“The Bible as Poetry” by Walt Whitman
I suppose one cannot at this day say anything new, from a literary point of view, about those autochthonic bequests of Asia—the Hebrew Bible, the mighty Hindu epics, and a hundred lesser but typical works; (not now definitely including the Iliad—though that work was certainly of Asiatic genesis, as Homer himself was—considerations which seem curiously ignored.) But will there ever be a time or place—ever a student, however modern, of the grand art, to whom those compositions will not afford profounder lessons than all else of their kind in the garnerage of the past? Could there be any more opportune suggestion, to the current popular writer and reader of verse, what the office of poet was in primeval times—and is yet capable of being, anew, adjusted entirely to the modern?
All the poems of Orientalism, with the Old and New Testaments at the centre, tend to deep and wide, (I don’t know but the deepest and widest,) psychological development—with little, or nothing at all, of the mere esthetic, the principal verse-requirement of our day. Very late, but unerringly, comes to every capable student the perception that it is not in beauty, it is not in art, it is not even in science, that the profoundest laws of the case have their eternal sway and outcropping.
In his discourse on “Hebrew Poets” De Sola Mendes said: “The fundamental feature of Judaism, of the Hebrew nationality, was religion; its poetry was naturally religious. Its subjects, God and Providence, the covenants with Israel, God in Nature, and as reveal’d, God the Creator and Governor, Nature in her majesty and beauty, inspired hymns and odes to Nature’s God. And then the checker’d history of the nation furnish’d allusions, illustrations, and subjects for epic display—the glory of the sanctuary, the offerings, the splendid ritual, the Holy City, and lov’d Palestine with its pleasant valleys and wild tracts.” Dr. Mendes said “that rhyming was not a characteristic of Hebrew poetry at all. Metre was not a necessary mark of poetry. Great poets discarded it; the early Jewish poets knew it not.” Compared with the famed epics of Greece, and lesser ones since, the spinal supports of the Bible are simple and meagre. All its history, biography, narratives, &c., are as beads, strung on and indicating the eternal thread of the Deific purpose and power. Yet with only deepest faith for impetus, and such Deific purpose for palpable or impalpable theme, it often transcends the masterpieces of Hellas, and all masterpieces.
The metaphors daring beyond account, the lawless soul, extravagant by our standards, the glow of love and friendship, the fervent kiss—nothing in argument or logic, but unsurpass’d in proverbs, in religious ecstasy, in suggestions of common mortality and death, man’s great equalizers—the spirit everything, the ceremonies and forms of the churches nothing, faith limitless, its immense sensuousness immensely spiritual—an incredible, all-inclusive non-worldliness and dew-scented illiteracy (the antipodes of our Nineteenth Century business absorption and morbid refinement)—no hair-splitting doubts, no sickly sulking and sniffling, no “Hamlet,” no “Adonais,” no “Thanatopsis,” no “In Memoriam.”
The culminated proof of the poetry of a country is the quality of its personnel, which, in any race, can never be really superior without superior poems. The finest blending of individuality with universality (in my opinion nothing out of the galaxies of the “Iliad,” or Shakspere’s heroes, or from the Tennysonian “Idylls,” so lofty, devoted and starlike,) typified in the songs of those old Asiatic lands. Men and women as great columnar trees. Nowhere else the abnegation of self towering in such quaint sublimity; nowhere else the simplest human emotions conquering the gods of heaven, and fate itself. (The episode, for instance, toward the close of the “Mahabharata”—the journey of the wife Savitri with the god of death, Yama,
“One terrible to see—blood-red his garb,
His body huge and dark, bloodshot his eyes,
Which flamed like suns beneath his turban cloth,
Arm’d was he with a noose,”
who carries off the soul of the dead husband, the wife tenaciously following, and—by the resistless charm of perfect poetic recitation!—eventually redeeming her captive mate.)
I remember how enthusiastically William H. Seward, in his last days, once expatiated on these themes, from his travels in Turkey, Egypt, and Asia Minor, finding the oldest Biblical narratives exactly illustrated there to-day with apparently no break or change along three thousand years—the veil’d women, the costumes, the gravity and simplicity, all the manners just the same. The veteran Trelawney said he found the only real nobleman of the world in a good average specimen of the mid-aged or elderly Oriental. In the East the grand figure, always leading, is the old man, majestic, with flowing beard, paternal, &c. In Europe and America, it is, as we know, the young fellow—in novels, a handsome and interesting hero, more or less juvenile—in operas, a tenor with blooming cheeks, black mustache, superficial animation, and perhaps good lungs, but no more depth than skim-milk. But reading folks probably get their information of those Bible areas and current peoples, as depicted in print by English and French cads, the most shallow, impudent, supercilious brood on earth.
I have said nothing yet of the cumulus of associations (perfectly legitimate parts of its influence, and finally in many respects the dominant parts,) of the Bible as a poetic entity, and of every portion of it. Not the old edifice only—the congeries also of events and struggles and surroundings, of which it has been the scene and motive—even the horrors, dreads, deaths. How many ages and generations have brooded and wept and agonized over this book! What untellable joys and ecstasies—what support to martyrs at the stake—from it. (No really great song can ever attain full purport till long after the death of its singer—till it has accrued and incorporated the many passions, many joys and sorrows, it has itself arous’d.) To what myriads has it been the shore and rock of safety—the refuge from driving tempest and wreck! Translated in all languages, how it has united this diverse world! Of civilized lands to-day, whose of our retrospects has it not interwoven and link’d and permeated? Not only does it bring us what is clasp’d within its covers; nay, that is the least of what it brings. Of its thousands, there is not a verse, not a word, but is thick-studded with human emotions, successions of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, of our own antecedents, inseparable from that background of us, on which, phantasmal as it is, all that we are to-day inevitably depends—our ancestry, our past.
Strange, but true, that the principal factor in cohering the nations, eras and paradoxes of the globe, by giving them a common platform of two or three great ideas, a commonalty of origin, and projecting kosmic brotherhood, the dream of all hope, all time—that the long trains gestations, attempts and failures, resulting in the New World, and in modern solidarity and politics—are to be identified and resolv’d back into a collection of old poetic lore, which, more than any one thing else, has been the axis of civilization and history through thousands of years—and except for which this America of ours, with its polity and essentials, could not now be existing.
No true bard will ever contravene the Bible. If the time ever comes when iconoclasm does its extremest in one direction against the Books of the Bible in its present form, the collection must still survive in another, and dominate just as much as hitherto, or more than hitherto, through its divine and primal poetic structure. To me, that is the living and definite element-principle of the work, evolving everything else. Then the continuity; the oldest and newest Asiatic utterance and character, and all between, holding together, like the apparition of the sky, and coming to us the same. Even to our Nineteenth Century here are the fountain heads of song.
Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!
From Chapter 26 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
This one is wonderfully weird stuff. Terry Richard Bazes’s Lizard World. Here’s a blurb from Grove Press founder Barney Rosset:
Lizard World opens with Josiah Fludd, a disenchanted character from the Early Modern World, exhuming a female corpse for a customer, whose interest in the carcass is presumed by the gravedigger to be a sexual one. Fludd’s blasé attitude vanishes when, on delivery of the corpse, he watches its feet sawed off, and he learns that they are meant to replace his patron’s nether claws. From this startling introduction Terry Richard Bazes pushes us into a bizarre world that vacillates between the past and present—and is told by a writer whose imagination seems to have no bounds.
Here’s an excerpt:
I being then in my nineteenth year and little more than a beggar — intent, by hook or by crook, to become a chirurgeon and yet utterly without means to feed and clothe my body (much less to learn the merest rudiments of my profession) — it came about that at length I did find a way both to earn my bread and pursue my studies by undertaking to perform a service — a wholly necessary and harmless service albeit one from which my more prosperous school-mates turned away with horror and revulsion. So it was that I got my sustenance and was suffered to sit with all the paying scholars — provided it was in the very backermost row — and watch whilst our professor probed the deepest mysteries of a fresh cadaver.
Now just exactly how and whence these cadavers were supplied were questions my finical colleagues dared not closely entertain, although in gross they knew the truth and shunned me like a leper. But I cared not a fart for their esteem, so long as I could learn, and the short of it was that I advanced quickly in my studies and was oft besought by my professors for a specimen and consequently was upon ever the most constant look-out for the newly dead.
For this purpose it was my practice to put on the clothes and countenance of a mourner and, thus disguised, to frequent the very meanest of country churches in the hope that there I might chance upon some humble obsequies. If fortune smiled, and some farmer or laundress had departed this life, then I would repair under the cloak of starlight unto the churchyard, still in mourning attire and carrying a fistful of daisies and a Bible, lest I be questioned of my purpose and require a ready pretext. The great secret of the art was to work with utmost haste and efface the smallest evidence of theft. Therefore, by the light of my lantern, I studied the disposition of each rock, each wreath of flowers — and, thus informed of the state to which the grave must later be restored, now proceeded to violate the soil, but only so much as to permit my shovel to break the very head-piece of the box. This method, once perfected, allowed me — in a trice — to draw the carcass out, conceal it in a sack, restore the injured earth, and load my stiffened burden on a waiting dung-cart.
For more excerpts, check out Bazes’s site; more to come.
(From A curious hieroglyphick Bible, or, Select passages in the Old and New Testaments, represented with emblematical figures, for the amusement of youth : designed chiefly to familiarize tender age, in a pleasing and diverting manner, with early ideas of the Holy Scriptures : to which are subjoined, a short account of the lives of the Evangelists, and other pieces / illustrated with nearly five hundred cuts. 1788).
Somewhere in his big and often laborious book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom defines canonical literature as that which possesses a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Gilgamesh strikes me as exemplary of that second clause: It’s a foundational epic that has assimilated its readers such that we can no longer easily perceive its strangeness. In many of the prose translations we encounter, Gilgamesh becomes smoothed-out, a document in which we find universal symbols, characters, and themes, all ordered into a narrative scheme that resonates with our conceptualizations of story-telling. And while Gilgamesh and his wild-man companion Enkidu are clearly archetypal figures, the version of their story most of us read in our high school English class is overtly familiar, fitting too-neatly into a literary tradition with Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare.
Stuart Kendall’s new translation of Gilgamesh reintroduces us to the strangeness of Gilgamesh, juxtaposing the epic’s irreconcilable eruptions against the archetypes it helped to originate. By using language reminiscent of Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Kendall’s version calls attention to the strange discontinuities of Gilgamesh, even as it paints for us a bold, concrete vision of action. Kendall’s Gilgamesh highlights the psychological dimensions of the epic, situating its heroes’ dramas of consciousness against a physical world that blends into metaphysical spaces.
Here’s a sample of Kendall’s precise language; the scene is from late in the narrative, after the death of Enkidu, as Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim—and immortality:
The language here forces us to recontextualize, and thus perhaps understand anew, a scene so archetypal as to have become commonplace in even the most banal Hollywood adventure film (that is, the hero seeking admittance to a sacred space). Kendall’s language points to the narrative links between the physical and metaphysical worlds, an unstable opposition that frames the existential crisis at the heart of Gilgamesh.
I interviewed Kendall last month, where he posed the psychological stakes of Gilgamesh more aptly than I am able to:
As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes.
Elsewhere in our interview, Kendall remarks that,
The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos. This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.
Kendall’s translation highlights the radical instability of human experience, an instability that first-person consciousness often attempts to organize (or otherwise give meaning to) through narrative. As such, Kendall’s translation is often far more ambiguous than many of the textbook versions we might have read. In particular, his ending refuses to specifically point toward redemptive wisdom or reconciliation with death. In this version, Gilgamesh’s quest does not stabilize his identity and square his relationship with mortality; rather, we see strange and discontinuous responses to the (unresolved) problem of death.
Kendall’s translation is an excellent opportunity to rediscover a text many of us assume that we already know and have mastered. His introduction and end notes are enlightening, but it’s the poetry that will surely engage readers’ sustained attention: it’s by turns energetic and mystifying, filled with strange adventure, pathos, and even humor. Recommended.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve written that the Christian Bible is, on the whole, a disappointment.
BLOOM: The aesthetic achievement is so much less than that of the Old—or original—Testament. The New Testament is a very curious work from a literary point of view. So much of it is written by writers who are thinking in Aramaic and writing in demotic Greek. And that curious blend of Aramatic syntax with a Greek vocabulary is a very dubious medium. It’s particularly egregious in the Revelation of St. John the Divine, the Apocalypse, which is a very bad and hysterical and nasty piece of writing. Even the most powerful parts of the New Testament from a literary point of view—certain epistles of Paul and the Gospel of John—are not works that can sustain a close aesthetic comparison with the stronger parts of the Hebrew Bible. It is striking how the Apocalypse of John has had an influence out of all proportion to its aesthetic, or for that matter, I would think, its spiritual value. It is not only an hysterical piece of work, but a work lacking love or compassion. In fact, it is the archetypal text of resentment, and it is the proper foundation for every school of resentment ever since.