Bialik’s Poetry is the Flowering of Hebrew Culture, Says Raskin

Philip M. Raskin, the writer of this critique on Bialik, has translated much of the late poet laureate’s poetry into English. Mr. Raskin is the editor of an anthology, Modern Jewish Poetry, during the preparation of which he read 10,000 poems. He also has written many poems on Jewish and Zionist subjects.

The question has often been asked by poets as well as by critics, is there such a thing as national art and national poetry? Since every art consists of two main parts—impression and expression—can there be any psychological difference in the way one is impressed or one does express nature or emotion?

It seems to me that the answer to these questions lies in the domain of psychology rather than of literary criticism. There are and there have always been two main aspects of life, the Hellenic and the Hebraic. The former saw nature as the be all and end all of life. “It is nature,” said the Greeks, “that makes and unmakes man.” “It is nature that influences our thoughts, our moods and our emotions. We are helpless implements in the hands of nature.” “We must obey it even when we disobey it.” The Greeks have thus developed the art of depicting nature which has never been excelled or equalled. But nature is blind and merciless and unreasoning. It follows, therefore, that even merciless things can be very beautiful ###d subjects of perfect art.

MAN AS CENTER OF LIFE

In opposition to this view, the Hebrew saw the center of life not in nature, but in man. The Hebrew held that mind and soul must ultimately conquer nature, that it is human destiny to everlastingly triumph over nature by its own laws. In short, the Hebrew substituted for the ideal of beauty, the beauty of the ideal. It is, therefore, not surprising at all that the Greek genius expressed itself best in sculpture and in the lines of the human body, while the Hebrew genius found its most expressive medium in poetry and music, which are essentially for the emotions rather than for the eye.

Bialik is phenomenal in this respect, that his poetry is thoroughly Hebraic, though all his poems leave a sculptural impression. His pictures are concise and vivid. You don’t read them—you see them, but their effect is always ethical. Bialik himself in one of his poems says very correctly:

“I have not won the light from freedom’s courses,

“I have hewn it from the craigs and carved it from my heart.”

His poems are truly carved statues. They impress themselves on the eye more than on the ear. Read his “Winter Songs,” and in the picture will we see and remember every curve, fold and wrinkle, every shade and nuance. But Bialik never thinks of nature per se, but of nature as it influences human mood and thought. Bialik is a remarkable combination of the Hebrew soul and Hellenic technique. He is a Hebrew prophet in a western garb.

A PROTEST

Who does not remember his—”Of steel and iron, cold and hard and dumb,

Now forge thyself a heart, O man! and come

And walk the town of slaughter.

Behold! for now is given thee a wondrous thing,

A twofold gift, a slaughter and a spring!

The garden blossomed, the sun shone bright,

The butcher slaughtered!

The knife was sharp and glistened; from the wound

Flowed blood and gold.”

What does this picture, living, horrifying, monumental, tell you? Can you ever forget the twofold gift—the slaughter and the spring? The garden, the sun and the butcher? Can you ever escape seeing the knife sharp and glistening and the wound flowing blood and gold? And yet, it is not merely a picture for the eye, it is rather intended as a protest against all cosmic forces, against the garden blossoming while the knife is glistening, against the sun shining while from the wound flowed blood and gold. It is a protest of the human soul against calm and merciless nature. Bialik’s poetry is in one sense not art, it is super-art. Art is, in the last analysis, the link between the visible and the invisible. It is the reality of an illusion. Bialik’s poems are rather the illusions of realities. That is why we are not angry with him when he uses the harshest words to whip us, to chastise us, to punish us. That is why we rather take his chastisement as the punishment of love (Yesurim shel ahavah). That is why we rather feel exalted when he says “Yea, the people is grass.” We bear him no ill feeling as we bear no malice towards Jessiah, Jeremiah or Amos.

A PEOPLE’S HOPE

And just as the art of Bialik is super-art, so are his emotions super-emotions. He paints the most gruesome pictures while not a vibration stirs his soul with pity. In the “Town of Slaughter” pity is useless, you don’t do rescue work in a coal mine with a child’s toy shovel, and an infant’s toy boat is quite unuseable in an inundation. It is rock-deep anger rather than pity. It is wrath and scorn rather than chastisement. It is in brief the depth, strength and directness of the Hebrew prophets that are characteristic of poems like “Town of Slaughter,” “Yea, the People Is Grass” and scores of others.

Bialik’s seeming despair is in reality his people’s hope, for beneath the crust of his pessimism flows the quickening spring of optimism. True pessimism does not protest, it is reconciled with evil. It is convinced that evil is innate in things and cannot be eliminated. It is the optimist who see the world to be, and life as it should be, but also sees things as they are for the time being, and protests against them. Beneath Bialik’s chastisement there is the unmistakable belief in better things to come in a world of possible good and beauty.

Does Bialik’s poetry belong then to the sphere of ethics rather than aesthetics? I believe that in the upper strata of life, the two meet. On the crest of human existence, the good shakes hand with the beautiful; in fact they merge an idea which the Hellenic mind never approached and never conceived.

A word should be said of Bialik’s language. His Hebrew, though thoroughly modern, yet is the Hebrew of all the ages combined. He uses Hebrew more than a medium. His words create illusions that are also allusions, i. e., that apart from the intrinsic value of his Hebrew word as a meaning, as a simile, as a picture, the word is also often alluding to some Talmudic passage or to some Midrashic saying or legend.

HEIR OF PROPHETS

Bialik, to my mind, is not only one of the great immortal poetic geniuses that have from time to time graced this earth and carried the echo of the human soul to mankind, such as Shakespeare, Dante, Heine or Goethe. He is preeminently the direct scion and heir of the prophets of Israel.

Like all of these poets, his poetry is universal, transcending national borders, and yet he is thoroughly national, inasmuch as he is speaking to the world via the Jewish people. Bialik, in brief, is not only showing the world to the Jew, but more so the Jew to the world. He has unrolled the Jewish soul like his “Scroll of Fire.”

The real Hebrew poet of the type of Bialik is merely a link in that unbroken chain of the Jewish geniuses that has started in the hoary antiquity with the songs of Moses and of Deborah, and will end somewhere “in the end of the days.” It is the eternal light and the pillar of fire that is guiding the way of a people on its checkered historic career.

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