Thursday, October 1, 2009

H. Bialik's modern Hebrew - A dim corner and parchment scrolls

Reading about Yiddish literature, the name of one non-Yiddish writer kept appearing: H. Bialik, the pioneering Hebrew poet. In some rough sense, his project was similar to that of I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem and other Yiddish writers, modernizing a traditional language, bringing it into imaginative literature.

I finally read a bit of his work, and it turns out to be something unique. But, of course, Bialik was a poet, so his problems and solutions would be different. And Hebrew isn't Yiddish.

Shirot Bialik* includes four Shirot, or "Epic Poems." These four epics barely fill eighty pages, so there's our first Modernist irony. Bialik was not writing The Iliad.

Here are the titles and subjects:

"The Yeshiva Student" (1894-5), where a student renounces all earthly things for the study of the Torah. Bialik sees this choice as tragic, admirable yet deadening.

"The Dead of the Wilderness" (1902), about a group of pre-Jewish giants, cursed and frozen in the desert. The story is an expansion of a passage in the Babylonian Talmud. It is presumably an allegory.

"In the City of Slaughter" (1904), an angry response to Russian pogroms. Absolutely amazing. I think I'll save it for tomorrow.

"The Pond" (1908), in which the poet sits by a pond for eleven pages. There's also a storm. Epic!

All four poems, as different as their subjects are, share a common meter and technique, an intimate interweaving with the Hebrew Bible. I know this from the extensive footnotes. It turns out that the Biblical references are often to single words, which I would never be able to detect myself. But the cadence, the feel of Bialik's verse is Biblical, even in English, which not surprisingly sounds like a translation of the Hebrew Bible. From "The Yeshiva Student" (69-76), on the reason students leave the yeshiva:

Also, there was one chosen for a bridegroom and a maiden,
A village girl, coarse, fat, was his lot,
And another one of the secluded ones was redeemed
And became a great rabbi in a worthy town -
But one stands like a hammered nail,
The deeds, the years pass behind him;
And before him? Before him a wall of iron is planted,
A dim corner and parchment scrolls are seen.

For "redeemed," a note points to Leviticus 25:24 ("you must provide for the redemption of the land")**; the "wall of iron" is from Ezekiel 4:3, a typically weird passage for that book. The hammered nail, an image that recurs in Bialik's poem, is his own, modern, as are, of course, the village girl and the rabbi and so on.

Here's a bit of Bialik in sublime mode, from "The Dead of the Wilderness" (135-7):

Yet sometimes the wilderness becomes disgusted and grows weary of the eternal stillness
And awakens to be avenged with one big vengeance for its desolation by its Creator,
It lifts itself up against Him with a tempest and with pillars of sand rebels against Him.

Note how different the line lengths are compared to "The Yeshiva Student." One might think that this passage is a pastiche of Biblical references, but the notes identify just one, a link to Judges 16:28, where a blind Samson prays for strength "to take revenge of the Philistines." The language is Bialik's.

* Jacobs, Steven L., Shirot Bialik: A New and Annotated Translation of Chaim Nachman Bialik's Epic Poems (1987), Alpha Publishing Company.

** Biblical translations from the New Jewish Publication Society version (1985).


  1. Ah yes, Bialik's biblical allusions. I feel like even as these translations give a sensation of an old-school biblical style, it's nothing compared to the original quotes and phrase liftings Bialik was known for. In Hebrew, it was always very obvious that Bialik looked at certain phrases as references to the meanings of his poems. In English it retains that archaic quality but I feel it must lose some of the magic... Very interesting poems and I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of this Bialik project.

  2. You're right, in English a lot of that allusiveness is lost. Notes can only suggest the presence of the missing layer.

    Given that, these Jacobs translations seemed excellent.