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.
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