All poetry is appointed to be read in churches; not all verse is. There is a long history of verse in English, in German, in Russian — probably in every language — written to be read in toilets, in taverns, in rowdy company, and in solitude. In each case, the writer has an expectation of an audience, although many contemporary poets would neither expect nor hope for their poems to be read in churches. Certainly the writers of the verse in the second case would not. Indeed, they might be more shocked to hear their verse read in church — we are talking about a reading aloud — than the aforementioned contemporary poet. Much of this kind of verse concerns itself with two subjects, sex and shit, and some of it is fairly clever. This is an example of the former, recalled from the wall of a stall at the University of Washington:
Hand in hand Gland in hand Hand in gland Gland in gland
The person who first composed that was most likely not the same who wrote it on the stall wall; in my experience, that kind of jeu d’esprit usually makes its way anonymously in the world, often from a deservéd modesty, expressing the desires of the author’s heart more than the depths of his experience, and is gleefully adopted by someone of a similar lack of experience. That yearning for experience comes through even more strongly in this example:
She offered her honor He honored her offer So all through the night It was honor and offer
I’m sure that the last line is often written differently, especially by someone less prissy than I. I may have, in fact, changed it over the years from “He was on ‘er and off ‘er,” but only, of course, because I was more interested in subtlety than blatancy. Most such verse, in my experience, blares out in short lines, even in its limerick avatars, to emphasize the rhymes, which in turn makes them hard to forget. But I’ll spare you further examples and analysis of this kind of verse, mostly because I am more interested in the kind of verse that was appointed to be read in churches.
It has the same fascination with sex, especially with sexual sin as a metaphor for the unfaithfulness of the house of Israel to their god, YHWH.[i] It is at times as graphic, if we but understood it. But when the translators of Oxford and Cambridge, “by his majesty’s special commandment” — he being James the First of England and Sixth of Scotland — began their new translation, in 1604, they understood that they were producing a Protestant translation for the Church of England, intended to be read aloud over the pulpit, intended to be heard by the congregation, and intended to be read at home by a newly-literate middle class of people like William Shakespeare, who was still an active playwright in London when it was published. This was not his Bible — that was the Bishop’s Bible[ii] — but to it can be attributed the decline of blank verse as a medium for poetry as much as to any other single cause.
The formal verse to be found in the Bible was, of course, Hebrew. I say “of course” because most of it is in the Tanakh[iii] — what Christians call the Old Testament. Although the “Apocalypse of John” in the New Testament, known to us by its Latin name “Revelation,” was written in imitation of the poet-prophets of Israel, most of the New Testament is prose. As is most of the Tanakh. And most of the Hebrew poetry in the Bible comes from Nevi’im, or, The Prophets, the second part of the Tanakh. According to the source of the text upcoming (you knew there was more poetry to come):
it is not always clear what parts of the original were poetry, nor how that poetry should be lineated; moreover, the King James Bible was made as a prose translation, and its words only sometimes work as verse. Nevertheless, the appearance of poetry, at the least, may act as a reminder that some parts were originally poetry. Sometimes it may do more, bringing out the structure of the poetry and more of the rhythm of the text. [iv]
So what were the elements of Hebrew poetry, unclear as they might be? Robert Alter identifies “the basic convention of semantic parallelism”[v] as most perceptible, especially in translation. See if you can identify it from this excerpt (speak the verse trippingly upon the tongue):
14 ‘Why do we sit still? assemble yourselves, and let us enter into the defenced cities, and let us be silent there: for the Lord our God hath put us to silence, and given us water of gall to drink, because we have sinned against the Lord. 15 We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!’ 16 The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan: the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land, and all that is in it, the city, and those that dwell therein. 17 ‘For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you,’ saith the Lord.
18 When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me. 19 Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people because of them that dwell in a far country: ‘Is not the Lord in Zion? is not her king in her?’ ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with strange vanities?’ 20 ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’ 21 For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt, I am black: astonishment hath taken hold on me. 22 Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?[vi]
What Alter calls “the basic convention of semantic parallelism”[vii] I first heard identified as “incremental repetition” — a phrase my father[viii] used in explaining to me how the Bible could be read as literature. He learned it from a class in the Bible as literature, possibly at BYU, possibly at the University of Washington. Verse 15 displays a good example:
15 We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!’
The semantic content of the first half of the line is repeated in the second half, but with different details, or with a different metaphor. Since this is Jeremiah, and not his more poetic counterpart Isaiah, the line is a little more prosaic, but still partakes of the feature Alter identifies as the basic convention. He opens the formal discussion of Hebrew poetry this way:
What are the formal elements that make up the 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….[ix]
Alter then refers to Robert Lowth’s 1753 text, De sacra poesi Hebraeorum as establishing “semantic parallelism between the two (or sometimes three) components of a line” as “the chief organizing principle of the system,”[x] before he notes that even that basic convention has been questioned over and over. Isaiah offers a clearer example of these features of the verse in this excerpt from Isaiah 3:
16 Moreover the Lord saith, ‘Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet 17 therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts’. 18 In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, 19 the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, 20 the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, 21 the rings, and nose jewels, 22 the changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, 23 the glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the vails. 24 And it shall come to pass, that in stead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and in stead of a girdle a rent; and in stead of well set hair baldness; and in stead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning in stead of beauty. 25 Thy men shall fall by the sword, and thy mighty in the war. 26 And her gates shall lament and mourn; and she being desolate shall sit upon the ground.[xi]
There is another element of the verse under consideration that I think helped de-emphasize blank verse in English. You find it in this line from Jeremiah above: “Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people.” It’s that way of forming a genitive, which is borrowed from Hebrew, used in preference to the Germanic form of genitive, i.e. adding an “s” to the end of the word. Try replacing the one with the other and you get “Behold my people’s daughter’s voice’s cry.” That has an iambic rhythm, but try hearing it read aloud and making sense of it.
Now, whilst this is a blog about verse, it is also a blog about verse in English. And while I would like to accompany you and Robert Alter and others in a fine ramble through Hebrew verse, my real point is now ready to emerge from the thickets of semantic parallelism and incremental repetition and the phrasal genitive: this translation was appointed to be read aloud, in churches; to be heard in churches; to be heard as wonderful, rhythmic speech. And it was heard: by William Blake, by Joseph Smith, by Walt Whitman, by Alan Ginsberg (who may have heard it in the Hebrew). I contend that the rhythms of the King James Bible influenced verse in English, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, far more than Shakespeare. Shakespeare showed us how ordinary mortals could speak poetry in the rhythms of verse; but his children and grandchildren, down to the present day, learned to speak poetry in the rhythms of scripture. Even Joseph Smith, who did not consider himself a poet.
But hold on, I hear you say: what about John Milton and the epic return of blank verse? Didn’t Milton consider himself a poet, and didn’t he use blank verse?
[i] The received pronunciation of this tetragrammaton in contemporary English is Yahweh; coming into English through Latin it picked up the mispronunciation “Jehovah,” possibly because that sounds somewhat like “Jove” — but since in its Hebrew manifestation it was never written with vowel points, no-one is really certain how those who wrote it would have pronounced it. A fine example of this contemporary English usage is found in Who wrote the Bible? / Richard Elliott Friedman. – New York : Summit, c1987, p. 22, in a discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis.
[ii] Will in the world : how Shakespeare became Shakespeare / Stephen Greenblatt. – New York : Norton, c2004, p. 35 — where what Greenblatt actually wrote in quoting I Corinthians 2:9 was “from the Bishops’ Bible , the version Shakespeare knew and used most often”.
[iii] Tanakh is an acronym from the Hebrew names of the three parts of the scripture, Torah, Nevi’im and Kethubim, or The law, The prophets and The writings, in the usage of the Jewish Publication Society of America, in their translation published 1962-1982.
[iv] The Bible, with the Apocrypha : King James Version. – London : Folio Society, 2008, pp. x-xi, originally published as The new Cambridge paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha : King James Version / edited by David Norton. – Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2005. Norton’s purpose was to restore the text of the first printing, or of the manuscripts recording the translator’s intentions, as nearly as possible, so the punctuation differs here from that in current versions of the KJV, and some of the spelling has been modernized, but this text is true to the translator’s original intent, as far as Norton could establish it.
[v] The art of biblical poetry / Robert Alter. – New York ; Basic, c1985; p. ix.
[vi] Jeremiah 8:14-22, from The Bible, with the Apocrypha : King James Version.
[vii] Alter, op. cit., p. ix.
[viii] Marden J Clark, formerly a professor of English and American literature at BYU.
[ix] Alter, op. cit., p. 3.
[xi] Isaiah 3:16-26, from The Bible, with the Apocrypha : King James Version.