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Before the Door of God
An Anthology of Devotional Poetry
By Jay Hopler, Kimberly Johnson
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Yale University
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The Ancient Origins of the Devotional Lyric
THE POETIC TRADITION IN Western culture traces its roots to the Mediterranean civilizations of the ancient world, and from the first, the devotional impulse has found expression in poetry. Among the oldest poems known to us are the Homeric Hymns, ancient poems in praise of Greek deities, which were written down after a long period of oral transmission. Ancient hymns were intended to be chanted or sung, by one singer or by a chorus of singers, and utilized the formal structures of poetry—including rhythm, sonic effects, and formal parallelism—to achieve both musicality and memorability. Roman hymns, which developed under the influence of Greek poetry, adopted Greek measures and modes even as they adopted and Romanized Greek deities.
The standard organization of these ancient hymns consisted of an invocation, a section in which the god is praised, and a petition. The invocation invites the deity to listen to the hymn, to give ear to its praises and pleas. In the laudatory section, the petition seeks to win the god's favor by glorifying the god's might and actions; this section often runs toward epic, as the hymn may include a long and flattering account of the god's history, making special mention of past instances in which the god displayed a willingness to help mortals. Finally, the petitioner requests some favor or assistance from the deity, a request that often comes on behalf of the civic community, as when the writer of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter concludes with a request that the goddess grant abundance and plenty to men. Though this structure persists throughout ancient hymnody, the poems themselves gave voice to a spectrum of emotional positions from praise to complaint to a persuasion approaching bribery (the Homeric Hymn to Apollo promises that if the god grants the petitioner's request, he will write poems that bear the god's reputation to all cities).
Devotional poems of the Hebrew Bible trace a slightly different ancestry, related to hymn-like celebrations of the gods from Egypt and Mesopotamia, but like the hymns of ancient Greece and Rome, they seem to have been made use of in ritual contexts, and were sung and played in temple ceremonies. The Book of Psalms was translated into Koine Greek as part of the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew canon undertaken in large part by Alexandrian Jews beginning in the third century B.C.E., which indicates the degree to which ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures overlapped. As Christianity developed in the region, it appropriated texts and philosophies fromeach of these major ancient cultures; indeed, Christianity's indebtedness to Greek, Roman, and Hebraic texts and traditions helped ensure the preservation of the literary and philosophical texts of antiquity even after these cultures had passed the period of their ascendancy.
This rich hymnic tradition interacted in exciting ways with the ancient genre of lyric poetry, which expressed or approximated personal emotions in musical structures. Most hymns of the ancient world are corporate expressions, offering petitions on behalf of a community, and their stance is largely honorific toward the deity and imperative toward humanity in exhorting all to praise; further, by spending much time summarizing the deeds of the deity, hymns prioritize the narrative they tell to celebrate the deeds and qualities of the god, rather than prioritizing the private negotiation of some concern as lyric generally does. In contrast to the hymnic tradition, lyrics are grappling rather than laudatory, processual rather than summative, personal rather than corporate. Still, many ancient poems reflect the close proximity of lyric and hymnic modes, and the works selected here demonstrate how easily the hymnic mode blurs into lyric conventions, as their ancient authors move between praise and complaint, cajoling and vaunting, ever seeking to define not only the deity being addressed but the position of the speaking self.
Excerpted from Before the Door of God by Jay Hopler, Kimberly Johnson. Copyright © 2013 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsEditors' Preface JAY HOPLER, xxi,
"A Heauenly Poesie": The Devotional Lyric KIMBERLY JOHNSON, xxv,
A Note on the Texts, xxxi,
PART ONE THE ANCIENT ORIGINS OF THE DEVOTIONAL LYRIC,
PART TWO EARLY CHRISTIAN LYRICS THROUGH THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY,
PART THREE PSALM TRANSLATIONS OF THE ENGLISH RENAISSANCE: THE BIBLE AS ART,
PART FOUR THE FLOURISHING OF THE DEVOTIONAL LYRIC IN THE POST-REFORMATION ERA,
PART FIVE THE POETIC SUBLIME: THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES,
PART SIX THE DEVOTIONAL LYRIC IN THE MODERN ERA,
PART SEVEN THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY DEVOTIONAL LYRIC AFTER MODERNISM,
PART EIGHT THE TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY DEVOTIONAL LYRIC,