Page 89 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 30

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S
ilb e r sch l a g
— B
i a l ik
a t
the
C
en t en a ry
7 9
After the pogrom in Kishinev in 1903, the poet rose to heights
of prophetic indignation. In a major poem, “In the City of
Slaughter,”4 he not only castigated gentiles who attacked inno­
cent Jews; he also condemned his people in revulsive disgust for
their impotence in the face of superior physical force. He achieved
impressive effects by contrapuntal contrast of an indifferent,
seductive spring with an unimaginable cruelty of men to men.
Ineffectuality in the face of national tragedy elicited a frenetic
wail of anger and despair:
. . . Arise and flee to the desert
And take along the cup of sorrows.
Tear your soul to shreds,
Consume your heart with impotent ire,
Shed your large tear on the edge of the cliff
And let your bitter roar vanish in the storm.
“In the City of Slaughter” was Bialik's most finished product
in the realm of national poetry. Professor Joseph Klausner, Bialik's
ardent admirer and critic, regarded “The Scroll of Fire”5 as
the poet’s best poem. But that lyrical phantasy, based on legends
of the destruction of the first Jewish commonwealth in 586 B.C.E.,
suffered from incoherence, allegory and obscure symbolism. If the
distinction of grandeur could be accorded to a single poem by
Bialik, the choice would be “The Dead of the Desert.”6 Neither
the poet nor his contemporaries equaled its technical perfection
and its structured vision. The dead of the desert who had fled from
Egyptian servitude, those six hundred thousand fighters for free­
dom, are not really dead according to a rabbinic legend; they
slumber and wait for redemption in some sort of suspended
animation. The poet evokes that army with superb skill. The
eagle, the serpent, the lion, the Arab horseman, appear succes­
sively in the sands of the desert: they almost swoop down on
that weird conglomerate of people and recoil in fear. For the
army is dead and alive, frozen in a centuries-old sleep but wakened
by the poet’s vigor and elan:
We are the last generation in slavery, the first in redemption.
This line became the slogan of the agricultural pioneer, the
inspiring and challenging summons to youth in the diaspora,
and the favorite quotation in Zionist oratory. But the poet’s biting
irony toward the end of the poem was almost unheeded. Couched
in a half-verse which contained a scathing critique of contem­
*Hebrew title: B e-Ir ha-Haregah.
6
Hebrew title: Megillat ha-Esh.
*Hebrew title: Mete Midbar.