When delving into biblical – Hebrew – poetry, one primary characteristic makes itself immediately clear, and that is the ubiquitous couplet structure. I’m sure – I know – there is a lot that can be said about Hebrew poetry, and I’m not the one to say it. But I do want to point out an almost universal trait: that lines come in pairs. It’s so common a trait that when they don’t, it stands out, at least to those of use chanting them aloud. In any form of rhetoric or art, repetition is important, and the nature of that repetition must be attended to.
I’m a musician, and I teach piano and choral music. I’m constantly at pains to point out to players and singers when there are repetitions in the musical score. And I’m at constant pains to get them to do something about it. Things don’t repeat just to fill up space. (Or at least they oughtn’t!) They repeat for purposes of expression, rhetoric, maybe balance (which does not concern me here). When you repeat an instruction to a child, you repeat it for a reason (unless you’re just a nag), usually to make it more clear. Maybe you repeat it to emphasize an implicit warning or promise. We repeat expressions of affection and love to add feeling and emphasis. In the psalms and canticles of scripture, these repetitions add poetic nuance. They heighten the picture and feeling. Sometimes they state the opposite, for contrast. Sometimes they extend the meaning.
Let’s look at some examples:
Praise the Lord, all you nations. / Laud him, all you peoples.
The second phrase simply restates the first. They mean the same thing.
The Lord is my shepherd. / I shall not want.
We could deduce the second from the first, but the second clause extends the meaning of the first and drives the point home. In the second verse, the repetition not only extends the meaning, it adds to it:
He makes me to lie down in green pastures. / He restores my soul.
Examples of opposites are more readily come by in the Proverbs, which also follow this verse-couplet construction:
For my mouth shall speak the truth, / But false lips are an abomination before me.
An example of a three-line grouping is:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with all my heart, / For you hear the words of my mouth; / And I shall sing to you in the presence of the angels.
Of course, not all psalms are so simply arranged. But you get the idea.
Orthodox hymnody often follows a similar structure. I’ll be using examples from the heirmosi (heirmos, pl.) of Nativity. More of what an herimos has to do with anything in the next posting. For now, let’s just look at these psalmic lines:
Christ is born, glorify him! / Christ is from heaven, receive him! / Christ is on earth, be exalted!
Three lines which are dual in nature. The next are a bit meatier:
To the Son who was begotten of the Father before all ages, / and in the last times was without seed made flesh of the Virgin…
Rod of the root of Jesse, / and flower that budded forth from his stem, O Christ, / Thou hast sprung from the Virgin.
As Thou art God of peace and Father of mercies, / Thou hast sent unto us Thine Angel of great counsel, granting us peace.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention – and I’m sure that you have – you’ve noticed that Orthodox hymns don’t merely repeat for emphasis, but the repetitions often contain contrasts and paradoxes.
In the first set above: born – glorify / from heaven – receive him / on earth – be exalted.
In the second: begotten of the Father – made flesh of the Virgin.
In the third: Rod – flower – sprung.
And in the last: Thou art God – Thou hast sent and God of peace – granting us peace.
And so forth.
Get used to that.
In the next post, we’ll look at the biblical canticles to which these irmosi are, literally, linked.