The Bible and Poetry

Initial S: A Monk Praying in the Water, Getty Center. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. We do not read the Bible as it is meant to be read. Theology always risks leading us astray by elaborating its own discourse, with the biblical texts merely as a point of departure. The presence of poetry in the Bible is the key to a more pertinent and more faithful reading. There are many poems found in the Bible. We know this, vaguely and without giving it too much thought, but shouldn’t we be rather astonished by the role of poetry in a collection of books with such a pressing and salutary Word to express? And shouldn’t we ask ourselves if the presence of this writing—so much more self-conscious and desirous than is prose of a form it can make vibrate—affects the biblical “message” and changes its nature? It is unsurprising that the Psalms are poems, given their liturgical purpose and the abyss of individual and collective emotion that they explore. At the heart of the Bible and yet also apart from it, they lay out, we might suppose, for both the individual and the community, the lived experience of religion that other biblical books have the task of defining. We can accept the Song of Songs as a love poem, Jeremiah’s Lamentations as a sequence of elegies, Job as a verse drama, and we discover without too much surprise a considerable number of poems in the historical books: the song of Moses and Miriam, for example, in Exodus 15; the canticle of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5; the lament of David for Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1. And yet when we think about the presence of all these poetic books in a work in which we expect to find doctrines, and about the turn to poetry in so many of the historical books of the Bible, it gives us reason to think again. And how should we react to Proverbs, in which wisdom itself is taught in a poetic form? Or to the prophetic books, where poetry is sovereign, where warnings of the greatest urgency, for us as well as for the writers’ contemporaries, come forth in verse? Isn’t this curious? And poetry appears from the beginning. In the second chapter of Genesis (verse 23), Adam welcomes the creation of woman in this way: Here at last the bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.This one shall be called woman, for she was drawn forth from man. These are the very first human words reported; it is tempting and perhaps legitimate to draw some conclusions. By this point Adam has already named the animals, but the author only indicates this, without recording the spoken words; in the world of the beginning, from which the author knows himself as well as his readers to be excluded, he probably recognized that there must have existed an intimate relationship between language and the real, between words and things, that we are incapable of regaining. But when Adam does speak for the first time, he is given an “Edenic” language, one which our fallen languages can still attain in certain moments: thus Adam literally draws woman, ’ishah, from man, ’ish. Hebrew, thanks to the pleasure it takes in wordplay—in the ludic and deeply serious harmonies between the sounds of words and the beings, objects, ideas, and emotions to which they open themselves—is a language particularly and providentially skillful at suggesting what would be a cordial relation between our language and our world, and a meaningful relation among the presences of the real. It is skillful in affirming the gravity of the lightest among the figures of rhetoric: the pun. Most importantly, as soon as the first man opens his mouth, he speaks in verse. Did the author think that in the world of primitive wonder language was naturally poetic? Is this why Adam, immediately after eating the forbidden fruit, responds to God in prose: “I heard your steps in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10)? We cannot know, but that first brief, spontaneous poem of Adam, which we seem to hear from so far away and from so close, solicits our attention and calls for our thought. If language before the Fall was poetic, or produced poems at moments charged with meaning, does poetry represent for us the apogee of our fallen speaking—its beginning and its end, its nostalgia and its hope? In paging through Genesis, a book of history and not a collection of poetry, we encounter an impressive number of poems. It is in poetry that God gives the law on murder and its punishment (Genesis 9:6), that Rebecca’s family blesses her (24:60), that Isaac prophesies the future of Esau (27:39–40), and that Jacob blesses the twelve tribes of Israel (49:2–27). Given the occasional difficulty of identifying which passages are in verse, it may be that others will be discovered. The Bible de Jérusalem (I am reading from a 2009 edition) presents God as speaking in poetry several times in the first three chapters, beginning with the creation of man, as the Word of God gives birth to the only creature endowed with speech: God created ma

The Bible and Poetry

Initial S: A Monk Praying in the Water, Getty Center. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

We do not read the Bible as it is meant to be read. Theology always risks leading us astray by elaborating its own discourse, with the biblical texts merely as a point of departure. The presence of poetry in the Bible is the key to a more pertinent and more faithful reading.

There are many poems found in the Bible. We know this, vaguely and without giving it too much thought, but shouldn’t we be rather astonished by the role of poetry in a collection of books with such a pressing and salutary Word to express? And shouldn’t we ask ourselves if the presence of this writing—so much more self-conscious and desirous than is prose of a form it can make vibrate—affects the biblical “message” and changes its nature?

It is unsurprising that the Psalms are poems, given their liturgical purpose and the abyss of individual and collective emotion that they explore. At the heart of the Bible and yet also apart from it, they lay out, we might suppose, for both the individual and the community, the lived experience of religion that other biblical books have the task of defining. We can accept the Song of Songs as a love poem, Jeremiah’s Lamentations as a sequence of elegies, Job as a verse drama, and we discover without too much surprise a considerable number of poems in the historical books: the song of Moses and Miriam, for example, in Exodus 15; the canticle of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5; the lament of David for Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1. And yet when we think about the presence of all these poetic books in a work in which we expect to find doctrines, and about the turn to poetry in so many of the historical books of the Bible, it gives us reason to think again. And how should we react to Proverbs, in which wisdom itself is taught in a poetic form? Or to the prophetic books, where poetry is sovereign, where warnings of the greatest urgency, for us as well as for the writers’ contemporaries, come forth in verse?

Isn’t this curious? And poetry appears from the beginning. In the second chapter of Genesis (verse 23), Adam welcomes the creation of woman in this way:

Here at last the bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called woman, for she was drawn forth from man.

These are the very first human words reported; it is tempting and perhaps legitimate to draw some conclusions. By this point Adam has already named the animals, but the author only indicates this, without recording the spoken words; in the world of the beginning, from which the author knows himself as well as his readers to be excluded, he probably recognized that there must have existed an intimate relationship between language and the real, between words and things, that we are incapable of regaining. But when Adam does speak for the first time, he is given an “Edenic” language, one which our fallen languages can still attain in certain moments: thus Adam literally draws woman, ishah, from man, ’ish. Hebrew, thanks to the pleasure it takes in wordplay—in the ludic and deeply serious harmonies between the sounds of words and the beings, objects, ideas, and emotions to which they open themselves—is a language particularly and providentially skillful at suggesting what would be a cordial relation between our language and our world, and a meaningful relation among the presences of the real. It is skillful in affirming the gravity of the lightest among the figures of rhetoric: the pun. Most importantly, as soon as the first man opens his mouth, he speaks in verse. Did the author think that in the world of primitive wonder language was naturally poetic? Is this why Adam, immediately after eating the forbidden fruit, responds to God in prose: “I heard your steps in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10)? We cannot know, but that first brief, spontaneous poem of Adam, which we seem to hear from so far away and from so close, solicits our attention and calls for our thought. If language before the Fall was poetic, or produced poems at moments charged with meaning, does poetry represent for us the apogee of our fallen speaking—its beginning and its end, its nostalgia and its hope?

In paging through Genesis, a book of history and not a collection of poetry, we encounter an impressive number of poems. It is in poetry that God gives the law on murder and its punishment (Genesis 9:6), that Rebecca’s family blesses her (24:60), that Isaac prophesies the future of Esau (27:39–40), and that Jacob blesses the twelve tribes of Israel (49:2–27). Given the occasional difficulty of identifying which passages are in verse, it may be that others will be discovered. The Bible de Jérusalem (I am reading from a 2009 edition) presents God as speaking in poetry several times in the first three chapters, beginning with the creation of man, as the Word of God gives birth to the only creature endowed with speech:

God created man in his image,
in the image of God he created him,
man and woman he created them.

In approaching the Bible’s beginning, we must often change our listening, our rhythm, our mode of attention and of being, in order to understand and receive a different language.

There are fewer poems in the New Testament, but they give even more food for thought. The Gospel of Luke introduces, from its first chapters, three poems: the canticles of Mary, Zachariah, and Simeon. Thus the Savior’s life begins under the sign of poetry. The book of Revelation, at the end of the Bible, contains additional canticles, as well as lamentations on Babylon, in poetry that appeals to the visionary imagination. In the name of Christianity, it returns to the extravagant poetry of the prophets. The first letter of John develops its thought with such felicity of rhythmic phrasing and close-crafted form that the Jerusalem Bible translates it completely in verse. These same translators have Paul’s letter to the Romans begin and end in verse, thus using poetry to frame a doctrinal exposition animated by an inflamed but in principle “prosaic” process of reflection, analysis, and synthesis.

Jesus himself seems at certain moments to speak in verse, as in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5, Luke 6) and the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6, Luke 11). In the Jerusalem Bible, the Gospel of John, which begins with a long poem and in which John the Baptist on two occasions speaks in verse (1:30, 3:27–30), suggests that Jesus the teacher—or rather, the divine educator—addressed his listeners most often in poetry.

It is true that the border between verse and a cadenced prose is not easy to determine in either the Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Greek of the New: translators judge it differently. It may also be that the poems spoken by Jacob, Simeon, and many others come not from them but from the authors of the books in which they appear. The result is the same. We find ourselves constantly in the presence of writings that invite us into the joy of words, into a well-shaped language, in a form that demands from us the attention that we give to poetry and awakens us to expectation.

***

Certain scholars of the Bible have long known that the poetry is not there simply to add a dash of nobility, or sublimity, or emotive force to what the author could have said in prose. They learned from literary critics what the critics had learned from poets: poetry is in itself a way of thinking and of imagining the world; it discovers with precision what it had to say only by saying it; the meaning of a poem awaits us in its manner of being, and meaning in the customary sense of the word is not what is most important about it.

Should we not ask ourselves if the presence of so many poems changes not only the way in which the Bible speaks to us, but also the kind of message, announcement, or call that it conveys? How must faith perceive biblical speech? What does this continual turn to poetry imply about the very nature of Christianity?

We can start to respond to these questions by giving some thought to how we usually read poetry. We do not paraphrase poems, extracting a meaning and leaving aside the redundant form. It is the very being itself of the poem that matters, the sounds and the rhythms that animate it like a living thing, the relations that the words stitch among themselves through their memory and their history, and the connotations that they disseminate.

However, while we read a poem of Keats, or of Baudelaire or Ronsard, in this way, we easily forget our customary attention to the life of the poetic word when reading, for example, a Psalm, from which we want to draw a teaching, a lesson. We need to be reminded of two well-known pensées of Pascal: “Different arrangements of words make different meanings, and different arrangements of meanings produce different effects”; “The same meaning changes according to the words expressing it.” Indeed, the meaning changes, and not only in poetry: Pascal speaks here of prose. The second fragment continues: “Meanings are given dignity by words instead of conferring it upon them.” I know no better formula for suggesting the inseparability of words and meanings. And if it is important not to depart from a biblical text written in prose, all the more so should we remain as close as possible to a biblical poem, knowing that poetry, which does not permit paraphrase, also does not convey propositions—or it conveys them in a context that gives them their specificity. It seems to me that we do not have to draw doctrines from the Bible other than those that the biblical writers themselves found there, for we cannot touch bottom in these deep waters; the world that is revealed to us entirely exceeds us. We can understand only what God reveals to us. The intelligence that he has given us allows us to reflect on what we read, but any attempt to go further—above all, systematic theology, whether it results in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas or the Institutes of the Christian Religion of Calvin—seems an error.

To believe in the Bible—or, rather, to believe the Bible, and to allow oneself to be convinced that it is the word of God, in whatever way one considers it—is to believe what it says, with a supernatural faith that resembles, at an infinite distance, the confidence with which we read a poem, accepting that its reality is found in it and not in our exegeses. This allows for adhering to the truth that is at once included in the words and liberated by them, whatever the difficulty posed by the Flood, for example, or the Tower of Babel. We do not necessarily know the exact nature of the truth that is revealed to us, but we know where to look for it, just as we do not necessarily understand a poem but we look for the answer to our questions in the poem itself, without adding or subtracting anything.

Poetry attracts our attention to language and to the mystery of words, to their capacity to create, almost by themselves, networks of meaning, unexpected emotions, rhythms and a music for the ear and for the mouth that spreads through the entire body and all one’s being. It acts similarly on the world, by finding, for the presences of the real, new names, and associations of words, of cadences, of sounds, that give to the most familiar beings and objects a certain strangeness that is both disturbing and joyous. It burns up appearances, it uncovers the invisible, it opens, like a little casement or a great window, onto the unknown, onto something else. The shade of trees that invites us in the midst of strong heat is transfigured when Racine’s Phèdre cries:

Dieux! que ne suis-je assise à l’ombre des forêts!
(Gods! why am I not seated in the shade of forests!)

Reason or good sense might object that one cannot be seated in the shade “of forests,” but only in the shade of a tree, or, if one pictures it in the mind, in the shade of a forest, in the singular. These plural forests constitute a world seen anew, recreated by the imagination, a world of great beauty that is almost cerebral, but that at the same time in no way loses contact with reality. We are attracted by the grave sonority of “ombre,” which contrasts with the i sounds that precede it: “que ne suis-je assis …” The coolness of this shade, under forests that have become protecting and enveloping, creates for Phèdre an eminently desirable place, apt to save her from her burning unavowable love for Hippolyte and from the terrible gaze of the gods. The beneficial shadow trembles with a devastating passion; the imagined place is filled with human guilt.

The “meaning” of the famous verse depends on the imagination that inhabits it, and on the emotion that animates it, which would not be fully present without its grammar and without the sounds that it makes. The forests, real, surreal, and resonating with the character’s desire, shame, and aspiration, represent, in a sudden vision, the true world: loved, lost, possible. And I do not exclude the likelihood that these “forêts” are imposed on Racine by the necessity of rhyming them with “apprêts” at the end of the preceding line, and by the impossibility of writing the four syllables “de la forêt.” The arrival of poetry for a prosaic reason is not at all shocking: essential words and ideas frequently arrive in an oblique manner.

As Henri Brémond writes, poetry produces in us “a feeling of presence.” The world is there, not under its usual guise but in a language that alone can give it immediacy. The poetic act draws close to the real and, in order to go to the depth of things, it recreates them for us by welcoming them in sounds, rhythms, and unlimited ramifications of meanings, and places these recreations in the domain of the possible. In its own way, and without at all being supernatural, poetry too is a revelation. The Bible as revelation and as poetic speech gives equally and above all onto something else. Clearly, it does not develop exclusively in poems, but its writings often turn into verse, as if it tended toward poetry by supposing poetry to be the speech most appropriate to the strangeness, to the transcendence of what it manifests. And let us think again of the words of Jesus. He speaks quite often in parables, in order to present complex truths in the form of stories and within the life of a few characters, and in order to provoke his listeners—and us, his readers—to search, each time, for meaning in the multiple facets of a fiction. His affirmations in prose are equally poetic in that they are not understood right away; they ask that we receive them as we receive poetry, by becoming conscious of the mystery that accompanies them. For example, in hearing “The kingdom of heaven is very near,” or “This is my body,” or “I am the truth,” we feel, I believe, that they are something other than propositions, and we recognize behind these very simple words a sort of hinterland of meaning that we must explore as one explores the depths of a poem.

“I am the truth” escapes from all the modes of thinking in Western philosophy.

Jesus, who is the Word, speaks, indeed, and does not write. Everything he says follows from a particular situation, from a lived moment. And so many books of the Bible began by being spoken, or were destined, like the Psalms, to be said and sung, or they  gather the words of an orator, like Ecclesiastes, or presuppose a dialogue, like Job or the Song of Songs. The Bible engages us constantly in listening, in becoming sensitive to their ways of writing, to images that do not explain, and, ideally, to the music of thought. It is true that most of us do not have access to the original texts, but wasn’t that foreseen? There are ways to understand, even at a distance, how Hebrew and Greek function, and it is up to us to seek, in a simple translation—on the condition that it is poetically faithful—the animation of the speech and the way and the life of the truth.

Reading the Bible is a “poetic” experience. It offers us a theology according only to the etymological sense of the word: speech concerning God. For the Bible, which puts us in front of something else, is itself other. Have we, in Europe, truly grasped the nature of Christianity? Haven’t we instead assimilated to our categories of thought and our habits of reading a religion that comes to us from the Middle East? Its Jewish origins in no way signify that Christianity lacks a universal bearing, but they must not be neglected. God chose to reveal himself first through a people that had, century after century, their own way of thinking and writing, and the religion they transmitted bears the marks of this genesis. The Bible asks us to recognize the strangeness, the foreignness of Christianity, and to put in question our European manner of approaching it. Recovering this Christianity that comes from elsewhere would change our reading of the Bible, and doubtless our way of proclaiming the Gospel.

Adapted from The Bible and Poetry by Michael Edwards, translated by Stephen E. Lewis. To be published by New York Review Books in August.

Michael Edwards is an Anglo-French poet and scholar. Born in Barnes, London, he is the author of twenty books and the first English person ever to have been elected to the Collège de France and to the Académie Francaise.

Stephen E. Lewis is a professor of English at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and a translator of French literature.