Gilbert: John Milton and Bob Dylan

Apr 25, 2016

I once heard Sir Christopher Ricks observe that a scholar is someone who tells you something you didn’t know, and a critic is someone who tells you something you hadn’t noticed. Ricks himself is both a great scholar and a great critic – which is why he was knighted in 2009. He’s now a professor at Boston University.

There’s hardly a poet whose work Ricks doesn’t know intimately, and he’s the leading expert on the poetry or lyrics of Bob Dylan. Last year, he spoke at Saint Michael’s College on “T. S. Eliot and the Great War.” And I made sure to be there.

The lecture was superb. Afterwards I introduced myself and told him I’d heard him speak in 1975, forty years earlier, at Queens College London, about John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

Among other things, he’d talked about Milton’s use of enjambment, a literary device in which a line of poetry doesn’t end with a period, but runs over to the next line. Milton was a master of enjambment. I recalled how Professor Ricks had said admiringly that if we’d written a passage of poetry as gorgeous as Milton’s, we’d want to put a period at the end of it so that readers would be able to pause and sigh at its beauty and power. But no! Milton’s lines keep rolling on. And I told Ricks that in his London talk he’d pointed to a beautiful example of Milton’s enjambment. It read, “love without end, and without measure grace...”

Ricks’s face lit up, and he recited the words in context from memory:
…and in his face
Divine compassion visibly appeared,
Love without end, and without measure grace;
Which uttering, thus He to his Father spake...

In Christianity, grace is divine favor bestowed freely on people without their deserving it.

I thanked him for giving me those words from Milton, for their beauty and their meaning - because after all, whether one’s a Christian or not, isn’t that what we all really want – “Love without end, and grace [without measure]” – favor freely given, even when we don’t deserve it?

Obviously, his lecture long ago made a big impression on me. That’s the power of great poetry, and the power of a great scholar and critic. I look forward to hearing him again next week at Saint Michael’s College, when he’ll be talking about the work of Bob Dylan.