Page 49 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

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GREENSTEIN / ASPECTS OF BIBLICAL POETRY
37
(“fi-ire”). Scholars today cannot concur in establishing the precise
rules of Shakespearean verse. Without tape recordings, a pho­
netic record of how ancient Hebrew verse was declaimed, we shall
never be in a position to speak with conviction about the meter of
the Bible. That does not mean, however, that there was no meter
and that we cannot get some feel for it.
There are at least two indirect indications of meter in biblical
verse. One is that we find that most of what we call biblical verse
operates in couplets in which there are two lines of virtually equal
length — they take about the same time to recite. Look again at
the beginning of Psalm 23. The first couplet has two lines bal­
anced in duration; so does the second. The first couplet has
shorter lines, the second longer ones. There is also, as scholars
have long pointed out, another pattern, most familiar from the
Book of Lamentations, in which couplets are formed of a longer
line paired with a shorter line. What is crucial is that this type of
balance, or imbalance, of lines is typical of what we call biblical
verse. It is regular.
The second indirect indication of meter we refer to as “ballast
variation,” a term coined by Cyrus Gordon. It is very common in
biblical verse to delete the verb and/or other syntactic elements in
the second of two parallel lines. In such cases the elements of the
second line tend to be longer, or there is some addition or expan­
sion in the second line. Consider Psalm 114:1:
When Israel went out of Egypt,
Jacob’s House from a foreign folk.
The syntax of the two lines is identical except that “When . . .
went out o f ’ (
betset
) is deleted in the second line. The syntactic
slots occupied by “Israel” and “Egypt” in the first line are filled by
longer phrases, “Jacob’s House” and “a foreign folk” in the sec­
ond. The longer phrases compensate for the deletion and pre­
serve the balance of line length. Robert Alter criticizes the notion
of “ballast variation” because the longer terms carry a somewhat
different meaning from the shorter terms in the first line. He is
right about the meaning, but he confuses semantic and formal
issues. With respect to form, a balance of line length is generally
maintained. Without implying the strict regularity that is implied
in classical prosody by the term “meter,” we cannot gainsay the
claim of the late eighteenth century scholar, J. G. Herder: “And
has not the Hebrew parallelism the most simple proportion and