The prophet Isaiah dominates the season of Advent. Old Testament readings at Mass are taken from Isaiah, the Office of Readings draws almost entirely from Isaiah, and many of our hymns and carols are based on one or another passage from Isaiah. One reason is of course the clarity of Isaiah’s prophecies, but another is the beauty and power of his poetry.
Prophecy and poetry were not cleanly distinguished ideas in antiquity. All the biblical prophets are poets, pagan oracles spoke in short poems, and Plato referred to poets as “inspired” or possessed by a “divine madness”. Today we often meet poetry that makes no claim to inspiration—perhaps a mere advertising ditty—and our prophets tend to write blog posts or newspaper columns rather than verse. As a result, we turn to a biblical prophet looking for the “content” or the “message” behind the poetic medium rather than through it. We treat as separable something Isaiah would not have seen so.
So as we begin Advent, I would like to offer a few thoughts about poetry I have seen in Isaiah.
The Movement of Parallelism
My first introduction to Hebrew poetry was Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry. First and foremost, he drew my attention to the fact—obvious everywhere now that I notice it—that Hebrew poetry plays with repetition as an artistic device. Everywhere in the Psalms and prophets you can find couplets of “rhymed meaning”:
/ Hear, O heavens,
\ and give ear, O earth (Isaiah 1:1)
Alter also taught me that the repetitions are almost never simple repetitions. The second member of the couplet is either more intense or more concrete than the first. For example, the mention of the “ear” in Isaiah 1:1 is slightly more concrete and therefore more vivid than the command “hear”; it gives the imagination a bit more to do. Consider this example:
/ The ox knows its owner,
\ and the ass its master’s crib (Isaiah 1:3)
The imagination does not do much with “owner,” at most conjuring up a generic human shape, a kind of silhouette of a farmer, but “master’s crib” summons a more definite picture. (In my perhaps overactive imagination, the “ass” here is the donkey one sees on Christmas cards, who stands lovingly near his master’s crib.)
Sometimes, the second member of a couplet is not more concrete but more intense:
/ They have forsaken the LORD,
\ they have despised the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 1:4)
To “despise” does not summon a more definite picture than “forsake,” but it says something more intense. This is the familiar pattern we find in the song, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1Sam 18:7): the second member of the couplet is not more detailed, but has been magnified or intensified.
Once Alter pointed out these two patterns to me—the movement to concretization and the movement to intensification—I found pleasure in noticing them everywhere.
Quatrains, or couplets of couplets
Reading Isaiah over the years, I have discovered that play with the principle of repetition is beautiful and sophisticated ways. For example, he not only builds couplets but also uses couplets to build larger couplets. The book begins with a simple couplet that uses neither concretization nor intensification but contrast:
/ Sons have I reared and brought up,
\ but they have rebelled against me.
The father/son relationship sets one up to think that the outcome would be loyalty, but the next line foils that expectation by statement the opposite.
Isaiah goes on to expand each member of this first couplet into a couplet. The line “Sons I have reared and brought up” is expanded into a couplet about the relation of animals to their owners, where one finds the expected loyalty:
/ The ox knows its owner,
\ and the ass its master’s crib;
The argument is heavily ironic: If Israel had been an animal instead of a son then they would have been loyal to their master…!
Next, the line “but they have rebelled against me” is expanded into a couplet about Israel’s lack of knowledge of the LORD:
/ but Israel does not know,
\ my people does not understand.
The original “they” is first made more concrete with the name “Israel” and then spelled out further in the more poignant “my people.” Meanwhile, the generic “know,” which picks up the verb from the previous couplet about animals, is intensified to “understand”:
Together, these two couplets make a quatrain in which the first couplet stands in contrast to the second couplet:
/ / The ox knows its owner, \ and the ass its master's crib; / but Israel does not know, \ \ my people does not understand.
These quatrains are everywhere in Isaiah’s poetry. Here is one that leapt out at me recently (Isaiah 1:29-30):
/ / For you shall be ashamed of the oaks in which you delighted; \ and you shall blush for the gardens which you have chosen. / For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, \ \ and like a garden without water.
The first couplet with its oaks and gardens parallels the second couplet with its oaks and gardens. Within the each couplet we find the familiar dynamic of concretization and intensification: the generic “be ashamed” becomes the more concrete “blush”; the more preliminary stage of “delight” becomes the further, hardened state of “choose”.
Here is another couplet-of-couplets I recently found and particularly enjoyed (Isaiah 1:19-20):
/ / If you are willing and obedient, \ you shall eat the good of the land; / But if you refuse and rebel, \ \ you shall be devoured by the sword
Here the individual couplets do not play with concretization or intensification or contrast, but more broadly pair good with good and bad with bad: obedience pairs with a good outcome, disobedience with a bad outcome. But then the two verbs of the first line of the first couplet (willing and obedient) play by contrast with the two verbs of the first line of the second couplet (refuse and rebel), and the verb of the second line of the first couplet (you shall eat) plays by contrast and intensification with the verb of the second line of the second couplet (you shall be devoured).
More elaborate structures
The couplet-of-couplets structure is a fairly obvious way to develop the couplet structure. But Isaiah uses the principle of repetition in surprisingly flexible ways, building elaborate structures, with couplets nesting inside nested couplets, to achieve various effects. One of my favorite examples is Isaiah 2:6-17, whose structure is so complex that it takes a while to absorb:
/ For thou hast rejected thy people, the house of Jacob, because / they are full of divines from the east \ and of soothsayers like the Philistines, \ and they strike hands with foreigners. / / Their land is filled with silver and gold, \ and there is no end to their treasures; / their land is filled with horses, \ \ and there is no end to their chariots. / / Their land is filled with idols; \ they bow down to the work of their hands \ to what their own fingers have made. / So man is humbled, \ \ and men are brought low— \ Forgive them not! / / / Enter into the rock, \ and hide in the dust / from before the terror of the Lord, \ and from the glory of his majesty. / The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, \ and the pride of men shall be humbled; \ And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. / / For the Lord of hosts has a day / against all that is proud and lofty, \ against all that is lifted up and high; / against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up, \ and against all the oaks of Bashan; / against all the high mountains, \ and against all the lofty hills; / against every high tower, \ and against every fortified wall; / against all the ships of Tarshish, \ and against all the beautiful craft. / And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, \ and the pride of men shall be brought low, \ \ \ and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
This whole segment has two parts. The first consists of a basic pair: God has forsaken his people, and he will not forgive them:
/ For thou hast rejected thy people, the house of Jacob, because
\ Forgive them not!
But the first line is expanded with all the reasons God has forsaken his people. First, Isaiah gives us a three-line unit explaining that Israel is full of foreign practitioners of false religions (divines and soothsayers) and that the Israelites strike business deals with these people:
/ they are full of divines from the east \ and of soothsayers like the Philistines, \and they strike hands with foreigners.
Next comes a couplet-of-couplets structure expanding on the business deals and how lucrative they are:
/ / Their land is filled with silver and gold, \ and there is no end to their treasures; / their land is filled with horses, \ \ and there is no end to their chariots.
Lastly, Isaiah builds something like a couplet-of-couplets structure expanding on the problem of foreign worship. It begins with a three-line unit in which “idols” are concretized as “the work of their hands,” and then “hands” is detailed even further into “fingers”. The main verb of these three lines, “bow down,” parallels the verbs of the next couplet, “humbled,” “brought low,” indicating that men are already “brought low” or “humbled” by the fact that they have abased themselves before lifeless artifacts:
/ / Their land is filled with idols; \ they bow down to the work of their hands \ to what their own fingers have made. / So man is humbled, \ \ and men are brought low—
This segment is rounded out with the parallel “thou has rejected thy people”:
\ Forgive them not!
The next section of the poem spells out in more detail what “being brought low” will mean for the idol worshippers: Isaiah deploys the movements of concretization and intensification not just from line to line but section to section. This second section consists of two similar structures, each contrasting the abasement of man with the exaltation of God “on that day”. In the first structure, the idea of man’s abasement is developed over three couplets, building a sense of intensity:
/ / Enter into the rock, \ and hide in the dust / from before the terror of the Lord, \ and from the glory of his majesty. / The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, \ and the pride of men shall be humbled; \ And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
Notice how Isaiah balances a single line against all three couplets: “And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.” This solitary line standing in contrasting parallel to all three couplets before it emphasizes the word alone, and the fact that this one line can carry so much structural weight emphasizes how exalted the Lord will be.
Now we get another similar structure with a very similar poetic technique. The abasement of man is expressed in no less than six couplets, each describing “lofty” things the Lord is “against”:
/ / For the Lord of hosts has a day / against all that is proud and lofty, \ against all that is lifted up and high; / against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up, \ and against all the oaks of Bashan; / against all the high mountains, \ and against all the lofty hills; / against every high tower, \ and against every fortified wall; / against all the ships of Tarshish, \ and against all the beautiful craft. / And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, \ and the pride of men shall be brought low, \ \ and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
The intensity of the poem builds as Isaiah flattens every conceivable category of tall thing, and then again puts the whole weight of the mounting contrast on a single line: “And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.” Even more than before, the fact that Isaiah does not build even one couplet to express the Lord’s contrasting exaltation drives home how alone that exaltation will be: one sees a picture of a vast plain that is entirely flat, with a single tower rising above the ruins.
This is the effect poetry can have: you do not simply know about God’s majesty, but you feel that it is in front of you like a mountain or a tree. You feel that you could close your eyes and still know where God’s majesty is, the way you can locate furniture in a dark but familiar room. It is not a knowledge primarily of the mind, not knowledge of an object, but a kind of sympathy or connaturality with the known, knowledge in the mode of a subject. To borrow a phrase from Pseudo-Dionysius, one not only knows but suffers the divine.