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Joseph Friedlander, comp. The Standard Book of Jewish Verse. 1917.



JEWISH poetry has its own place in the Song-History of the world. Dryden has significantly summarized the great poets of their representative countries:

  • “Three poets—three distinct ages born—
  • Greece, Italy and England did adorn.
  • The first in loftiness of thought surpassed;
  • The next in majesty; in both the last.
  • The force of nature could no further go.
  • To make a third, she join’d the former two.”
  • But he said nothing of Hebrew poetry. Probably he had in mind that the sacred poetry of the Jews stood on a plane of its own—unapproachable, lofty, sublime—the poetry that lifted up to infinite heights of subliminal consciousness the peoples who absorbed it. It was the poetry whose marked influence on the destinies of the higher races of mankind moulded in no small degree the civilization we enjoy. Indeed, it might be said that it has revolutionized its intellectual and spiritual conceptions.

    Certainly there is a marked difference between Greek and Jewish poetry. Let us understand by the former an inclusive term, embracing all profane and secular poetry of other lands and ages—Russian, Persian, Italian, German, English, Celtic, Spanish—for, in the last analysis, all poetry of whatever kind, lyrical, epical and dramatic, must be finally traced to the Greeks. Their culture and development conduced to the free practice of every kind of poetic art. Both in form and spirit, all later poetry was derived from the Attic poets, and, to this day, our best singers go to them for inspiration and for imitation. Being themselves possessed of a deathless afflatus, of a divine form or a divine mould of beauty, their poetry, whether dramatic or lyrical, remains the source from which all nations have drunk.

    In no less universal degree has Hebrew poetry fashioned the modern soul to its finely-tempered edge. It was essentially religious, flowing from an intense racial consciousness and developing to an exalted spiritual mood, under stress of mingled storm and sunshine of national fortune. It was dominated by the personal emotional note. The soul of the singer was linked in all its moods to the relationship it bore to God. The overshadowing presence of the Almighty in all its varied and infinite manifestations was an ever constant influence.

    In the Psalms, Israel sang his hymn of spiritual love to God. They were the outpourings of his daily experience. The consciousness of God in all his thoughts and actions was the mainspring of all his personal emotions. If he circumvented an enemy, or defeated him by the prowess of his arms, the victory was attributed to Elohim, to Jehovah, the special guardian of Israel. If he enjoyed prosperity and lived at ease under his fig and vine tree, it was ascribed to God. Whatever happiness came to him was vouchsafed by his Adonai, Who had the power and will to bring to him either joy or sorrow, fortune or adversity, life or death. He acknowledged that in all His dealings, God was just and merciful, Who ordered all things for the best. And the Jew clung to his God with every fibre of his being; loved Him with all his strength, with all his heart and with all his mind.

    These two species of poetic art dominated the world. Yet, although each had its own distinctive charm and greatness, some affinity can be traced between them. The deathless dramas of the Greek poets were permeated by a spiritual emotion. In Job, as in the Greek tragedies, especially by Euripides, there is a common meeting ground for the Jew and the Greek. As Achad Ha-am points out, in his essay on “Job and Prometheus,” there is in every people something which transcends individual culture, and, while a national soul underlies its characteristics, in each one, human nature is common to all. The operation of physical and natural laws produces like results. In the Jew, however, the moral spirit was supreme, while, in the Greek, the passion for beauty was the governing impulse. The Hebrew spirit was a spirit of hope and faith; the Greek was one of blind fatalism and unrelieved pessimism where the future was concerned. What the gods willed was to be accepted with fortitude and resignation. In the Hebrew scheme of things, prayer, repentance and good conduct could avert the evil decree.

    In the poetry of the Hebrews—and that is its distinctive note—there is an abiding and keen consciousness of its relationship to a personal God. In Greek poetry, it is a blind, inexorable destiny that rules, against which man and all his efforts are vain.

    It will be easy to see why the genius of Hebrew poetry, as exemplified in the Psalter, should have immeasurably surpassed the Greek poetry as an influence on character. Human nature has always inclined to rest its hopes on a just Providence, on a Mightier Power than itself, Who, if He does not change the immutable laws of the world, yet rules it with intelligence and benevolent wisdom. Greek and Jewish poetry, the one by virtue of its classic grace of form, and the other by virtue of its abiding spiritual charm, constitute the two great divisions in which the art of song is resolved. All other subordinate schools of poetry are directly traceable to one or another of these primary sources. Greek and Jewish poetry constitute in their circumference the embracing and all-sufficient needs of the world for attuning to the human harp the immortal themes of the soul.

    Jewish poetry was strongly imbued with its national spirit. This is always its underlying motif. The Jewish bard sang of God and His wonderful Providence. He sang, too, of his hopes and aspirations in the future—a future which, however dark in the present, had always a bright silver lining. He sang of a restored nationality, of a spiritual kingdom, of a reign of righteousness, of a reconciled world, where all the children of men, however diverse their beliefs and ideals, would at last unite with Israel in the worship of one Supreme and Holy God.

    This is still the dominant note of all Jewish poetry. It is varied here and there by a bitter cry of despair and suffering, by an appeal for heavenly vengeance against the enemies of Israel, against those who crushed Judah in the thraldom of oppression. The main themes are the hope of the rehabilitation of the nation’s ancient glory and the immortalizing of the great heroes of the race, with the recital of their achievements and martyrdoms.

    That the Jewish race, through exile and persecution, has not lost its national heritage of song is amply proved in these pages. The Ghetto was not a favorable nursing ground for the Muses, and the narrow, confined life there was all but fatal to the cultivation and development of the poetic temperament. Only in times of great stress and suffering did the strong natural impulse of the soul for expression yield to its overwhelming need and desire. There were two main streams of poetic activity in the Jews of post-exilic times. The first was an ardent feeling to glorify God in song, which contributed so largely to the enrichment of the ritual. The Piyutim (hymnology) were the principal media through which this feeling found utterance. Very little of this rich psalmody of Israel has found its way to the ear of the world. Yet, in beauty and majesty of thought, as in fanciful and sublime diction, few productions of the religious poetry of the world can compare with these matchless outpourings of the soul. They reach to the highest planes of spiritual thought and seraphic fire. It will be worth while to study the religious poems in the section of this book entitled “Liturgical and Mediæval Period,” to estimate the wealth of Jewish hymnology it contains. Solomon ibn Gabirol, Jehudah Halevi, the Ibn Ezras, Israel Nagara and many more, were masters of this art, and their contributions constitute a mine of richest ore, not merely for the synagogue service, but for the spiritual elevation of Israel. No other factor in the life of this much-tried nation has so helped it to bear its burdens as the consolation afforded by these glorious hymns. It gave the Jew the courage and strength to undergo the long series of cruel martyrdoms which he endured through the Middle Ages. His sublime faith and his kinship with God were nourished on these Piyutim.

    It is only within recent years that these liturgical poems have been made accessible to the English reading public, chiefly through a band of able and scholarly interpreters, whose poetic grace of style is not by any means inferior to their thorough knowledge and insight into the spirit of the composers. In particular, the translations of Alice Lucas, Mrs. Redcliffe Salomon (Nina Davis), Israel Zangwill, Israel Abrahams, Solomon Solis Cohen and Israel Cohen are splendid renditions of the originals.

    It may not be out of place to contrast the striking difference between the manner in which the Jews of the Middle Ages met their fate and that in which the Jewish poets of our own times regarded the pogroms and persecutions in these latter days. Our forefathers were evidently of much more heroic mould. They sang their hymns of glory to God, as they mounted their funeral pyres, and expired with the ancient confession of the Unity upon their lips. They were animated by a sublime self-surrender to the will of God; a complete faith in His overshadowing Providence and in the ultimate adjustment of the apparent inequalities of reward and punishment, of unmerited suffering and undeserved prosperity and enjoyment.

    In the series of poems in the Mediæval Section are to be found some of the most moving and tragic hymns in the whole range of human history. Especially is this the case in the Section headed “In the Crusades.” In the lurid glare they cast upon the grim, dark horrors which the Jewish communities passed through in that age of ruthless fanaticism, there shines forth, in strong contrast, an unfaltering spirit of loyalty and devotion to faith, which caused them to welcome the most excruciating deaths with singular heroism. It was a triumph of sublime courage over the fears of bodily pain and suffering. God had decreed that the crown of martyrdom should be bestowed upon His chosen ones, and they submitted almost joyfully to the ordeal, voicing their invincible fealty in plaintive and heart-stirring song.

    How different was the spirit in which modern poets, both Hebrew and secular, apostrophised the Russian pogroms! These latter upbraid God for permitting their enemies to massacre the Jews. They draw realistic pictures of the unspeakable outrages they endured, including all the hideous details, without that artistic touch with which the Greek dramatists and the Hebrew poets of old depicted tragedy. The difference is that of a soul still firmly anchored and clinging to its Maker and one overpowered by a crushing sense of dark despair and death, for whom there is no gleam of a brighter existence beyond the eternal stars.

    That oppression and persecution were the prime causes why the Jewish muse did not flourish is sufficiently evident from the fact that, when this condition disappeared, even for a brief interval, it was immediately followed by a renaissance of surpassing poetic activity. When, under the Arabs, Spain enjoyed for a few centuries comparative peace and tranquillity, and inaugurated a new era of science and learning, the Jews of the country rivalled the scholars, poets and philosophers in their contributions in that field. From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries a galaxy of brilliant poets and writers appeared, than whom no greater have yet been seen. Their works, for the most part written in Hebrew and Arabic, have not yet been fully revealed to the world.

    In the Sections of this book entitled “The Mediæval Period,” “The Jewish Year,” and “Liturgical Poems,” will be found a sufficient number of translations to convey some idea of the extent and variety of their poetic horoscope. They do not merely vie with Klopstock and Milton and other religious poets, but far surpass them in sublimity of thought, in range of philosophic intuition and in elevation of moral tone. Especially rich in these qualities are the liturgical poems embodied in the ritual. The religious psalmody of these writers is wonderfully touching and inspiring. We get from them something more than a glimpse of the inward nobility of their hearts, the purity of their souls and the godliness of their lives. In these impassioned synagogue melodies Israel sang his anthem of spiritual love to God.

    Poetry may be said at least to have been the ground on which Jew and Gentile could make their common humanity felt, and it is not the least satisfaction to the compiler of this Anthology that here they stand side by side in a great cause, with one aim before them and united in its performance as never before. The history of Jewish Emancipation and the gradual dispulsion of prejudice and injustice may very well be traced through Byron and Lessing and Browning and Swinburne and many others, to these days of liberty and enlightenment, blazing the onward march of civilization through centuries of dark superstition and intolerance, teaching lessons of the highest import to the world of true brotherhood, wise reconciliation of different beliefs and a higher philosophy of life and conduct.

    In these, most conspicuous are the poems of non-Jewish poets, who have eagerly employed their gifts to crush down prejudice and oppression. Byron and Lessing were the first in this army of equally distinguished sons of the Muse: Longfellow, Browning, Joaquin Miller, Wordsworth, Townsend and many others. The most eloquent diatribes on the Dreyfus Case were written by Swinburne, and the Russian pogroms called forth a great number of stirring poems by Christian writers.

    A new era was ushered in when the flamboyant genius of Byron burst upon the world, under the impulse of a strong devotion to the cause of liberty, ardent love for the ancient glory of Greece and a growing sympathy with all oppressed and weak nationalities. Byron conceived a generous emotion for the downtrodden Hebrew race. The grandeur of their ancient tradition and the dark tragedy of their history in the Middle Ages, their outlawry from the world, powerfully appealed to him, and he gave expression to his sympathies in a series of strikingly beautiful poems. His “Hebrew Melodies” stand out as the most efflorescent of his minor poems. They are instinct with a wonderful understanding of the Hebrew spirit. No one else has interpreted the soul of the ancient Hebrew so truly as when he pictured him overwhelmed in the final catastrophe that overtook him when the Temple—the symbol of his nationality and the visible embodiment of his eternal faith—went up in flames to the sky at the hands of the Romans. To the patriotic Hebrew, that was an evidence that all for him was lost, that God had withdrawn his protection and favor from his people, and that henceforth the hand of Destiny would lay heavily upon them.

    The Jews of modern times have never done justice to the great service rendered them by Byron, and it would only be fitting that a monument be raised in England to that great poet, commemorating his glorious aid in vindicating for the Jews their rightful place among the nations of the world. So, too, Lessing, in his drama “Nathan the Wise,” and through his friendship with Moses Mendelssohn, brought about a powerful reaction in favor of the Jew. To these two gifted men, must be attributed the impetus that was given to both Jewish and non-Jewish poets to find in the Jew a fit subject for poetical illustration. Most of the distinguished poets of the past and present generation have added to the rich store of poetic lore some sterling work of Jewish interest. These comprise our greatest poets, among them Wordsworth, Browning, Scott, Longfellow, Tennyson, Swinburne, George Eliot, Thomas Bailey Aldrich and others too numerous to mention, but who should be remembered with honor and gratitude.

    The Jews themselves, to whom poetry had almost become a forgotten art, awakened again to the fact that the strains of the harp of Judah still lingered in their souls. Some sang in Hebrew, like Luzzatto, Wessely, Salom Cohen, David Franco and a host of minor poets. All were outranked by Heinrich Heine, whom it would be superfluous to describe as one of the immortals in the Valhalla of Song. His “Jehuda ben Halevi” and “Prinzessin Sabbat” are but a few examples of his quaint, delicate and inimitable art. They are limned in eternal colors, like one of the great dramas of Shakespeare or Euripides, and, like ancient Grecian sculpture, they are things of beauty and a joy forever.

    Without taking the form of an historical survey, these poems easily portray, if not exactly in chronological order, at least in panoramic sequence, the most striking events in Jewish history. They set forth the character of the nation’s achievements, its heroes, its prophets, kings and statesmen and, above all, the eternal ideals of the race, the unquenchable fire of its faith, which has burned on, not fitfully, but steadily and grandly through all the dark and moving centuries.

    Although here and there a false quantity may be detected and imperfect technique may be apparent, yet the poems on the whole are surprisingly good. It would be unfair to compare them, in idiomatic diction and graceful execution, with poetry which flourished in a national atmosphere—the outcome of conditions altogether favorable for the production of genuine lyrics. Many of them, however, are possessed of the highest poetic qualities and are instinct with rare spiritual fervor. Jessie E. Sampter’s poem on “Anemones” is a fine example of a true lyric, which can vie with the best; and scattered through these pages are many which will delight the reader with their exquisite and perfect phrasing. A number of these modern writers, too, are either alien born or the offspring of foreign parents. They acquired a wonderful mastery of the niceties and intricacies of what is comparatively a new language. Poetry of a decidedly high order may be ascribed to many of the selections included from the pen of George A. Kohut, Joseph Leiser, Alter Abelson, Harry Weiss, Miriam del Banco, Penina Moïse, Rebecca Altman and numerous others. Of those who nave not written in the vernacular, but either in Hebrew or Yiddish, translations of which will be found in this volume, may be mentioned Byalik, Frug, Morris Rosen- feld, “Jehoash” and Raskin.

    Many of the poems are notable for the beautiful thoughts and sentiments they enshrine; fragrant and delicate flowers of the spirit, enriching the intellectual heritage of humanity.

    If this Anthology serves no other purpose than to impress the reader, both Jew and Gentile, with the consciousness of the age-long idealism of the race, from whose loins sprang that sweet singer of Israel whose Psalmody is still the greatest spiritual inheritance of humanity, it will not have been compiled in vain. May it be the will of Providence that our brethren of the faith of Israel, who have so miraculously survived persecution and martyrdom through the centuries, be at last admitted into the fellowship of nations, with their national glory restored and rehabilitated, and Palestine, the land of their fathers, once again established as the cultural centre whence all moral and spiritual forces are to emanate which will enrich and ennoble the world.

    Joseph Friedlander
    (Edited by G. A. Kohut)
    (June 25, 1917.)