Uploaded by simon.rose742

The Art of Biblical Poetry Book Review

School of Divinity
Essay Title & Mark Sheet
Please insert this page at the beginning of each assignment, before uploading via
Student ID Number:
Due Date for Essay:
Module Code:
Essay Title:
Book Review of The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter
Essay Length: (word count)
Essay No. e.g. 1, 2, 3 or 4
I hereby certify that this work has been written by me, and that it is not the result of
plagiarism or any other form of academic fraud.
Submission of an assignment via the MMS platform under your username will constitute your
personal declaration. No signature is required.
Feedback from marker(s)
If not covered above, how could this essay be improved?
(Max 20):
Penalty for Presentation
Final Mark
Initials of Marker
Level of Criteria Employed:
Please begin your essay below:
Using Hrushovski’s1 idea of semantic-syntactic-accentual parallelisms as the basis for the “free
rhythm” of Hebrew Verse, Alter adopts his term ‘verset’ to describe the half or third-of-a-line units
through which the parallelisms operate and argues that these involve ‘dynamic movement’2 . Alter
follows Shklovsky’s assertion that parallel synonyms introduce ‘a unique semantic qualification’3
and argues that this modification is often one of intensification, achieved through the substitution of
nouns for ‘kennings’ or explanatory epithets, or literal for figurative description (e.g Gen 49:11 wine/
blood of grapes) in the second verset, which serves to specify, expand or compliment the first. In
space this often works by incrementally limiting the field of reference, a technique Alter calls
The intensification or elaboration is often achieved when the second verset is governed by the
same verb as the first, an apposition known as elliptical parallelism, which allows for an elaboration
of the phrase and (Prov. 2:16) for the introductory action of incipient narrative.
Alter then explains, through 2 Samuel 22, how dynamic parallelism and principles of specification
and intensification, can create consequentiality and narrative momentum through a series of
interlinked actions, like cinema stills, and its various uses, such as intensifying moral lessons (prov.
7) or highlighting the grim inevitability of divine retribution (Amos 8:9-10, 9:1-4). He also makes
general comments about the suitability of certain forms for certain subjects and of Biblical verse,
where dynamic parallelism is a ‘generative principle’4 rather than conscious technique, for the
Prophets, Psalms and most of all Job.
In Job 3 intensifying and focusing parallelisms are used to move closer to the core of Job’s anguish,
while God’s response in 38-41 uses heightening to go through a catalogue of natural phenomenon,
including a series of animals, where the growing intensity of description creates a sense of the
terrifying majesty of the natural order, which cannot be approached by the formulaic morality of the
human characters. This leads Job to recognise his presumption, thus demonstrating the affinity of
content and form.
The Psalms’ verbal structure and formal emphasis on parallelism allowed the Psalmists to link
elements of description and narrative, using emphatic repetitions to create counter-points, echoes
and interplay of speech, image and action in a delicate acknowledgement of the expression of
religious feeling through language.
For the prophets he uses Isiah 14 and 49 to show how focusing and intensification, as well as the
literal-figurative interplay can create a sense, either of the grim inevitability of historical events
marching towards cataclysm or a sweet future of harmonious joy, pointing to their use of language
as a method for creating meaning beyond their primary message and to their apocalyptic treatment
of history as the primary factors behind these passages’ enduring fascination.
In Proverbs, the closed structure and use of antithetical parallelisms, often relying on a surprising
‘punch word’5 at the end of the second verset, allow focusing and intensification to draw stark
attention to moral consequences or relations e.g ‘unfit for the fool is pleasure/even more so a slave
Benjamin Hrushovsky, “Prosody, Hebrew” Encyclopaedia Judaica (New York 1971) vol.13 pp.
Robert Alter The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books 2011) p.9
Victor Shklovsky “Art as Technique” in Russian Formalist Criticism ed. L.T Lemon and M.J Reis
(Lincoln, Neb., 1965) p.21
Alter The Art of Biblical Poetry 97
Ibid. 211
to rule princes’ (19:10). He also explains the riddle structure of an explanatory second verset and
how the longer poems will use their structure to create a series of intensifying images.
The Song of Songs is atypical of Biblical verse as it often abandons semantic parallelism and
although it does make frequent use of the impulse towards focusing, elaboration and intensification,
the driving force is metaphor and the literal-figurative interplay that often blurs the boundaries
between them.
Alter’s use of close reading is particularly helpful in his elucidation of the manifold instances
of dynamic parallelism, and of the variety of ways in which the logic of intensification and
elaboration are used. His analysis of the prose and verse versions of the story of Jael and
Sisera in Judges provided a powerful illustration of how the use of intensified repetition and
a system of heightening, brings the contrasts of the story (such as between Jael ans
Sisera’s women) into sharp relief, and by its momentum creates a unilinear narrative of
characters whose actions are being constantly propelled to new heights. In the accusatory
poem of Is.1:2-9, it is clear to see how intensification (‘The ox knows his owner/The ass his
master’s crib’ 3-4) and focusing (‘Your land a desolation/your towns are burned with fire’
12-13) are used to create an urgent momentum, and almost constantly in Isiah 14:4-21 to
raise the prophetic satire to a point of extreme intensity reminiscent of Tiresias.
In the book of Job, Alter’s reading of the use of focusing and heightening to create both
Job’s complaint (3) and God’s reply (3-41) convincingly demonstrates the synthesis
between form and content. What is not so convincing, however, is Alter’s insistence that
different forms of poetry must be used for different themes and in particular his bizarre
assertion that English sonnets are not suitable for writing about nature (all the more
surprising since he does, in fact, quote Keats later in the book) and in this respect he may
be a victim of his own meticulousness: his close readings of, for example, Job and
Proverbs, both cling to this idea that only certain subjects can be approached with this
form, and yet he provides such a range of applications that it is difficult to see what the
limitations are supposed to be, while his comparisons with Greek poetry are too cursory to
provide an effective point of comparison. It is also unclear what the relevance of specific
and consciously deployed forms like the sonnet is to a discussion of a fundamental
principle of versification; if dynamic parallelism is part of the fabric of Hebrew poetic
expression, then its manipulation for particular ends should be considered a feature of the
sub-genre, e.g aphoristic proverbs or Prophetic satire, and only indirectly associated with
this more basic element of the language of poetry, in the same way that, while both sonnets
and blank verse make use of some of the same principles of versification, it is not true to
say that those principles in of themselves produce the effects of the poems. This confusion
can be seen at the end of his chapter on Proverbs, where he reconciles the differences
between the longer and shorter poems by saying that ‘each uses the resources of poetic
expression to achieve a fuller apprehension of its subject’6. This does not, however,
invalidate the impressively detailed close reading of the book nor jeopardise its central
effort to illustrate the importance of dynamic parallelism to Biblical verse.
Alter, Robert The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books 2011)
Hrushovsky, Benjamin, “Prosody, Hebrew” Encyclopaedia Judaica (New York 1971)
vol. 13
Shklovsky, Victor “Art as Technique” in Russian Formalist Criticism ed. L.T Lemon
and M.J Reis (Lincoln, Neb., 1965)
Ibid. 230