Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan performing in New York City in 2009

The Tennyson of our time? Academics react to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

Matt Pickles

Bob Dylan was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday.

Many pundits hailed this as a vindication for Christopher Ricks, a former Professor of Poetry at the University, who has studied Bob Dylan’s lyrics for many years.

In The Times, Anne Treneman said that he “has laid the groundwork for a better understanding of Dylan’s literary significance”.

Some people reacted to the news by questioning whether a ‘singer’ should be eligible for the Nobel Prize for Literature. But Professor Seamus Perry, Chair of the English Faculty at Oxford University, disagrees.

‘Dylan winning the Nobel was always the thing that you thought should happen in a reasonable world but still seemed quite unimaginable in this one,’ he says.

‘He is, more than any other, the poet of our times, as Tennyson was of his, representative and yet wholly individual, humane, angry, funny, and tender by turn; really, wholly himself, one of the greats."

The announcement was a surprise because the bookmakers’ favourite to win had been Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. His writing was the subject of the MPhil thesis of Professor Elleke Boehmer, who is now Director of The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH).

‘Ngugi is an undisputed giant of the African novel and African theatre, who has always seen literature as a powerful weapon in the struggle for greater justice and freedom,’ she says.

‘His ideas on how we 'decolonize' minds and cultures and use books as weapons of struggle, have proved hugely influential, not least today, with the ongoing discussion of decolonizing the curriculum in the US, UK and South Africa.’

But Professor Boehmer agrees that Dylan is a worthy winner – and not just because she saw him in concert in Amsterdam last year!

‘Though it would have been special for Ngugi to win, at this time of Black Lives Matter, I'm really thrilled about this gong for Bob,’ she says.

‘He created the anthems, the love songs, and the anti-love songs that defined the post-1968 generation and still resonate today. He is the subtlest rhyme artist -- captures unspoken meanings in the modulations of his rhyme.’