1. Lyrical poetry.—Of the three kinds of poetry which are illustrated by the Hebrew literature, the lyric occupies the foremost place. That literature abounds with illustrations of all forms of lyrical poetry, in its most manifold and wide-embracing compass, from such short ejaculations as the songs of the two Lamechs and Ps. 15, 117 and others, to the longer chants of victory and thanksgiving, like the songs of Deborah and David. Judges 5; Ps. 18. The Shemitic nations have nothing approaching to an epic poem, and in proportion to this defect the lyric element prevailed more greatly, commencing in the pre-Mosaic times, flourishing in rude vigor during the earlier periods of the judges, the heroic age of the Hebrews, growing with the nation’s growth and strengthening with its strength, till it reached its highest excellence in David, the warrior-poet, and from thenceforth began slowly to decline.
2. Gnomic poetry.—The second grand division of Hebrew poetry is occupied by a class of poems which are peculiarly Shemitic, and which represent the nearest approaches made by the people of that race to anything like philosophic thought. Reasoning there is none; we have only results, and those rather the product of observation and reflection than of induction or argumentation. As lyric poetry is the expression of the poet’s own feelings and impulses, so gnomic poetry is the form in which the desire of communicating knowledge to others finds vent. Its germs are the floating proverbs which pass current in the mouths of the people, and embody the experiences of many with the wit of one. The utterer of sententious sayings was to the Hebrews the wise man, the philosopher. Of the earlier isolated proverbs but few examples remain.
3. Dramatic poetry.—It is impossible to assert that no form of the drama existed among the Hebrew people. It is unquestionably true, as Ewald observes, that the Arab reciters of romances will many times in their own persons act out a complete drama in recitation, changing their voice and gestures with the change of person and subject. Something of this kind may possibly have existed among the Hebrews; still there is no evidence that it did exist, nor any grounds for making even a probable conjecture with regard to it. But the mere fact of the existence of these rude exhibitions among the Arabs and Egyptians of the present day is of no weight when the question to be decided is whether the Song of Songs was designed to be so represented, as a simple pastoral drama, or whether the book of Job is a dramatic poem or not. Inasmuch as it represents an action and a progress, it is a drama as truly and really as any poem can be which develops the working of passion and the alternations of faith, hope, distrust, triumphant confidence and black despair, in the struggle which it depicts the human mind as engaged in while attempting to solve one of the most intricate problems it can be called upon to regard. It is a drama as life is a drama, the most powerful of all tragedies; but that it is a dramatic poem, intended to be represented upon a stage, or capable of being so represented, may be confidently denied.
One characteristic of Hebrew poetry, not indeed peculiar to it, but shared by it in common with the literature of other nations, is its intensely national and local coloring. The writers were Hebrews of the Hebrews, drawing their inspiration from the mountains and rivers of Palestine, which they have immortalized in their poetic figures, and even while uttering the sublimest and most universal truths never forgetting their own nationality in its narrowest and intensest form. Examples of this remarkable characteristic of the Hebrew poets stand thick upon every page of these writings, and in striking contrast with the vague generalizations of the Indian philosophic poetry. About one third of the Old Testament is poetry in the Hebrew—a large part of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, besides a great part of the prophets. Fragments of poetry are also found in the historical books. (The form which biblical poetry takes is not of rhyme and metre—the rhythm of quantity in the syllables—as with us, but the thythm of the thought—there usually being two corresponding members to each distich or verse, which is called a parallelism. To some extent there is verbal rhythm. Sometimes there were alliterations, as in the 119th Psalm, which is divided up into sections, one for each letter of their alphabet, and each of the eight verses in a section begins with the same letter in the Hebrew; and chap. 31, vs. 10-31, of the book of Proverbs is an alphabetical acrostic in praise of “the virtuous woman.” The poetry of the Hebrews, in its essential poetic nature, stands in the front rank. It abounds in metaphors and images and in high poetic feeling and fervor.—Ed.)