Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Clement C. Moore on Hebrew Poetry and the Bible

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On November 14, 1825 Clement C. Moore gave a public lecture at Christ Church in New York City. Moore's discourse was published as A lecture Introductory to the Course of Hebrew Instruction in the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. 
Excerpts from the well-received lecture appeared in newspapers and religious magazines. For example, The Gospel Advocate for January 1826 published the following extract, headed "HEBREW POETRY."


We may observe, by the way, that much of what is generally styled poetry in the sacred writers, might, perhaps, with more propriety be classed under the head oratory. But, without discussing the accuracy or inaccuracy of terms, we may remark that what is generally comprehended under the head of poetry, is easily distinguished from those parts, such as the historical books, which are undoubtedly prose. What may strictly be termed Hebrew poetry, is marked by a regularity of division in its sentences which makes an approach to metre. The selection of words appears to be more choice than in prose, and the language is generally of a more lofty character. Some criticks also pretend to distinguish certain words which are peculiar to poetry. It may, however, be doubted whether we have enough of the language remaining to enable us to form any certain rules on this subject. But the blaze of magnificence displayed in the Hebrew poetry arises not from the selection of words or arrangement of phrases. It is due to the subjects treated of, to the imagery employed, to the feelings which are expressed and awakened, to the boldness of its flights, to the awfulness of the ideas it presents, and to the immensity of its range, “as high as heaven"— “deeper than hell." The effect of this poetry upon the mind resembles that produced by the view of the great works of nature; it is irregular, but with an irregularity which could not be changed without destroying its effect. It is composed of features too great to be submitted to the strict canons of criticism. It is the voice of the thunder or of the whirlwind which strikes our ear; it is the expanse of the firmament which meets our eye; all creation rises before us; it is the voice of nature inspired by nature’s God. Let not the cold-blooded critick, who sees nothing but through the medium of books, who weeps and laughs by rule, and who can feel no admiration but with the permission of Aristotle; let him not come within the verge of this sacred domain; here is no school for him. The study of these compositions teaches us to contemplate the material universe unchanged by art, and the native feelings, emotions, and passions of men, unsophisticated by the artificial bonds of society and refinement. In the works of nature we may, here and there, be struck with appearances of regularity which reminds us of the hand of man. So, in the poetry of the Hebrews passages occur which coincide with the rules of art. But, who that looks at a magnificent forest, planted by the hand of nature, would wish to see its trees growing in even rows and at equal distances? Who that beholds the starry firmament would desire to see the multitude of shining worlds, which now appear to be thrown into space without effort from the Creator's hand; who would desire to see them ranged in regular figures and disposed in parallel and equal lines? No! before that poetry criticism remains silent and abashed. We there walk abroad into the wide world, and view the mountains and the vallies, the stars of heaven, the flowers of the field, the desert wastes, and the peopled regions of the earth; and, as we proceed, a heavenly fire kindles all into life and motion; the mountains and the hills tremble; even hell from beneath is moved; the fir-trees and the cedars rejoice, and the desert blossoms as the rose; the morning stars sing together, and all the sons of God shout for joy.
Another long extract from Moore's 1825 lecture appears in the review published in the February 1826 issue of The Christian Journal, and Literary Register
The lecture is surely, in every view, a manifestation of superiour talents— of a nice discriminating judgment—extensive knowledge of the subject, and high devotional taste. The composition is pure and classical: the topics well arranged and ably illustrated: and there are some positions stated and maintained, fundamentally important to students of theology. The author's view of the Hebrew language is learned and judicious, equally remote from visionary theory and light criticism. His description of the Bible is unequalled.
"Such, my young friends, is the wonderful volume, to the study of which a large portion of the time to be passed by you in the seminary is allotted. When the difficulties of its language are surmounted, it opens an abundant store of treasures to the antiquary, the historian, the chronologer, the philologist, the grammarian, the orator, the poet, and the divine. Its entire freedom from every thing that makes the least approach to affectation; the unrivalled simplicity of its style; its admirable touches of pathos; the perfect picture of nature in its narratives and descriptions; the beautiful metaphors, allegories, and similies; the noble hymns of praise; the profound strains of penitence and prayer with which it abounds, added to its high and holy import, render it a work of a nature fitted, in every point of view, to excite the most intense interest, and to afford the most exquisite gratification. And I hope it is not presumptuous in a layman to dissuade you from being influenced by the practice of those bold critics who, by conjectural emendations of the original text, attempt to throw light upon such parts of it as the lapse of ages has rendered obscure. This volume is like a beautiful old picture which has come down to us in a state of extraordinary perfection. Some defects and blemishes, it is true, appear; but they materially hurt neither the design nor the colouring; and it is not for modern and obtrusive hands to attempt to repair the injuries done by time to such a venerable and matchless work."

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