Subtlety is a threat to minds manacled by ideology. That is why Bob Dylan so angered those people who were determined to slap a label on him. Anthemic folk singer, protest poet, folk-rock hipster. It didn't matter. They were all traps. He had to escape. Bob Dylan was a rebel.
That is to say, he was a Romantic artist. He was unrestrained by the normal inhibitions that stop most people. His caution gene had been amputated. He went where others dared not go. He was a defiant descendant of Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Like them, he filtered experience through the self. His feelings were the surest path to knowledge. If those who were angry that Dylan had abandoned his finger-pointing songs had examined his Romantic roots, they would have discovered that such an emphasis on personal emotions created a profound skepticism that a society could progress and a despair at any foolish effort to believe it could. The Romantics' artistry, in contrast, came out in their poems and in sculpting their own biographies.
The European brand of Romantic poetry Dylan inherited went through the Symbolists to T.S. Eliot to Dylan. The Symbolists searched their selves for symbols of emotional reactions to their lives. Their poems were carefully created collections of those personal symbols. Their poems were not subject to normal poetic analysis because they had no meaning outside the artist's life. All that mattered was what the poem did. The poem was a raft ride down the rapids of the artist's subconscious. If others recognized the sights and sounds along the way as they listened to Dylan, it was because, in words Terry Eagleton wrote about T.S. Eliot, Dylan "made guerilla raids on the collective unconscious."
The American Romanticism that preceded Dylan started with the Emersonian notion of the self's sufficiency. An individual's consciousness required no external resources. This American Romanticism went through Whitman to Woody Guthrie and the Beats and so on to Dylan.
But Dylan was a true rebel. Dylan rebelled against the rebels. He searched within himself and discovered a moral temperament that had dominion over the artistic temperament. Art, he concluded, was not immune from moral measure. Like the Biblical prophets, he stood in opposition, but also like them his fire and fury came from an understanding of his God-given mission. The Romantics sought spiritual reality, but in nature or Eastern religions, and, later, hallucinogenic drugs. Dylan eventually found his own way to the spiritual. God was the true north on Dylan's artistic compass. He was Abraham, not Adam. He reached toward Heaven instead of believing he could find the words to name all that is in the world.
But, like many honest, unfrightened believers before him, Dylan discovered that belief carries its own confusions. Inner peace could not be cheaply bought. He had to fight himself to discover who was this God and what did this god want of a poor singer from Minnesota. The twists and turns of his understanding of God--Jewish, Christian, a combination, an entity embracing all--has been shared with different hints at different times. Dylan had to struggle. Was he the political radical, the Romantic artist, or the believer? The radical and the artist had to rebel; the believer had to obey. Evidently, he chose to obey God's call to keep singing to as many audiences as he could, to pass on the astounding musical heritage he had absorbed, and to add more songs to his unmatched and utterly remarkable body of work.
Those tasks are the ones from which even a restless Bob Dylan has not rebelled.
For information about my book on political folk music through Dylan, see http://lawrencejepstein.com/folk