Colometric Analysis

The object of colometric analysis is “to isolate and study the smallest poetic units and their interrelationship” or what Oswald Loretz analogically describes as “biblical ‘microbiology’” (22). In terms of the bigger picture of its usefulness to the study of ancient literature, “colometry enables us to reconstruct and better understand the way leading from the orality of poetry to its literacy” (56).

The term colon designates the smallest unit of construction within a poetic structure. Loretz agrees with M.C.A. Korpel and J.C. de Moor in opposing W.G.E. Watson’s classification of the smallest unit as a “hemistich” which is about half the length of a colon, because the hemistich doesn’t seem to appear consistently. Sometimes a colon is indivisible, and other times it appears to lend itself into a three-part division (Loretz 24), although by far the most common is the two-part structure.

In both Hebrew and Ugaritic poetry, parallel cola in a given poem seem to show internal symmetry, so that they tend to be consistently very close to the same, if not the same, length. Counting consonants, Loretz asserts, is “an indispensible tool for ascertaining cola and larger poetic units” (26), although such counting is not to be applied mechanically, since content and structure are at least equally weighted in poetry. If a particular break-up of the units yields asymmetrical cola, Loretz would argue, one should probably first assume the units were divided incorrectly. It is also possible the content or flow of the poem may call for asymmetry, but it would seem necessary to argue for a justification of the asymmetry on some basis.

Consider the following proposals for breaking the lines according to a consonant count and according to a syllable and word count.

9

10

9

8

9

8


Counting consonants yields the following result for dividing the verses into cola of equal length.

 

In the first line, there are ten consonants in the first half of the bi-colon and nine in the last half, considering that the aleph here functions as a vowel-letter, forming part of the root, while the three yodhs function simply as vowels. In the second line, discounting the three yodhs functioning as vowels, there are eight consonants in the first half of the bi-colon and seven in the second half. Likewise in the third line there are eight consonants in the first half of the line and nine in the second half, counting the yodh in איש , which functions as a vowel-letter as part of the root, and discounting the vav functioning as a vowel at the end of the final word.

 The same division of the cola and lines yields similar results when counting syllables or counting words, so it seems the verses are highly regular and formulaic as the following diagram demonstrates:


 

Syllable Count

Word Count

6

7

3

3

6

5

3

3

6

6

3

2

 

 

 

 

 

In a relatively more literal and less literary form in English, the sense of this way of breaking the lines can be illustrated by the following rough translation:

One spoke God           two which I heard

that power to God      and to you, Lord, mercy

for you will repay        to each by his deeds

Breaking the lines into bi-cola in this way reveals a clear parallel correlation of the elements “one” and “two” from the first line with “power” and “mercy” on the second line. From this standpoint the third line may seem to elucidate further or comment on the relationship established in the first two. Even so, it keeps with the same format, since the idea of repayment, whether reward or revenge, can well relate to an exercise of power on the part of a superior toward an inferior, while the caveat “to each according to his deeds” would seem to mitigate and temper such an action. While scholars such as Kugel may argue against such a strict method of dividing verses in order to analyze their sense, in this instance the value of colometric analysis as one tool in the process seems evident. In addition to arguing for a particular reading to identify the nature of the parallel or “seconding” relationship of the verse’s parts based on the sense alone, one has a technique for uncovering whether some attention may also have been given to the form in any quantifiable measure, and such appears to be the case. While not by any means proving a particular division of the lines, the colometric analysis of Psalm 62.11-12 presented above nevertheless offers support for one proposal.
 
Next: CHAPTER TWO:
 
The Development of Writing and Writing Technologies
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