Page 241 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

Basic HTML Version

S
ilber schlag
— S
a u l
T
sch ern ich ow sk y
221
pleasurable intervals of the Sabbaths and the holidays. But it
is also a sensitive world: the infinite melancholy of the plains
and steppes of Southern Russia envelops them like an invisible
mist.
I t is no exaggeration to say that Tschernichowsky fathered
the Hebrew idyll just as Theocritus invented the Greek idyll.
Both poets modeled their verse on Homer, both borrowed from
him the dactylic hexameter, both learned from him to cherish
minuscule details of daily life. And both parted company from
their master. Unlike Homer who loved gods and heroes, they
depicted simple folk, simple lives, simple talk.
The idyll is, perhaps, Tschernichowsky’s most important gift
to Hebrew poetry. Even one of his last multidimensioned poems,
“The Golden Folk,” is idyllic in content. The bees, the golden
folk, are the great symbolic paradigms of human existence. The
cruelties of the beehive as well as the nuptial and tragic flight
of the queen bee are the eternal prefigurations of wars among
nations and of flights of imagination. That theme is vividly
orchestrated with flashbacks to the earlier and the most recent
history of mankind. But the vigor and the simplicity of the
early idylls give way to a heavy allegorism. The poem is un-
even: magnificent passages alternate with dull descriptions of
the Oligocene and the Miocene epochs. The “Ballad of the
Hive,” part of the unwieldy poem, is one of the brilliant achieve-
ments of Tschernichowsky. In trochaic couplets, immaculate in
rhythmic precision, he has immortalized the love-and-death dance
of the lover of the queen bee. Maeterlinck preceded him with
a quasi-poetic account of bee and queen bee in flight. But the
Hebrew poet surpassed the Belgian mystic with sheer vitality,
with consummate prosody, with musical adroitness.
Tschernichowsky's contribution to the development of He-
brew balladry was sustained by his deep appreciation and
adaptation of English and Scottish models. He read Burns and
Scott, Wordsworth and Coleridge. He paraphrased “The Two
Corbies” and he translated “John Barleycorn.” He wrote ballads
consistently throughout his creative life; he published his first
ballads at the end of the nineteenth century, his last ballads
before his death. In a half-century of ballad-writing he ransacked
many sources of Jewish lore for themes of his ballads: legendary
exploits of Jews in Arabia, biblical stories, talmudic maxims,
medieval events. The ballads of medieval martyrdom have an
extraordinary poignancy: they re-interpret death and sacrifice
as preludes to dignified life. The polarity of heroism and help-
lessness not only fascinated Tschernichowsky: it dominated his
entire poetical work. And so did the polarity of Canaanism and
Judaism, physical pagan exuberance and spiritual prophetic