Why study the Psalms? Henry Wansbrough notes the following. Compellingly, they were used by Jesus in addressing his Father. Martin Luther noted that "the entire Bible is contained in the Psalms.” The Psalms put our inchoate longings, or as St. Paul would say, groanings, into words. Wordsworth echoed this when he wrote “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The Psalms express our feelings in hymns, pleadings, sorrows, penitence, petition and thanksgiving. In understanding the Psalms, it is helpful to compare and contrast them to English poetry. Whereas rhyme is one hallmark of English poetry (excluding, of course, the free-rhyming poetry of recent years), parallelism is the structural component that distinguishes Hebrew poetry. While parallelism may not be as pleasing to our contemporary ears as rhyming (and this may be because of our own historical conditioning—who knows what calming and hedonic effect it had upon ancient listeners?), it served a very practical purpose in Old Testament times: since the Psalms were presented orally, the repetition of themes in a slightly different way helped create a meld of what was being expressed. The second line is often an intensification of the first, as in the beginning of the Divine Office: “O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”
Father Daniel O’Leary, writing in The Tablet (7 April 2012), notes that “Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls for a poetic language where the Church’s communication is concerned. When homiletic, liturgical, and prophetic texts are all reduced to prose, ‘there is a dread dullness that besets the human spirit, and we all become mindless conformists. He [Brueggemann] writes passionately about our desperate need for ‘a new word, a new verb, a new conversation, a new possibility.’ There is a crucial time for poetic words to appear. That time is now, he says, when, because of a ‘fearful rationality’ in our prescribed and routine rituals and proclamations, there is no room for ‘the excitement of our hearts (p. 10).’”
There continues to be use of parallel structure in modern poetry. Brueggermann cites Walt Whitman:
After the seas are all cross’d
(as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists,
the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
Three dyads of parallel structure may be noted in the six stanzas above: seas are crossed/they seem already crossed; great captains, engineers have accomplished/chemist, geologist, ethnologist; the poet worthy of that name/the true son of God. In the last two lines, one might even surmise that Wordsworth had in mind Jesus praying the Psalms, not only vocally but through the perfect congruence of his loving actions to inspired thoughts which were passed down lovingly from over a thousand years before.
Jesuit Father Joseph Gelineau has an interesting way of describing the parallel structure of the psalms. He uses the metaphor of hammering: “A psalm is a religious song. The word ‘psalm’ suggests a musical instrument, tambourine or sistrum, harp or primitive lyre, with which the singer accompanied his song. The psalmist recited the verses to a simple chant, some echoes of which can be heard in certain Jewish and christian psalmodies. These verses showed a balanced symmetry of form and sense, they scanned rhythmically in three, four, or five feet, and were linked in more or less frequent stanzas. When he speaks a whole world of images rises from his words as they call to each other, repeating, following or clashing with each other. He makes the point not by reasoning but by hammering; he reveals not by describing but by actually touching; he teaches not by explaining but by putting his words on our lips (Gelineau, 1963, p. 5).”
A. Gregory Murray uses the analogy of nursery rhymes to explain the parallel structure of the psalms and adds to this Gerard Manley Hopkins’ notion of “sprung rhythm," by which he means a repetitive structure containing limited and internal variance which adds variety to the basic parallel structure: “Hebrew verse was organized on an accentual basis. Every line had a stipulated number of accented or stressed syllables, although the total numbers of syllables in the line was variable. In this respect Hebrew verse employed the same rhythmic principle as early English verse, for which Gerald Manley Hopkins invented the term ‘sprung rhythm.’ Spring rhythm, as Hopkins observed, is to be found also in much of our later poetry and frequently occurs in ursery rhymes and popular jingles. A simple instance if found in ‘Three Blind Mice’. Each line has 3 stressed syllables and a fourth beat. But the number of syllables in the lines varies between 3 and 11. That all the lines may be sung simultaneously shows that they all have the same rhythmic structure of 4 beats” (Murrray, in Gelineau, 1963, p. 11).
C.S. Lewis affirms parallelism as the central feature of the Psalms: “Their chief formal characteristic, the most obvious element of patters, is fortunately one that survives in translation. Most readers will know that I mean what the scholars call ‘parallelism’; that is, the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words. A perfect example is ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision” (2, 4), or again, ‘He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light; and thy just dealing as the noon-day”’ (37, 6). If this is not recognized as a pattern, the reader will either find ‘mares’ nests (as some of the older preachers did) in his effort to get different meaning out of each half of the verse or else feel that it is rather silly.”
Lewis, in his indomitable manner of explaining the complex via the simple and vice-versa, offers first, an example of parallelism from Christopher Marlowe, and then, a childishly simple form from the Cherry Tree Carol. From Marlowe: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight/And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough.” From Cherry Tree Carol: “Joseph was an old man and an old man was he.”
Perhaps the Creator has embedded the receptacles for parallel structure in our neural networks. Noam Chomsky (Syntactic Structures, 1957), a psycholinguist who studies the structure and function of language, suggests that the understanding of parallel structure resides within the brain itself. Chomsky’s interest in studying language evolved from reading his father’s book, David Kimhli’s Hebrew Grammar (1952). It is intriguing to discover a meld between ancient Hebrew poetry and modern cognitive science, a confluence made possible by Wisdom herself.
William Van Ornum