The Poetry of the Psalms.

Rev. William T. Allison

Stayner, Ont., Canada


Matthew Arnold sounded a principle that cannot be too often repeated when he insisted that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life, that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life—to the question, how to live. In the long reaches of literature this vital truth has been shamefully neglected; the great masters themselves have not always been true to it. But at this late day we see more clearly than ever before that poetry of a lasting sort must issue from the depths of the soul, and concern itself perforce with those problems of life and destiny which have ever appealed to the earnest thought and stubborn questioning of mankind. The prose of the nineteenth century shows a remarkable advance in the application of ideas bearing on the all-absorbing question, how to live. Self-analysis and realism have even passed over into morbid self-introspection and brutal veracity of observation. Such intense fidelity to life and to the principles of action has not been correspondingly marked in modern poetry. With one or two exceptions, the poets of this generation have been elegant triflers, "the idle singers of an empty day." Their verse goes unread because it fails to strike the deeper note, which, once heard, is never long disregarded.

But while a thousand minor poets beat their music out and are met with silence, or receive at best a transient renown, certain books remain in our hands because they speak to the depths of the soul, because they console us and make us braver for the duties of life. It is unnecessary to name over the mighty world poets of whom so many fine things are constantly being said; but it may not be amiss to call attention to a body of literature as rich in truth and dignity as the best poetry in the world's treasury of song, which receives little or no appreciation at the hands of the literary critic.

The most familiar poetry in our minds and hearts today has been given to the world by the Hebrews, a nation despised from the earliest days, long since broken and scattered, but still holding quite as large a place in poetry as those ancient thinkers who are said to rule us from their urns. The fact that Hebrew poetry is so much with us has served to blind us to its exceeding beauty. Many would be inclined to shut it out entirely from the domain of pure literature and place it in a class by itself, on the score that it is concerned only with religion. But if we are to accept Matthew Arnold's dictum, and I see no reason why we should not, we must allow that in poetry the Hebrews were very great. If the highest poetry is in essence a criticism of life, the product of the best thought of ancient Israel deserves to stand well to the front in the body of the world's literature. Hellenic genius is said to be pre-eminent. If we hold to the touchstone of art for art's sake, this verdict may be correct; but if we urge that the poet should be a great teacher, should by his song inspire us to live after a truer and nobler ideal, then I think we must accord Hebrew poetry the first place.

For such poetry as Israel has given us, from the song of Deborah to the last lyric in the Psalter, is intensely concerned with action. Life was too serious and too real for the Hebrew poet to lose himself in the mists of speculation; the song and oracle found their source in the emotions rather than in the intellect of the poet and prophet. All Hebrew poetry applies itself primarily to action, and is the voice of the experience of living men. The mind bent on metaphysics will discover no involved reasoning, not the faintest analogy to Grecian subtlety, in Hebrew song. The Semitic poet always keeps an end in view. The purpose of his singing is plain; it is to express some emotion of his soul, to utter some great moral lesson, to chant some living liturgy. The soul is everything, the form in this literature is of slight importance; however profound, the philosophy flows with a beautiful simplicity; directness, naturalness, spontaneity—we find these qualities in every line of Hebrew poetry and at their best in the Psalter.

The perfect flower of Israel's song lies before us in the Book of Praises. True to the eminent characteristic of Hebrew literature, the Psalmists deal with action. The Psalter is the Jewish battle-ground of the soul. Throughout the length and breadth of this collection of peerless lyrics we hear the cries of conflict, the taunts of the adversary the ringing replies of the righteous. There are invocations and chants of triumph; there are also quiet seasons when the soul enjoys rest from battle, ponders on the way of life, and sees the very face of God. Whether we can look to David as author of any of the Psalms, or whether the emotional richness of his character and the stirring events of his life furnished inspiration and material for a number of self-effacing Hebrew Homerids of later times, makes little difference to us, for the soul in and behind the Psalter is a unity and gathers up into itself the sublimity of conception, the joy, the pathos of the race. The limpid style of the Psalter serves as a perfect mirror for human nature; the Psalms are written in the grand style, simple yet great, perennially fresh, so very ancient yet so truly modern. As in the Iliad, this remarkable style has caught the freedom of the world's childhood; the free breath of the desert blows across these ancient pages, an atmosphere in letters which the world-weary poet of the present cannot give to his creations.

But while unrestrained enjoyment of life and delight of battle is the key-note of the Iliad, in the Psalter this physical aspect is seen in the light of the eternal. The sensuous element is not lacking, but the Psalms idealize the actual in a high spiritual beauty that has never been surpassed. The lover of literature as well as the religionist will always admire the Psalms for their knowledge of the human heart, for their disregard of the vanities of form, and for their serious and simple beauty.

The heart of Israel is enshrined in the Psalter. The joyous note, characteristic of all lyric poetry, is poured forth in the Psalms throughout their whole extent; the exhilaration of the collection culminates in the Hallel lyrics, but it would be false to find it only in the praises definitely expressed; the joyous note is regnant everywhere, even when subdued in sobs and wails. The lyrics of the Psalter owe their happy movement to the altruistic outlook of the Hebrew mind. The subjective quality of Hebrew poetry is apparent in prayer and praise, in adoration and petition, in aspiration and despair; it is due to the intense subjectivity of the Psalmists that their lyric powers are so stirring.

While Renan goes too far in denying all epic or dramatic genius to the Hebrews, their efforts in these fields, it must be said, are slight, because they could never forget their inner life long enough to devote themselves to the description of external objects with any great power or with any completeness. It is true that a few passages with the sublime objectivity of the epic are present in the Psalter, and a tendency toward dramatic dialogue is seen in many Psalms; but there are no prolonged efforts in either direction. The Psalmists care little for the purely objective; nature to them lacks interest unless it sets off the greatness of God or explains the relation of man to his Maker. For abstract concepts the Semitic mind was entirely unfitted, owing to the childlike absorption which it found in the concrete and the actual. The emotion of the writer is so intense, his feeling is so strong, that if he depicts a scene in the external world he brightens it with human or divine actors. It is because the Hebrew poets of the Psalter express interest only in themselves individually or as a nations and in Gods in human interests in the worlds rather than in the world of sense viewed separately, that the lyric fire glows in the book of Psalms with such a clear and generous flame. The object is always tributary to the person, and speaks to the soul through the sense. If the glories of the nation's history are touched upon, it is only with a rapid, suggestive treatment. We look in vain for the detailed and dry-as-dust description which so often mars the epic; in the Psalms the great drama of the past is seen in the light of the present. The Psalmist turns aside for a moment to refer to the experiences and faith of his fathers; he touches with sparing hand the perfect gold of history, and depicts past events bearing a striking analogy to his own lot in the colored limelight of longing and hope. In the great commemorative and processional lyrics of the Psalter, the Hebrew poets link the fortunes of the fathers with the troubles or the triumphs of the children.

It is the living force in these lyrics, then, their subjective effectiveness, that has always held men from those far days until our own times. Mere externalism and cold portraiture, even the stately repose of the Grecian genius, fail to reach the universal human heart. The deep spiritual simplicity and entire absence of affectation or hollowness in this peerless collection of lyrics have given them an everlasting power and freshness What quality other than this lyrical ardor could have enabled the Psalms to play such a large part in the early and modern church, and in the literature of the world? "When other parts of the Scripture are used," writes Ambrosius, "there is such a noise of talking in the church, that you cannot hear what is said. But when the Psalter is read, all are silent." The stern Augustine passed away with the comforting words of a Psalm on his lips. When Clovis led his savage Franks to battle, he kindled warlike fury by repeating the martial passages in Psalm 18. Before he set out for Worms, Luther renewed his strength of will by singing the glorious words of Psalm 57. And at Dunbar, as the gray mists of the morning rolled away and discovered the Scots on the opposing heights, Cromwell thundered with exultant voice the opening words of Psalm 68, "Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered." Psalm 149 was the favorite hymn to which the inquisitors lighted the auto-da-fé; it was also the inspiration of innumerable continental revolts. The heroic strains of faith and trust which burst from the hearts of the Psalmists not only made men brave for the struggles of old, but in Christian homes today the household litany lovingly repeats them as a sure stay and solace in the fever and fret of modern life. The Psalms have appealed to the household of faith, to the religious life in every age, because they are infinitely rich in " repentance unfeigned, unwearied patience, the comforts of grace, infinite varieties of devotion, thankfulness, praise, and prayer." All this is our heritage from the subjective consciousness of a people who delineated the life of the Spirit with a high earnestness and beauty.

The Psalms were composed beneath an oriental sky, and are therefore as far as the east is from the west in comparison with the form of our poetry. They resolve the dark problems of wisdom to the sound of the harp, but the warmth and spontaneity of the East were comparatively free from the formalities which beset the occidental muse. Hebrew poetry is distinguished by a flowing rhythm, whose sweep and volume is free from restraint and does not care to fix itself to form. Metre in our sense of the word was unknown to the Hebrew poet; only an echo of rhyme or an assonance here and there, remind us of the complicated mechanism of French or English verse. The technique of Hebrew poetry is extremely simple; indeed, it is hard to distinguish the stately prose of the greater prophets from much of Israel's poetry proper, just as it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the mellifluous periods of Ruskin or Pater from our best blank verse. If an analogy can be drawn between any variety of English poetry and the poetry of the Psalms, it would perhaps be best to contrast the latter with some of our more brittle yet ample blank verse.

A unique characteristic, however, leads to the impression that Hebrew poetry—and nowhere is there greater fidelity to the principle than in the Psalms—is addicted to an extreme type of formalism. This trait is found in the parallelism or balanced structure, as Herder finely describes it, " the systole and diastole of heart and breath." Phrase is matched against phrase, clause against clause, verse against verse, with the nicest antithesis or repetition; synthetic constructions are repeatedly used in conformity with the same law, and in climactic strophes thought is carried on in echo after echo. But while this care for balance seems to indicate love of form, we must go below the surface for its real significance. The Hebrew poet adopted the balanced structure for his thought because he saw a deeper meaning beneath and behind the moral order of the world. His outward parallelistic expression is the result of his profound judgment on the ways of God to man, a judgment born of wide experience, of long meditation under desert stars. The Hebrew patriarch and poet was perhaps the first to attain to the ripe reflection that the law of compensation, of perfect balance, is the great underlying thought of the universe. No writer has more beautifully preached this law of compensation than Emerson, but he only emphasized a belief held by the earliest men, held more surely by the sons of Israel than by any philosopher of antiquity. Perfect equity, inevitable retribution, eternal balance under contrariety of outward seeming—this is the massive truth, the living essence of all Hebrew poetry, and to this source the optimism of the Psalter must be traced. But the blending of thought and form nowhere results in stiffness; strophic arrangement of the verse is carried out with happy effect; great freedom in rhythm is possible, and even departure from verbal parallelism is not infrequent. The strophes, so-called, do not correspond as they would in a Greek chorus; the lines are often of varied length, and the devices of interruption and antiphonal performance are constantly employed, so that the impression of extreme flexibility and diversity is maintained with the balanced thought and, in the main, balanced form.

The unity of the Psalter consists in the trust of Israel in her God. Composed in different periods and by many hands, unity of style should scarcely be expected. That there is unity at all is due to the deep wisdom of the Hebrew heart; it grasped the eternal verities; it was permeated with the divine. In war-chant or nature-piece, in plaint or reverie, in gnomic or national hymn, in the epithalamium or the pilgrim-song, the key-note is praise to the God who keepeth Israel, who is true and righteous altogether. It is in this idea of eternal law and righteousness that the real unity of the Psalter consists.