Category Archives: Poetry

Chiasmus seen on the streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb!

Some while ago I wrote a series of posts on the subject of ancient middle eastern poetry (for example One of the topics I covered was chiasmus, a literary device where parts of a phrase or pair of lines of poetry are crossed over. A good example from the biblical book of Joshua is:

     Then still the Sun
and Moon was stopped

Now, at the time I commented that this is only rarely seen these days. Well, the other day I was walking in Hampstead Garden Suburb (in North London) when I saw a courier van making a delivery. Imagine my delight when I saw that the slogan on the driver’s cab was “Delivering the promise that others promise to deliver”!

How cool was that? It certainly made me look twice, and if I ever had need for courier services – which admittedly is unlikely just now – I’d look them up. Now, that part of London has a large Jewish community, and good representation of other middle eastern groups as well. So I did wonder if this was a bit of long-standing cultural identity being expressed in a commercial slogan. Whatever the case, it was great to see chiasmus alive and well in the year 2012!

To track down examples of chiasmus in In a Milk and Honeyed Land, why not check out and get your very own copy!

Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian

I am very happy to say that the ebook version of my PhD thesis, Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian, has now made it to the and sites as part of the KDP program. As you might guess from the title, the book is unashamedly geeky, although at around £2 / $3 for a copy I reckon it’s pretty good value for money. A whole lot cheaper than A Brief History of Time, and that seemed to do alright a few years ago! The ebook conversion had its own times of excitement, as I worked away at converting odd fonts (Hebrew and Egyptian for a start) and diagrams from word processor format into kindle format. It was an educational experience.

Before I forget, links to the book are: – –

Cover image, Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian

Quite apart from the book’s own inherent interest – on the assumption that issues of poetry and cross-cultural contact near the end of the Late Bronze Age interest you – the thesis provides some justification for plot themes used in In a Milk and Honeyed Land. For example, the relationship between Damariel and Nepheret begins with an exchange of songs over a meal – repeating in microcosm a process which the evidence suggests was also going on at a national level. Of course, their relationship ends up going well beyond the recitation of poetry, but it’s a place to start.

How much of the book is really accessible to the interested but non-academic reader? Well, I certainly would not recommend the appendices. They are densely packed with tables of supporting evidence. They are very dull, which is why they ended up in an appendix where even the PhD examiners need not plough through them unless they really wanted to. But the introduction and conclusions are very accessible, and for a first read it would be well worth just reading through those two sections. One of the joys of the ebook format is that I could very easily insert hyperlinks so that the casual browser could skip all of the interior if they wanted! The main six chapters are in pairs – the first two look at issues of poetry in general, the middle two focus on one representative piece of Egyptian and one of archaic Hebrew poetry, and the last two explore the wider historical setting. Different readers may well that they prefer to explore different sections.

I have to admit to being very pleased that this has now made it through to publication. The work itself was very satisfying to carry out, and the ebook conversion had its own lessons. Getting this out of the door, so to speak, also means that I can put more time back into writing…

Of course, if you want to skip straight to reading In a Milk and Honeyed Land, then copies can be obtained at a variety of online and London retailers. Check out

‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ and ancient poetry (2)

The last blog entry looked at a simple example of a parallel couplet:

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary made the sweet

They are called parallel because matching words are placed at the same place along each line – Joe and Mary, cooked and made, and main course and sweet. This time we’ll look at some variations of this simple pattern that poets in the ancient world used to give flexibility and interest to their work.

One way was to drop the verb from the second line, and use the “extra space” gained by doing that to add some description for one or other of the remaining words. The technical term for this is “verb deletion”.

So we could have

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary the special sweet


Joe cooked the main course
    Skilful Mary the sweet

In both cases the logic of parallel lines means that you do not really need the verb made on the second line – the pattern of the first line makes it obvious what is going on. The use of an adjective here means that something more of a background story can be hinted at. So the second of those examples suggests that the two of them divided up the jobs because Mary was particularly adept at desserts. But if instead we said:

Joe cooked the main course
    Time-pressed Mary the sweet

then the background issue is not that of skill, but of opportunity.

Perhaps the most important ancient world variation on the parallel couplet is called chiasmus, from a Greek word with the broad meaning of crossing over. To do this, we reverse the order of the second line:

Joe cooked the main course
    The sweet was made by Mary

Now, instead of corresponding parts being in the same place on their lines, they swap over. Joe is at the start of the first line, Mary at the end of the second. Main course ends the first line, sweet starts the second. If you were to join the matching pieces of each half of the couplet with straight lines, then a simple parallel couplet would have these lines going vertically down the screen or page. With chiasmus, the lines form an X on the page or screen, the Greek letter chi (as in chi-asmus).

As well as giving some variation for the sake of interest, and avoiding an endless series of parallel couplets, chiasmus also gives the poet a chance to give some overall shape to the poem. It is quite common to have a couplet using chiasmus at the centre of a poem, or at some other logical place where there is a turning point of mood or action. Perhaps if we were to write the rest of the Joe and Mary poem, the first half might be all about Joe, and the second half all about Mary, with the chiasmus helping to make the changeover. In this way, the poet can also indicate more serious changes, such as from defeat to victory, sin to repentance, despair to hope, and so on. It can be a very compact and versatile way to indicate a change of situation. Sadly, many modern translations of the Hebrew Bible and other ancient poems do not keep the particular pattern of chiasmus, but change the word order back into direct parallel lines.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land includes some fragments of poetry using these variations. Both kinds can be found in the oath that Damariel swears to Nepheret shortly after they set out towards Kephrath. He starts with chiasmus:

Listen, all you gods of the nations,
    in the divine assembly take note.

He then moves on to verb deletion, omitting the verb in the second half of the following couplet and lengthening the description of himself to a short phrase:

Record the words of Damariel,
    the oath of the son of Yeresheth.

He completes the verse part of his promise with another chiasmus:

Nepheret’s freedom was bought for her pleasure,
    and for her own delight has she been released.

Of course, these words were not supposed to be carefully crafted and designed poetry, but part of a promise he made up on the spur of the moment outside Gedjet (modern Gaza). I have assumed that the habits of speech and rhythm that he knew in his “professional” life would spill over into parts of conversation that he might consider to be formal, such as this promise.

There are actually a great many examples of chiasmus scattered through the book, as it is a literary device that I am very fond of. Some, like the examples above, are embedded in a poem or portion of direct speech, but many others can be found in the descriptive text. Still others can be found on a larger scale again. See how many examples you can find where chiasmus is used to steer and shape the plot.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ and ancient poetry (1)

Today’s post looks at the most basic ingredient of ancient near eastern poetry. Literally thousands of example lines of this kind can be found from all cultures in the region, ranging in date over the whole of antiquity. This ingredient has been called “parallelism” or “the parallel couplet” since at least the mid-1700’s here in England, when Robert Lowth gave his lecture series entitled “On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews”.

A parallel couplet, at its simplest, is a pair of lines in which words at corresponding places in each line servethe same function and have similar meanings. A basic English example might be

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary made the sweet

This could hardly be considered a great piece of poetry, but it shows the key features. Joe and Mary are both personal names, cooked and made are both action-words, and main course and sweet are the results of the action. From simple examples of this kind, much more interesting and creative poems can be built. Later articles will return to Joe and Mary to see how this can be done.

From the point of view of translation, parallel couplets are enormously helpful. This is for several different reasons. First, they show us where poetic lines start and end. Although modern poems are displayed in a page or screen so that the lines are obvious, just as I did with Joe and Mary’s meal preparation, thus was not usually the case in antiquity. Space on a monument, some papyrus, or a clay tablet was at a premium, and we typically find that lines of poetry or even individual words are wrapped around the physical edges of the material with no indication like a hyphen.

Secondly, the nature of parallel lines helps us to guess the general meaning of words that are otherwise obscure. Back with Joe and Mary, if someone had never come across sweet as a shorthand for dessert they would still guess it was part of a meal.

Finally, translating such lines of poetry can be based on understanding the meaning of a word, rather than its sound quality or secondary puns that might be made. So it is comparatively easy to translate into other languages. In contrast, poems that rely heavily on rhyme patterns are notoriously hard, since the chance that two words matching in meaning will also match in rhyme is very small. Of course some features will be lost in translation. Someone fluent in English will spot the play on words between Mary and merry, or made and maid, and might suspect that the poem is hinting that Mary might be, or might become, sweet. These extra details would almost certainly be lost if those lives were translated into another language, but the main sense of the couplet would be preserved.

An example from In a Milk and Honeyed Land is the following, used at the start of the third chapter:

Refreshing like rain are my words,
    distilling like dew is my speech,
like cloudbursts upon the grassland,
    or rainfall upon the young crops.

It is based loosely on some verses near the start of the “Song of Moses”, found in the biblical book of Deuteronomy 32. The principles of the Joe and Mary couplet can be seen here, along with some other techniques that enrich the simple couplets. Later blogs will explore some of these strategies for developing basic examples into more elaborate and interesting structures.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8