Two years ago in this column I wondered what a Dylan scholar would look like in the coming years. Now I’m wondering something different: if a Dylan scholar is the same creature as a Dylan critic. And since critics multiply faster than scholars, what is the function of a Dylan critic—or, to use a phrase from D.H. Lawrence, what is the proper function of a Dylan critic?

In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence advised—in what became one of his most quoted aphorisms—“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” Ripped from its context, this mot is, paradoxically, both enigmatic and prescriptive. In context, though, Lawrence’s terse directive describes a conundrum all too familiar in Dylan studies:

The artist usually sets out—or used to—to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist’s and the tale’s. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.[1]

The phrase “To save the tale from the artist,” however, while brilliantly evocative, puts the cart before the horse. By implying it’s possible to dislodge the moral of the tale from the moral of the artist, Lawrence assumes there are two morals to begin with. But that assumption has no foundation, unless, as Charles Olson seems to have done, we give the “morals” different names. Olson claimed that Lawrence (along with Homer, Euripides, Plato, and Christ!) “somehow chose the advantage of moral perceptions to those of the intellect.”[2] I take this to mean that the artist’s moral equates to Olson’s perceptions of the intellect, whereas, according to Lawrence, we should really focus on the tale’s moral—what Olson terms, simply, “moral perceptions.” For Lawrence, then, disentangling the moral perceptions (the tale’s) from the intellectual perceptions (the artist’s) of a work of fiction—or poetry, I presume—is tantamount to separating the two “blankly opposing morals” so that we can then trust the tale, not its producer.

But if this act of disentanglement is the proper function of the critic, then most Dylan critics stand on shaky ground. Unexamined conflation is prevalent. Moral perceptions and perceptions of the intellect tend to occupy the same space in expositions, explications, and analyses. Dylan criticism is rife with efforts linking Bob Dylan the artist to the meaning of a song, a lyric, a performance. To some, this hermeneutic phenomenon is inevitable—or irresistible—because of the ubiquitous first-person narrator who is identified (or confused) with the singer. Thus, “I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow” means Dylan met a young girl who gave him a rainbow; and, while much heavy weather might be made of the rainbow symbol, few (if any) critics question the “I.” Similarly, the voice that sings “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” or “I paint landscapes—I paint nudes . . . I contain multitudes” is, first, taken to be the same persona (thirty years apart) and, second, to be Dylan himself—composer and hero of his own lyric, despite the fact that he’s obviously quoting Walt Whitman. Dylan critics rarely try to “save the tale from the artist who created it,” or divide the moral import from the intellectual perception. On the contrary, the artist is consummately part of the tale. Lawrence would squirm in his grave (while Olson might compensate by scanning Dylan’s breathing as projective verse).

Of course, we aren’t bound to Lawrence as our guru (as much as he might relish the role). Many self-respecting critics at some time in their careers contribute a definitive treatise or ars poetica on “the function of criticism”—a popular Anglophone title. Matthew Arnold kicked it off with The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, in which he uttered the famous (or infamous) call for criticism “simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.”[3] Dylan critics have followed this guideline admirably, attending to “the best that is thought and known,” not only in Dylan’s work or in his ambient milieu but also for our cultural moment in general, thus creating a “current” of new ideas. The recent Bob Dylan conferences and the outpouring of books and articles testify to the vitality of this current of new ideas—Dylan critics are not just sitting by and watching the river flow; they—or we—are creating that new current, stirring the waters.

According to Arnold, however, criticism must obey one fundamental rule: disinterestedness—by which he means “keeping aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things’” and, pertinently, “steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas . . . which criticism really has nothing to do with.” And it is here, in connection with this rule, that it becomes challenging to define the proper function of the Dylan critic. If disinterestedness means aloofness from ulterior, political, and practical considerations, then engagement with Dylan’s work makes the proper function of the critic a minefield of interestedness. The Dylan of the early 60s seemed very clearly, in Lawrence’s words, to “[set] out . . . to point a moral and adorn a tale.” The clarity blurred a bit as the decade went on. But what better way to define the anthemic songs and such social plaints as “North Country Blues” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”? The phrase “point a moral and adorn a tale” is, evidently, Lawrence’s revision of the more familiar translation of Horace’s famous phrase, “to instruct and delight” (prodesse…aut delectare).[4] Most singer-songwriters of Dylan’s generation set out to instruct and to delight: some of the instruction was, to say the least, heavy-handed, but the music, for all its experimentation with supposedly primitive forms, set out to delight audiences, young and old alike.


In 1994 Dylan sang “John Brown” on MTV Unplugged. Little known at the time, the song is a bitter indictment not only of war itself, but more so of the proud mother who pushes her son to be a soldier: “Do what the captain says,” she urges, “and medals you will get.” Dylan is unsparing as he sets her up for a fall: “she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun / And this thing she called a good old-fashioned war.” But her bragging ends in shock and disgust. As if flinging the mother’s jingoism back in her (turned-away) face, Dylan ends the song with a graphic description of her horribly maimed soldier-son.

Oh his face was all shot up and his hands were all blown off

And he wore a metal brace around his waist

He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she didn’t know

And she couldn’t even recognize his face.

Finally, the son caps this nightmarish homecoming with a cruelly ironic gesture:

As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock

At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand

But as he turned to go, he called his mother close

And he dropped his medals down into her hand[5]

What is the proper function of a Dylan critic in analyzing this song—and not just the song but also the context of the MTV Unplugged performance? For example, the Persian Gulf War occurred in 1991 and the US intervention in the Bosnian conflict in 1994-1995. Should this recent militarization be part of the critic’s analysis? After all, Dylan was deliberately reviving a very old 60s song written in an era of protest. The comparison to “Masters of War” is inevitable.

The 1962 live recording of the song, released on Live at the Gaslight, features Dylan alone on his acoustic guitar. His voice is more insistent, even more unforgiving than in the Unplugged version. This performance brings back the undistilled Dylan experience that mesmerized listeners and critics alike. And, pace Lawrence, I challenge critics to disentangle the artist from the performer, or the composer from the song, when the young Bob Dylan sings “John Brown.” I don’t hear “two blankly opposing morals.” What I hear instead is Yeats’s perennially pertinent question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”[6]

Is it possible to write disinterested criticism of this performance? Does disinterested mean separating the singer from the songwriter? Does it mean separating the songwriter from the performer somehow, when, as with all singer-songwriters, the two roles are indivisible?

Which returns us to the act of disentanglement, of saving the tale (moral perspective) from the artist (intellectual perspective). Are there always “two blankly opposing morals” in Dylan’s songs, “the artist’s and the tale’s”? Is the moral perspective always distinguishable from that of the intellect? In what way does the moral of “When the Ship Comes In” point in a totally different direction from the composer’s intellectual perspective? How does the composer’s performance affect the artist-tale division? This kind of separation might be perceptible in, say, “Neighborhood Bully,” where the song seems to outstrip the topicality of the lyrics. But what about “All Along the Watchtower” or “Mississippi”?

Gérard Genette used the term metalepsis of the author to characterize the incapacity of critics to separate the artist from the hero in fiction. Invoking the nineteenth-century rhetorician Pierre Fontanier, Genette explains:

This variety of metalepsis consists—I remember it in Fontanier’s terms—in “transforming poets into heroes of the deeds that they celebrate or representing them as themselves carrying out the effects that they only paint or sing”; when an author “is represented or represents himself as himself producing that which he basically only tells or describes.”[7]

Metalepsis is a bugbear of mine. It seems to me that, even more than Lawrence’s artist and tale, Genette’s (or Fontanier’s) objection to critics’ “transforming poets into heroes of the deeds they celebrate” has crucial importance to the proper function of Dylan criticism. It might be easy to separate the poet from the anti-hero in “Joey,” but do critics exercise the same disinterestedness with “You’re a Big Girl Now” or “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” not to mention “Idiot Wind”? Doubtful: metalepsis is too often the rule in Dylan studies.


“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Oscar Wilde would probably say we shouldn’t bother trying to answer Yeats’s question. In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde rejected the whole idea of criticism, or at least rejected criticism as separate from the creative act. “Why,” he asked, “should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamor of criticism?” He imagined the unveiling of a statue in a critic-free Golden Age:

In the best days of art there were no art-critics. The sculptor hewed from the marble block the great white-limbed Hermes that slept within it. The waxers and gilders of images gave tone and texture to the statue, and the world, when it saw it, worshipped and was dumb.[8]

But the Golden Age never existed, not in ancient Greece or in the streets of Rome or even on MacDougal Street.

One thing is for sure. There’s no room for worshipping and being struck dumb among Dylan critics. That time has passed and the new Dylan scholarship has justifiably hastened its exit. But the proper function of the Dylan critic needs to catch up with that development. Disentanglement might be futile. Separating the morals of the performing artist (intellectual perspective) from the morals of the tale (moral perspective) might not be worth the hermeneutic candle. But there is, I think, another choice. In my view, the proper function of the Dylan critic ought to be to trust the teller of the tale. And the teller is not the artist, or even the performing artist—only metalepsis allows a critic to think that. As Dylan once remarked about the nine questions in “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “The first way to answer these questions in the song is by asking them. But lots of people have to first find the wind.”[9] The same might be said about Dylan criticism. And that wind we need to find is not the “divine afflatus” of poetic tradition, but the presence, unpredictable, mercurial, yet always palpable, that animates Dylan’s songs—in other words, the teller of the tale.



[1] D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) (New York: Viking 1969), 2.

[2] Charles Olson, “D.H. Lawrence and the High Temptation of the Mind,” in Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 135.

[3] Arnold’s essay first appeared in the National Review in 1864 but was reprinted several times between 1865 and 1923, when, inevitably, T.S. Eliot published “The Function of Criticism” in Criticism (vol. 2.5). Literary critics later took up the standard and produced treatises or essays of the same name, though often with wildly different aims: e.g., inter alia, Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism (1984), whose first sentence is “Modern European criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state.”

[4] Horace, Ars Poetica (or Epistle Ad Pisos), ll.333-34: “Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae / aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae. [Poets aim either to benefit, or to amuse, or to utter words at once both pleasing and helpful to life.] See Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (Loeb Classical Library, 1978), 478-79.

[5] Dylan sings slightly different lyrics in all the available versions of the song: Broadside Ballads vol. 1 (1963, singing under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt); Unplugged (1994); Live at the Gaslight 1962 (2005); The Bootleg Series Vol. 9, The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 (2010); Live 1962-1966: Rare Performances from the Copyright Collection (2018).

[6] W.B. Yeats, “Among School Children,” The Collected Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1983), 217.

[7] Gérard Genette, Métalepse (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2004), 10: “Cette variété de métalepse consiste, je le rappelle dan les termes de Fontanier, ‘à transformer les poètes en héros de faits qu’ils célèbrent [ou à] les représenter comme operant eux-mêmes les effets qu’ils peignent ou chantent’, lorsque’un auteur ‘est représenté ou se représente comme produisant lui-même ce qu’il ne fait, au fond, que raconteur ou décrire.’” Translation is mine.

[8] “The Critic as Artist” is a dialogue-essay included in Intentions (1891).

[9] Liner notes, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.