Excerpt from the essay "Regelson, Pagis, Wallach: Three Poems on the Hebrew Language" (This excerpt relates only to the section on Regelson's poem.)
By Arnold J. Band
From the book: Solving Riddles and Untying Knots, ed. by Z. Zevit, S. Gitin, M. Sokoloff, pub. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 1995
Abraham Regelson was one of the prominent figures during the richest period of Hebrew literary creativity in America, 1914-48. His biography is characteristic of most of the Hebrew writers in America: born in Minsk in 1896, he immigrated with his family to New York in 1905 and was educated in American schools; he spent most of his life until 1948 in New York and finally settled in Israel in 1949, where he died in 1981. Regelson's poetics should be understood as the extreme poetic expression of the Tarbut Ivrit (Hebrew Culture) movement, which attempted to propagate a specific Hebrew national ideology in America during this period. Always elitist and restricted to small cadres of dedicated, obsessed Hebraists, the Tarbut Ivrit and later the Histadrut Ivrit (The Hebrew Organization) insisted that Hebrew was the national language of the Jewish people and that without it, there could be no meaningful national existence for Jews anywhere. To achieve the profound Hebraization of the Jewish people, these Hebraists cultivated Hebrew language and literature and invested heroic efforts in education. Though the Tarbut Ivrit ideologues could claim some remarkable achievements before the dissipation of the "movement" after the establishment of the State of Israel, it was, in retrospect, a valiant but misguided attempt to endow language and literature with all the emotional and intellectual passions of a total cultural life which, under normal circumstances, would include all aspects of human existence. The Hebraists in America could all speak Hebrew but had no viable Hebrew-speaking society in which they might live (except in Israel, where many settled between 1948 and 1951) and thus invested all the passions of their minds in the Hebrew language and its literature, which became for them a surrogate religion. The cultivation of Hebrew was a mitzvah, while mistakes in Hebrew were heinous sins. Their Hebrew was not shaped by a speech community but rather by prodigious reading in the immense literary resources of Hebrew literature of all periods. Their Hebrew style was inordinately rich and, at times, precious.
Regelson's חקוקות אותיותיך ("Inscribed Are Your Letters") is a formidable paean to the Hebrew language (he calls it a המנון, a hymn or paean) covering twenty pages, subdivided into twenty chapters. The verses are lengthy (about eighteen syllables) and unrhymed, Whitmanesque in their sweep. If a poem of such dimensions seems anachronistic to us today, it should be remembered that when Regelson wrote this המנון, the lengthy poem called the "poemah" was still normative in Hebrew poetry. As a paean to the Hebrew language, the poem is much more subtle than a simple recitation of the language's aesthetics or antiquity, qualities one would expect to find in such a paean. Regelson depicts a language that is identical with both the physical world and his own personality. The poet's very being is mediated through this language, which is also the linguistic medium through which he perceives reality.
The opening line summarizes what we will find in the entire poem:
!חֲקוּקוֹת אוֹתִיּוֹתַיך בְּתַבְנִית עוֹלָמִי, רְחִימָה בַּלְשׁוֹנוֹת ("Inscribed are your letters in the pattern of my world, beloved among languages!") The inscription of the Hebrew letters in the pattern of the poet's world is then the clarion opening to an elaborate personal mythology that embraces personality, world, and language. This mythology is intertextually related to that of the thirteenth-century Kabbalist, Abraham Abulafia, in whose contemplative mysticism the letters of the Hebrew alphabet play a crucial role. Regelson, not a religious mystic but a secular Hebraist, clearly found elements of Abulafia's speculations useful for his poetry about the Hebrew language. By declaring that Hebrew is inscribed in a lengthy, rich catalog of natural phenomena – celestial bodies, plants, insects – all called by their specific names in an orgy of linguistic desire, the poet creates and governs the world of his own being through the very enunciation of the specific Hebrew names of objects. Were names in any other language inscribed in the pattern of the world, they would be meaningless to him. He elaborates on this mystical power of Hebrew words in his life in the second chapter, which ends with the sweeping assertion: וַתִּהְיִי לִי לְשׁוֹן בְּרִיאָה, לְשׁוֹן הִתְגַּלּוּת וּלְשוֹן קֵץ-הַיָּמִים ("You are for me the language of creation, the language of revelation, the language of final redemption").
In the third chapter he extends his mythology even further by attempting to describe his beloved Hebrew as if she were a beloved woman. The description of the female body is an art of linguistic possession and certain limbs are compared to grammatical terms. The configuration of the Hebrew language, the poet's beloved, as a female body (again the echoes of Abulafia are evident) and allows the poet to dedicate chapters four through fifteen to the mystical beauty of specific features of Hebrew grammar. Chapter four tells of his love for her varied moods, her binyanim (verbal meaning classes); in chapter five we learn of the subtlety of her tenses; in chapter six, of the wonders of the gezarot (verbal sound classes); in seven, of the mishkalim (noun classes); in eleven, the peculiarities of gendering objects; in fifteen, the absorption of Aramaic words or Greek phrases in common Hebrew usage. In each case, Regelson lavishes a prodigious wealth of Hebrew poetic description on aspects of language that one usually regards merely as items to be mastered in a language course. Turning these into objects of adoration and poetic ecstasy is not only a poetic tour de force; it is evidence of a veneration of Hebrew that transcends the ordinary.
Continuing the quasi-mystical adoration of Hebrew, Regelson opens chapter sixteen with a striking apostrophe to Hebrew: !אוּרִים וְתֻמִּים אֲשֶׁר לָאֻמָּה ("Urim and Thummim of the nation!") The evocation of the mystical jewels on the breastplate of the high priest in the temple in association with the Hebrew language is doubtless taken from Abulafia, who regarded the letters as manifestations of the Urim and Thummim. The difference, though is significant: for Abulafia, the letters, like the Urim and Thummim, are devices for mystical contemplation, while for Regelson the letters are manifestations of the genius of the Jewish people, since the great texts of the Jews were written in Hebrew. This insight inspires him to survey the function of Hebrew from antiquity through the Zioniist revitalization of the language.
The historical sweep provides the bridge to the next chapter, which deals with exile, a dark period that allowed, nevertheless, an enrichment of culture and a revitalization of language. The evocation of exile prompts a digressive lament for the children who have been burned and will never be privileged to learn Hebrew. The language itself has thus lost the great potential writers of the future who would have continued to add to her literary treasures. One assumes that this chapter, probably written in 1943-45 like the rest of the poem, refers to the slaughter of European Jewry. The composition of this paean to the language is therefore an affirmation of historical continuity and creativity despite the terrible losses of the period.
As he approaches the end of this vast paean, Regelson raises two questions couched in biblical language: first, who should be privileged to ascend the glorious mountains of the Hebrew language (an echo of Psalms)? Second, what are the cardinal sins against the language (from the opening chapter of Amos)? The faithful Hebraist should have three virtues (chapter eighteen): first, he should be morally sensitive to all people; second, he should be faithful to the Jewish people and their aspirations; third, he should continually study and thus master the classical Hebrew texts of all periods. The three cardinal sins (chapter nineteen) are not the opposite of the lofty ideals of the three virtues but seem to refer to specific contemporary persons: (1) those who write false memorials for the sake of money; (2) those who reject linguistic innovation; (3) those who would restrict the Hebrew language to refined, elegant subjects only. In the last two Regelson seems to be answering his critics, since he was fond of creating new words.
A rancorous, even bitter tone permeates the last chapter, which is a veiled confession. The poet declares again his devotion to the Hebrew language but complains that his own people have chained him like a galley slave, and he has not the strength to recount "the deeds of the Lord" in Hebrew. He confesses the sin of his double exile: of the Jew from his land and the narrator from his story. He prays for a return to the land where Hebrew is spoken and he can return to his creativity, to work alongside a long list of laborers who labor – naturally – in Hebrew. In the act of Hebrew labor אֱלֹהַּ מִתְגַּלֵּם-מִתְגַלֵּה וְעוֹלָם מִתְעַלֶּה-מִתְאַלֵּהַּ ("God incarnates-disappears and the world transcends and becomes divine").
The complicated play of words in this poetic closure is no less important than the quasi-messianic wish expressed; for the prodigious play with the Hebrew language is the concrete proof of the poet's creative power and the capacity of this specific language to inscribe itself compellingly in the universe. The argument that lends structure and coherence to this sprawling hymn is by no means as impressive as the dazzling richness of the language with its enormous lexical range, its grammatical flexibility, its subtle echoes of texts of all periods and genres. If the language of poetry may be defined as language that calls attention to itself, that is, it is not merely a mode of communicating ideas or sentiments, Regelson's Hebrew in חֲקוּקוֹת אוֹתִיּוֹתַיך calls attention to itself, not only as poetic language, but as Hebrew poetic language. The Hebraic aspects of the language are constantly paraded before the reader both in the ideas conveyed in the individual chapters and in the linguistic signals the reader receives. As such, this poem is the quintessential product of the ideology of Tarbut Ivrit; it embodies its heroic attempts to create a new world by an act of both will and intellect but succeeds in restricting entrance to that world to very few readers.
...Regelson's חוקוקות אותיותיך is a comprehensive hymn to the Hebrew language presented in detail as the linguistic embodiment of the poet's personality. The level of poetic language ...is evidence of what Regelson hails: the expressive capacities of Hebrew over the past fifty years. Regelson's own poetic style is blatantly literary, lexically rich, even precious, rife with rare words and his own neologisms. In its literariness, it evokes Hebrew texts of all periods and addresses the literate Hebraist; the lexical difficulties of this poetic language are daunting and comprise a serious challenge for the average Hebrew reader today. By privileging the historical literary text, it slights language generated by any coherent speech community, specifically the one crystallizing in Israel during his career.