism). That indefatibable sleuth Scott Warmuth has discovered that Bob also lifts another line for the Tell Tale Signs outtake of the same song from The Reeve's Tale.

This (and no doubt the quotations on the new album) are of a piece with Bob's Modern Times quotations: in other words, he is not "intertextualizing" at all, i.e. there appears to be no attempt at an ironic counterpoint or other creative contact with the original. He doesn't expect the listener to make a connection with Chaucer, the Franklyn, or his Tale. He has simply filched the line because it sounds nice. To quote something I wrote about this subject some weeks ago:

When Virgil quotes or adapts lines from the earlier Roman poet Ennius or from Homer, he actually wanted to send his audience to the original text, or rather, he assumes that the original text is familiar to his readers, and part of the pleasure is the mutual act of piety (it is more than just an intellectual tip of the hat) of the contemporary poet and his audience to the older master.

In 18th century literature, there is not only the assumption of a common store of classic learning that the poet shares with his audience, but also, especially in the works of Pope, an identification between the modern and ancient poet, both on a personal and a sociocultural level. Pope's garden retreat in Twickenham becomes Horace's Sabine farm, Johnson's London becomes Juvenal's Rome. It's a two-way exchange: you actually read Horace differently after reading Pope, and Juvenal differently after reading Johnson.

Nor does Dylan's use of cultural reference on Modern Times resemble that of T.S. Eliot, who echoes the lines of so many past texts (not just poets and other writers, but songs and snippets of conversation) to represent them as shards of a decaying culture ("these fragments I have shored against my ruin") in The Wasteland. That is at least somewhat akin to what Dylan is doing, on a much more accessible scale, in Desolation Row. Rather than lifting quotations wholesale like Eliot, he refers by name to well-known fictional characters (Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ophelia) and drops them into a completely new, usual ironic contexts. And he adds adds to this mosaic sly allusions to the work of Kafka and Eliot himself (as well as name-checking him), also bringing in a sinister flavour of the American South into these mostly European references with "postcards of the hanging". It's a skilful performance, an artistic tour de force. And Dylan does this again to some extent on "Love and Theft" with his amusing use of the names of Romeo and Juliet and Don Pasquale (from the world of opera), dropping them into modern, ironic contexts (the aged Don Pasquale -- in Donizetti's opera the archetypal old man opposing the happiness of the young lovers -- paying a "2am booty call" is priceless!)

But his use of quotation in Modern Times is different. He doesn't expect his listeners to make a connection to Ovid (if anyone reads Ovid, it's usually the Ars Amatoria -- "the art of love" is actually name-checked by Bob -- or the Metamorphoses, probably the most influential book on English literature after the Bible; not Ovid's self-pitying diatribes from exile on the Black Sea coast). Nor is he identifying himself with Ovid in exile or making a critique of modern culture by collecting its detritus. He's just using some lines he found in one of Ovid's modern translators to eke out his verses. There is no kind of cultural interchange between Dylan and Ovid or his translator at all. (The same can be said of Bob's use of Timrod on the same album, although his use of the Civil War poet in Cross the Green Mountain does seem more apposite). No one would ever suggest that Virgil borrowed from Homer and Ennius because he wasn't able to think up lines of his own, but that does seem to be the case, sadly, with Dylan's borrowings from Ovid on Modern Times.

(Oh, and the routine practice of Shakespeare and his contemporaries of borrowing plots from older literature doesn't really belong in this argument. The nearest equivalent would be something like Ben Jonson lifting whole passages of Tacitus verbatim for dialogue in Sejanus. But Jonson had a definite purpose for this near-plagiarism, whereas Dylan has no apparent reason or need to lift from Ovid.)

After the Franklyn's Tale I read the Nun's Priest's Tale, and while I didn't find any Dylan link (maybe there will be one on the new album), I have to say that this is one of the most delightful of all the tales, and if Dylan read it in his modernized version (link to David Wright's translation for Oxford World Classics, which appears to be the edition Bob is using), he would no doubt have appreciated this "animal song"! Perhaps his attitude to his sources can be summed up in a line from this tale: "Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille."


Anonymous said...

Workingman Blues on Modern Times is mixes up the 30s depression, and exile, taking a lot of lines from Ovid in the process. This song, I'd suggest, owes more to Ovid in a thematic sense than just having had lines lifted.

But I wouldn't disagree with your conclusions.

J.D. said...

I don't disagree that Dylan steals the lines because they sound nice. But the reason he doesn't send the reader back to the original is that he's used these lines to apply to something totally different. If I take a thousand copies of the Mona Lisa, shrink them down so they're barely recognizable, and then assemble them to make a stunning picture of 1930s America, how is that deplorable in any way? I haven't claimed that work as my own, I've used it to create something else that's great.

Also, I'd like to point out that--as you mentioned--Ovid was a huge influence on Western literature, particularly on Shakespeare. Shakespeare too cribbed lines from contemporary (16th century) English translations of Ovid and presented them in his plays as his own poetry.

Are you telling me he expected your everyday Englishman of that period to get that he was cribbing off of Ovid? Maybe the educated would, just as the educated today seem to be figuring out who Dylan is cribbing from, but not the peanut gallary that Shakespeare himself mocks as barbaric.

Shakespeare, too, was just using Ovid because the lines sounded nice and he needed to sell tickets, just as Dylan needs to sell albums.

raggedclown said...

Thanks for your response.

Shakespeare of course used Arthur Golding's English translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis, one of the most popular books of the Elizabethan period, but whose style was felt by the 1590s to be a tad old-fashioned. Shakespeare would have expected at least part of his audience to pick up on the fact that he is parodying Golding's style in the Pyramus and Thisbe 'play-within-a-play' in A Midsummer's Night's Dream.

Furthermore, though Shakespeare, unlike many of his fellow dramatists, never went to university, he would have been familiar with many passages of Ovid in the original Latin from the typical Elizabethan grammar school curriculum, which included the rote-learning of many passages from Latin authors. And of course, many in the audience would have recognized passages from their own schooldays. From a recent study:

"The emphasis on memory in Elizabethan grammar schools also conditioned readers and writers. The extensive cultivation of memory created a literary culture of quotation and allusion, wherein the classics and the Bible served as a common repository of significant reference."

But even where he might not have expected his audience to make a connection, he was always using his sources -- North's translation of Plutarch, the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, Seneca's revenge tragedies, etc. -- creatively, rather than mindlessly lifting lines here and there from various sources with no apparent purpose.

In short, I do not see anything analogous in Dylan's recent purloinings at all. I don't object to them when he makes creative use of them, but much of Modern Times is just a bunch of random quotations thrown together.