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Hebrew Poetry.

A Lecture Delivered in Elul 5601, (1841,) at the Crosby Street Synagogue, New York, Before the Young Men’s Literary Association.

Beloved Young Friends:—

The pleasure I now have of appearing among you to respond to the request made of me to deliver an address before a body of Israelitish youths, who have nobly resolved to devote their leisure hours to their mental improvement, has been delayed much longer than I wished or could have anticipated. But circumstances, however, beyond my control, and various delays naturally incident to the life of one who holds a public, responsible station, which, whilst it is honourable, nevertheless deprives him not unfrequently of the disposal of his own time, have detained me hitherto, and I fear that some of you may have thought me lukewarm, for not redeeming sooner the promise I made, of co-operating with you in your laudable efforts, at the time when you did me the honour of electing me an honorary member of your society. But such a judgment would be unjust; for at no time did I feel more hopes for the revival of that religion, an unworthy minister of which I have been chosen, in this country, than when I learned, that those who were natives of the soil had associated to diffuse a knowledge of it among themselves and their friends, by the institution of a library, lectures, and a public school, whereby the deeds of our ancestors, the mercy of the Creator so often displayed among the sons of Israel, the ancient language of Jacob’s sons, and the sufferings of the martyrs of our faith, might become widely diffused and generally known. Could I then feel indifferent about the progress of such a society as yours? Could my non-appearance at an earlier date than to-day be sufficient evidence that my spirit had not been with you long ere this? I trust, therefore, that you, my friends, will acquit me of neglect, and that you will bear with me whilst I in my turn call your attention to a theme which has not been without cause the glory of Israel.

But it is not of the prowess in battle of our forefathers, not of their daring deeds of arms, how they stood forward in the day of fight to strike for their people and the cities of their God; not of the glory which they richly acquired for their unresisting sufferings, rather than yield to the threats of the oppressor and his allurements, in the cause of their blessed religion, that I mean to speak now; for though rich and inexhaustible <<556>>as these subjects would be to the Israelitish patriot, they have already frequently roused the orator and the poet to pour forth their thoughts that burn, and to excite others to go and do likewise. And indeed wherever the name of Israelite is mentioned, there arise in the mind of the hearer ideals of his constancy and ancestral renown, and even his enemies must acknowledge that he is not to be despised as one of obscure origin and a parentage of no note in the world’s history. I therefore do not wish now to soar so high, and to bring before you the account of deeds of which sinning man is scarcely worthy; but I mean to offer to your consideration another branch of the Hebrew’s glory, in a field where there are indeed thorns and weeds, but where still no blood can flow by the cultivation of the soil. Deeds of arms, though performed in the cause of justice, bring home sufferings to the bosom of many; martyrdom, though endured in a holy warfare, is still a painful subject for reflection. But the glory achieved by the Israelites of old in the art of POETRY is one which we can contemplate without feelings of regret or pain. And it is the triumph which those who went before us have acquired in this peaceful pursuit on which I would desire you to dwell for the brief space I am permitted to detain you this day.

Poetry proper consists in investing the subject with a light and attraction which belong to it, but which are not represented in the language of conversation, commonly called prose. The poet’s province, therefore, is to select the beautiful and striking features of his subject, and present them to the hearer or reader in such a manner as to captivate his fancy, and to cause him to feel within himself that the image before him is indeed beautiful, powerful, or good. The prose writer or the ordinary speaker, on the contrary, may without impropriety represent the subject in all its parts without ornament or dress, since he merely is to give an account of the thing so as to represent it correctly to the one he means to inform. If you therefore read in a medical work a description of a man, you would in vain look for any agreeable or lively sketch of his structure and capacities, but merely a dry detail of bones, muscles, sinews, veins, and internal organization; for the writer’s object will evidently be to convey to you intelligible information of something which he knows, or fancies he knows, and which he feels called upon to communicate to others. But if this subject were handled by one professing to be a poet, you would be shocked were he to dwell in measured verse upon the anatomical structure of the body, upon the organs of sensation, breathing, or digestion; because you would justly deem, that a medical description is not to be expected from a poet. It will be evident from this short definition, which I believe to be as accurate as can be given without resorting to a <<557>>long and laboured dissertation, that the prosaist is to address the understanding, the poet, however, the feeling only; and whilst the first must endeavour to convince our reason by his carefully arranged argument, the latter should excite our sensibility by the quickness and rapidity with which he sketches as it were his subject before our perceptive faculty.

It will, however, be apparent to you without requiring any extended explanation from me, that many a thing which is neither actually beautiful nor great nor good, may still be able to be presented in such a light as to excite the fancy or the imagination; or in other words, the art of poetry, which in its proper application should only elevate what is really deserving of admiration, may be prostituted to endow with a fictitious outward light that which of itself had better remain buried in its well-merited darkness and oblivion. Hence, all the effects of every species of vice, crime, or cruelty, are of right no fit objects upon which the genius of poetry should alight. They are of an impure nature, and only calculated to contaminate the innocent and spotless. What connexion then can there be in the realms of truth between the spirit in its purity, and the pollution of sinful nature? We should say none whatever. In fact, if we view it unconnected with the satisfaction which all men have not rarely in the contemplation of things wrong and sinful in themselves, we must say, poetry cannot or at least should not exhibit aught but what is beautiful, great, and good, since the contemplation of themes having one of these qualities alone can tend to the moral improvement of man.

Nevertheless, it is a deplorable fact, that poets of all ages and countries and languages, save those of one people, have lent the charms which flow from their well-stored minds to beautify things that are odious in moral deformity, and have glorified the worthless, and praised the pernicious. In other words, the glare of poetry has been thrown around vice, crime, and cruelty, and has appealed for applause to the satisfaction which erring man has not rarely in the contemplation of things wrong and sinful in themselves. This power of a misapplied art arises from the fact that we have inclinations which are not good, at least such as are unfreed from evil, and because we are more or less attracted by sensual things, necessary perhaps to our self-preservation and the continuance of our species, which are notwithstanding this far removed from an absolute state of purity. In other words, if one takes advantage of our known propensity to sin and sensuality, and sketches their effects in such a manner as to hide their coarse and offensive features, he may produce a picture which, though repugnant to virtue, may still be attractive in its colouring and arrangements, and consequently well calculated to mislead the imagination and warp the <<558>>understanding. Judgment and our better reason may loudly exclaim that such poetry is destructive to peace, injurious to morals; but the poison will still be diffused, and its apparent sweetness will hide from the many the mortal effect which it bears within it.

Another fact may be adduced here, that in exact proportion to the faulty selection of his subject, a poet is often admired by the unthinking multitude. They see only the beauty of the colouring, and the harmony of the style, the rapid fire of the diction; but they remain utterly forgetful of the act, that the subject itself is not one belonging to the realms of true poetry.

It matters not, however, in what manner the poet speaks, whether it be in rhyme, in rhythm, that is, in measured sentences, or whether he discard the jingling sound of similarly ending lines and metre, and uses elevated words, as they flow freely from his richly endowed soul. I say it is all the same; it is poetry, or a subject treated to captivate the fancy more than convince the understanding; and if used for an adorning of vice, or for a palliating of crime, it is alike injurious in either of the modes we have just mentioned. And all of us (for I believe that there can be scarcely an exception in this age, when reading is so generally resorted to as a mode of recreation and instruction) must have at times become aware in their own experience of the truth of my assertion, that a subject, evil in itself, treated in the attractive light of poetry, has more or less tainted our mind before we were even aware of the injury to which we were exposed.

Look at the immense array of novels, dramas, and other poems of the last three hundred years,—not to mention those of the Grecians and Romans,—and say then whether their perusal does not cause, in most cases, a dissatisfaction with the actual world around us, and excite in us desires and passions, the gratification of which is clearly prohibited by the religion of the Israelite. This is not, however, the time, nor is this the place, to prove the assertion by examples, although it would be easy enough to do so; sufficient for us that the fact is, alas! too true to suffer a denial, and experience is too generally cognizant of it to require any argument. I said, therefore, that I would “call your attention to a theme which has not been without cause the glory of Israel;” because, the poets of our people—and there were times when we had poets of high eminence—properly applied their art to its only true province, to illustrate what is truly beautiful, great, and good; and although the greater par of what remains to us of their works refers to but one subject, that one subject is nevertheless the most beautiful, the greatest, the best our imagination can conceive—it is the Creator himself, beyond whom there is nothing that deserves the epithets of beautiful, great, and good. I do not mean, <<559>>however, to say that nothing but God is a fit theme for poetry, nor that the Hebrews illustrated nothing else: far from it; I meant to advance and to maintain that the general one-sidedness of our biblical and later poetry is nowise derogatory to its beauty, dignity, and usefulness, inasmuch as it treated, when treating this great theme, one which cannot be excelled by the creatures of the most lively imagination; for the reality of the Deity is invested with all the attributes which can lend enchantment and pleasingness to the works of the poet.

But even the other matters which engaged the attention of our poets, such as outward nature, and man in particular, have not been treated to beautify crime and lend attraction to sin. On the contrary, there is not a word in all the ancient remains which by any possibility could corrupt the morals of innocence; and well may we be proud that our holy language—holy, therefore, in more senses than one—was never abused by being degraded to be made the handmaiden of sin and impurity. Would to mercy that the same might with truth be said of the poets of other languages! Let us then be charged with the poverty of the Hebrew, a poverty rather in words than in ideas, and which is owing more to the calamitous dispersion of the nation than to any original inherent defectiveness, which, however, could hardly have been the case when the people of Israel possessed it as their daily conversational language, as we may readily judge from the elegance of the Scriptural style;—let it be said that no heroic poem is discoverable in our language, that dramatic literature was unknown in Palestine: still we may proudly point to the beautiful illustrations of nature and of nature’s God which we discover, the sublime, admiring thoughts awakened within us, the love of truth and righteousness that is kindled up, when we carefully peruse the writings of our psalmists, prophets, and teachers,—writings which yet remain unapproached, not even to think of unequalled; although the world has been increasing, as it is said, in refinement and learning, ever since when Moses first sang his  hymn at the border of the dead-strewn gulf of Arabia.

It is erroneous to believe that the Scriptures and later Hebrew writings contain nothing but merely religious subjects, in the limited sense of the words; for though all have a bearing towards religion, still the matters selected to effect this bearing are as widely different as the whole range of nature is in itself. For our poets availed themselves of historical events, of legends, of natural historical illustration, of description of phenomena, in short of everything which possesses the qualities of beauty, greatness, and dignity, to dignify and adorn their subjects; and let me here at once remark, that were we but perfectly acquainted with <<560>>the imagery they employed, we would feel no difficulty to understand precisely their meaning, which is now unfortunately very often quite obscure.

We may freely say that religion was to them the life of life; hence everything was to be used to adorn this life, and to make it attractive and loved, even as is the newly-married wife to a devoted husband. It has accordingly been remarked before by others, and I shall have occasion hereafter to advert to it again, that many of the fine scenes and descriptions in the best modern writers have their origin in the books of the Bible, and that the more a poet had studied the sacred text, the nearer he approached in his turn to the sublime, the true, and the beautiful.

Let us now advert to the nature and arrangement of the Hebrew poetry and its style. Our modern idea of poetry is pretty nearly confined to two modes of expression, if I may use the word in this peculiar meaning; and these are rhyme and blank verse. In the first certain lines of every verse terminate in similarly ending words; in the other, however, this agreement in sound is omitted, but still the verse proceeds in a rhythmical or measured manner. It is not to be denied that these modes of expressing poetical thoughts have their advantage, and by way of illustration we will give an example of each.

The Hour of Prayer

“Child, amidst the flowers at play,
While the red light fades away;
Mother, with thine earnest eye,
Ever following silently;
Father, by the breeze of eve
Called thy harvest work to leave;
Pray—ere yet the dark hours be,—
Lift the heart and bend the knee!

“Traveller, in the stranger’s land,
Far from thine own household band;
Mourner, haunted by the tone
Of a voice from this world gone;
Captive, in whose narrow cell
Sunshine hath not leave to dwell;
Sailor, on the darkening sea—
Lift the heart and bend the knee.

“Warrior, that from battle won
Breathest now at set of sun;
Woman, o’er the lowly slain
Weeping on his burial-plain;
Thou, the weary and o’erworn;
Thou, whose hope hath wings of morn;
Heaven’s first star alike ye see—
Lift the heart and bend the knee!”


Are these lines not beautiful? They are addressed to all; the young, the old, the sorrowful, the gay, the victor, and the conquered, to lift up their heart to the Giver of life; nothing is wanting to present a pleasing uniform picture of quiet and holiness. And not the least of their charm consists in their harmonious rhyming, and natural flow of imagery.

Let us now present another extract where the rhyme is omitted.

“These, as they change, Almighty Father! these
Are but the varied God. The rolling year
Is full of Thee. Forth in the pleasing spring
Thy beauty walks; Thy tenderness and love.
Wide flush the fields; the softening air is balm;
Echo the mountains round; the forest smiles;
And every sense, and every heart is joy.
Then comes Thy glory in the summer months,
With light and heat refulgent. Then Thy sun
Shoots full perfection thro’ the swelling year.
And oft Thy voice in dreadful thunder speaks;
And oft at dawn, deep noon, or falling eve,
By brooks and groves, in hollow-whispering gales.
Thy bounty shines in Autumn unconfined,
And spreads a common feast for all that lives.
In winter, awful Thou! with clouds and storms
Around Thee thrown, tempest o’er tempest roll’d
Majestic darkness! on the whirlwind’s wings
Riding sublime, Thou bidst the world adore,
And humblest Nature with Thy northern blast.”


It will readily strike you that in both cases, though to a larger extent in the rhymed species, a great degree of forced construction must frequently occur to give the verse its outward appearance, and consequently be a constant check upon the boldness and rapidity which would at times appear but for these conventional trammels. For the poet is compelled, not so much to give utterance to sublime thoughts, as to ex<<562>>press them in the form he himself, or the adopted rules of his art have prescribed. He has consequently to file away, to use an expressive word, everything which stands in the way of the adopted euphony, and to reduce his ideas often to the measure of his lines.

If, therefore, harmonious and even-progressing sounds have a decided advantage in one respect, they are obnoxious to the fault we have just stated, of preventing us from receiving the full gush of elevated feelings which animate the poet’s soul. It is, therefore, not in the least surprising, that in the early Hebrew poetical remains barely a trace of rhyme and even measure is to be found.

Our psalmists, orators, and poets, had a higher aim than pleasing the ear and exciting pleasurable sensations in the hearer; hence they looked more to the expression of the idea in forcible language than to an agreeable dressing of the same. I must not, however, be understood as asserting that no attention was paid to a certain evenness of measure, which latter is undeniably discernible in the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, the songs of Moses, the Canticles, and in other passages of Scripture; but as maintaining that it would be useless labour to look for an equal number of syllables in the verses of any Hebrew poem of as early a date as the Bible, or for a regular structure of verse or stanza, which latter is of so rare an occurrence,—for instance, in the cxi. and cxii. Psalms, as to make it certain that the exceptions are owing to another cause than the idea of regular versification. Let me say at once that these two Psalms are of the kind properly called alphabetical, or those which are so arranged that each verse or part of a verse commences in succession, with one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; which, as you all know, consists of twenty-two letters. If then the first verse commences with א, the second would commence withב , and so forth. Several Psalms and the Lamentations of Jeremiah, as also the concluding portion of the xxxi. chap of Proverbs, are so arranged; some in the regular order of the alphabet as it is yet in use among us, hereby betokening its high antiquity; others again in a slightly varied order, by putting a verse commencing with פ before ע or the like, or by omitting one letter, as the נ in Psalm cxlv.; again, some have their verses commencing in regular order, thus consisting of about twenty-two verses to the Psalm; others,  however, have the alphabet repeated, as Lamentation iii. and Psalm cxix., and others have other verses interposed between the regular order, as Psalm xxxvii. An exception to all these modes are the Psalms cxi. and cxii., which have the alphabet to commence at every half verse; thus:—

הללויה אודה ה׳ בכל לבב
בתוך ישרים ועדה

Now, having adopted this arrangement, the psalmist is compelled to make his verses of pretty nearly the same length, or in other words adopt to a great extent the rhythmical structure, which, as can be proved, was not known, at least not adopted by the early Hebrews. When he therefore has gone through this arrangement eight times, or with sixteen letters, he throws the remaining six into two verses, merely to vary the too uniform and unusual method he has here employed. Hence the apparent stanza form which is presented in the concluding verses:

פדות שלח לעמי ∙ צוה לעולם בריתו ∙ קדוש ונורא שמו ׃
ראשית חכמה יראת ה׳ ∙ שכל טוב לכל עשיהם ∙ תהלתו עמדת לעד ׃

(To be continued.)