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1. ORIGIN OF POETRY.
Poetry and music-the highest and most spiritual of the fine arts-are older than the human race; they hail from heaven and from a pre-historic age. The old legend traces the origin of music to the angels, and Raphael paints St. Cecilia, the patroness of church music, as faintly echoing the higher and sweeter chorus from the celestial world. The same applies to poetry, for music presupposes poetry and derives from it its inspiration. Christianity was sung into life by the anthem of the heavenly hosts, who existed before the hexaemeron or certainly before man, and who are the agents of God in the realm of nature as well as in all great epochs of revelation. The same angels raised their anthems of glory and peace at the completion of the first creation by the hand of the Almighty. Then
"The morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy."*
As poetry and music began in heaven, so they will end in heaven, and constitute a rich fountain of joy to angels and sanctified men.
2. POETRY AND RELIGION.
Poetry and music came from the same God as religion itself, and are intended for the same holy end. They are the handmaids of religion, and the wings of devotion. Nothing can be more preposterous than to assume or establish an antagonism between them. The abuse can never set aside the right use. The best gifts of God are liable to the worst abuse. Some have the false notion that poetry is necessarily fictitious and antagonistic to truth. But poetry is the fittest expression of truth, its Sabbath dress, the silver picture of the golden apple, the ideal embodied in and shining through the real. "Let those," says Lowth,† "who affect to despise the Muses, cease to attempt, for the vices of a few, who may abuse the best of things, to bring into disrepute a most laudable talent. Let them cease to speak of that art as light and trifling in itself, to accuse it as profane or impious; that art which has been conceded to man by the favor of his Creator, and for the most sacred purposes; that art, consecrated by the authority of God Himself, and by His example in His most august ministrations." Dean Stanley says: "There has always been in certain minds a repugnance to poetry, as inconsistent with the gravity of religious feeling. It has been sometimes thought that to speak of a book of the Bible as poetical, is a disparagement of it. It has been in many Churches thought that the more scholastic, dry, and prosaic the forms in which religious doctrine is thrown, the more faithfully is its substance represented. Of all human compositions, the most removed from poetry are the Decrees and Articles of Faith, in which the belief of Christendom has often been enshrined as in a sanctuary. To such sentiments the towering greatness of David, the acknowledged preeminence of the Psalter are constant rebukes. David, beyond king, soldier, or prophet, was the sweet singer of Israel. Had Raphael painted a picture of Hebrew as of European Poetry, David would have sate aloft at the summit of the Hebrew Parnassus, the Homer of Jewish song."
3. THE POETRY OF THE BIBLE.
More than one-third of the Old Testament is poetry.
This fact is concealed, and much of the beauty of the Bible lost to many readers by the uniform printing of poetry and prose in our popular Bibles. The current versicular division is purely mechanical, and does not at all correspond to the metrical structure or the laws of Hebrew versification.
The poetry of the Old Testament is contained in the Poetical Books, which in the Jewish
Job xxxviii. 7.
+ Lectures on H. P., Stowe's ed., p. 28.
History of the Jewish Church, II. 164, Am. ed.
This disparaging remark about creeds is too sweeping and inapplicable to the oldest and best, the Apostles' and Nicene creeds, which sound like liturgical poems through all ages of Christendom, together with the Te Deum and Gloria in Excelsis of the same age.
canon are included among the Hagiographa or Holy Writings, namely, Job, the Psalms, the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. Besides these the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and most of the Prophets are likewise poetic in sentiment and form; and a number of lyric songs, odes, and prophecies, are scattered through the historical books.
The poetic sections of the New Testament are the Magnificat of the blessed Virgin, the Benedictus of Zachariah, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Nunc dimittis of Simeon, the Parables of our Lord, the Anthems of the Apocalypse, and several poetic quotations in the Epistles, e. g., 1 Tim. iii. 16.
Sometimes the prose of the Bible is equal to the best poetry, and blends truth and beauty in perfect harmony. It approaches also, in touching the highest themes, the rhythmical form of Hebrew poetry, and may be arranged according to the parallelism of members.* Moses was a poet as well as a historian, and every prophet or seer is a poet, though not every poet a prophet. The same is true of the prose of the New Testament. We need only refer to the Beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount, the Parables of our Lord, the Prologue of St. John, the seraphic description of love by St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of second Corinthians, and his triumphant pæan at the close of the eighth chapter of Romans, which, in the opinion of Erasmus, surpasses the eloquence of Cicero.†
In this wider sense the Bible begins and ends with poetry. The retrospective vision of the first creation, and the prospective vision of the new heavens and the new earth are presented in language which rises to the summit of poetic beauty and power. There can be nothing more pregnant and sublime in thought, and at the same time more terse and classical in expression than the sentence of the Creator:
"Let there be light! And there was light."
Is there a loftier and more inspiring conception of man than that with which the Bible introduces him into the world, as the very image and likeness of the infinite God? And the idea of a paradise of innocence, love and peace at the threshold of history is poetry as well as reality, casting its sunshine over the gloom of the fall, and opening the prospect of a future paradise regained. Then, passing from the first chapters of Genesis to the last of the Apocalypse, how tender and affecting is St. John's description of the new Jerusalem-the inspiring theme of all the hymns of heavenly home-sickness from "Ad perennis vitæ fontem" to "Jerusalem the golden," which have cheered so many weary pilgrims on their journey through the desert of life.
Hebrew poetry has always been an essential part of Jewish and Christian worship. The Psalter was the first, and for many centuries the only hymn-book of the Church. It is the most fruitful source of Christian hymnody. Many of the finest English and German hymns are free reproductions of Hebrew psalms; the 23d Psalm alone has furnished the keynote to a large number of Christian hymns, and the 46th Psalm to Luther's master-piece: "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott.”
As among other nations, so among the Jews, poetry was the oldest form of composition. It precedes prose, as youth precedes manhood, and as feeling and imagination are active. before sober reflection and logical reasoning.
Poetry and music were closely connected, and accompanied domestic and social life in seasons of joy and sorrow. They cheered the wedding, the harvest, and other feasts (Jos. ix. 3; Jud. xxi. 19; Amos vi. 5; Ps. iv. 8). They celebrated victory after a battle, as the song of Moses, Ex. xv., and the song of Deborah, Judg. v.; they greeted the victor on his return, 1 Sam. xviii. 8. The shepherd sung while watching his flock, the hunter in the pursuit of his prey. Maidens deplored the death of Jephthah's daughter in songs (Judg. xi. 40), and David the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. i. 18), and afterwards Abner (2 Sam. iii. 33). Love was the theme of a nobler inspiration than among the sensual Greeks, and the Song
Isaac Taylor says (1. c. p. 68): "Biblical utterances of the first truths in theology possess the grandeur of the loftiest poetry, as well as a rhythmical or artificial structure."
+"Quid unquam Cicero dixit grandiloquentius?" The heathen rhetorician, Longinus, placed Paul among the greatest
of Songs celebrates the Hebrew ideal of pure bridal love, as reflecting the love of Jehovah to His people, and prefiguring the union of Christ with His Church.
24. THE SPIRIT OF HEBREW POETRY.
In a wider sense all true poetry is inspired. The civilized nations of antiquity, particularly the Greeks, regarded it as a divine gift, and poets as prophets and intimate friends of the gods; and all the ceremonies, oracles and mysteries of their religion were clothed in poetic dress. There is, however, a two-fold inspiration, a Divine, and a Satanic; and the poetry which administers to pride and sensual passion, idolizes the creature, ridicules virtue, and makes vice attractive, is the product of the evil spirit.
The poetry of the Hebrews is in the highest and best sense the poetry of inspiration and revelation. It is inspired by the genius of the true religion, and hence rises far above the religious poetry of the Hindoos, Parsees and Greeks, as the religion of revelation is above the religion of nature, and the God of the Bible above the idols of the heathen. It is the poetry of truth and holiness. It never administers to trifling vanities and lower passions; it is the chaste and spotless priestess at the altar. It reveals the mysteries of the divine will to man, and offers up man's prayers and thanks to his Maker. It is consecrated to the glory of Jehovah and the moral perfection of man.
The most obvious feature of Bible poetry is its intense Theism. The question of the existence of God is never raised, and an atheist—if there be one-is simply set down as a fool (Ps. xiv.). The Hebrew poet lives and moves in the idea of a living God, as a selfrevealing, personal, almighty, holy, omniscient, all-pervading and merciful Being, and overflows with his adoration and praise. He sees and hears God in the works of creation, and in the events of history. Jehovah is to him the Maker and Preserver of all things. He shines in the firmament, He rides on the thunder-storm, He clothes the lilies, He feeds the ravens and young lions, and the cattle on a thousand hills, He gives rain and fruitful seasons. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Moses, David and the prophets, He dwells with Israel, He is their ever-present help and shield, their comfort and joy, He is just and holy in His judgments, good, merciful and true in all His dealings, He overrules even the wrath of man for His own glory and the good of His people.
To this all-prevailing Theism corresponds the anthropology. Man is always represented under his most important moral and religious relations, in the state of innocence, in the terrible slavery of sin, or in the process of redemption and restoration to more than his original glory and dominion over the creation. Hebrew poetry reflects in fresh and life-like colors the working of God's law and promise on the heart of the pious, and every state of his experience, the deep emotions of repentance and grief, faith and trust, gratitude and praise, hope and aspiration, love and peace.
Another characteristic of Bible poetry is the childlike simplicity and naturalness with which it sets forth and brings home to the heart the sublimest ideas to readers of every grade of culture, who have a lively organ for religious truth.* The scenery and style are thoroughly oriental and Hebrew, and yet they can be translated into every language without losing by the process-which cannot be said of any other poetry. Greek and Roman poetry have more art and variety, more elegance and finish, but no such popularity, catholicity and adaptability. The universal heart of humanity beats in the Hebrew poet. It is true, his experience falls far short of that of the Christian. Yet nearly every phase of Old Testament piety strikes a corresponding chord in the soul of the Christian; and such are the depths of the divine Spirit who guided the genius of the sacred singers that their words convey far more than they themselves were conscious of, and reach prophetically forward into the most distant future.†
* "Not less in relation to the most highly-cultured minds than to the most rude-not less to minds disciplined in abstract thought, than to such as are unused to generalization of any kind-the Hebrew Scriptures, in the metaphoric style, and their poetic diction, are the fittest medium for conveying, what is their purpose to convey, concerning the Divine Nature, and concerning the spiritual life, and concerning the correspondence of man-the finite, with God-the Infinite." This idea is well carried out in the work of Isaac Taylor, see p. 50.
+ The higher order of secular poetry furnishes an analogy. Shakespeare was not aware of the deep and far-reaching
All this applies more particularly to the Psalter, the holy of holies in Hebrew poetry. David, "the singer of Israel," was placed by Providence in the different situations of shepherd, courtier, outlaw, warrior, conqueror, king, that he might the more vividly set forth Jehovah as the Good Shepherd, the ever-present Helper, the mighty Conqueror, the just and merciful Sovereign. He was open to all the emotions of friendship and love, generosity and mercy; he enjoyed the highest joys and honors; he suffered poverty, persecution and exile, the loss of the dearest friend, treason and rebellion from his own son. Even his changing moods and passions, his sins and crimes, which with their swift and fearful punishments form a domestic tragedy of rare terror and pathos, were overruled and turned into lessons of humility, comfort and gratitude. All this rich spiritual biography from his early youth to his old age, together with God's merciful dealings with him, are written in his hymns, though with reference to his inward states of mind rather than his outward condition, so that readers of very different situation or position in life might yet be able to sympathize with the feelings and emotions expressed. His hymns give us a deeper glance into his inmost heart and his secret communion with God than the narrative of his life in the historical books. They are remarkable for simplicity, freshness, vivacity, warmth, depth and vigor of feeling, childlike tenderness and heroic faith, and the all-pervading fear and love of God. "In all his works," says the author of Ecclesiasticus (xl. 8-12), he praised the Holy One most high with words of glory; with his whole heart he sang songs, and loved Him that made him. He set singers also before the altar, that by their voices they might make sweet melody and daily sing praises in their songs. He beautified their feasts and set in order the solemn times until the end, that they might praise His holy name, and that the temple might sound from morning. The Lord took away his sins and exalted his horn forever; He gave him a covenant of kings and the throne of glory in Israel."
This inseparable union with religion, with truth and holiness, gives to Hebrew poetry such an enduring charm and undying power for good in all ages and countries. It brings us into the immediate presence of the great Jehovah, it raises us above the miseries of earth, it dispels the clouds of darkness, it inspires, ennobles, purifies and imparts peace and joy, it gives us a foretaste of heaven itself.
In this respect the poetry of the Bible is as far above classic poetry as the Bible itself is above all other books. Homer and Virgil dwindle into utter insignificance as compared with David and Asaph, if we look to the moral effect upon the heart and the life of their readers. The classic poets reach only a small and cultured class; but the singers of the Bible come home to men of every grade of education, every race and color, every condition of life, and every creed and sect. The Psalter is, as Luther calls it, a manual of all the saints," where
meaning of his own productions. Goethe said that the deepest element in poetry is "the unconscious" (das Unbewusste), and that his master-piece, the tragedy of Faust, proceeded from the dark and hidden depths of his being.
* Comp. Ewald's admirable portrait of David as a poet, in the first volume of Die Dichter des A. B., p. 25. Prof. Perowne in his Commentary on the Psalms, vol. I., pp. 8, 9 third ed. (1873), gives this truthful description of him: "As David's life shines in his poetry, so also does his character. That character was no common one. It was strong with all the strength of man, tender with all the tenderness of woman. Naturally brave, his courage was heightened and confirmed by that faith in God which never, in the worst extremity, forsook him. Naturally warm-hearted, his affections struck their roots deep into the innermost centre of his being. In his love for his parents, for whom he provided in his own extreme perilin his love for his wife Michal-for his friend Jonathan, whom he loved as his own soul-for his darling Absalom, whose death almost broke his heart-even for the infant whose loss he dreaded-we see the same man, the same depth and truth, the same tenderness of personal affection. On the other hand, when stung by a sense of wrong or injustice, his sense of which was peculiarly keen, he could flash out into strong words and strong deeds. He could hate with the same fervor that he loved. Evil men and evil things, all that was at war with goodness and with God-for these he found no abhorrence too deep, scarcely any imprecations too strong. Yet he was, withal, placable and ready to forgive. He could exercise a prudent self-control, if he was occasionally impetuous. His true courtesy, his chivalrous generosity to his foes, his rare delicacy, his rare self-denial, are all traits which present themselves most forcibly as we read his history. He is the truest of heroes in the genuine elevation of his character, no less than in the extraordinary incidents of his life. Such a man cannot wear a mask in his writings. Depth, tenderness, fervor, mark all his poems."
† Winer, too, derives from the religious character of Hebrew poetry its "sublime flight and never-dying beauty." Angus says: "The peculiar excellence of the Hebrew poetry is to be ascribed to the employment of it in the noblest service, that of religion. It presents the loftiest and most precious truths, expressed in the most appropriate language." Ewald remarks that " Hebrew poetry is the interpreter of the sublimest religious ideas for all times, and herein lies its most important and imperishable value."
each one finds the most truthful description of his own situation, especially in seasons of affliction. It has retained its hold upon the veneration and affections of pious Jews and Christians for these three thousand years, and is even now and will ever be more extensively used as a guide of private devotion and public worship than any other book. "When Christian Martyrs, and Scottish Covenanters in dens and caves of the earth, when French exiles and English fugitives in their hiding-places during the panic of revolution or of mutiny, received a special comfort from the Psalms, it was because they found themselves literally side by side with the author in the cavern of Adullam, or on the cliffs of Engedi, or beyond the Jordan, escaping from Saul or from Absalom, from the Philistines or from the Assyrians. When Burleigh or Locke seemed to find an echo in the Psalms to their own calm philosophy, it was because they were listening to the strains which had proceeded from the mouth or charmed the ear of the sagacious king or the thoughtful statesman of Judah. It has often been observed that the older we grow, the more interest the Psalms possess for us as individuals; and it may at most be said that by these multiplied associations, the older the human race grows, the more interest do they possess for mankind."*
5. POETIC MERIT.
In its religious character, as just described, lies the crowning excellence of the poetry of the Bible. The spiritual ideas are the main thing, and they rise in richness, purity, sublimity and universal importance immeasurably beyond the literature of all other nations of antiquity.
But as to the artistic and aesthetic form, it is altogether subordinate to the contents, and held in subserviency to the lofty aim. Moses, Solomon, David, Isaiah, and the author of Job, possessed evidently the highest gifts of poetry, but they restrained them, lest human genius should outshine the Divine grace, or the silver pitcher be estimated above the golden apple. The poetry of the Bible, like the whole Bible, wears the garb of humility and condescends to men of low degree, in order to raise them up. It gives no encouragement to the idolatry of genius, and glorifies God alone. "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory," (Ps. cxv. 1.)
Hence an irreligious or immoral man is apt to be repelled by the Bible; he feels himself in an uncongenial atmosphere, and is made uneasy and uncomfortable by the rebukes of sin and the praise of a holy God. He will not have this book rule over him or disturb him in his worldly modes of thought and habits of life.
Others are unable to divest themselves of early prejudices for classical models; they esteem external polish more highly than ideas, and can enjoy no poetry which is not cast in the Greek mould, and moves on in the regular flow of uniform metre and stanza. And yet these are no more essential to true poetry than the music of rhyme, which was unknown to Homer, Pindar, Sophocles, Virgil and Horace, and was even despised by Milton as "the invention of a barbarous age to set off wretched matter and lame metre, as the jingling sound of like endings trivial to all judicious ears and of no true musical delight." This is indeed going to the opposite extreme; for although rhyme and even metre are by no means necessary, especially in the epos and drama, they yet belong to the perfection of some forms of lyric poetry, which is the twin sister of music.
If we study the Bible poetry on its own ground, and with unclouded eyes, we may find in it forms of beauty as high and enduring as in that of any nation ancient or modern. Even its artless simplicity and naturalness are sometimes the highest triumph of art. Simplicity always enters into good taste. Those poems and songs which are the outgushing of the heart, without any show of artificial labor, are the most popular, and never lose their hold on the heart. We feel that we could have made them ourselves, and yet only a high order of genius could produce them.
Where is there a nobler ode of liberty, of national deliverance and independence, than the Song of Moses on the overthrow of Pharaoh in the Red Sea (Ex. xv.)? Where a grander
* Stanlev: Hist. of the Jewish Church, II. 187.