On Biblical Poetry
F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp. On Biblical Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 575 pp. $74.00.
Reviewed by Aron Tillema
In On Biblical Poetry, F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp seeks to broaden the scope of the current understanding of biblical poetry as first enumerated by Robert Lowth. His book is divided into four “thick” chapters that each touch on a theoretically significant aspect of biblical poetry, followed by a final chapter applying the discussion throughout the book to Psalm 133. Written for both scholars of poetry and students alike, Dobbs-Allsopp succeeds in making accessible a field of scholarly inquiry that has often been reserved for those in the upper echelons of academia. While one may reach for a dictionary on occasion, it is clear that Dobbs-Allsopp’s diction illuminates the nuances of poetry rather than undermining the clarity of the book. Ultimately, Dobbs-Allsopp succeeds in his goal and provides a deeply satisfying read meant to be savored.
Chapter 1, ‘Verse, Properly So Called,’ harks back to Robert Lowth’s profoundly influential lectures on biblical poetry and his reliance on meter, which is both “foundational and an embarrassment” (14). That is, while Lowth’s work has continued to exercise a profound influence on the scholarship of biblical poetry, there are flaws that must be reconsidered. In order to historically situate readers in the study of biblical poetry, DobbsAllsopp attends to the numerous terms scholars over the centuries have suggested for understanding how to categorize verse. The terms Stichos, Kōlon, versus, and Membrum are considered, finally settling on the term line since it persists in both literary discourse and common usage. With the term in hand, Dobbs-Allsopp sets out to argue its existence in biblical poetry through manuscript evidence, the ‘verse line’ in oral poetry, the history of interpretation from Jewish and Christian commentators, and internal evidence composed of sound play, parallelism, and other literary features that point to an established line.
In Chapter 2, Dobbs-Allsopp argues that biblical poetry is more akin to the free verse tradition of Walt Whitman than those governed by meter. Here, he thoroughly rejects the use of meter in biblical poetry, a longstanding issue in historical and contemporary scholarship, and advances the idea that rhythm is one of, if not the, chief principle of biblical poetry. Primary among Dobbs-Allsopp’s reasons for proposing rhythm is biblical poetry’s rootedness in oral culture. By pointing to features of continuance, anticipation, repetition, variation, and especially grouping, he suggests that these features point toward an oral culture that relies on rhythm rather than meter. Thus, “The restriction of words to sound in oral culture means that knowledge, ideas, stories, songs…if they are to be recalled, reused…must be memorable, above all, capitalizing on the spoken word’s natural rhythmicity” (104).
Chapter 3 turns to the possibility of lyric poetry in the Hebrew Bible. More precisely, what is most distinctive of lyric is its “ongoing indebtedness to music and song – musicality is the very way of naming this particular poetic art” (181). Some characteristics of lyric are its brevity, lack of narrative, parataxis, extravagance, and focus on emotion/passion. In order to draw these aspects out, Dobbs-Allsopp performs the task of identifying and analyzing lyric in the biblical corpus through an extended example from the Song of Songs.
The final “thick” chapter is dedicated to a discussion on the impact of studies of orality, literacy, and textuality upon biblical scholarship in recent years. After a discussion on how the Parry-Lord thesis has been utilized successfully and unsuccessfully in the field of biblical studies, he attempts to distinguish oral features in nonnarrative biblical poetry, a goal that persists throughout the entirety of the book. While there are countless contributions that oral studies have provided such as memorial traditions, rhythm, formulae, and genre, one of the greatest contributions Dobbs-Allsopp argues for is the highly oral nature of parallelism. Ever since Lowth, parallelism has been one of the main foci of scholarship in biblical poetry, and it is no coincidence that parallelism is a common feature of traditional oral performative art generally (269).
The fifth and final chapter brings all of the author’s reflections to bear on Psalm 133. In his analysis, Dobbs-Allsopp attends to image, oral features, and other features discussed throughout the book in order to flesh out the poem as a concrete example. It isn’t clear why he chooses Psalm 133, though he does state at the beginning of the chapter that, “Readings of biblical poems, and especially close, deep, lusciously savored, highly imaginative readings, are still too few in the field” (326). His analysis of Psalm 133, then, consists of such a reading.
Overall, Dobbs-Allsopp succeeds in his goal of broadening the scope of biblical poetry since Robert Lowth. Rather than force the concept of meter derived from the field of Classics onto biblical poetry, Dobbs-Allsopp’s study is rigorously grounded in the area of the Near East, ethnographic studies, neurology, and contemporary models of orality and textuality. The concept of the line has often been recognized in the field of biblical studies, but little scholarship has been produced that illustrates this profound effect. However, Dobbs-Allsopp’s chapter makes significant steps toward a formal method in how to understand the line in biblical poetry. Most significantly, Dobbs-Allsopp brings to bear contemporary understandings of orality and textuality on biblical poetry throughout the book. What has been an interest in the field for decades is beginning to gain traction as ethnographers conduct studies in traditional oral contexts. The book utilizes these studies to great effect and is able to make arguments based off of data rather than guessing at biblical poetry’s potential use of meter.
As for criticism, there seems to be one glaring issue along with a few minor quibbles that deal more with format than content. The one surprisingly major issue, given Dobbs-Allsopp’s vast experience in historical linguistics, stems from his neglect of vocalizing the Hebrew as it may have been produced before the Masoretic Text. While theoretical in nature, Dobbs-Allsopp makes use of sound and resonance to support his reading, and therefore must deal with how the text we have today may have sounded differently in the past as it most certainly did. There are other minor issues found throughout. The images referred to throughout the book are placed strangely in the middle of chapter 3, and the copious endnotes begin to wear after a while. Regarding content and accessibility, the book builds off of centuries of scholarship that may be inaccessible for those unaware of standard texts on biblical poetry. This problem is only exacerbated by the author’s style of argumentation, which rarely situates his own scholarship among his contemporaries. While he often utilizes points of contact with other scholars to advance his case, rarely does he make clear points of difference and conflict.
Personally, the book has been a delight to read as the reader reflects, meditates, and savors each line of poetry alongside Dobbs-Allsopp. While there are a multitude of reasons to recommend this book, none have been so persuasive than the sheer enjoyment one receives when reading poetry. Understandably, the length and density of the book may intimidate readers at first glance, but each chapter serves as testimony to the pleasure that critical scholarship can provide.
Aron Tillema, MDiv Student, Princeton Theological Seminary