The Role of the Mythic Birth Narrative in Modern Hebrew Poetry: Bialik, Shlonsky, Greenberg

By Shoham, Reuven | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Mythic Birth Narrative in Modern Hebrew Poetry: Bialik, Shlonsky, Greenberg


Shoham, Reuven, Hebrew Studies Journal


The image of the prophet is widely used by modem Hebrew poets. Interestingly, many "prophetic" poets do not content themselves with the thematic treatment of prophecy, but disclose biographical details as evidence of their prophetic mission. They use a certain fixed biographical pattern insofar as their lives (as they describe them in their work) take a predictable course from birth until death and sometimes even beyond. Frequently, the biography is a variation on the basic myth of the hero. (1) In this paper, I will attempt to show how three modern Hebrew poets-Haim Nahman Bialik, Avraham Shlonsky, and Uri Zvi Greenberg-writing for a secular Hebrew readership, make use of one part of the myth, namely the birth of the miraculous child.

The biographical narrative of the mythic hero sets aside a special place of honor for the hero's birth, which is always exceptional. (2) The original birth narrative serves to prepare the audience so as not to be taken by surprise when they learn that the mature hero possesses miraculous qualities-intellectual, physical, and rhetorical. It helps to convince the listeners that the hero is equipped to deal successfully with the three functions which he is destined to perform: a) to deliver the city from a monster, a tyrant, or a foreign ruler; b) to restore fertility, that is, to renew the cycle of life by a symbolic marriage to a princess; and c) to establish rules of behavior, institutions, and laws to secure the welfare of the community as a well-ordered society, that is, to prevent chaos.

The biblical prophet and his biography (which is a variation on the archetypal biography of the mythic hero) became marginal in Hebrew literary tradition following the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70 CE. However, it gradually returned to modern Hebrew literature in the Enlightenment period, which started early in the eighteenth century. (3)

The return of the prophet to Hebrew literature is due to both external influences and the intrinsic needs of the Jewish people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On the one hand, the influence of both romantic and symbolist European poetry, mainly of Slavic origin, turned the Prophet and the Voyant into central images of its poetic thought. (4) On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, the Hebrew Enlightenment movement and its literature were searching for a heroic figure able to capture the imagination of the Jewish people, who, until that time, were influenced primarily by charismatic Jewish religious Orthodox leaders: the Rabbi, the Halakhic scholar, and the Hasidic Rabbi (the Tzadik). Due to the impact of European poetry, the new Hebrew poets found a different charismatic figure: the Biblical Prophet. An additional factor was the tendency of Enlightenment literature in general to turn to the Old Testament for its subjects and style. As this figure was gradually re-acclimatized into the Enlightenment movement, (5) it also reentered philosophical works, (6) prose fiction, and-most importantly-poetry. Having chosen the biographical model of the poet as prophet, modern Hebrew poetry added variations on the theme, including the poet as savior, saint, martyr, (7) and, of course, divine artist. (8)

At this point, I would like to stress that the comeback of the prophet as an authority figure in Hebrew literature involved the return to the usual biographical pattern, including the myth of the birth of the "prophetic L" It was difficult for poets using the pattern as the matrix of their work to skirt the paradigm of the birth of the prophet, being influenced, as they inevitably were, by the Romantic quest for the innocence of childhood. Impelled by the Romantics and the birth story model, modern Hebrew "prophetic" poets, in search of the self, reverted to the narrative of their birth and their childhood. Sometimes they did so with simplicity and naivete and sometimes with more than a tinge of self-irony and ambivalence, as in the poetry of Haim Nahman Bialik. …

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