Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Parallelism and Grammar

At Narrative and Ontology, Phil Sumpter has asked some close questions on parallelism here, here, and here. There is recognition of parallelism by many writers since Lowth (about whom I will soon read more as background to a study of Hazlitt). Also those I have dabbled in are Kugel, James L., The Idea of Hebrew Poetry, and O'Connor, M., Hebrew Verse Structure.

Many others too, I am sure and most of these allow for positive parallels and negative ones, and some chiastic and some with ellipses (things that the reader must fill in). And some that are not parallels and many times, as does Tur Sinai in his Commentary on Job, it is possible to use the expected parallel to reconstruct or critique some readings. See these articles by John Hobbins here and here.

I just received my copy of the Journal of Biblical Literature and turned to Vertical Grammar of Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry by David Toshio Tsumura. It is well laid out, but I find the spelling out of the meaning of the parallel based on 'vertical' grammar to be disappointing. It reduces the impact of the poem and fractures the meaning of the frame.

He says that parallelism is a device for expressing one thought in two lines. I do not find his reasoning or examples convincing. Every explanation reads flat:
Psalm 47:6 God, the Lord, has gone up with shouts of joy and with the sound of the trumpet.

Psalm 18:12 He made darkness, that is darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies, around him to be his covering, that is, his canopy.

Psalm 24:3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place?
This reduction of a poem to one grammatical meaning is not productive. It substitutes explanation for hearing.

The conversation on Phil's blog noted above is revealing and full of questions well-asked and well-answered by John Hobbins among others. So I say, do not look for explanation - look for pattern - and hear the voice of the poet in conversation with God. The best introductory book on Psalms that I have read is this one: Jonathon Magonet, A Rabbi reads the Psalms 1994 (2004). He would never reduce the meaning. He has heard the command to hear too many times to sink to explanations.

Parallelism is a special case of recurrence as John Hobbins notes in his articles cited above. Recurrence is a frame for meaning. The repetition is not subservient or simply coupled, but its redundancy locks in the meaning of the poem. Recurrence may be distant in the poem. From far away an echo will close a bracket and circles will surround the core. It is these circular structures that Magonet illustrates so well and which I have had so much fun looking for in these past two years. They don't subject themselves to a quick taxonomy. Nor will their meanings be exhausted by an explanation.

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