Tuesday, 30 May 2017

On the characteristics of Hebrew poetry

Robert Holmstedt has written a very clear short paper here with a focus on the syntax of Hebrew poetry, line by line. He is looking for feedback. His first few pages are promising, and raise for me questions I have been thinking about for some time:
  • Is parallelism as categorized by Lowth an adequate initial assist?
  • Is Kugel's failure to find a distinction between poetry and prose adequate?
  • What do we do about our lack of access to performance practice?
On his next several pages, Holmstedt writes clearly to put his analysis into context using terms from Lowth, Kugel, O'Connor, and several others whose work I have not studied. I particularly like the list of Watson's 19 characteristics of the poetic line-form:  "ellipsis, unusual vocabulary, conciseness, unusual word order, archaisms, use of metre, regularity and symmetry, parallelism, word-pairs, chiastic patterns, envelope figure, break-up of stereotype phrases, repetition of various forms, gender-matched parallelism, tricolon, rhyme, other sound patterns, and absence of prose elements".

Holmstedt then focuses on the line and its syntax as laid out by Dobbs-Allsopp including: "the use of acrostic patterns, parallelism, sound play, syntax, grouping and the prevailing binarism of biblical poetry, the couplet, the triplet, larger groupings, isolated lines, and the logic of counting".

We are now up to about 30 characteristics of a poetic line. And all this is good, though many terms beg definition and example. Holmstedt then moves to his own intent in the paper:  "I will bypass the issue of describing the BH poetic line and assert that it is not just the line that is central to defining the BH poetic verse, but constraints upon the relationship of the lines resulting in a binary syntactic choice."

This raises the question for me (but it shouldn't because he did not imply it), Did the Hebrews conceive of poetry as stanzas, the way that we also often think of it? (In fact Holmstedt will not go that far to answering the questions he raised for me. He puts himself at a disadvantage with this sentence: "But we will never have access to the critical performance convention, and therefore we cannot achieve a complete description of BH poetry." Perhaps that is true, but perhaps also we have more than we think.)

He then elaborates O'Connor's 6 tropes:  repetition (on the word level), coloration (wordlevel), gapping (line-level), matching (line-level), mixing (supralinear-level), and dependency (supralinear-level). He is going to approach poetic syntax in what seems to me a round-about way, by means of apposition and non-apposition. He lays out an analysis of all of Psalm 1 with this carefully developed syntactic idea in mind.

My first non-scholarly thought on this (before I read it in detail) is that poetry puts things beside each other. Some are in apposition and some are not.

My initial reaction on reading further is that some of the apposition he describes is not apposition to me. (But I am not a grammarian and it appears from his many categories that there are many many types of apposition.) I have often met apposition at a phrase level (which I see in his list as 'non-nominal' apposition), but I would not have considered as apposition something as simple as the king, Solomon, which in some cases we would hear merely as king Solomon. Nor would I take a list as apposition, such as ‘and Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth’ (Gen 6:10), nor something that seems more like an adjective (attribution). I think I can see what he is describing under these categories, but I am not sure, that he is going to get to the end I seek: How is it that poetry strikes us as different from prose?

In the next section, he elaborates Parallelism as apposition or non-apposition. Ever since Lowth, parallelism has been the traditional starting place for people to describe Hebrew poetry. The idea of similar or contrasting couplet is a helpful concept, but it is a part of the technique of both poetry and prose writers, but the 21 books are still significantly different from the 3 poetry books, Psalms (ת), Proverbs (מ), and Job (א), their three initial letters forming their traditional name of the books of truth (אמת). And each of these poetry books is again quite different in tone. Psalms have stanza structure. Job is epic. And Proverbs has both a didactic introduction and acrostic conclusion to what could be characterized as isolated aphorisms. (But they might not be as isolated as they seem.)

Questions are occurring to me that Holmstedt may not want to raise at this point. So he rightly reminds the reader: "Once again, please keep in mind that my argument in this essay is about interlineal syntax, not literary-poetic structure".

This limits what I can say in response. I don't think it adequately considers the wholeness of the poetry of the Psalms. Nor will it help with the epic aspects of the long poem of Job. Even in the aphoristic parts of the Proverbs there are some threads, but I am only about half way through reading these, and what I see there is exercises in terseness forcing the reader or hearer to disambiguate. You can see his analysis of Psalm 1 on pages 14 and 15 of the pdf. Here is my analysis of the music for comparison.

The first rest in verse 1 on the ole-veyored (f#) shows where to pause for the initial impact on the hearer. There is an additional pause on the atenach (1c) at the end of the first parallel. But the listener knows the story is not finished, since we are on the subdominant A, and will wait patiently for the denouement of the tri-colon which returns to the tonic after the caesura.

Verse 2, the opening accent ties this verse to verse 1. There is no caesura in verse 2. The learning of Torah is a continuous activity. (But there is a rest on the supertonic, an ole-veyored that is almost invisible.)

Verse 3 also has two rests, making it a tri-colon: 1. The ole-veyored is on the streams of water, the image is of Torah, whereas the איש is the tree. 2. The consequence is fruit in due season and leaf not withering, (though the two phrases grammatically are sung as one to the atenach), and 3. the final conclusion, all that it does will thrive.

Verse 4 is a second choice from verse 1 - either one does abstain from the associations of verse 1 or one does not. The כי עם is downplayed compared to the opening of verse 2, but it clearly defines the alternative. Verse 3 and 4 are linked equally by the image of עץ and מץ. Of course, every verse is linked and is the outworking of the thesis of verse 1.

Verse 5 has a single upbeat to a high C contrasting the end of the wicked using the same reciting note as was used in verse 3 of the fruitfulness of the righteous. The matter of fact final verse stands out in its musical simplicity.

This poem seems to me a single stanza. I say this for non-musical reasons, a three-word chiasm joins verses 1 to 5-6. If I were to break it up, it would be 5 cola, verses 1-2, 5 cola, verses 3-4, and 4 cola, each of these beginning with a tri-colon, then verses 5 and 6.

The value of Holmstedt's article for me is his apt selection from the literature. I have found this part of his work very helpful. E.g. "I find Landy’s observations provocative and keep them in mind as I contemplate the nature of BH poetry: “prose presupposes sequential time …; poetry concerns timelessness,” “prose preserves an often ironic objective distance between the writer, his audience, and his subject-matter.... In poetry, there is a communion between the singer and the audience,” “Prose accordingly represents everyday life, activities, and speech … poetry is the language of liminal situations,” and “Prose perceives the world through relations of contiguity, temporal and spatial, i.e., metonymy; poetry expresses it metaphorically, through relations of likeness and difference”"

Landy is not listed in his bibliography so I do not know if this is the Francis Landy I have met at UVIC.

But very few people are doing musical analysis. I know only of David Mitchell in Brussels. It is the analysis of the musical forms indicated by the accents that allows us to hear more than we have heard before from the text. Even if this musical inference is not perfect, it is light ears, or I should say the ear is enlightened, far and away beyond what we have had to date from scholars of the accents.

On the prosody implied of the accents, here are some general observations I have made from my work:
  1. the caesura effected by the atenach is of primary importance. The disjunction of the ole-veyored is rarer but also significant. These two alone suggest performance practice. (occasionally, I would like to see an additional pause. Most often the revia provides it in an exceptionally long poetic line greater than 15 syllables.)
  2. the opening of a verse, (or even its second syllable if the first is an upbeat), with an accent other than the default silluq, indicates a connection with the prior verses to be determined by the hearer. 
  3. the tone of voice and emphasis both within and between verses is determined by the other accents.
Saying this in non-musical language is nearly impossible. My overall thesis is that the use of the accents defines poetic structure (and prose also) beyond the scope of the line and beyond the scope of the verse. As I have noted elsewhere, this thesis contradicts claims made over the past 1000 years in the literature on the accents, notably from Wickes in his treatises from the 19th century. Two excellent examples are Psalm 96, where the accents define the scope of the stanzas so clearly, and from the prose books, the lament of David over the death of Saul and Jonathan. I can only illustrate these with the music, which to a musician is so much clearer than any list of accents would tell us.

If I were going to characterize poetry, and I am not yet ready to, I would say the obvious: the lines are short, and their terseness needs work to interpret. Also they typically have fewer of some common grammatical markers, like the particle את or the definite article. (Raabe, Anchor Bible Commentary on Obadiah, p 6-7, cites some measures related to the use of את and אשׁר. "In standard prose the particle is 15% or more whereas in poetry it is 5% or less." And also "if a section has 100 words, את and אשׁר and the definite article ה will comprise five or fewer of the words.") The short lines are very clear from syllable counting. I have still to examine the grammatical markers in a full database. But there is much more to be known from the music.

(It always pleases me when an opinion of John Hobbins is noted. I know so few scholars personally, and John is one who in the early days of blogging stimulated so much discussion, and in the early days of my own study, allowed me to struggle through my first attempts to read a text with Hebrew in it. Ten years later, I am not quite so intimidated by foreign languages in an English text, but I have to admit, it the impact of Biblical poetry were dependent on our ability to read Hebrew and commentary in German, French, Latin, and Greek, etc, then the poetry would not have had the impact it has had in western history and continues to have.)

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