Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 3. The Nature of the Hebrew language, poetry and prose

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. The “Authorised Version” and its Influence

§ 3. The Nature of the Hebrew language, poetry and prose

The nature of the Hebrew language first demands consideration. Its most noticeable feature is its deficiency in abstract and general terms. It has no philosophical or scientific vocabulary. Nearly every word presents a concrete meaning, clearly visible even through a figurative use. Many of its roots are verbal, and the physical activity underlying each word is felt through all its special applications. Thus, to take a single example, there is a Hebrew word variously rendered in the following passages by bud, east, spring, outgoing, going out.

  • Job xxxviii, 27: To cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth.
  • Psalm lxxv, 6: For promotion cometh neither from the east nor from the west.
  • 2 Kings ii, 21: And he went forth unto the spring of the waters.
  • Psalm lxv, 8: Thou makest the outgoings of the morning and evening to rejoice.
  • 2 Sam. iii, 25: Thou knowest … that he came to deceive thee, and to know thy going out and thy coming in, and to know all that thou doest.
  • In every one of these cases the Hebrew word means “going out” or “going forth,” and the Hebrew so understands it; but the “going forth” of the sun is one thing, and that of the waters another. Now, if we could suppose the word “bud” or “east” in English to present to the imagination, as transparently as “spring” does, the original activity which the word records, we should better understand what is true of practically all Hebrew words. Everywhere we are face to face with motion, activity, life. Of the Hebrew words for pride, one presents the notion of mounting up, one of strutting, and one of seething, as a boiling pot. What fundamental idea of similar concreteness does the English word “pride” suggest?

    There were not many abstract ideas to be conveyed in Biblical Hebrew; the absence of the words is a sign of the absence of the ideas. Such a sentence as “The problem of external perception is a problem in metaphysics,” or “The modifications produced within our nervous system are the only states of which we can have a direct consciousness,” would be untranslatable into ancient Hebrew. It is hardly too much to say that every generalisation—or, better, every general truth—expressed by the Hebrew is rendered with the utmost directness, and in phraseology as pictorial, as elemental, as transparent, as stimulative to imagination and feeling, as could possibly be. Such a language is the very language of poetry. The medium through which poetry works is the world of sensible objects—wine and oil, the cedar of Lebanon, the young lion, the moon, the cloud, the smoking hills, the wild goat, the coney and the stork; or, if we turn to Homer rather than the Psalmist, a plane-tree, the bright water of a spring, a snake blood-red on the back, the cheeping brood of a sparrow, or beaked ships and well-greaved Achaians. What is necessary in order to make poetry out of such materials is intensity of feeling, with elevation and coherence of thought. These, we have seen, were the endowment of the Hebrews. On the one hand, they were close to nature; they had not parcelled out their human constitution into separate and independent faculties; they had not interposed a cloud and hubbub of words between themselves and things; they had not so dissipated their powers in minute and laborious analysis that they were incapable of naïve views, powerful sensations and vigorous convictions. On the other hand, they had, as tending to coherence and elevation of thought, what to them was a sufficient explanation of all the wonders of the universe, and a sufficient impulse to lift up their hearts: these they found in their overmastering belief in God the Creator, God the Maintainer, and, for those who trust and love Him, God the Deliverer.

    But not only were their words concrete—the structure of their sentences was simple, while of the paragraph, in the Greek sense, they had hardly any conception, until, in the New Testament, we find their diction fallen under Greek influence. Their chief connective was “and”—hence the periodic sentence was, virtually, beyond their scope. The verse was their stylistic unit; and a sequence of verses, or of sentences about the length of what we understand by the average Biblical verse, was all that they aimed at achieving in composition.

    Their poetry was measured, not by feet, as in ancient Latin and Greek, but by word-accents, as in the most ancient poetry of many nations, including that of our English ancestors. Moreover, Hebrew poetry was dominated by the principle of parallelism of members. Often these members are arranged in couplets, but sometimes they include several lines. The three primary forms of parallelism are the synonymous, the synthetic and the antithetic. Thus, synonymous:

  • Psalm xv, 1: (a) Lord, who shall abïde in thy tabernacle? (b) Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?
  • Synthetic (a succeeding line or lines supplementing or completing the first):

  • Psalm xiv, 2: (a) The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, (b) to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.
  • Antithetic:

  • Prov. x, 1: (a) A wise son maketh a glad father, (b) but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.
  • Besides these, there are variations, such as climactic parallelism, where an expression in the first line is repeated in one or more that follow:

  • Psalm xxiv, 8: (a) The Lord strong and mighty, (b) the Lord mighty in battle.
  • The formation of the strophe, and devices such as the refrain, are less important. What is chiefly to be noted is, first, that Hebrew poetry has a decided accentual rhythm, and, secondly, that the dominant principle in the union of lines into larger groups is that of parallelism. The controlling rhythm is, therefore, the rhythm of meaning, what Watts-Dunton has called “sense-rhythm,” this, as he observes, being the rhythm of nature. Stanley eloquently says:

  • “The rapid stroke as of alternate wings,” “the heaving and sinking as of the troubled heart,” which have been beautifully described as the essence of the parallel structure of Hebrew verse, are exactly suited for the endless play of human feeling, and for the understanding of every age and nation.
  • Much of Hebrew prose was poetical, in the sense that it employed these devices to a greater or less extent, and all of it was poetical in the sense described above in the discussion of the Hebrew vocabulary. The prophets, in particular, frequently rise into a strain which is hardly distinguishable from poetry.

    The qualities, then, which fitted the Bible, beyond any other book of the world, for translation, are, among others, these:

  • (a) Universality of interest. There is much in it for the meanest and most illiterate, and its treasures are not to be exhausted by the wisest. It touches every person at more points than any other book that can be named.
  • (b) The concreteness and picturesqueness of its language, appealing alike to the child and the poet, while suggesting abundant reflection to the philosopher.
  • (c) The simplicity of its structure, which requires little more from the translator than that he shall render with fidelity one brief clause at a time, and follow it by the next.
  • (d) A rhythm largely independent of the features, prosodical or other, of any individual language—a rhythm free, varied and indeterminate, or, rather, determinate only by what has been called “the energy of the spirit which sings within the bosom of him who speaks,” and therefore adaptable to every emotion, from the most delicate to the most energetic.
  • It follows that the sway of the original is so powerful that hardly any translation will be devoid of merit, while infinite room is still left for felicities of detail, according to the character of the medium and the skill and taste of the translator.