Sydney Lanier on Biblical Poetry

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This passage is from an article called "Moral Purpose in Art," taken from the opening pages of "Sidney Lanier's Last Lecture," Johns Hopkins University, April 1881. It was published posthumously in the May, 1883 issue of Century Magazine.

Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) was a notable American poet. You can find his works in a good anthology of 19th Century American poetry. I read his "The Marshes of Glynn" and quite enjoyed it.

What impresses me about this passage is Lanier's point that unlike most other poetry, Biblical poetry is so translatable. It occurs to me that this is probably exactly what God intended.


The most poetical poetry of which we know anything is that of the author of Job and that of David and of his fellow psalm-writers. I have used the expression "most poetical" here with design: for, regarded as pure literature, these poems, in this particular of poeticalness, of pure spirituality, lift themselves into a plane not reached by any other. A single fact in proof of this exceeding poeticalness will suffice: it is the fact that these poems alone, of all ever written, bear translation from one language into another without hurt. Surely this can be said of no other poetic work. If we strike away all allowances of amateurishness and good-fellowship, and judge with the uncompromising truth of the pious artist, how pitiful is Homer as he appears even in Pope's English; or how subtly does the simplicity of Dante melt into childishness even with Mr. Longfellow guiding; or how tedious and flat fall the cultured sentences of Goethe even in Taylor's version, which has by many been declared the most successful translation ever made, not only of "Faust," but of any foreign poem; nay, how completely the charm of Chaucer exhales away, even when redacted merely from an older dialect into a later one, by hands so skillful as those of Dryden and Wordsworth!

Now, it is words and their associations which are untranslatable, not ideas; there is no idea, whether originating in a Hebrew, Greek, or other mind, which cannot be adequately produced as idea in English words. The reason why Shakspere and Dante are practically untranslatable is that, recognizing how every word means more than itself to its native users, -- how every word is like the bright head of a comet drawing behind it a less luminous train of vague associations, which are associations only to those who have used such words from infancy, -- Shakspere and Dante, I say, have used this fact and have constructed poems which necessarily mean more to native hearers than they can possibly mean to any foreign ear.

But this Hebrew poetry which I have mentioned is so purely composed of ideas which are universal, essential, fundamental to the personality of man, instantly recognizable by every soul of every race, that they remain absolutely great, absolutely artistic, in whatever language they are couched.