The Book of Jeremiah has come to us with all its contents laid down as prose, with no metrical nor musical punctuation; not divided into stichoi or poetical lines nor marked off into stanzas or strophes. Yet many passages read as metrically, and are as musical in sound, and in spirit as poetic as the Psalms, the Canticles, or the Lamentations. Their language bears the marks that usually distinguish verse from prose in Hebrew as in other literatures. It beats out with a more or less regular proportion of stresses or heavy accents. It diverts into an order of words different from the order normal in prose. Sometimes it is elliptic, sometimes it contains particles unnecessary to the meaning -- both signs of an attempt at metre. Though almost constantly unrhymed, it carries alliteration and assonance to a degree beyond what is usual in prose, and prefers forms of words more sonorous than the ordinary. But these many and distinct passages of poetry issue from and run into contexts of prose unmistakable. For two reasons we are not always able to trace the exact border between the prose and the verse -- first because of the frequent uncertainties of the text, and second because the prose, like most of that of the prophets, has often a rhythm approximating to metre. And thus it happens that, while on the one hand much agreement has been reached as to what Oracles in the Book are in verse, and what, however rhythmical, are in prose, some passages remain, on the original literary form of which a variety of opinion is possible. This is not all in dispute. Even the admitted poems are variously scanned -- that is either read in different metres or, if in the same metre, either with or without irregularities. Such differences of literary judgment are due partly to our still imperfect knowledge of the laws of Hebrew metre and partly to the variety of possible readings of the text. Nor is even that all. The claim has been made not only to confine Jeremiah's genuine Oracles to the metrical portions of the Book, but, by drastic emendations of the text, to reduce them to one single, exact, unvarying metre.
These questions and claims -- all-important as they are for the definition of the range and character of the prophet's activity -- we can decide only after a preliminary consideration of the few clear and admitted principles of Hebrew poetry, of their consequences, and of analogies to them in other literatures.
In Hebrew poetry there are some principles about which no doubt exists. First, its dominant feature is Parallelism, Parallelism of meaning, which, though found in all human song, is carried through this poetry with a constancy unmatched in any other save the Babylonian. The lines of a couplet or a triplet of Hebrew verse may be Synonymous, that is identical in meaning, or Supplementary and Progressive, or Antithetic. But at least their meanings respond or correspond to each other in a way, for which no better name has been found than that given it by Bishop Lowth more than a century and a half ago, "Parallelismus Membrorum."(41) Second, this rhythm of meaning is wedded to a rhythm of sound which is achieved by the observance of a varying proportion between stressed or heavily accented syllables and unstressed. That is clear even though we are unable to discriminate the proportion in every case or even to tell whether there were fixed rules for it; the vowel-system of our Hebrew text being possibly different from what prevailed in ancient Hebrew. But on the whole it is probable that as in other primitive poetries(42) there were no exact or rigorous rules as to the proportion of beats or stresses in the single lines. For the rhythm of sense is the main thing -- the ruling factor -- and though the effort to express this in equal or regularly proportioned lines is always perceptible, yet in the more primitive forms of the poetry just as in some English folk-songs and ballads the effort did not constantly succeed. The art of the poet was not always equal to the strength of his passion or the length of his vision, or the urgency of his meaning. The meaning was the main thing and had to be beat out, even though to effect this was to make the lines irregular. As I have said in my Schweich Lectures: "If the Hebrew poet be so constantly bent on a rhythm of sense this must inevitably modify his rhythms of sound. If his first aim be to produce lines each more or less complete in meaning, but so as to run parallel to its fellow, it follows that these lines cannot be always exactly regular in length or measure of time. If the governing principle of the poetry requires each line to be a clause or sentence in itself, the lines will frequently tend, of course within limits, to have more or fewer stresses than are normal throughout the poem."
But there are other explanations of the metrical irregularities in the traditional text of Hebrew poems, which make it probable that these irregularities are often original and not always (as they sometimes are) the blunders of copyists. In all forms of Eastern art we trace the influence of what we may call Symmetriphobia, an aversion to absolute symmetry which expresses itself in more or less arbitrary disturbances of the style or pattern of the work. The visitor to the East knows how this influence operates in weaving and architecture. But its opportunities are more frequent, and may be used more gracefully, in the art of poetry. For instance, in many an Old Testament poem in which a single form of metre prevails there is introduced at intervals, and especially at the end of a strophe, a longer and heavier line, similar to what the Germans call the "Schwellvers" in their primitive ballads. And this metrical irregularity is generally to the profit both of the music and of the meaning.
Further, the fact that poems, such as we now deal with, were not composed in writing, but were sung or chanted is another proof of the possibility that the irregularities in their metre are original. In the songs of the peasants of Palestine at the present day the lines vary as much as from two to five accents, and within the same metrical form from three to four; lines with three accents as written will, when sung to music, be stressed with four, or with four as written will be stressed with five in order to suit the melody.(43)
Nor are such irregularities confined to Eastern or primitive poetry. In the later blank verse of Shakespeare, broken lines and redundant syllables are numerous, but under his hand they become things of beauty, and "the irregularity is the foundation of the larger and nobler rule." To quote the historian of English prosody -- "These are quite deliberate indulgences in excess or defect, over or under a regular norm, which is so pervading and so thoroughly marked that it carries them off on its wings."(44) Heine in his unrhymed "Nordseebilder," has many irregular lines -- irregularities suitable to the variety of the subjects of his verse.
Again, in relevance to the mixture of poetry with prose in the prophetic parts of the Book of Jeremiah, it is just to note that the early pre-Islamic rhapsodists of Arabia used prose narratives to illustrate the subjects of their chants; that many later works in Arabic literature are medleys of prose and verse; that in particular the prose of the "Arabian Nights" frequently breaks into metre; while the singing women of Mecca "often put metre aside and employ the easier form of rhymed prose"(45) the "Saj" as it is called.
If I may offer a somewhat rough illustration, the works of some Eastern poets are like canoe voyages in Canada, in which the canoe now glides down a stream and is again carried overland by what are called portages to other streams or other branches of the same stream. Similarly these works have their clear streams of poetry, but every now and again their portages of prose. I may say at once that we shall find this true also of the Book of Jeremiah.
All these phenomena, both of Eastern and of Western poetry, justify us in regarding with scepticism recent attempts whether to eliminate -- by purely arbitrary omissions and additions, not founded on the evidence of the Manuscripts and Versions -- the irregularities in the metrical portions of the Book of Jeremiah, or to confine the Prophet's genuine Oracles to these metrical portions, and to deny that he ever passed from metre into rhythmical prose. And our scepticism becomes stronger when we observe to what different results these attempts have led, especially in the particular form or forms of metre employed.
Professor Duhm, for instance, confines our prophet to one invariable form, that of the Qinah or Hebrew Elegy, each stanza of which consists of four lines of alternately three and two accents or beats; and by drastic and often quite arbitrary emendation of the text he removes from this every irregularity whether of defect or redundance in the separate lines.(46) On the other hand Cornill concludes that "the metrical pieces in the book are written throughout in Oktastichs," or eight lines a piece, but admits (and rightly) that "in the metrical structure of the individual lines there prevails a certain freedom, due to the fact that for the prophet verse-making (Dichten) was not an end in itself." While he allows, as all must, that Jeremiah frequently used the Qinah metre, he emphasises the presence of the irregular line, almost as though it were the real basis of the prophetic metre.(47) Other modern scholars by starting from other presuppositions or by employing various degrees of the textual evidence of the Versions, have reached results different from those of Duhm and Cornill.(48) But at the same time it is remarkable how much agreement prevails as to the frequent presence of the Qinah measure or its near equivalent.
To sum up: in view of the argument adduced from the obvious principles of Hebrew verse and of the primitive poetic practice of other nations -- not to speak of Shakespeare and some modern poets -- I am persuaded after close study of the text that, though Jeremiah takes most readily to the specific Qinah metre, it is a gross and pedantic error to suppose that he confined himself to this, or that when it appears in our Book it is always to be read in the same exact form without irregularities. The conclusion is reasonable that this rural prophet, brought up in a country village and addressing a people of peasants, used the same license with his metres that we have observed in other poetries of his own race. Nor is it credible that whatever the purpose of his message was -- reminiscence, or dirge, or threat of doom or call to repent, or a didactic purpose -- Jeremiah, throughout the very various conditions of his long ministry of forty years, employed but one metre and that only in its strictest form allowing of no irregularities. This, I say, is not credible.(49)
The other question, whether in addition Jeremiah ever used prose in addressing his people, may be still more confidently answered. Duhm maintains that with the exception of the letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia,(50) the Prophet never spoke or wrote to his people in prose, and that the Book contains no Oracles from him, beyond some sixty short poems in a uniform measure. These Duhm alleges -- and this is all that he finds in them -- reveal Jeremiah as a man of modest, tender, shrinking temper, "no ruler of spirits, a delicate observer, a sincere exhorter and counsellor, a hero only in suffering and not in attack."(51) Every passage of the Book, which presents him in any character beyond this -- as an advocate for the Law or as a didactic prophet -- is the dream of a later age, definitely separable from his own Oracles not more by its inconsistence with the temper displayed in these than by its prose form; for in prose, according to Duhm, Jeremiah never prophesied. On the evidence we have reviewed this also is not credible. That Jeremiah never passed from verse to prose when addressing his people is a theory at variance with the practice of other poets of his race; and the more unlikely in his case, who was not only a poet but a prophet, charged with truths heavier than could always be carried to the heart of his nation upon a single form of folk-song. Not one of the older prophets, upon whom at first he leant, but used both prose and verse; and besides there had burst upon his young ear a new style of prophetic prose, rhythmical and catching beyond any hitherto publicly heard in Israel. At least some portions of our Book of Deuteronomy were discovered in the Temple a few years after his call, and by order of King Josiah were being recited throughout Judah. Is it probable that he, whose teaching proves him to have been in sympathy with the temper and the practical purpose of that Book, should never have yielded to the use of its distinctive and haunting style?
It is true that, while the lyrics which are undoubtedly the prophet's own are terse, concrete, poignant and graceful, the style of many -- not of all -- of the prose discourses attributed to him is copious, diffuse, and sometimes cold. But then it is verse which is most accurately gripped by the memory and firmly preserved in tradition; it is verse, too, which best guards the original fire. Prose discourses, whether in their first reporting or in their subsequent tradition more readily tend to dilate and to relax their style. Nor is any style of prose so open as the Deuteronomic to additions, parentheses, qualifications, needless recurrence of formulas and favourite phrases, and the like.
Therefore in the selection of materials available for estimating the range and character of Jeremiah's activities as a prophet, we must not reject any prose Oracles offered by the Book as his, simply because they are in prose. This reasonable caution will be of use when we come to consider the question of the authenticity of such important passages as those which recount his call, or represent him as assisting in the promulgation of Deuteronomy, and uttering the Oracle on the New Covenant.(52)
But, while it has been necessary to reject as groundless the theory that Jeremiah was exclusively a poet of a limited temper and a single form of verse and was not the author of any of the prose attributed to him, we must keep in mind that he did pour himself forth in verse; that it was natural for a rural priest such as he, aiming at the heart of what was mainly a nation of peasants, to use the form or forms of folk-song most familiar to them(53) -- in fact the only literary forms with which they were familiar; and that in all probability more of the man himself comes out in the poetry than in the prose which he has left to us. By his native gifts and his earliest associations he was a poet to begin with; and therefore the form and character of his poetry, especially as revealing himself, demand our attention.
* * * * *
From what has been said it is clear that we must not seek too high for Jeremiah's rank as a poet. The temptation to this -- which has overcome some recent writers -- is due partly to a recoil from older, unjust depreciations of his prophetic style and partly to the sublimity of the truths which that mixed style frequently conveys. But those truths apart, his verse was just that of the folksongs of the peasants among whom he was reared -- sometimes of an exquisite exactness of tone and delicacy of feeling, but sometimes full both of what are metrical irregularities according to modern standards, and of coarse images and similes. To reduce the metrical irregularities, by such arbitrary methods as Duhm's, may occasionally enhance the music and sharpen the edge of an Oracle yet oftener dulls the melody and weakens the emphasis.(54) The figures again are always simple and homely, but sometimes even ugly, as is not infrequent in the rural poetries of all peoples. Even the dung on the pastures and the tempers of breeding animals are as readily used as are the cleaner details of domestic life and of farming -- the house-candle, the house-mill, the wine skins, the ornaments of women, the yoke, the plough, and so forth. And there are abrupt changes of metaphor as in our early ballads, due to the rush of a quick imagination and the crowd of concrete figures it catches.
Some of Jeremiah's verse indeed shows no irregularity. The following, for instance, which recalls as Hosea loved to do the innocence and loyalty of Israel's desert days, is in the normal Qinah rhythm of lines with alternately three and two accents each. The two first lines are rhymed, the rest not.
The troth of thy youth I remember,
Or II.32: --
Can a maiden forget her adorning,
Here again is a passage which, with slight emendations and these not arbitrary, yields a fair constancy of metre (IV.29-31): --
From the noise of the horse and the bowmen
On the other hand here is a metre,(62) for the irregularities of which no remedy is offered by alternative readings in the Versions, but Duhm and others reduce these only by padding the text with particles and other terms. Yet these very irregularities have reason; they suit the meaning to be expressed. Thus while some of the couplets are in the Qinah metre, it is instructive that the first three lines are all short, because they are mere ejaculations -- that is they belong to the same class of happy irregularities as we recalled in Shakespeare's blank verse.
Israel a slave!
Or take the broken line added to the regular verse on Rachel's mourning, the sob upon which the wail dies out: --
A voice in Ramah is heard, lamentation
Sometimes, too, a stanza of regular metre is preceded or followed by a passionate line of appeal, either from Jeremiah himself or from another -- I love to think from himself, added when his Oracles were about to be repeated to the people in 604-3. Thus in Ch. II.31 we find the cry,
O generation look at the Word of the Lord!
breaking in before the following regular verse,
Have I been a desert to Israel,
There is another poem in which the Qinah measure prevails but with occasional lines longer than is normal -- Ch. V.1-6a (alternatively to end of 5(64)).
Run through Jerusalem's streets,
Or take Ch. II.5-8. A stanza of four lines in irregular Qinah measure (verse 5) is followed by a couplet of four-two stresses and several lines of three each (verses 6 and 7), and then (verse 8) by a couplet of three-two, another of four-three, and another of three-three.(66) In Chs. IX and X also we shall find irregular metres.
Let us now take a passage, IX.22, 23, which, except for its last couplet, is of another measure than the Qinah. The lines have three accents each, like those of the Book of Job: --
Boast not the wise in his wisdom,
Or this couplet, X.23, in lines of four stresses each: --
Lord, I know -- not to man is his way,
Not being in the Qinah measure, both these passages are denied to Jeremiah by Duhm. Is not this arbitrary?
The sections of the Book which pass from verse to prose and from prose to verse are frequent.
One of the most striking is the narrative of the Prophet's call, Ch. I.4-19, which I leave to be rendered in the next lecture. In Chap. VII.28 ff. we have, to begin with, two verses: --
This is the folk that obeyed not
Then these verses are followed by a prose tale of the people's sins. Is this necessarily from a later hand, as Duhm maintains, and not naturally from Jeremiah himself?
Again Chs. VIII and IX are a medley of lyrics and prose passages. While some of the prose is certainly not Jeremiah's, being irrelevant to the lyrics and showing the colour of a later age, the rest may well be from himself.
Ch. XIV is also a medley of verse and prose. After the Dirge on the Drought (which we take later), comes a passage in rhythmical prose (verses 11-16), broken only by the metrical utterance of the false prophets in verse 13: --
Sword or famine ye shall not see,
And verse comes in again in verses 17-18, an Oracle of Jeremiah's own: --
Let mine eyes with tears run down,
And now the measure changes to one of longer irregular lines, hardly distinguishable from rhythmical prose, which Duhm therefore takes, precariously, as from a later hand: --
For Thy Name's sake do not despise,
Again in Ch. XV.1-2, prose is followed by a couplet, this by more prose (verses 3, 4) and this by verse again (verses 5-9). But these parts are relevant to each other, and some of Duhm's objections to the prose seem inadequate and even trifling. For while the heavy judgment is suitably detailed by the prose, the following dirge is as naturally in verse: --
Jerusalem, who shall pity,
And once more, in the Oracle Ch. III.1-6 the first verse, a quotation from the law on a divorced wife, is in prose, and no one doubts that Jeremiah himself is the quoter, while the rest, recounting Israel's unfaithfulness to her Husband is in verse. See below, pages 98, 99.
* * * * *
So much for the varied and often irregular streams of the Prophet's verse and their interruptions and connections by "portages" of prose. Let us turn now from the measures to the substance and tempers of the poetry.
As in all folk-song the language is simple, but its general inevitableness -- just the fit and ringing word -- stamps the verse as a true poet's. Hence the difficulty of translating. So much depends on the music of the Hebrew word chosen, so much on the angle at which it is aimed at the ear, the exact note which it sings through the air. It is seldom possible to echo these in another language; and therefore all versions, metrical or in prose, must seem tame and dull beside the ring of the original. Before taking some of the Prophet's renderings of the more concrete aspects of life I give, as even more difficult to render, one of his moral reflections in verse -- Ch. XVII.5 f. Mark the scarceness of abstract terms, the concreteness of the figures: --
Cursed the wight that trusteth in man
As here, so generally, the simplicity of the poet's diction is matched by that of his metaphors, similes, and parables. A girl and her ornaments, a man and his waist-cloth -- thus he figures what ought to be the clinging relations between Israel and their God. The stunted desert-shrub in contrast to the river-side oaks, the incomparable olive, the dropped sheaf and even the dung upon the fields; the vulture, stork, crane and swift; the lion, wolf and spotted leopard coming up from the desert or the jungles of Jordan; the hinnying stallions and the heifer in her heat; the black Ethiopian, already familiar in the streets of Jerusalem, the potter and his wheel, the shepherd, plowman and vinedresser, the driver with his ox's yoke upon his shoulders; the harlot by the wayside; the light in the home and sound of the hand-mill -- all everyday objects of his people's sight and hearing as they herded, ploughed, sowed, reaped or went to market in the city -- he brings them in simply and with natural ease as figures of the truths he is enforcing. They are never bald or uncouth, though in translation they may sometimes sound so.
In the very bareness of his use of them there lurks an occasional irony as in the following -- a passage of prose broken by a single line of verse.(74) The Deity is addressing the prophet: --
And thou shalt say unto this people,
and it shall be if they say unto thee, "Don't we know of course(75) that
"Every jar shall be filled with wine,"
then thou shalt say unto them: Thus saith the Lord, Lo, I am about to fill the inhabitants of this land, the kings and princes, the priests and prophets, even Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, with drunkenness [the drunkenness, that is, of horror at impending judgments] and I will dash them one against another, fathers and sons together. I will not pity, saith the Lord, nor spare nor have compassion that I should not destroy them.
How one catches the irritation of the crowd on being told what seems to them such a commonplace -- till it is interpreted!
Like his fellow-prophets, whose moral atmosphere was as burning as their physical summer, who living on the edge of the desert under a downright sun drew breath (as Isaiah puts it) in the fear of the Lord and saw the world in the blaze of His justice, Jeremiah brings home to the hearts of his people the truths and judgments, with which he was charged, in the hard, hot realism of their austere world. Through his verse we see the barer landscapes of Benjamin and Judah without shadow or other relief, every ugly detail exposed by the ruthless noon, and beyond them the desert hills shimmering through the heat. Drought, famine, pestilence and especially war sweep over the land and the ghastly prostrate things, human as well as animal, which their skirts leave behind are rendered with vividness, poignancy and horror of detail.
Take, to begin with, the following, XIV.1 ff.: --
The Word of the Lord to Jeremiah Concerning the Drought.
Jerusalem's cry is gone up,
Her nobles sent their menials for water,
The tillers(77) of the ground are dismayed,
The hind on the moor calves and abandons,
Though our sins do witness against us,
Hope of Israel, His Saviour
Yet Lord, Thou art in our midst,
Thus saith the Lord of this people: --
So fond to wander are they,
The following dirge is on either a war or a pestilence, or on both, for they often came together. The text of the first lines is uncertain, the Hebrew and Greek differing considerably: --
Call ye the keening women to come,
For death has come up by our windows,
The minatory discourses are sombre and lurid. Sometimes the terror foretold is nameless and mystic, yet even then the Prophet's simplicity does not fail but rather contributes to the vague, undefined horror. In the following it is premature night which creeps over the hills -- night without shelter for the weary or refuge for the hunted.
Hear and give ear, be not proud,
There this poem leaves the Doom, but in others Jeremiah leaps in a moment from the vague and far-looming to the near and exact. He follows a line which songs of vengeance or deliverance often take among unsophisticated peoples in touch with nature. They will paint you a coming judgment first in the figure of a lowering cloud or bursting storm and then in the twinkling of an eye they turn the clouds or the lightnings into the ranks and flashing arms of invaders arrived. I remember an instance of this within one verse of a song from the time of the American Civil War: --
Don't you see de lightning flashing in de cane-brakes? Don't you think we'se gwine to have a storm?
Examples of this sudden turn from the vague to the real are found throughout Jeremiah's Oracles of Doom. Here are some of them: --
Wind off the glow of the bare desert heights,
For hark a signal from Dan,
There is a similar leap from the vagueness of IV.23-26, which here follows, to the vivid detail of verses 29-31 already rendered on page 45.
I looked to the earth, and lo, chaos,
Or take a similar effect from the Oracle on the Philistines, Ch. XLVII.2, 3.
Lo, the waters are up in the North,
Or take the Prophet's second vision on his call, Ch. I.13 ff., the boiling cauldron with its face from the North, which is to boil out over the land; then the concrete explanation, I am calling to all the kingdoms of the North, and they shall come and every one set his throne in the gates of Jerusalem. There you have it -- that vague trouble brewing in the far North and then in a moment the northern invaders settled in the gates of the City.
But the poetry of Jeremiah had other strains. I conclude this lecture with selections which deal with the same impending judgment, yet are wistful and tender, the poet taking as his own the sin and sufferings of the people with whose doom he was charged.
The first of these passages is as devoid of hope as any we have already seen, but like Christ's mourning over the City breathes the regret of a great love -- a profound and tender Alas!
Jerusalem, who shall pity,
Then follow lines of doom without reprieve and the close comes: --
She that bore seven hath fainted,
In the following also the poet's heart is with his people even while he despairs of them. The lines, VIII.14-IX.1, of which 17 and 19b are possibly later insertions, are addressed to the country-folk of Judah and Benjamin: --
For what sit we still?
Harvest is over, summer is ended
Such in the simple melodies of his music and in the variety of his moods -- now sombre, stern and relentless, now tender and pleading, now in despair of his people yet identifying himself with them -- was this rural poet, who was called to carry the burdens of prophecy through forty of the most critical and disastrous years of Israel's history. In next lecture we shall follow the earlier stages which his great heart pursued beneath those burdens.