Sunday, June 08, 2008

English Poetry and the Poetry of the Scriptures

In my last post I showed you some of my poems. In this post I'm going to talk about the "theory" of English poetry, and then introduce a very different kind of poetry: the Poetry of the Scriptures.

The first half of this article was adapted from the section on Poetry in The New Book of Knowledge, Grolier, Inc., 1980.

Millions of people go through life with scarcely a line of poetry in their heads. The Scriptures, however, are full of poetry. It takes just a little investigation to begin to recognize it, and scarcely more to begin to understand and enjoy the poetry of the Scriptures. A large part of your appreciation of the Scriptures can come from being aware of and appreciating the poetry they contain.

Rhythm and rhyme are the main syntactic elements of English poetry. There are several combinations of each.

A single line of poetry is called a verse. A number of verses grouped together, form a stanza. Stanzas generally have three, four, six, eight, or nine lines. Each line is made up of a number of short sections called feet or measures. Iambs, trochees, dactyls, and spondees are four different types of measure.

An iamb has a short syllable followed by a long syllable. Here are three iambs. Another way of saying this is that the following sentence is iambic.

 We went to town today.

A trochee is made up of one long syllable followed by a short syllable. Here are four trochees.

 Mary, Mary, quite contrary.

Dactyls have one long syllable followed by two short ones. Here are three dactyls.

 Mer ci ful heav ens, I’m blun der ing.

Two long syllables of equal stress form a spondee.

 Stand still, don’t move, don’t talk.

The number of measures in a line is the meter. If there are five measures, the form is called pentameter. Most sonnets and most blank verse poems are written in iambic pentameter.


Then felt I like some watcher of the skies. (Keats)

Rhyme, of course, consists in using words that sound alike at the ends of the lines. There are many different ways to combine rhyming words. Some poems do not rhyme at all. The following example has the same sound for all the last words.


I don’t mind eels
Except as meals.
And the way they feels. (Ogden Nash)

This iambic dimeter illustrates poetic license. The use of the word "feels" completes the verse, but is grammatically incorrect. At the same time, it adds humor to the poem. And the third line is not strictly iambic, since there are two short syllables at the beginning.

A good poem shows the poet in control of rhythm, meter, and (if he uses it) rhyme. In the most successful poems, words are in their most exact and delightful order. The words make music. The music touches our spirits and has a kind of second meaning, which is part of the mystery and wonder of a good poem.

There is a lot more that could be said about such things as alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, couplets, quatrains, spenserian stanzas, ballades, free verse, lyric and epic poetry, didactic poetry, odes, elegies, metaphor and simile, and so forth. But imagine a beautiful English poem translated into Chinese by someone who didn’t understand or appreciate poetry. How much enjoyment would the Chinese reader get out of it?

This is the situation with the poetry in the Scriptures.

The second half of this article was adapted from Understanding Old Testament Poetry, by Kevin L. Barney, in The Ensign, June, 1990, pp. 51-54.

The first thing to learn about poetry in the Scriptures is that it is different from the English poetry described above. Although it is possible to recognize rhythms in Hebrew poetry, for example, the poetry is not based on a metrical system. Further, unlike much English poetry, rhyme is virtually unknown in Hebrew poetry. Rather than using meter or rhyme, Hebrew poetry uses patterns of repetition. Repetition is the hallmark of Hebraic style. This repetition is even part of the Hebrew language itself. For example, Genesis 37:5 says, "Joseph dreamed a dream." In English, we would avoid the repetition and simply say "Joseph had a dream." Exodus 30:10 is translated, "It is most holy unto the Lord," but is literally, "It is a holiness of holinesses unto the Lord."

Although Hebrew poetry did not include rhymes, it did include alliteration; the repetition of consonant sounds, such as "threatening throngs," assonance; the repetition of vowel sounds, as in holy and stony, and paronomasia; a play upon similar sounding words, as in "wholly holy." These examples are English, of course, and since I don't speak Hebrew, I can't give any Hebrew examples. An English translation of Hebrew completely eliminates the alliterative, assonant, and paranomasic qualities. It is always best to read a poem in its original language.

Joseph Smith went to great trouble to learn the Hebrew language. On one occasion, he said of Daniel’s vision of the beasts, "in Hebrew it is a Latitude and Longitude compared with [the] English version." (Willard Richards, Joseph Smith Diary, 8 April 1843.)

Another form of Hebrew poetry that is not apparent in translation is the acrostic. An acrostic is a series of lines in which the first letters form words (like my Pete Rose poem in the previous post) or form the alphabet. In Psalm 119, for example, each of the first eight verses begins with aleph, each of the second eight verses begins with beth, and so on until the entire Hebrew alphabet has been completed. Lamentations 1-4, Psalms 9, 34, and 37, and Proverbs 31:10-31 are other acrostic poems.

If you can’t read Hebrew, the next best thing is to read the King James translation of the Bible. The men who did this translation infused the English text with the spirit of the Hebrew poetry where they were able. Consider, for example, the striking assonance in the repetition of i sounds in the words arise, shine, thy, light, Gentiles, brightness, and rising, and the majestic or sounds in the words glory and Lord, found in the King James Version of Isaiah 60:1-3:


Now, I know that you may not be impressed. If you think about poetry at all, you probably think in terms of rhythm and rhyme. So this probably just makes you yawn. Sorry. But I think this stuff is really "neat" so I’ll keep on going...

If you print the lines given above emphasizing certain words, you’ll see another form of Hebrew poetry that does translate fairly well:


This is known as "inverted parallelism" (I've also seen "introverted"), or Chiasmus.

Stay tuned: there's lots more to come on this subject.

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