The Art of Biblical Poetry


By Robert Alter

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Three decades ago, renowned literary expert Robert Alter radically expanded the horizons of biblical scholarship by recasting the Bible as not only a human creation but a work of literary art deserving studied criticism. In The Art of Biblical Poetry, his companion to the seminal The Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter takes his analysis beyond narrative craft to investigate the use of Hebrew poetry in the Bible. Updated with a new preface, myriad revisions, and passages from Alter's own critically acclaimed biblical translations, The Art of Biblical Poetry is an indispensable tool for understanding the Bible and its poetry.


Rogue's Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel
Fielding and the Nature of the Novel
After the Tradition
Modern Hebrew Literature
Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre
Defenses of the Imagination
A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal
The Art of Biblical Narrative
Motives for Fiction
The Invention of Hebrew Prose
The Literary Guide to the Bible (co-editor, with Frank Kermode)
The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age
Necessary Angels
The World of Biblical Literature
Hebrew and Modernity
Genesis: A Translation with Commentary
The David Story: A Translation with Commentary
Canon and Creativity
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
Imagined Cities
The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
Pen of Iron
The Wisdom Books: A Translation with Commentary

For Carol
'ayelet 'ahavim veya'alat ḥen

Rereading this book carefully sentence by sentence after the passage of twenty-five years, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how well it held together. Though before 1985 I had occasionally written an article on poetry (modern rather than ancient), this was my first book devoted to poetry, and I myself might have expected some telltale signs of a critic venturing beyond his familiar territory of narrative and the novel. In retrospect, I think several elements in my own literary formation came together in the critical synthesis of this book—my reading of the American New Critics as an undergraduate, my later acquaintance with Russian Formalism and with the Soviet semiotic theorists of poetry, a splendid course with Reuben Brower at Harvard on English Augustan poetry that made me appreciate the wit and subtlety of the heroic couplet and so better understand how poetry worked in Proverbs, and a passionate attachment since adolescence to the Hebrew of these biblical poems, their powerful rhythms pulsating within me and impelling me to strive for a better account of their poetic power than the ones in circulation.
The Art of Biblical Poetry has continued to be used as a classroom text and to reach general readers, but it is my impression that it has had less of an impact on the academic field of biblical studies than my book on biblical narrative. Because poetry is an intricate formal system that often involves minute linguistic maneuvers, the analysis here is in some ways more intricate than that in The Art of Biblical Narrative, though I did my best to frame it in terms that would be intelligible to the general reader, or at least to the patient general reader, and that might speak to people who love poetry. Biblical scholars, alas, rarely fall into that category. The kind of comprehensive critical definition of biblical poetry I attempt here, with a constant eye to the relation between poetic form and vision or value, has not spoken to a good many biblical scholars because the overriding importance of poetic form and poetic achievement does not figure significantly in their perception of the Bible. I have tried to propose in this book a description of the formal system of biblical poetry that looks at the observable configurations of the poems in a way that is flexible and relatively uncomplicated. By and large, biblical scholars, evidently not much accustomed to reading poetry, continue to argue, at times with mathematical intricacy, that some system of meter (a term avoided in this book) was the formal basis of biblical poetry. It is, perhaps, a mind-set better suited to deciphering unknown ancient languages than to the reading of poetry.
The account articulated here of how biblical poetry is organized and how that organization enables certain kinds of meaning still seems to me a more plausible description, and definitely one more useful to readers, than any of the competing proposals, and so I am happy to offer it in this revised version to a new generation of readers. The revisions, I should say, are quite limited—more limited than for the new edition of The Art of Biblical Narrative—because on the whole I found that the formulations I worked out a quarter of a century ago were tightly reasoned and the analysis of the poems still persuasive. Very occasionally, some local claim is made that I have now modified, or a phrase has been reworded for greater clarity. The most extensive changes, as with the book on narrative, are in the translations. For the prose, I came to see that I had produced English versions based on assumptions about how to translate the biblical language that I now firmly reject. This was not the case for my rendering of the poetry, but having published translations in the last few years of nearly all of these poems, with the exception of the Prophets and the Song of Songs, I think I have learned how to better attend to the rhythms of the Hebrew and how to better approximate in English their remarkable compactness. Also, because biblical poetry often presents special linguistic and textual difficulties, there are instances where, on consideration, I have made different decisions about how to construe certain terms or phrases in the poems. In consequence of all this, I have substituted my published translations of all the poems (plus a draft translation of the Song of Deborah) for the versions I did in the early 1980s, and I have also done some revision of the passages cited here from the Prophets and the Song of Songs in light of what I have learned about translating biblical poetry.
The lines of biblical poetry are informed by an often fierce or mesmerizing energy of assertion that sweeps from one part of the line to its parallel member and, frequently, from the line to a whole sequence within the poem. But, as I argue here in a variety of ways, there is subtlety as well as insistence in these seeming repetitions: utterances develop and change, miniature stories unfold. In great works of literature, almost always more is going on than one initially realizes, and this is especially true of the Bible, to which readers are likely to come with a baggage of preconceptions and habits of automated or inappropriate response. What I try to convey in these pages is an educated sense of the satisfying complexity and the sheer excitement of biblical poetry. It is my hope that this new edition with its refurbished translations will in some degree realize that aim.
Spring 2011

As the title will suggest, this book is conceived as a parallel volume to my earlier venture into the literature of the Bible, The Art of Biblical Narrative. The parallel is only approximate because differences in the topic under investigation dictated differences in both organization and critical strategy. What I have set out to do here is first to define the workings of the formal system of biblical poetry in three initial chapters, moving from the nature of the poetic line to larger structures. The stress throughout is on the basic convention of semantic parallelism rather than on the phonetic and syntactic elements of the system because the latter two aspects would not be perceptible to anyone reading the poems in translation, and in any case much about the phonetics of biblical Hebrew remains uncertain.
After these three chapters on the system of biblical verse, I try to extend and refine my generalizations by applying them to major poetic texts, and through such application to see something of the difference poetry makes in the Bible. I have not attempted a comprehensive treatment of every subgenre of biblical poetry or of all the various poetic insets in the narrative books, but the main genres and texts—psalms, prophetic poetry, Wisdom poetry from Job to Proverbs, love poetry—are all scrutinized. Indeed, one of the many gaps in the understanding of biblical poetry is a failure of those who generalize about it to make sufficient distinctions among genres, and this study represents an initial effort to correct that tendency of amalgamation. For the most part, I proceed through close readings of specimens of the poetry because that seemed to me the best way to recover a sense of the intricate artistry of the poems. As in my book on narrative, the aim is to illustrate principles of poetics working in the Bible, not to provide exhaustive exegesis of the particular texts considered. If I have succeeded in any degree, I would hope that a reader could put these principles to use to read other biblical poems with heightened understanding and keener appreciation.
I must confess that before undertaking this project I questioned its feasibility because of the daunting problems of talking about poetry—the best words in the best order—to readers who, apart from a small minority, would not have access to the original Hebrew words in their original order. I became convinced, however, that the job was worth attempting because poetry is a vitally important aspect of biblical literature that needs to be better understood, while the recent flowering of literary studies of the Bible has concentrated on narrative to the neglect of verse. I offer a partial compensation here for the absence of the Hebrew originals in the translations I have provided for all the texts discussed. (Verse and chapter numbers refer to the Hebrew text; there are occasional discrepancies in verse numeration between the Hebrew and the Authorized Version.) My versions often ignore considerations of modern idiomatic fluency in order to give a closer idea than conventional translations do of such elements of the original as word-motifs, anaphora, envelope structures, and various kinds of significant syntactic designs. I have also sought to offer some sense of the rhythmic compactness of the Hebrew, though compactness is sacrificed when fidelity to meaning requires. No doubt in some instances, at least in the eyes of some readers, I will have succeeded only in betraying both English stylistic decorum and the Hebrew original, but I do think there are artful traits of the original that will be evident in some of the versions, whatever their failings, that are not easily detectable in the usual translations.
Let me add that many of the poetic texts of the Bible include formidable philological problems that I do not pretend to solve, and so I have merely marked the most egregious of these difficulties with a typographical symbol (an asterisk) while proceeding to the task of poetic analysis. On this issue, I would only observe that some supposed textual incoherencies or anomalies in fact make perfect sense in the light of certain general (and generally ignored) principles of biblical poetics. Readers familiar with these scholarly questions will note a few points along the way where poetic analysis of the sort I propose ought to be carefully weighed before conclusions are drawn about the need to emend the text.
A word is in order on the relation of this study to previous inquiries into biblical poetry. In contrast to biblical narrative, which to all intents and purposes was "discovered" as a subject for rigorous investigation barely a decade ago, biblical poetry is the subject of a vast scholarly literature, some of it going back two centuries. But whereas the relatively modest body of work on narrative includes some incisive studies, it seems to me that most of what has been written on biblical poetry is in some way misconceived and, however imposing the intellectual equipment of the writers, tends to be guided by rather dim notions of how poetry works. It did not strike me as useful to try to contend in detail with this scholarly production, which was for the most part beside the points I was trying to make; and so, with the very limited exception of some ground clearing in the initial chapter, I have kept both notes and references to secondary works to a bare minimum, citing only what I thought was strictly relevant.
Of course, no one could be foolish enough to imagine that what he has to say on a topic so abundantly discussed is entirely new. There are certain local anticipations of my observations about parallelism within the line in the traditional Hebrew commentaries from late antiquity to the Renaissance, but these exegetes work on very different interpretive assumptions, with no real sense that there is a formal system of poetics that defines the operations of units of meaning within the text. Among contemporary analysts of biblical poetics, I am indebted for a general orientation to Benjamin Hrushovski, from whose brief but seminal comments on ancient Hebrew prosody I quote in my first chapter. Certain perceptions about the nature of parallelism proposed in the introductory chapter of James L. Kugel's The Idea of Biblical Poetry (1981) proved close to ideas I had worked out in my Berkeley seminars in the late 1970s and that I actually mentioned in one brief passage in my book on biblical narrative. It is in a way reassuring that different critical eyes should see the same object, though there is also much in Kugel's general conception of biblical poetry to which I strenuously object, as I try to make clear at the outset.
I believe that criticism, like literature, forms a tradition, and this study therefore must owe various debts, large and small, witting and unwitting, to its many predecessors. At the same time, I would hope it will provide a useful new point of departure for others seeking to illuminate this complex and fascinating subject. The book is addressed, like my study of narrative, to all those curious about the Bible, whether their motives are religious, cultural, or specifically literary, and I would like to think that it contains things that will be instructive to specialists and general readers alike. Since the poetry of ancient Israel is, moreover, one of the wellsprings of Western literature, this inquiry may hold some interest for anyone concerned with poetry, even without a special involvement in the Bible.
It gives me great pleasure to express my gratitude to the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, under whose generous auspices I completed the first half of this book in 1982–1983. The Institute gave me not only a year free of teaching obligations in which to begin the project in a very congenial setting but also the weekly stimulation of my colleagues in the group on biblical studies. Sections of the early chapters were first tried out on that learned audience, and I am sure that my formulations benefited from their questions and suggestions. I was also very fortunate to be able to discuss many of these poetic texts with a graduate seminar in biblical poetry at the University of California, Berkeley, in the spring semester of 1984, and to learn from the alert comments of my students. Typing and incidental research costs were covered by the Committee on Research of the University of California at Berkeley. The typing itself was done by Florence Myer, as always with exemplary precision. Chapter 1 and abridgments of chapters 2 and 4 appeared respectively in Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts, Poetics Today, and Commentary, and I would like to thank the editors of those journals for their receptivity.
August 1984

The Dynamics of Parallelism
The detail is everything.
WHAT ARE THE formal elements that make up a poem in the Hebrew Bible? The incorrigible naïveté of common sense might lead one to suppose that the rudiments of an answer would be self-evident, but in fact there is no aspect of biblical literature that has elicited more contradictory, convoluted, and at times quite fantastical views, from late antiquity to the latest scholarly publications. To many it might have seemed that after Robert Lowth's De sacra poesi Hebraeorum (1753) semantic parallelism between the two (or sometimes three) components of a line was firmly established as the chief organizing principle of the system; but questions have been raised about the actual prevalence of such parallelism, about how it is to be conceived if it is really there, and about whether it might not be an entirely secondary feature of biblical poetry. One influential contemporary theory imagines syllable count to be the defining characteristic of ancient Hebrew verse, with parallelism appearing, as one adherent of this notion rather lamely puts it, when the poet (thought of, without much evidence, as an oral-formulaic composer) needs more syllables to pad out his idea to the end of the line.1 A still newer theory proposes a bewilderingly elaborate system of "syntactic constraints" as the basis of biblical verse, though this analysis entails, among other intrinsic difficulties, an arbitrary chopping up of poetic lines into units that will confirm the proposed pattern.2 Others have argued for a combination of syntax and stress as the basis of versification.3
The dismaying range of discussion on this topic is vividly illustrated by two extremes. At one end of the spectrum, an Orientalist in the 1930s, Paul Kraus, set out to show that the entire Hebrew Bible, once properly accented, could be demonstrated to have been written in verse (a project in which he had been anticipated three decades earlier by the German Old Testament scholar Eduard Sievers). When he discovered two-thirds of the way through his analysis that the texts no longer bore out his thesis, he took his own life. At the other end of the spectrum, an ambitious recent study, James L. Kugel's The Idea of Biblical Poetry,4 after a splendid first chapter full of incisive comments on what happens in semantic parallelism, comes perilously close to concluding that there is no poetry in the Bible, only a "continuum" from loosely parallelistic structures in what we think of as the prose sections to a more "heightened rhetoric" of parallelistic devices in what we misleadingly label verse.
Despite the grim fate of Paul Kraus, I don't think the attempt to describe the system of biblical poetry need be a suicidal enterprise, and it is obviously important to get some handle on the system in order to understand what kinds of meaning, what representations of human and divine reality, are made possible by this particular poetic vehicle. But it does seem wise to state clearly at the outset what we do not know and are unlikely to recover. The actual sound of biblical poetry will remain at least to some extent a matter of conjecture. Certain distinctions among consonants have shifted or blurred over the centuries, and what is worse, we cannot be entirely sure we know where accents originally fell, what the original system of vowels and syllabification was, or whether there were audible changes in these phonetic features during the several hundred years spanned by biblical poetry. (The indications of stress and vocalization of the Masoretic text were codified well over a millennium after the composition of most of the poems and centuries after Hebrew had ceased to be the vernacular.) On the level of meaning, although comparative Semitic philology in a remarkable age of archaeological discovery has done heroic work in restoring the original sense of poorly understood words, it would be foolhardy to imagine that we can always recover the real nuances of biblical terms, or the relation between poetic diction and colloquial diction (of which there is no record) or between poetic diction and other specialized usages of the ancient language. Moreover, because the language of poetic texts presents a higher concentration of rare locutions and other stylistic difficulties—difficulties even, apparently, for an ancient Hebrew scribe—one encounters in the poetry phrases, lines, or sometimes whole sequences of lines that look thoroughly corrupted and that read as little more than gibberish unless one has sufficient faith to accept someone's radical emendation of the text. To these problems of sound and meaning, one must add a formal problem: because the poems are not set out as poetry in the traditional Hebrew text, there are sometimes serious questions as to where the line breaks should come and, especially in some of the Prophets, ambiguities about the boundaries between prose and poetic passages.
All these puzzlements should be kept in mind, for there are aspects of the system of biblical poetry, and certainly features of individual poems, that will continue to elude us from where we stand, two and a half millennia—and, in the case of a few texts, perhaps three millennia—after the creation of the poems. The difficulties, however, need not be overstated. There remains much that can be understood about biblical verse; and sometimes, as in the text I am about to quote, even where there are doubts about the poem's meaning, it may exhibit perfectly perceptible formal patterns that tell us something about the operations of the underlying poetic system. My initial example, then, Genesis 4:23–24, is an instructive enigma, and only the second instance of clearly demarcated formal verse in the Bible (the first being the two-line poem in Genesis 2:23 that the first human uses to name his helpmate Woman). It is a poem, addressed by Lamech to his two wives, that would seem to be almost entirely dependent on context, some obscure story of an injury or insult perpetrated on Lamech and the vengeance he exacts. The trouble is that no context whatever is offered. All we know about Lamech is that he is the fifth linear descendant of Cain, of whom God had said, "Whoever slays Cain will be avenged sevenfold," and that he begat with his two wives the inaugurators of the archetypal civilized activities of flock tending, music making, and metal forging, and a daughter with no designated archetypal role. This frustrating lack of context for the poem, however, can be taken as the occasion to look without distraction at the formal configuration of meanings and rhythm and word order that constitute its three lines:
'adáh vetziláh shemá'an qolí
neshéi lémekh ha'zéna'imratí
ki 'ísh harágti lefitz'i
veyéled lehaburatí
ki shiv'atáyim yúqam-qáyin
velémekh shiv'ím veshiv'áh
Ada and Zilla, O hearken my voice. You wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech.
For a man have I slain for my wound, a boy for my bruising.
For sevenfold Cain is avenged, and Lamech then seventy and seven.
Since doubts have now been raised, at least by James Kugel, as to whether it is justifiable to speak of poetry in the Hebrew Bible, let me begin with a brief consideration of the most fundamental question: Is this text indisputably a poem? To answer that question, we need some notion of what it is in general that enables us to distinguish poetic from nonpoetic discourse, and I should like to cite as a helpful point of reference Barbara Herrnstein Smith's apt proposal on this issue in her book on poetic closure. "As soon as we perceive," she writes, "that a verbal sequence has a sustained rhythm, that it is formally structured according to a continuously operating principle of organization, we know that we are in the presence of poetry and we respond to it accordingly . . . , expecting certain effects from it and not others, granting certain conventions to it and not others." We shall soon be concerned with precisely what those expectations and conventions might be in the case of biblical poetry, but first we need to reflect on the presence or absence in this and other biblical texts of a "sustained rhythm" that works as "a continuously operating principle of organization." Barbara Smith, as she goes on to make clear, has in mind a model of perceptual psychology in which a relatively structured pattern is perceived as a figure against a ground of more random data. "One of the most significant effects," she concludes, "of meter (or, more broadly, of principles of formal structure) in poetry is simply to inform the reader that he is being confronted by poetry and not by anything else.... Meter serves, in other words, as a frame for the poem, separating it from a 'ground' of less highly structured speech and sound."5
The term "meter," because of its associations with a Greco-Roman system of carefully regulated sequences of vowel quantities, may not be the best one to apply to our text, but the continuously present frame of formal structure of which Smith speaks is quite conspicuous here. To be sure, there are also certain elements of symmetry and repetition in the surrounding prose, but, set against the tight formal organization of these lines, the narrative text all around is surely perceived by reader or listener as a "ground" of nonpoetic discourse. And it will not do to argue, as Kugel does, that the syntactic, rhythmic, and semantic strategies of biblical verse are simply part of a "continuum" with what we designate as prose because roughly analogous configurations of language can be discovered in the prose. In fact, it is rare to find anywhere a poetic style that does not bear some relation to the literary prose of the same culture; or rather, it turns out in many instances that literary prose is influenced by contemporary or antecedent poetry in the same language, often seeking knowingly or unwittingly to achieve for itself a quasi-poetic status without the formal constraints of verse. Fielding's splendid satiric style, with its pointed antitheses and poised symmetries, surely owes something to his experience of Pope's handling of the heroic couplet, and Melville, striving to shape a prose of the sublime, is famous (or notorious) for his Miltonic and Shakespearian effects, sometimes producing whole passages that almost scan as blank verse; but neither of these instances is evidence that readers and writers of English make no sharp generic distinction between poetry and prose.


On Sale
Sep 6, 2011
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Robert Alter

About the Author

Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime contributions to American letters, he lives in Berkeley, California.

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