The Form Function of the Tricolon in the Psalms of Ascent

What Robert Lowth named ‘parallelism’ is, as every student of Biblical Hebrew poetry knows, the main characteristic of this poetry. Most poetic lines in the Hebrew Bible consist of two cola, but for quite a number of lines we must acknowledge the existence of tricola. In works on Hebrew poetry tricola use to receive little detailed attention. Shimon P. Stocks, tutor for Biblical Studies and Lay Ministry at the South East Institute for Theological Education, UK has published a work in which he seeks to rectify this deficiency. It consists of his PhD thesis which he wrote under supervision of David Frith. Taking the Psalms of Ascent, a sample corpus of poetic texts, as an object of research he identifies tricola on an explicit and regular basis.

After an introduction Stocks first has a chapter in which he give an overview of the most important theories of poetic structure. I agree with Stocks that the insight of Jan P. Fokkelman that a colon usually has between two and four stresses and never exceeds the limit of five the best substantiated starting point for assessing the colometry of a text. That theory incorporates the most favorable aspects of the analysis of M. O’Connor.

Stocks has brought the analysis of the structure of poetic texts in the Hebrew Bible an important step further because he combines the insights of Fokkelman and O’Connor with the a fruitful use of the rhythmical-accentual approach of Eduard Sievers, a German scholar of a former generation. In his Metrische Studien: Studien zur Hebraïschen Metriek published in 1901Sievers has among other things special attention for the six stress lines.

He noted that line with six stresses can be read as 2+4, 4+2, 3+3, or 2+2+2. His key point is that a 3+3 bicolon and line divided as 2+2+2 are rhythmically equi­valent. Making use of the insights of Sievers Stocks argues convincingly that the polar assess­ment of bicolon or tricolon does not adequately accommodate the type of line encoun­tered here. Stocks introduces the name ‘para-tricolon’ for a line with six stresses that is tripartite and yet rhythmically equivalent to a couplet.

Especially in his research of the significance of enjambment he surpasses the work of Sievers. He shows that the average degree of enjambment in definitively indentified tricola and para-tricola is less than in uncertain cases. That means that a certain cases cola to a higher degree with a clause or stated otherwise: then there is a greater resemblance between syntax and rhythmical structure.

The greatest part of Stocks’ publication consists of his analysis of Psalm 120–134. In the Psalms of Ascents several examples support his insight. Stock analyzes each individual Psalm in terms of a colometric and structural analysis. The structural analysis consists of a thematic, strophic, and rhetoric-structural analysis.

Just as in the case in the poetic theories of Fokkelman and O’Conner the colometric structure given by Stocks more than once does not correspond to the Masoretic system of accentuation. So he ignores for example several times the demarcating function of the ’atnāḥ (cf. Ps 122:3; 127:5; 129:4). I don not think that this is a mayor argument against the insights of Stocks. There must be very weighty reasons not to follow the Hebrew consonant text. Although not of the same weight as the consonant text, the vocalization of the Masoretes must be taken very seriously. The accentuation of the text by the Masoretes must be taken into consideration, but it is not of the same value as their vocalization and certainly not of the same value as the consonant text.

Especially when analyzing poetic texts it is important to realize the secondary nature of the Masoretic accentuation. It is true that the criteria for tricola and para-tricola are set by Stocks, but I think that the result shows that the insights of Stocks are worthy of serious consideration. The application of his theory has been done by Stocks as consistent and explicit as possible. Still he has case with can be analyzed in more than one way. I think it has to do with the nature of language and especially of poetic language that this is the case. Language is always more than whatever structure rightly seen in it.

I conclude that Stocks wrote a really important study that will facilitate a more nuanced and realistic appraisal of the functional significance of Hebrew poetic line-forms.

Simon P. Stocks,The Form Function of the Tricolon in the Psalms of Ascent: Introducing a New Paradigm for Hebrew Poetry Line Form (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2012), paperback 274 pp., $32,– ( ISBN 9781610978088)

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