Cognitive-Historical Poetics

Ibn Khalphun's "When Desire Awakens Me"

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Reuven Tsur

Ibn Khalphun's "When Desire Awakens Me"
On Relativism, Absolutism and Perspectivism
in the Study of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry

Wellek and Warren distinguish three possible approaches to the literatures of the past: the relativist, the absolutist and the perspectivist approach. They suggest:

In practice, such clear-cut choices between the historical and the present-day point of view are scarcely feasible. [...] The answer to historical relativism is not a doctrinaire absolutism which appeals to "unchanging human nature" or the "universality of art". We must rather adopt a view for which the term "perspectivism" seems suitable. We must be able to refer a work of art to the values of its own time and of all the periods subsequent to its own. [...] Relativism reduces the history of literature to a series of discrete and hence discontinuous fragments, while most absolutisms serve either only a passing present-day situation or are based (like standards of the New Humanists, the Marxists, and the Neo-Thomists) on some abstract non-literary ideal unjust to the historical variety of literature. 1 "Perspectivism" means that we recognize that there is one poetry, one literature, comparable in all ages, developing, changing, full of possibilities. [...] Both relativism and absolutism are false; but the more insidious danger today [that is, in the nineteen-fortiesRT], at least in the United States, is a relativism equivalent to an anarchy of values, a surrender of the task of criticism (Wellek and Warren 1956: 31-32).

Dan Pagis (1970: 25-30) was the first to apply this threefold distinction to the exploration of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry, and illustrated it with illuminating examples. Elsewhere (Tsur, 1987a, Chapter 1) I discussed this issue at considerable length. In this paper I propose to consider the question how can this distinction be applied to one specific poem. This paper will be focussed on one short poem, Yitshak Ibn Khalphun's "When desire awakens me", and some attempts to understand its nature.

One interesting issue related to our business is the constant quest, even in the works of hard-boiled relativists, to reconstruct the poets' biography from their lyric poems. This involves them in typically absolutist strategies. We may call this "the biographical fallacy".

Failure to observe genre conventions is sometimes conspicuous in the analysis of specific poems, especially when scholars attempt to make biographical inferences from highly generalised contemplative poems, stylised love poems and devotional poems [...] From love poetry one may not make inferences about the details of the poet's biography (Pagis, 1970: 147).

If Pagis is right (and I believe he is right) he is speaking of an approach that is incongruous with relativism in two respects. On the one hand, the biographical phallacy is inconsistent with the explicit conventions of the genre; on the other hand, it imposes a romantic or post-romantic conception upon Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry. There are many possible reasons for this need to reconstruct the biography of poets from their poems; here I propose to elaborate on only one of them. Precisely those scholars who confine themselves to the investigation of the "positive facts" of motifs, conventions and influences are forced to rely on obscure indications of the creative personality's impact on the poem, because they lack tools to account for its aesthetic effect. The English Romantic poet Wordsworth claimed that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling". According to this conception, sincerity of emotions is one of the greatest aesthetic merits. Sincerity of emotions in poetry, in turn, is a resemblance of the emotions expressed in the poem to the emotions actually experienced by the flesh-and-blood poet. If we reconstruct the course of the poet's life from his poems, there may easily arise the impression that the emotions and feelings expressed in the poem faithfully reflect the experiences of the empirical poet and the events of his life. Such a conception is circular; furthermore, it illustrates Wellek and Warren's comment quoted above, that "most absolutisms serve either only a passing present-day situation or are based [...] on some abstract non-literary ideal unjust to the historical variety of literature". Later I shall propose a very different way to handle the quasi-authentic experiential element in poetry.

In equi-rhymed Hebrew poetry in the Middle Ages the requirements for unity are rather loose. Certainly, there is no room for "organic unity". The longest unit that must satisfy certain requirements for unity is the stich (verse line). Many poems consist of several sections which, quite frequently, belong to different genres; nonetheless, they may have considerable unity owing to, for example, some consistent mood (see Pagis, 1970: 131-141). Pagis presented a variety of factors integrating the various sections into a "complex pattern" (ibid, 139-141). For my purpose, I propose to point out three factors that may integrate a poem (whether complex or simple) and impose considerable unity on it. The first integrating factor is implied by the very definition of the qassida: this form consists in an indefinite number of stichs, with its underlying "pegs and chords" metre, each stich rhyming on the same sounds. However, unity achieved in this way is monotonous, lacks diversity, and is not sufficiently separated from its environment. This brings us to the second integrating factor. When we read such a sequence of units based on the recurrence of one underlying principle, after every verse line we may expect a similar line, until the sequence ceases: no other verse line follows. In such a case, the poem "ceases", but this is not necessarily an "appropriate cessation". Appropriate cessation arises when the reader expects no additional lines after the last line. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith (1971) calls this "poetic closure"; she presents a long list of "closural devices" that may arouse the sense of appropriate cessation.2  One effective closural device Herrnstein-Smith mentions is the deviation from a principle established in the course of the poem: after each item in which the principle recurs expectation arises for an additional item that embodies the same principle. This expectation ceases when a unit that lacks this principle occurs. Thus, there is a significant distinction between the majority of units that constitute the poem and the last unit. However, poetic closure generates not only an appropriate suspension of expectations for continuation, but also a feeling that the poem closes "with a click like a box"; this, in turn, arouses a distinct sense of perceptual separation between the poem and what comes after it. Furthermore, poetic closure constitutes a point from which one can view the poem as a whole, and regard the sequence of lines as leading up to this last line; this, in turn, increases the sense of unity of the poem. Sometimes one may discern a third factor that is capable of integrating equi-rhymed poems -- especially the short ones: a dramatic situation, or a dramatic action underlying it. 3

Before we proceed, we must dispose of a widespread source of misunderstanding. There is a rather common notion that critics who have recourse to aesthetic theories of their own time do this at the expense of historical information and conventions prevalent in the stylistic period under discussion. This notion originates in a simplistic, "all or nothing" view: a critic or scholar for whom historical information is not all-important is supposed to reject it all in all. Such an approach would hardly recognise a piece of criticism as perspectivistic. Perspectivist studies of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry have, indeed, been accused of disregarding historical information. This attitude, however, is not prevalent only in this domain. Wellek too argues against this position, in a different critical context:

A strawman is set up: the New Critic, who supposedly denies that a work of art can be illuminated by historical knowledge at all. It is then easy to show that poems have been misunderstood because the meaning of an obsolete word was missed or a historical or biographical allusion ignored or misread. But I do not believe that there ever was a single reputable "New" critic who has taken the position imputed to him. The New Critics [...] have argued that a literary work of art is a verbal structure of a certain coherence and wholeness, and that literary study had often become completely irrelevant to this total meaning, that it had moved all too often into external information about biography, social conditions, historical backgrounds, etc. But this argument of the New Critics did not mean and could not be conceived to mean a denial of the relevance of historical information for the business of poetic interpretation. Words have their history; genres and devices descend from a tradition; poems often refer to contemporary realities. Cleanth Brooks -- surely a New Critic who has focused on the close reading of poetry -- [...] argues "that the critic needs the help of the historian -- all the help he can get", but insists that "the poem has to be read as a poem -- that what it 'says' is a question for the critic to answer, and that no amount of historical evidence as such can finally determine what the poem says" (Wellek, 1963: 7).

This quote from Wellek elucidates, then, and illustrates the conception he and Warren propounded above that a dichotomic view of the possible approaches distorts the overall picture and is the source of barren disputes in which innumerable strawmen are killed. Only the threefold distinction can do justice to the complexity of the problem.


Now let us turn to Ibn Khalphun's poem:

When desire awakens me, I leap / like a roe deer to see the eyes of the honorable (girl)
I come and lo her mother is in front of her / and her father and her brother and her uncle
I look at her and I turn back / as if I were not her beloved and friend
Afraid of them, my heart feels (sorrow) for her / like the heart of a woman bereft of her only son.

A few mentions and short discussions have been devoted to this poem during the past thirty five years or so, by Mirsky (1961), Levin (1963: 33), Ratsahbi (1969), Schirmann (1979: 123), and Scheindlin (1986: 116-117). 4 My discussion of these references will be unfair in a sense, because they have no pretensions to offer an exhaustive discussion of the poem, only to present what is relevant to their business: Mirsky's concern, e.g., is a general survey of Ibn Khalphun's life and poetic themes; Ratsahbi's business is a general survey of the conventions of Hebrew and Arabic love poetry in Shemuel Hannagid's time and before. As for Schirmann, he devotes all in all one sentence to this poem, by way of general characterisation, in his essay on Ibn Khalphun; Levin devotes to it only one characterising phrase. However, few as their comments on this poem may be, they are quite representative of some rather wide-spread approaches, and rather good illustrations of the issue pursued in the present paper. Later I shall offer my own detailed reading of this poem. This reading will be more detailed, first, because the explicit purpose of this paper is a close-reading of this poem rather than a general survey of themes and conventions; and, second, because the present paper represents an approach to poetry whose main message can be conveyed only by a discussion of many minute details.

By way of telling the poet's life story, Mirsky writes: "Ibn Khalphun had his painful share from love's hand; the woman his heart was fond of was, probably, beyond his reach; and the wife he brought to his home, he expelled her again" (Mirsky, 1961: 20-21). This statement assumes that every lyric poem in which the poet says "I" can be taken as an authentic autobiographical document, which reliably expresses the poet's emotions. This is, as I mentioned above, a typically romantic or post-romantic conception, and is alien to eleventh century Hebrew and Arabic poetry in Spain. As Dan Pagis keenly pointed out, only in a few genres, as in the genre of personal complaint, one may make inferences from the poems in which the poet says "I" about his experiences and life events. In most genres, even if the poet says "I", the pronoun does not refer to the poet's own self, but to a fictional, highly stylised, or typical speaker. In most genres, poems are but aesthetic exercises on conventional themes and motives. Pagis astutely shows the odd misunderstandings resulting from ignoring this distinction (ibid, 147, 150). The love poetry of the period is precisely such a conventional poetry, behind which one may not search for authentic experiences. When one proposes, notwithstanding, to regard these poems as biographical evidence, one should give good reasons why this poem is exceptional in its genre in this respect. But let us suppose we agree that this poem is exceptional in its genre in reflecting an authentic biographical event, there still arises the question whether this was some fleeting juvenile adventure, or the great tragic love of the poet's life, as indicated by Mirsky's description. Ratsahbi, at any rate, shows, in harmony with the purpose of his essay, that this poem is based on the elaboration of a convention prevalent in Arabic poetry of the time.

In the love poem "When desire awakens me" the poet tells us that whenever love calls upon him he runs as a roe deer to take pleasure in the gleam of his beloved's eyes; but, unfortunately for him, he finds her in the company of the members of her family. For fear of them he turns his back on them, as if he had nothing to do with her, but he feels sorrow for her like a woman bereft of her only son. What we have here is decent, permitted love, of the lover to his only lass. The motive of the family members who stand as obstacles in the lovers' way is common in ancient Arabic poetry and in the love epics in Arabic literature (Ratsahbi, 1979-80: 139-140).

If, in spite of all, we look for reasons for considering the poem "When desire awakens me" as exceptional in its genre with respect to its biographical authenticity and the genuineness of its personal experience, such a reason readily offers iself. This poem is marked for what in Beardsley's (1958: 469) term may be called some "intense regional human quality". This quality is what the ancient rhetoricians called "vividness" (energeia) or, more specifically, is marked by what elsewhere (Tsur, 1969: 72-82) I have called the "illusion of authentic experience". Thus, apart from the possible reasons mentioned above for having recourse to a romantic conception of poetry, it might be profitable to assume that it is the intense human quality of "the illusion of authentic experience" aroused by this poem that the biographical fallacy serves to account for. I claim, however, that here precisely lies one of the advantages of perspectivism as compared to relativism. When the relativist critic attempts to explain how the common conventions assume the illusion of authentic experience, he has no choice but to turn to the romantic conception of the poetic experience as a personal experience, and even this, without showing how this authentic experience occurs in the poem itself. Whereas the analytic, perspectivist critic may rely on contemporary poetic conventions, on the relationships between them, and on the relations between parts and wholes. By way of this, he may rely on psychological processes of human beings in general, if he has reasons to suppose that these specific processes have not substantially changed during the past nine hundred years.

Little as may have been written about this short poem, the differences in its appreciation go beyond the differences between Mirsky and Ratsahbi. There is also considerable disagreement concerning the tone of the poem. Mirsky states that "the topic of the poem is a situation of frustrated love" (ibid, 19); and further on,

Love that arose in the heart, how can be canceled? Indeed, the love is not canceled, and the attitude is not canceled; rather, in the beginning he thought that his attitude toward her would be an attitude of delight; but now, that he failed, it turned into an attitude of sorrow, and his heart feels for her "like a woman bereft of her only son" (ibid, 20).

Schirmann, as I mentioned, wrote only one single sentence on this poem: "In his extant humorous epigram Ibn Khalphun emerges as a light-spirited person, experienced in the adventures of love" (Schirmann, 1979: 123). Levin (1963: 33), who quotes the whole poem, characterises it by one single phrase: "playful affectation"; this characterisation seems to be congruous with Schirmann's appreciation. Scheindlin's brief treatment of the poem (1986) represents yet another reading in Schirmann's spirit. Pagis (1976: 165) too discusses this poem in terms of the conventions of love poetry, and notes that its "distinctive feature is not only the concreteness of the situation presented, [...] but also the speaker's attitude, his self-irony)". The above quotations from Mirsky hardly suggest that in his view this poem bears witness to the poet's light spirits or presents a love adventure, one out of many. Ratsahbi's paraphrase of the first line, "whenever love calls upon him he runs as a roe deer to take pleasure in the gleam of his beloved's eyes" indirectly supports Schirmann's impressions or, at any rate, is incompatible with Mirsky's. We shall have to consider this issue too.


Let us begin, then, our discussion of this poem with an attempt to decide whether one ought to attribute a pathetic or a humorous tone to it. The first thing to be pointed out is that love, and certainly frustrated love, has to do with emotions. Furthermore, the end (my heart feels [sorrow] for her / like the heart of a woman bereft of her only son) is certainly not to be construed as humorous in tone. The second remarkable thing is that there is a conspicuous contrast between the last stich and the preceding ones: the first three lines (except for, perhaps, the phrase "When desire awakens me") present the speaker's outward behaviour; only the last line attempts to present emotions directly. Consequently, the actions presented in lines 2-3 may be construed both as humorous or pathetic; only the last line requires a non-humorous construal. The third remarkable thing is that the situation presented in lines 2 and 3 (that is, the relatives as obstacles in the lovers' way and what has been paraphrased by Ratsahbi as "For fear of them he turns his back on them, as if he had nothing to do with her") was in sixteenth and seventeenth century European drama and lyric poetry a conspicuously comic convention ("Love's Labour Lost", if you like; cf. for instance "thy Hydroptique father" and "immortall mother" in Donne's "Elegie IV: The Perfume"). The question arises, then, how can we resolve a playful-comic tone with a pathetic-tragic one in such a short poem. Further, some additional questions are to be asked: How can we account for the fact that the same actions can be construed as playful or pathetic? And if we can account for this, is this explanation valid only for our contemporary readers, or also for readers of distant ages? Can the afore-said sixteenth and seventeenth century convention be attributed to Hebrew and Arabic poetry in eleventh century Spain?

Freudian and post-Freudian psychology has illuminating things to say about the relationship between the ridiculous and the sublime: both result from the application of defence mechanisms against threat. The difference between them concerns the kind of defence mechanisms -- whether we do or do not allow the threat its authority (see e.g. Burke, 1957: 51-56). Take the circus clown, for instance. He is funny, exhilarating. On closer inspection, however, we find that all sorts of frightening things happen to him, things that we would be quite reluctant to experience. Notwithstanding, we do not perceive his situation as pathetic or tragic, but rather comic or playful. If we submit the comic masks to close scrutiny, we again discover that their expression is frightening. What distinguishes the comic from the tragic or frightening is what Bullough (1913) called "psychic" or "aesthetic distance".

Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism follows Aristotle's distinction between tragic and comic characters, and makes a twofold distinction, between the high and low mimetic mode, and between alazon and eiron. The tragic hero, in the high-mimetic mode, is superior to ordinary men in his ability to feel, to express himself or to struggle with higher forces. The comic character, the one in the low-mimetic mode, is equal or inferior to ordinary men in these abilities. The alazon pretends or tries to be more than he really is. If he is superior to ordinary men, like the tragic hero, his presumption assumes the form of struggle against some powers superior to him, gods or some cosmic power, leading, inevitably, to his tragic downfall. If his powers are not superior to those of ordinary people, his behaviour is perceived as "mere bragging". That is what Frye seems to have meant by "We are most familiar with such characters in comedy, where they are looked at from the outside, so that we see only the social mask. But the alazon may be one aspect of the tragic hero as well: the touch of miles gloriosus in Tamburlaine, even in Othello is unmistakable, as is the touch of the obsessed philosopher in Faustus and Hamlet" (Frye, 1968: 39). The eiron, by contrast, pretends to be less than he really is, "deprecates himself, as opposed to the alazon. Such a man makes himself invulnerable" (ibid, 40) to (sometimes fossilized) social forces.

In the case of Ibn Khalphun's poem, it is obvious that the speaker refrains from confronting the fossilized social forces, and prefers to pretend that his ability to feel is inferior to what it really is, and thus becomes invulnerable to family conservatism. In lines 2-3 the speaker is "looked at from the outside, so that we see only the social mask"; his power to feel is revealed only in the last line. Two interesting problems arise here, from the theoretical point of view we are dealing with. First, does the simile "like the heart of a woman bereft of her only son" bear witness to the speaker's ability to feel and express his emotions, or to his ability to retrieve from memory an "inlay" phrase or conventional simile, where real emotion is missing. Our contemporary readers tend to suspect the second possibility. But such an attitude would be strikingly absolutistic. The perspectivist approach demands to consider such a suspicion in light of the restrictions on expression in the poetry of the period. 5 Second, we have to ask whether the distinction between the low and high-mimetic mode is valid in Mediaeval Hebrew poetry. The answer to this question is an unqualified "no". Styles are "unashamedly" mixed during this poetic period. Moreover, one of the plausible solutions I shall propose to the stylistic problem of this poem is precisely this possibility. However, not this is the issue at stake here, but the question whether it is plausible that readers of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry perceived a comic or humorous quality in poems in which the speaker's ability to act, feel and express himself are inferior to that of ordinary men.

It should be noted that Socrates (or Plato?) too acknowledged the proximity of the comic and the tragic, as suggested by the final paragraph of the Symposium, a paragraph full of subtle ironies (though it is not quite clear whether Plato had in mind the issue in hand; I believe, he had). These are the key-sentences relevant to our concern:

Socrates was forcing them to admit that the same man might be capable of writing both comedy and tragedy -- that the tragic poet might be a comedian as well. But as he clinched the argument, which the other two were scarcely in a state to follow, they began to nod, and first Aristophanes fell off to sleep and then Agathon as the day was breaking (Plato: "Symposium": 574).

It is quite reasonable to suppose that the processes that generate similarity and contrast between the comic and the sublime (or the tragic) are not confined to the dynamics within the individual. Similar relationships and dynamics may be observed in the processes of collective consciousness as well. In his two monumental books, The Golden Bough and Folklore in the Old Testament, Sir James Frazer claims that carnivals, in which people put on masks and masquerade (including Jewish Purim), have their origin in ritual ceremonies in which human sacrifices were offered. Psychoanalyst Ernst Kris (1965) claims that the development from the frightful image of the Devil to the comic image of Mephistopheles in Faust resulted from the application of similar defence mechanisms through the generations. The question is, then, not whether frustrated love can turn into a comic convention; the question is whether in Mediaeval Hebrew poetry too it is legitimate to regard this combination of motives as a comic convention. This is a question worthy to be put to the investigators of individual conventions. This is perhaps one way in which the wider cultural and psychological perspective can contribute a hypothesis to the historical study of specific conventions.

From this point on we have to proceed by way of assuming an attitude toward the "merely possible". As for the ending of the poem and its relation to the poem as a whole, there are three possibilities. Schirman seems to ignore this problem, but I shall attempt to offer an account that is compatible with his succinct phrasing. One possiblity is that the ending precludes any construal of lines 2-3 as comic conventions. The second possibility is that the humorous tone of the whole poem should prevent us from accepting the simile "like the heart of a woman bereft of her only son" literally. There is a widespread view among the scholars of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry that the poets of the period were restricted in their vocabulary and stock of similes, and therefore one may not regard some of their extreme similes as expressive of some extreme emotion. In these circumstances, the afore-mentioned simile may be construed as possibly referring to a wide range of emotions, ranging from a stance of comic sorrow through sadness to extreme grief. Accordingly, there would be no real injury done to the humorous tone discerned by Schirmann in this poem. The third possibility is that the poem does exactly what it suggests at its face: in lines 2 and 3 it develops a comic situation; in line 4 there is an extreme and functional reversal of mood. The most obvious way to handle this reversal is to point out that in the first three lines the speaker is "looked at from the outside", whereas the fourth line reveals his inside.

Let me elaborate on further aspects of this possibility. The effect of the last line is not confined to the imparting of new information. It also serves as an effective closure to the poem, a kind of "punch line". This quality results from the combination of several devices. The poem establishes a sequence of outward actions related to movement in space: "I leap... I come... I look at her... I turn back". The last line deviates from this sequence and speaks of emotions. Alternatively, the poem offers a series of comic devices; the last line deviates from this, adopting a passionate tone. From this point of view, it is of the utmost significance that these deviances occur precisely at the end of the poem, and not at any other point. Thus, the deviation blatantly disturbs the unity of the poem but also considerably increases it. In other words, both the unity and the complexity of the poem are enhanced at one and the same time. The ending brings a passionate tone to the poem, but in a way that achieves a witty effect too.

In my various publications (Tsur, 1975; 1985; 1987a; 1987b) I insisted on a relationship between Mediaeval Hebrew poetry and European Mannerism. The aspect we have encountered here is characteristical of Mannerism: the Mannerist work cannot be satisfactorily viewed from any one angle. The poem discussed here too cannot be viewed consistently as a humorous or a pathetic poem. The major part of the poem is perceived as humorous, its ending as pathetic; but the reversal occurs in such a way that it is functional too, with respect to the poem's structural organisation: the reversal generates at the end of the poem an effective poetic closure, with a concomitant witty quality.

This closural effect is reinforced by a metric-syntactic phenomenon, what I elsewhere (Tsur, 1969: 172-180) have termed "enjambement from the first to the second hemistich" (although the examples discussed there are more straightforward than this one). One of the principles of Gestalt psychology states that the better the organization of the part, the more it tends to stand out from the whole, that is, the more it tends to weaken the organisation of the whole. And conversely, the weaker the perceptual organisation of the part, the greater is its dependence upon the whole, that is, the stronger the organisation of the whole. When the end of the first hemistich coincides with the end of a syntacic unit, this point of coincidence clearly articulates the hemistich and presents it as a closed and well-organised unit. In such a case, the two hemistichs tend to stand out and to weaken the perceptual organisation of the stich as a whole. When a syntactic unit begins before the ending of the first hemistich and then runs on to the second hemistich, the closure of the first hemistich is blurred and there arises a demand for completion: completion of the first hemistich interrupted by the syntactic juncture; and completion of the stich by the second hemistich. When the expected second hemistich does occur, there is an effective closure with a concomitant feeling of relief, increasing the stich's unity; and if the stich is the last line of the poem, the occurrence of the second hemistich imposes a vigorous closure to the poem, and increases the unity of the whole. In the examples discussed in my afore-mentioned book only a conjunction occurs at the end of the first hemistich, meaningless in itself, and thus the sequel is perceived as highly required imposing an exceptionally vigorous closure to the whole poem. The phrase is a nominal phrase with an idiomatic meaning ( = I feel sorry for her). But the idiomatic meaning is blurred by the syntactic inversion: the inflected preposition arouses expectation for a verbal predicate; this expectation is frustrated, and the inflected preposition takes on the role of the predicate. In the meantime, the reader expects clarification in the second hemistich. Clarification does indeed come in the simile "like the heart of a woman bereft of her only son", which is, from the syntactic point of view, an adverbial of mode. But this clarification only points up the weakness of the construction: the adverbial modifies a predicate expressed by a prepositional phrase and not by a verb or an adjective; this tends to obscure the construction. This obscurity at the end of the first hemistich arouses further demand for clarification and amplifies the requiredness of the second hemistich and, by the same token, the vigorous closure of the whole poem (see also Tsur, 1972).

The unity of the poem is considerably enhanced by a very concise dramatic action consisting in a sequence of three (or four) very different attitudes, arising from one another in a plausible but unexpected manner -- to use Aristotle's terms in describing the structure of a dramatic action.


There arises, then, the question which one of the two readings are to be preferred, Mirsky's, or Schirmann's (with the above qualifications)? Eddie Zemach suggested in his various publications on interpretation that when faced with two different interpretations that account for the same amount of information in the poem and are compatible to the same extent with the conventions of the period and require the addition of the same amount of outside information, one should prefer the interpretation that makes the work more interesting, aesthetically better. In practice, however, he makes ad-hoc decisions as for which interpretation yields the more interesting results; he proffers no criteria that might be applied from one work to the other. Beardsley (1958: 469) proffers three general canons for aesthetic evaluation: unity, complexity and some intense human quality. A work can be said to have greater aesthetic merit if it can be said to have, other things being equal, greater unity, or greater complexity, or display some intense human quality as a regional quality. Such a theoretical framework would settle the issue in favour of the humorous-pathetic-manneristic reading suggested above, in light of unity considerations versus complexity considerations. In other words, the emotive deviation from the comic sequence does not only enhance the complexity of the poem but also, being a vigorous closural device, it enhances its unity. What is more, this effectively unified structure may be an essential perceptual condition of the "illusion of authentic experience", that is, an intense human quality perceived in this poem by so many readers. The preference of this reading may, of course, change as soon as additional research in the history of literary conventions eliminates the possibility of conceiving of this configuration of motives as a comic convention.

As for the "intense human regional quality", I have mentioned what the ancient rhetoricians called "vividness" which, in our case, may manifest itself as the "illusion of authentic experience". In what follows, I shall attempt to detect the sources of this quality, in the ornamental, figurative, syntactic and prosodic layers of the poem. In the second stich of our poem two formal elements of "the beauty of the opening" are conspicuous: the first and second hemistichs rhyme with one another; and all the metric foot boundaries coincide with word boundaries. From the first stich, by contrast (where the "beauty of the opening" should occur, if at all), the elements of ornamental opening are conspicuously absent. The two hemistichs do not rhyme with one another; the first metric foot in the second hemistich ends in mid-word; whereas the predicate of the clause occupying the second hemistich occurs in the last metric foot of the first hemistich. There is no categorical demand for ornamental opening in the qassida. And its absence may lack any significance. But this "misplaced" ornamental opening appears to be conspicuously functional here. 6 It combines with a number of elements in the other layers of the poem, and generates with them a special effect. The conflict between the prosodic unit (the hemistich or metric foot boundary) and the syntactic unit (the word or the clause boundary) arouses a feeling of tension, or fluidity, or sweep. This perceived quality receives a more specific character, is even amplified, by the two verbs that occur in the stich: , meaning "awaken", but also "stir to action"; and (I leap), referring to light and quick motion in space.

In these respects, the verb would be synonymous with "run", and would be preferred only because it conforms with the metric pattern. This verb, however, conveys some additional semantic information: many light vertical movements, by way of relatively fast horizontal movement. This meaning is reinforced by the simile "like a roe deer". This, too, in harmony with my argument concerning the simile in the last line, may be conceived of as of one of the stock similes of the Mediaeval Hebrew poets (based on Isaia 35: 6), so that no special significance should be attributed to it. An alternative possibility is, of course, that Ibn Khalphun meant precisely what he wrote, and one should attribute significance to all the specific semantic information the simile conveys. In this case, leaping like a roe deer may be conceived of not only as of suggesting nimbleness, but also joy and playfulness. This possibility in itself does not settle the dispute between the humorous and the pathetic reading (it is compatible with Mirsky's conception too, according to which "in the beginning he thought that his attitude toward her would be an attitude of delight; but now, that he failed, it turned into an attitude of sorrow"). Finally, the phrase is run on from the first to the second hemistich generating tension and impetuous forward drive.

From the figurative point of view, there is a conspicuous relationship between overt actions and moods, attitudes and emotions. Richards speaks of attitudes in terms of "initial actions", or "potential actions" (as Scheindlin, 1986, succinctly put it, "motion becomes emotion"). Psychologists during the past few decades speak of emotions in terms of situation appraisal and sudden deviation from normal energy level, either in the direction of heightened energy, or in the direction of reduced energy (Tsur, 1978). In this sense, the overt actions in the poem embody attitudes (that is, potential actions), and constitute situations appraised as favorable or unfavorable to the person, and involve sudden increase or decrease in energy level. The verb "awakens me" designates in the first place an action consisting in a sudden transition from low to high energy level. The quality of the first two stichs is properly understood only if their opposition is appreciated. As we have seen, the absence of "ornamental opening" generates a sense of dynamic movement in the first stich; whereas in the second stich, the internal rhyme between the first and second hemistich and the coincidence of metrical foot boundaries with word boundaries tend to generate an impression of balance and stability. One may add to this the pun the effect of which, too, is to foreground the balance and stability of the two hemistichs. A similar contrast we find in the semantics of the predicates. As we have seen, the predicates "awakens me... I leap... I come" indicate stirring and being stirred to action; whereas the clause "and lo her mother [is] in front of her / and her father and her brother and her uncle" is an adverbial clause whose structural meaning suggests a predicate of state indicating the location of the subjects "her mother, her father, her brother, her uncle". This is how a sense of maximum contrast is generated between dynamic movement and a static state. This sense of contrast is further amplified by the opening of the adverbial clause: . This word, in the sense of "lo", serves to draw attention in a story or an exposition to the appearance of something unexpected. 7 Thus a contrast is generated between the attitudes or emotions embodied in the actions and the state described in the two stichs. The overt action "I leap" is perceived, on the one hand, as a metonymy for joyful action; on the other hand, in the present context it embodies the potential action (that is, the attitude) of "drive toward, attraction to". By way of contrast, the sudden suspension of movement in the second stich suggests -- in addition to what is explicitly stated -- an attitude that can best be described as "stunning, astounding, stupefaction". These words suggest a sudden, sharp surprise that affects a person somewhat like a blow; a state of suspended or deadened mental activities. The contrast between impetuous activity in the first stich and static situation in the second stich is perceived all of a sudden; and the sudden change arouses a feeling like stunning, stupefaction. I wish to emphasize, however, that there is no straightforward expression in the poem that can be construed as stunning; it is a perceived effect, not a meaning. Or to be more precise, the contrast is in the second line itself, between "I come" (perceived as the result of the actions conveyed in the preceding line), and the rest of the line.

The syntactic structure of the second line is illuminating. Its syntactic units arouse no expectations for what follows. "I come" is an independent clause; it is followed by another independent clause, "and lo her mother is in front of her"; this clause contains all the essential parts of a sentence, in the most natural word order, and ends at the end of the hemistich. There is, therefore, an expectation that in the second hemistich a new issue will be raised, as it often happens in this kind of poetry. In stead, the parent is doubled, "her father", constituting a "recursive" subject, from the syntactic point of view. In a list of parallel items, the conjunction "and" is to come, typically, before the last item. Accordingly, the unit is again perceived as complete; the reader is not directed to have further specific syntactic expectations. In a similar fashion, two more items are added to the recursive subject: "and her brother, and her uncle". The "and"s do not herald anymore the end of the list. At any rate, for the sake of the convention "of the family members who stand as obstacles in the lovers' way" mentioned by Ratsahbi, the first item, "her mother" would have sufficed; one more item, "and her father" would have been more than enough; still one more item would have added up to the formulaic number of three items. But, as we have seen, we are faced here with four items. The redundancy of items is foregrounded by the polysyndeton, the use of conjunctions in close succession. Ostensibly, the purpose of the conjunctions "and" is to supply the schwas required by the metre. But here, the main purpose of this rhetorical device is to emphasize the exaggeration of this long list, and the resulting impression does indeed tend to be humorous (and thus to support Schirmann's reading).

Here one might mention an additional effect in this line, that of requiredness, the principle of which I have discussed elsewhere (e.g., Tsur, 1972). A syntactic unit ends at the end of the second metrical foot ("and her brother"), which does not require to be continued. At the same time, a list of three items ("her mother, her father, and her brother") is ended as well. Moreover, the list of authoritative figures of the immediate family has ended too (even if we assume that the girl had more than one brother, only one vowel aught to be changed, from "akhia" to "akhea"). Thus, a sense of incompleteness arises; and the nearer the break to the end of the line, the stronger this sense of incompleteness becomes. Thus, the word ("and her uncle") is perceived as highly required, because it fits into the remaining portion of the metric pattern as well as into the mono-rhyme and the list of authoritative family figures. That is why its occurrence is perceived as witty. This is further amplified by the fact that the uncle breaks, nonetheless, the category "immediate family" established in the preceding three items. Quintilianus mentions the general effect of polysyndeton together with that of the asyndeton (the lack of conjunctions): "the source of both figures is the same, as they render what we say more vivacious and energetic, exhibiting an appearance of vehemence, and of passion bursting forth as it were time after time". This effect is combined with other devices that arouse in this poem a sense of energy and vividness.

One of the devices that contribute to the amplification of the sense of energy and vividness is the special character of the hammerubbemetre in this poem. Elsewhere (e.g., Tsur and Bentov 1996) it has been pointed out that this metre (and to a considerably lesser extent the hashalem metre) is disproportionately widespread in the poetry of the greatest poets of the period. The alleged reason for this was that in these two metres the performer may repeat mechanically one type of metric foot, and only in the last metric foot of the hemistich he must deviate to some extent from this regularity, indicating that the sequence of feet has ended, and generating an effective closure for the hemistich. Having established the mechanical repetition, he may focus his attention upon the complexities of prose rhythm, and the rhythmic solutions for resolving the conflict between prose rhythm and metric pattern. In the majority of the other classical metres the performer must direct attention to the metric pattern, where the successive metric feet are not equal, but two kinds of feet (one more complex, one simpler) alternate -- in addition to the regular alternation of shorter and longer syllables within the metric foot. He cannot rely on his "metrical set". Still elsewhere (Tsur, 1969: 162-171) I have distinguished two rhythmic prototypes within the hammerubbe metre. The difference between them will become conspicuous if we compare the following two lines:

as against

The structure of hammerubbe metre is . When reaching the end of each hemistich in the second of these quotes, the reader has a feeling that something is missing; in the first two feet he got used to schwa + three vowels (or, in the traditional terminology, one peg + two chords); the third foot has only schwa + two vowels. There is a different impression in the first quote. Here, when arriving to the end of the hemistich, the reader may have a feeling of statisfaction; after the event he may feel that he has been waiting all along for this foreshortened foot; that the foreshortened foot realizes some principle that was implicit in the hemistich from the beginning. In the second quote there is a sense of incompleteness owing to the foot that has been shortened as it were, whereas in the first quote there may be a feeling of harmonious halt. At first glance one may notice that in the second quote every word is stressed on its last syllable. This structure foregrounds the shortening of the last foot: in the first two feet the third vowel is stressed, in the third foot the second vowel. In the first quote there is variation of stress: it is sometimes on the last, sometimes on the last but one syllable. Nevertheless, there is here some kind of regularity. In each foot in this quote, stress is on the second vowel. Thus, a more complex rhythmic model is generated: the third foot refutes and confirms expectations at one and the same time. After having got used to a metric unit consisting of schwa + three vowels, a schwa + two vowels unit follows. This is the unexpected part of it. But the expectation that the second vowel would be stressed is confirmed in the third metric foot as well. This is the source of a special kind of satisfaction: one expectation is confirmed, in spite of the refutation of another expectation. In terms of Beardsley's general canons, in the second quote complexity is achieved at the expense of unity, whereas in the first quote, complexity is achieved by way of enhancing unity. The effect of this complex structure is to amplify the vividness of any quality that may be inherent in the line or in the poem. There seems to be a considerable number of poems that tend toward one or the other prototype of hammerubbe metre. In this respect, feet in which both the first and third vowels are stressed are "ambiguous", that is, they may be assimilated in both prototypes. Out of sixteen feet in Ibn Khalphun's poem, in six the stress occurs on the first and third vowels; in all the rest, on the second vowel. In other words, the rhythmic character of this poem definitely tends toward the unity-in-complexity organisation. This rhythmic character further amplifies any intense human regional qualities there may be in the poem.


In a feminist essay on this poem, Tova Rosen refers at some length to the present paper as it appeared in the essays in memory of Dan Pagis. This is a timely response, because the absolutist approach was not properly represented in the critical utterances discussed in my paper. Furthermore, this essay indicated that I have not made sufficiently clear my point about the relationship between the tragic and the comic. All this may be corrected now. Among other things, Rosen argues against my position as follows:

Tsur links the humorous effect to the functioning of the polysyndeton in the second line whereby the father, brother, and uncle are syntactically linked. In Tsur's opinion, the reference to the mother in and of itself would have sufficed to represent the familial constellation that obstructs the meeting of the lovers, and each "unnecessary" addition serves only to emphasize the absurdity of the situation.
In my opinion there is nothing comic in this line, nor is the listing of the male relatives insignificant. Our knowledge of the Jewish family structure in the Mediterranian during the Middle Ages assures us that the mention of the father, brother, and uncles is anything but redundant. The young Jewish girl, like her Arab counterpart, was under the close supervision of the male members of her family up until the moment when she was delivered to her intended spouse; with her marriage, she passed from one sphere of masculine domination to another. Far from a comic phrase, the list of family members places the situation within the context of the sociofamilial order, accentuating the opposition between uncontrolled desire (represented by the aroused, charging stag) and the established patriarchal system (Rosen, 1996: 8-9).

And so forth. I suppose that the information imparted in the second paragraph of this quotation makes a substantial contribution to the feminist thesis of the essay; but no amount of this kind of information can refute my claims concerning the comic or pathetic character of the poem -- and that is why I quoted at such length her criticism. There is no information in the second paragraph that can support the claim "there is nothing comic in this line"; on the contrary, in my present theoretical framework it may rather support its opposite. I have claimed above that both the comic and the tragic result from the application of defence mechanisms against threat. The difference between them lies in the kind of aesthetic distance generated by the stylistic manipulations in the text. Consequently, any emphasis on the threatening status of the authoritative male figures in the family points at a factor that reinforces the tragic or the comic quality of the poem, depending on the stylistic manipulations. These claims can be refuted only by such arguments as "The comic does not result from response to threat", or "The difference between the tragic and the comic does not reside in the kind of stylistic manipulations"; or "the stylistic manipulation of which Tsur speaks do not have the comic effect he suggests"; or "the stylistic manipulation of which Tsur speaks do not exist in this poem".

Consider the following quote from Frye: "We are most familiar with such characters in comedy, where they are looked at from the outside, so that we see only the social mask". My analysis makes an effort to show that in lines 2-3 the characters "are looked at from the outside, so that we see only the social mask"; Tova Rosen elaborates in great detail on the nature of the social mask in the situation. Had she contested, for instance, Frye's claims, she may have refuted, perhaps, my claims.

In fact, Rosen confuses syntactic-rhetoric redundancy which I am speaking of with the semantic-thematic redundancy by which she is laying great store. My claim is that the clause "and lo her mother is in front of her" is complete from the syntactic point of view, has a subject and a predicate and requires no further elaboration or completion. The fact that its boundary coincides with the hemistich boundary reinforces the impression that this is the end of a statement. It is surprising, therefore, that the sequel demands to re-open the syntactic subject, and to add another three items. From this point of view they are redundant. Furthermore, I claim that when in ordinary prose a series of parallel items are enumerated, the conjunction "and" occurs only before the last item, indicating that the series has come to an end. Ancient rhetoricians like "Longinus" and Quintilianus claim that the polysyndeton's effect is due to a deviation from this proper order. In our case, the polysyndeton causes the last two items of the list to be perceived as redundant. That is what I call stylistic manipulation. All this does not, of course, detract from the threatening authority of the male figures. I do have my doubts as for the weight of this socio-familial information, in view of the little that has been said about it in the poem. But if we decide to impart to it its full weight, the male figures' syntactic-rhetoric redundancy foregrounds their massive presence (that is, their mention is not superfluous in the fine social fabric presented in the poem).

This attitude is quite common in several current types of absolutism: feminist, homosexual and third world criticism. They isolate in the work of literature the thematic elements with which they are preoccupied; and they scrutinise them under a magnifying glass, using as much historical information as possible, disproportionately to their relative weight in the work of art. This is legitimate to a certain limit. What counts as crossing the last limit, the "red line"? When the absolutist objects to viewing the elements important to him in the proportions determined by the work. In 1990 I attended a lecture by Edward Saïd "Jane Austen and Empire", at a Columbia University Seminar. These seminars draw many guests from all the universities in New York. Speaking of Mansfield Park, Saïd mentioned that the landlord went away for a few weeks to the Caribean Islands to deal there with the slave unrest in his estates. He elaborated on the importance of this slave unrest in the context of Victorian imperialism. One of the guests objected that notwithstanding the great importance of the issue in the general historical context, this has no trace in the novel. Jane Austen wanted to have the landlord away from home for a few weeks; she needed this to allow for the complications of the plot to evolve. Saïd refuted this argument by the invincible answer: "This is just so!". This kind of fallacy seems to be built into critical approaches that advocate, for rather good reasons, "subversive readings"; they easily become subversive not only toward the dominant social order, but against the aesthetic order of the literary work of art too. At any rate, the various kinds of absolutism can make good use of historical information which is, supposedly, the exclusive property of relativism.

Rosen's arguments could deny Molière's L'Avar the right to be called a comedy. The play is centered on Harpagon's despotism over his children. The two young girls in the play are destined to marry old men, for the families' financial interests. It is embarrassing to admit from the feminist point of view that Harpagon's son too was destined to marry a rich widow in stead of his love Marianne; but it is to Molière's credit that this widow, unlike the old bridegrooms, never appears on stage. At any rate, ample historical evidence can be produced that such practices prevailed in Molière's time, in other periods, and even in our time. It would appear that patriarchal tyranny is one of the indispensable props of comedies; even of some of the most exquisite ones. Critics who insist that Harpagon has some tragic traits do not rely on his patriarchal tyranny, but on his power to express his emotions in the scene in which he laments his lost treasure box. For feminist criticism, the underprevileging of young girls and of women in a patriarchal society is a serious issue. For me, any serious issue can be treated in a comic or a tragic fashion, the critic's task being to explore the stylistic features in which the comic differs from the tragic treatment. It would appear that stylistic considerations of the kind offered here are out of bounds in the study of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry. Thus, Schirmann's and Mirsky's diametrically opposed responses to this poem was a godsend for me. My task, as I conceive of it, is to explore the poetic and psychological mechanisms that may account for these different responses to one text.

In fact, I am not a firm advocate of a comic reading of this poem; Schirmann is. On the contrary, I consider my job to present all the possibilities, that is, the comic as well as the pathetic one, and the combination of both, propounding the reasons for and against the various options. As a matter of fact and not by way of ironic dissemblance I don't really know whether in the final resort the proper reading of this poem is comic, pathetic or a combination of both; but I do know what reasons can be brought in favour of each one of them. Furthermore, I do know that underlying both the tragic and the comic reading we find the need of defence against threat. And all that Tova Rosen did was to point out the presence of such a threatening force in the poem.


I have propounded a close-reading of Ibn Khalphun's poem. For the purpose of this close-reading I had recourse to information disclosed by the historical research of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry and of Classical rhetoric, with reference to the thematic conventions of the genre (the relatives hindering the lovers), to ornament (ornamental opening, polysyndeton), to metre and to figurative language. Likewise, I relied on the syntactic structure of the poem. I have pointed out that the diverse conventions constitute somehow an integrated closed whole that has considerable unity and complexity, and is characterised by some more than usually intense human quality that is present as a "regional quality". By "regional quality" Beardsley means a quality that belongs to the whole but not to its parts. I tried to show in considerable detail that the vividness perceived in the first two lines, that is, the intense human quality that characterises them is indeed a regional quality, which is generated through the coincidence of certain thematic, syntactic, figurative, ornamental and metrical elements. In the present instance, at least, the intense human quality of the poem is the perceived quality of the whole and it contributes to a greater than usual unity of the poem; whereas the elements that generate this unity contribute to the poem's complexity. This approach isn't novel at all. At the beginning of chapter 20 of the Hellenistic treatise On the Sublime attributed to Longinus we read:

A strong effect arises from the overlapping of several figures, when two or three of them join forces as it were to contribute to one action, amplifying intensity, persuasive power and beauty ("Longinus", On the Sublime, ch. 20).

It should be emphasized that when I quote comments by Quintilianus and "Longinus" on the perceived effect of rhetorical devices and of their combinations I don't mean to suggest that they necessarily influnced Mediaeval Hebrew poetry in Spain. It is certain that "Longinus", for instance, had no influence upon it; but one may assume some indirect influence of Classical Greek poetics and rhetoric on Mediaeval Arabic and Hebrew poetry in Spain (this is one of the differences between the relativist and the perspectivist approaches: the latter does not require as a matter of obligation to rely only on poeticians who have a causal relationship to the poetry under discussion). I am doing this for two good reasons. First, Classical Greek poetics and rhetoric are nearer in spirit to Mediaeval Arabic and Hebrew poetry in Spain than modern poetics; and second, Quintilianus' and Longinus' comments serve as evidence that competent readers of remote ages tended to perceive similar qualities in rhetorical devices and their combinations. This is a kind of insurance policy against destructive skepticism (of the "How do you know that..." kind).

My basic assumption in this essay was a distinction made by Wellek and Warren. Notwithstandng, in one respect at least they may have viewed my deliberations with suspicion, since I too have appealed to "unchanging human nature". Thus, for instance, I have assumed that the psychological mechanisms underlying comic or sublime effects are the same in present-day human beings as in human beings living in the past, even in remote ages. It should be noted, however, that I have so done not in the service of an absolutism that imposes uniform perceptions on different kinds of poetry, but on the contrary, in the service of a perspectivism that makes significant distinctions between various qualities that result from various stylistic shapings of one theme. In our case, the same unpleasant situation may underly a comic or a pathetic work of literature.

It would appear, then, that appealing to "unchanging human nature" may be useful when it is exploited for making distinctions, and is harmful if it is used to impose uniformity upon various kinds of poetry. Wellek and Warren would perhaps not object to such a formulation. At any rate, without some such assumption, we ought to have reached the absurd conclusion that we can make no significant generalization about the qualities of poems of distant ages since we cannot know whether the psychological mechanisms of our predecessors worked in a way similar to ours. At any rate, in such instances my position tends to be that the burden of proof rests on the person who claims that the working of psychological mechanisms of human beings has greatly changed during the past eight hundred years.
When Mirsky discerns in Ibn Khalphun's poem a tragic-pathetic tone whereas Schirmann discerns a comic-humorous tone, each one of them relies, necessarily, on the intuitions of a flesh-and-blood reader who lives in the twentieth century. There is no escape from this. The only way to cope with this problem is to recognise it, not to repress it. On this issue, I have elsewhere (Tsur, 1992: 301-302) adapted E. D. Hirsch's presentation of the metaphysical dimension of Heidegger's and his adherents' historicism. Everything we know has been entirely adapted to our historical self and nothing can be known apart from that determining context.

An interpreter must therefore learn to live with his historical self just as Freud would have him live with his subliminal self, not by trying to negate it, which is impossible, but by consciously making the best of it (Hirsch, 1972: 251).

According to Hirsch, the historicists draw from the Freudian analogy the conclusion that "interpreters make the best of our historicity not by reconstructing an alien world from our texts but by interpreting them within our own world and make them speak to us -- "a position that is, Hirsch says, "skeptical and dogmatic at once". Sufficiently misunderstood, however, this analogy may lead to an altogether different, or even opposite, position. The interpreter must learn to live with his historical self, by becoming conscious of it, just as Freud would have him become conscious of his subliminal self. The more we know about our own subliminal or historical self, the more effectively we can distinguish it from the others. The more we know about our own cognitive and adaptive mechanisms, the better we dissociate ourselves from the aesthetic objects of our judgment, whether present-day objects or objects from the remote past.

Consequently, when we encounter such conflicting intuitions as Mirsky's and Schirmann's, three courses of action are open to us. First, we may claim, in the name of "scientific objectivity", that all subjective elements should be removed from literary research, and one should focus on the study of conventions and influences only, which qualify as "objective facts". Such a course of action would justify Wellek and Warren's claim that "the more insidious danger today [...] is a relativism equivalent to an anarchy of values, a surrender of the task of criticism". As we have seen, even extreme relativists and positivists cannot refrain from referring to the perceived qualities of literary works of art. Second, we can simply ignore the conflict between responses and avoid all confrontation between them, considering them within their respective essays. This course of action is not very respectable from the scientific point of view, and it too amounts to what Wellek and Warren called "an anarchy of values". But this attitude is rather common, and that is, in fact, what happened to the critical treatment of Ibn Khalphun's poem. The third course of action prevails among the various mentalistic approaches. These approaches attempt to account for the sources of intuitions (of the native speaker of a language or, as in our case, of the reader of literature), to scrutinise them with reference to the text that aroused them as well as to any available historical information concerning the relevant conventions. In this way one may reach one of two conclusions: that both responses are equally legitimate, or that one of the two construals of the poem can eventually be preferred. It would appear that perspectivism will have to adopt eventually this mentalistic approach.


1. The most obvious varieties of absolutism prevalent today would be feminist, third-world and gay criticism.

2. Elsewhere (Tsur, 1969: 175-180), before I became aware of Herrnstein-Smith's work, I enumerated some "termination devices" in Mediaeval Hebrew Poery.

3. I have elsewhere discussed at some length the "dramatic device" in Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry (Tsur, 1975: 76-86; 1987a: 45-50; 1987b). 

4. Rosen's (1996) paper was published nine years after the Hebrew publication of the present paper.

5. Although there is no explicit inlay phrase to which the simile might allude, but berievement -- especially the death of an only child -- is considered in the Biblical world as a strinkingly exemplary instance of unsurpassed sorrow and it occurs in such figurative expressions as "I will make it like the mourning for an only son" (Amos, 8:10). Joseph Yahalom suggests that there are in this poem several linguistic elements reminiscent of the Biblical Jephthah story: "Then Jephthah came to his home in Mizpah; and behold his daughter came out to meet him [...]; she was his only child; beside her he had no son or daughter. And when he saw her..." (Judges, 11:34-35), as against "I come... and lo... I look at her... bereft of her only son" in the poem.

6. Rosen (1996: 12) believes I am exaggerating in missing the ornamental opening in the first stich. I would have agreed with her, had it not occurred, unexpectedly, in the second stich, and had this misplacement not coincided with some other stylistic devices to be considered below. In fact, she admits that "The lack of internal rhyme in the first line of this poem only emphasizes the unexpected inner rhyme [...] in the second line. While the lack of rhyme in the first line adds to the sense of dynamic motion, the presence of rhyme in the second line has the effect of arrested movement, of halting" (ibid, 8). But she overlooks the fact that this is, precisely, my argument.

7. In fact, this function word is ambiguous, according to the dictionary. Idith Eynath-Nov pointed out to me that can also be construed as pointing at something expected.


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