Jewish Review of Books

Give Ear O Ye Heavens

By Robert Alter
Summer 2015

Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Versification: Essays in Comparative Prosody

by Benjamin Harshav

Yale University Press, 376 pp., $75

Benjamin Harshav, the brilliant scholar of Hebrew, Yiddish, and comparative literature, died on April 23 at the age of 86. Those of us who knew him as a friend will miss him keenly, and his loss will be felt in broader circles because there was no one quite like him in literary studies. His lifelong engagement in the forms of poetry has been a unique—and uniquely valuable—project. The term “comparative” in the subtitle of this new book deserves special emphasis. In fact, Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Versification is a somewhat misleading title, since half of the book is devoted to Yiddish poetry. But the importance of Harshav’s last book extends considerably beyond both Hebrew and Yiddish poetry. Its opening essays are titled “Basic Aspects of Meter and Rhythm” and “Do Sounds Have Meaning?” and it is informed by a powerful theory of how poetry works.

Hebrew and Yiddish are extraordinarily well-suited to the perspective of comparative literature; as Harshav writes, their literatures are “comparative literatures par excellence.” Hebrew poetry has creatively adopted a rich variety of poetic systems in the course of three millennia, from Syro-Canaanite parallelistic verse in the biblical period to the improbable yet spectacularly successful embrace of Arabic quantitative verse (improbable since Hebrew vowels do not, strictly speaking, have quantity) and monorhymes in medieval Andalusia to syllabic verse in early modern Italy, accentual-syllabic verse in Eastern Europe, and free verse in the era of modernism. Yiddish poetry, though a mere seven centuries old, exhibits, as Harshav shows in instructive detail, a similar evolving interaction with surrounding literatures and the sound of their poetry.

Born in Vilna in 1928, Harshav’s native language was Yiddish, but he was also exposed to Hebrew well before his immigration to Israel in 1948. When the Nazis invaded Lithuania in 1941, his family fled to Russia, and so his schooling was then in Russian, including a year of university studies. To these languages he added German, English (his principal professional language after Hebrew), French, and some Italian; given his place of birth, he must have been able to negotiate Lithuanian and Polish. He once remarked to me that, knowing so many languages, he felt there was none that was entirely his own, but, in fact, he was a master of both Hebrew and Yiddish, and he had the rare linguistic resources to deal authoritatively with the broad international sweep of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry.

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