The Study of Classical Hebrew Poetry: Meter

The Standard Description of Hebrew Poetry distinguishes two main axes: parallelism and meter. In my last post I reviewed the study of parallelism, now I will take up the question of meter. I should note, however, that I find the distinction of parallelism from meter to be unnatural. As Jakobson noted, the basic feature of all poetry is the imposition of structured patterns on all levels of language, thus parallelism is merely the syntactic corollary to meter. The distinction of the two arose early in the study of Hebrew poetry based on the contrast with Western poetry, which seemed to rely more heavily on rigid metrical patterns (at least in its classical forms) while knowing nothing of the type of rigid semantic parallelism so obvious in Hebrew Poetry (again, at least in its classical form).

In poetry, meter refers to the number of syllables in a poetic line and their type (unaccented/short, usually marked by the breve ˘, or accented/long, usually marked by the macron ¯). The foot is the basic building block of meter and describes the smallest pattern of syllables. Common examples include the iamb (˘ ¯), the trochee (¯ ˘), and the anapest (˘ ˘ ¯). Thus a line of Shakespeare in iambic pentameter contains five iambic feet (stress marked with capital letters):

Shall I com-PARE thee TO a SUM-mer’s DAY?

English meter then is based on rigid patterns of feet, which are arranged into patterns of lines, which are arranged into patterns of stanzas, etc. A poet, of course, has license to vary the pattern slightly when needed or for effect (eleven lines of da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM would make you go crazy). Thus, for example, an iamb can be inverted to a trochee (“THAT is” in the example below) or a final unaccented/short syllable may be considered extra-metrical (“the QUES-tion”):

to BE or NOT to BE THAT is the QUES-tion

As noted above, in classical Hebrew poetry it appears that semantic parallelism  is the major structural element and not regularity of meter. Combined with the difficulty of reconstructing the ancient pronunciation of the Hebrew texts, many scholars have followed Lowth in resisting a rigid description of meter beyond noting the number of “parallel members” in  bicolon or tricolon. Still, the quest for meter has proven too enticing for others, leading to many complicated schemes.   

The most widely accepted method is ascribed to Julius Ley and Edward Sievers, along with Karl Budde, and is generally described as an accent-counting system. Ley first developed the idea (Grundzüge des Rhythmus, des Vers- und Strophenbaues in der hebraischen Poesie, 1875) that the characteristic of a line of Hebrew poetry is the number of tone or accented syllables without regard for the number of unaccented syllables. Thus a poetic line could be measured by the number of “stress-units” (i.e. a construct chain would count as one unit since only the final word maintains its accent), irrespective of the type of feet (i.e. just “pentameter” rather than “iambic pentameter”). In standard Ley-Sievers notation, a bicolon can be described as 3 + 3 (two cola of 3 accents each),  2 + 2 + 2 (three cola of 2 accents), etc.

Budde built on Ley’s work by extensively examining the so-called “elegaic pentameter”, an un-balanced 3 + 2 line (3 accent groups in the first colon, but only 2 in the second) which was common in the Hebrew elegy or dirge. Budde concentrated on Lamentations chapter 3, where the acrostic form made the demarcation of poetic lines obvious (“Das Hebräische Klagelied”, ZAW 2, 1882). He named this pattern Qinah meter after the Hebrew קִינָה, “dirge”. For example, Lam 3:25 is a bicolon following the 3 + 2 pattern:

תִּדְרְשֶֽׁנּוּ לְנֶ֖פֶשׁ לְקוָ֔וֹ יְהוָה֙ ט֤וֹב
seeks-him to-the-one-who to-those-who-wait-for-him is-the-Lord good

Sievers contribution was the application of more rigorous phonetic principles (Studien zur hebraischen Metrik, 1901). Sievers counted the number of accented syllables per line, similar to Ley and Budde. However, while Ley felt that the number of unaccented syllables was relatively unimportant, Sievers argued that the basic metrical foot consisted of four “beats” – unaccented syllables counting one beat, but long, accented syllables counting two. Thus he affirmed the anapest (da-da-DAH) as the basic foot of Hebrew poetry. Seivers further developed rules for counting secondary stresses, handling monosyllabic words and particles, dropping stresses (as at the end of the line in the example above), etc.

The other widespread theory of meter is the iambic approach, generally traced back to Gustav Bickell (“Die hebraische Metrik I-II”, ZDMG 34 and 35, 1880/81). Bickell based his study on Syriac poetry (a native Semitic language in contrast to the classical and western poetry used by other scholars), arguing that the basic foot is not the anapest, but the iamb/trochee. Thus there is an alternating rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, though unstressed syllables can sometimes be dropped due to syncope. Sigmund Mowinckel has developed this idea further (see The Psalm’s in Israel’s Worship with a chapter on meter) as has Stanislav Segert. 

Mowinckel’s basic argument is that the Psalms are for singing, and this implies that there must be some regular metrical component. He then suggests a diachronic approach may be the best way to understand the apparent irregularity. In early folk poetry, parallelism dominates and it is the stress-group which is important, the most common form being the dipod, a bicolon of 2 + 2. However, the rhythm follows the natural prosody of the language and is therefore “irregular”. As the classical poetry develops however, the meter becomes more regularized, and, since Semitic languages are naturally iambic, it is only natural that the iamb comes to dominate. In fact, he finds that the Psalms show very regular meter when seen in an iambic rather than anapestic pattern.    

A third approach is found in the studies of Cross and Freedman, who count the total number of syllables in a line regardless of accent. Strictly speaking, this is not meant to be a description of meter since there is no analysis of the types of syllables or feet, but merely a quantitative description of the structure of poetic lines. Cross distinguishes two types of line based on length – longum (l) and breve (b). In archaic poetry there seems to be a preference for the patterns l:l or l:l:l. when a short line is used however, it is b:b::b:b, corresponding to l:l:l. Freedman has also analyzed Budde’s Qinah meter, finding that such lines also show an unbalanced pattern of 7 + 6 or 8 + 5 syllables. This is not to suggest that Hebrew poets were actively counting syllables, but the regularity of lines suggests that rhythm and meter is a component of Hebrew poetry, even if we cannot completely reconstruct its internal contour.

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One Comment on “The Study of Classical Hebrew Poetry: Meter”

  1. John Hobbins Says:


    Thanks for this. Another approach, which builds on that of Ley-Budde, is that of Harshav, Alter, and myself. I introduce it in depth on my blog under “Getting Started” – How Ancient Hebrew Poetry Works.

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