The Complex Greatness of the Jewish National Poet, Part Two

Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik was called upon by his contemporaries to play the role of a prophet. By consenting, he believed he had betrayed both his talent and his true calling.

Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik.

Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik.

Aug. 30 2017
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 

This essay is the seventh in a series by Hillel Halkin on seminal Hebrew writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first six dealt with the novelists Joseph PerlAvraham Mapu, and Peretz Smolenskin, the poet Yehudah Leib Gordon, the essayist and Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, and the writer, journalist, and intellectual Micha Yosef Berdichevsky.

The essay appears in three consecutive parts, of which this is the second. The first part, comprising sections 1 through 4, was published yesterday, August 29; the third and final part can be found here.



He was still young then, head and shoulders above the Hebrew poets of his age. There were good ones besides him: David Frischman, Sha’ul Tshernichovsky, Ya’akov Fichman, and others. Yet none had his emotional power or technical facility. None was prepared to bare so much raw feeling. None knew as well how to give poetic language a directness that made it sound convincingly addressed to the reader or an imagined listener. None was as adept at handling rhyme and meter, weaving changing patterns of them into a single poem, often by means of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “sprung rhythm”: lines whose stressed syllables avoided monotony by throwing off different numbers of unstressed ones. None had Bialik’s range of styles. None was the national poet.

Before “In the City of Slaughter,” Bialik had attempted another major poem on a national theme in “The Dead of the Desert.” The poem was not initially conceived of that way. In 1901, he had agreed to a request from a Hebrew magazine for teenagers to contribute a poem based on Jewish legend, and for his subject he had chosen a talmudic tale attributed to the traveler and yarn spinner Rabbah bar Bar-Ḥannah, who claimed to have seen in the Sinai desert the sleeping bodies of the 600,000 Israelite warriors who left Egypt in the exodus. They were of such huge stature, Rabbah bar Bar-Ḥannah said, that he was able to pass under the arch formed by the raised knee of one of them while seated on a camel.

Bialik had already alluded to this confabulation before, in a poem published in Ahad Ha’am’s Hashiloaḥ in 1896. Now, having decided to return to it, he concluded that it deserved a more serious treatment than one intended for juvenile readers. The poem that he wrote was finished by early 1902. Its 230 lines, written in the long six-beat cadences of heroic verse (sometimes reduced to five or increased to seven in my translation), begin with a description of the sleeping warriors:

By dusky tents they lie sprawled in the sun, the giants,
Couched for all time in the yellow sands of the desert
Sunken beneath the muscular brawn of their bodies—
Titans bound to the earth, their weapons beside them:
Flint swords by their heads, lances spanning broad shoulders,
Belts hung with quivers, javelins thrust in the sand.
Heavy, their heads loll; their hair, wild and savage,
Bristles in coarse, tangled locks like the mane of a lion;
Their faces are bronzed, the hue of dun copper,
Pocked by the sun’s game of darts and weathered by the wind’s rages.

Rabbah bar Bar-Ḥannah’s tale had been suggested by an account in the book of Numbers of how God, angered at the Israelites for losing faith in His promises after hearing the ill report brought back by the spies sent by Moses to the Land of Israel, tells the generation of the exodus that it will “fall in the wilderness.” When its warriors repent their loss of nerve and declare, “See, we are here, we will go to the place that the Lord has promised,” Moses tell them that it is too late and that they will only make things worse by pressing forward against the enemies blocking their way. Nevertheless, according to the Bible,

They presumed to go up into the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and smote them. . . .

Since the Israelites were told only that they would “fall” in the wilderness, not that they would die there, talmudic legend pictures them as having lapsed into a comatose sleep. Around them is never-ending stillness. “But sometimes,” Bialik’s poem relates,

              a shadow falls on the sands of the desert
And glides toward the camp of the dead and circles above it.
Back and forth, back and forth, it wheels in a narrowing gyre,
Then hovers, suspended, over a motionless body.
Dark grows the body, half-darkened its neighbor, from the great wingspread.
A flap of those wings—a shudder of air—a swift plummet!
A broad-pinioned eagle, a creature of crags, crooked of beak and of talon,
Lands all at once on its prey, bearing heavily down,
Its claws, adamantine, poised to rake an obsidian breast,
Its pointed beak aimed at a brow that is harder than stone.
In a moment they’ll clash, eagle and warrior, steel against steel. . . .
Just then, though, the raptor rears back and retracts its sharp tools of attack;
Awed by the fierce, imperturbable majesty of the slumbering host,
It spreads its wings and ascends, soaring higher and higher
Until with a mighty clap of the ether, screeching at the proud sun,
It disappears at the zenith of the azure’s bright gleam.

The warriors slumber on. The scene of the eagle repeats itself, first with a glittering cobra, then with a fierce lion. Both approach the sleeping camp, prepare to strike, and retreat, deterred, at the last moment. But the deathly calm is not unbroken forever, for

Sometimes, too, the desert, vexed by the eternal silence,
Strikes back in an instant at the Creator of its desolation
And rises against Him in stormy columns of sand,
Stamping its feet at the throne on which He sits startled
By its daring to turn His world upside-down. As though kicking over a pot,
It undoes all He labored to make and returns it to chaos.
The Creator recoils in a fury. The sky changes color
And, incandescent, is clamped like a lid on the insurgent wasteland,
Which seethes and froths in a haze of orange resentment
That fills the vastness of space all the way to the far, burning mountains.
The desert roars wildly, boiling up from the depths;
Underworld and Above are a single jumbled confusion.

The sleepers stir:

At such a time,
Life surging through them,
The titans awake and reach for their swords,
Eyes flashing, cheeks aflame,
A valiant, battle-tested generation—six-hundred-thousand strong!
Their voices, cutting through the storm
And contending with the desert’s roar,
Sound their cry:
“We are the brave,
Last to be slaves and first to be redeemed!
Our hands alone, these mighty hands,
Tore subjugation’s yoke from our proud necks!
The heavens, when we gazed upward,
Were too cramped for us,
And we decamped to the great wilderness
And said, ‘Be you our mother!’
On mountain peaks,
Amid far-ranging clouds,
In the company of eagles,
We drank freedom’s draft!
Who can be our master?
Even now
Though a vengeful God would pen us in this barren land,
We sing the song of courage and revolt—and stand!
To arms! Unite! Form ranks!
Despite the heavens’ rage,
We are here and we will take
The heights by storm!
We are here!
Disowned by God,
Whose Ark will not stir itself to join us,
We will storm the heights without Him!”

For a moment, roused by the violent sandstorm, the warriors prepare to take their destiny into their own hands. The moment, however, soon passes: the storm subsides; the desert returns to its silence, and the “sixty myriads of corpses” sink somnolently back into the sand. Only rarely does a Bedouin horseman, straying from his caravan, climb a ridge and glimpse them before galloping away, awed by the sight as were the creatures of the desert before him. “Bless Allah, O thou believer!” the leader of the caravan tells the horseman. “By the beard of the Prophet, thou hast seen the dead of the desert!” His companions

                      hear and say nothing, the fear of Allah upon them.
Unhurriedly, they walk by the side of their heavily burdened camels.
For a while, their white headdresses still can be spied from afar
Until they and the humps of the camels vanish in the clear distance
As if bearing the burden of yet another old legend.
Then the infertile desert grows silent again.

Apart from its epic style, what is most striking at first glance about “The Dead of the Desert” is—over a year before Kishinev—its note of radical rebellion. If the poem’s sleeping Israelites are taken to be not just the picturesque figures of legend but a metaphor for the Jewish people of Bialik’s time, there is in “The Dead of the Desert” the same call that one finds in the early writings of the Hebrew novelist and essayist Micha Yosef Berdichevsky for casting off the heavy weight of the past; the same revolt against the “slave morality” of a Jewish tradition that subjugates man to a supposed divine will; the same “un-Jewish” extolling of physical strength and courage; the same turning away from the tyrannical fatherhood of a heavenly God to the permissive motherhood of Nature, be it even that of a wilderness; the same proposed conquest of the Land of Israel by an act of Jewish will, independent of, and even in defiance of, religious values and beliefs.

“The Dead of the Desert” was widely read when it appeared as a manifesto of militant Zionism. Its battle cry of the risen warriors, especially its opening proclamation of “We are the brave, last to be slaves and first to be redeemed,” became a Zionist slogan, declaimed at Zionist meetings and rallies. But on a second reading, “The Dead of the Desert” is a more ambiguous poem than all this suggests. If Berdichevsky’s early Zionism was soon to end in despair, the specter of despair hangs over Bialik’s poem from the start. Its Israelites, after all, do not awake for long; they stir in the storm and quickly go back to the sleep in which we first see them. Moreover, their battle cry is suspiciously bombastic and poetically inferior to the rest of the poem, as if its bravado were being subtly mocked by the poet.

It is thus also possible to read the “The Dead of the Desert” in an anti-Berdichevskyan and—if one seeks in it an allusion to contemporary events—anti-Herzlian vein. Theodor Herzl had taken the Jewish world by storm when he appeared out of nowhere in the late 1890s. Yet by 1902, the Zionist movement he founded had little tangible to show for its efforts, and much of the initial enthusiasm aroused by it had waned, threatening it with demoralization. Is “The Dead of the Desert” a criticism of that enthusiasm rather than an endorsement of it? Does it take a position closer to Ahad Ha’am’s, who had warned all along of the dangers of an unrealistically overambitious Zionism?

Ahad Ha’am himself, who published the poem in Hashiloaḥ, was not quite sure, it would seem, what to make of it. A year later, after passing the reins of the journal to Klausner, he published in it an open letter reacting defensively to an editorial of Klausner’s that spoke of changing Hashiloaḥ’s conservative policies. The editorial, he protested, implied that he had edited the work of contributors high-handedly and suppressed their originality. Yet true originality, as opposed to mere mimicry of it, was had by only a few authors whose work “is the product of an individuality that, even if we don’t always understand or like it, we have to respect.” As examples of such authors, Ahad Ha’am gave Mendele and Bialik. No one, he wrote, could accuse him of editorially intervening in the work of either. Of all that Bialik had written up to that point, it must have been “The Dead of the Desert” that he felt least sure he understood.





Bialik was a lifelong Ahad Ha’amist. Already as a student in Volozhin, he had considered Ahad Ha’am his mentor. In 1899, on the occasion of a celebration in Ahad Ha’am’s honor, he recalled the impression that the latter’s early essays had made on the yeshiva’s students (one at odds, it must be said, with his description of them in his autobiographical sketch written for Klausner):

Every article that [Ahad Ha’am] published was a revelation, a new teaching. Each word of his was grist for commentary and interpretation; our vague, confused minds found in him their clear articulation. . . . We felt—we knew—that we now had a leader to follow and emulate.

What was so attractive about Ahad Ha’am’s Zionism for young Jews like Volozhin’s was its attempted harmonization of Jewish tradition with secular modernity within an intellectually sophisticated framework. Transformative yet conservative, it won the confidence of readers who still felt close to a religious upbringing they had outgrown. As Bialik put it:

[O]nly someone like [Ahad Ha’am] who came from our midst and was one of us in his entire being . . . only someone who was a Jew through and through in body and soul . . . only he could stand at the head of the movement of national renaissance that goes by the simple name of the Love of Zion.

When Bialik wrote these words, “the Love of Zion,” ḥibat tsiyon, was being replaced in Hebrew discourse by the more programmatic-sounding tsiyonut or tsiyoniyut, the Hebrew version of the German Zionismus favored by Herzl, the Jewishly uncultivated parvenu, in Ahad Ha’am’s eyes, at whom these remarks contained a jibe. If, as Bialik was to declare in a poem read at a dinner given Ahad Ha’am upon his retirement from Hashiloaḥ, the latter was Zionism’s “true prophet,” there was no need to spell out for the dinner guests who the false prophet was. “In a time of chaos and blurring of the lines/ Between beginnings and endings, building and tearing down,” the poem said, Jewish youth

Lingered at the crossroads to ask: “Where to?”
It was then, our teacher, that your star rose,
Its mild rays shining through the fog—
And to it, each one of us rallied.

It was not a good poem, and Klausner, though accepting it for publication, was justified in dismissing it as “occasional verse.” But it was not in his poetry that Bialik’s Ahad Ha’amism most came to the fore. Rather, it was in his work as an essayist, anthologist, editor, and publisher: areas that came to occupy him more and more as his poetic productivity waned. Ahad Ha’am had written at length about the need to construct a post-religious Jewish and Hebrew culture on the foundations of the religious past, but he had done so in generalities. Bialik, more than any other Hebrew literary figure of the age, strove to translate these into specifics.

His first publishing venture dated to 1901, when he helped found a Hebrew press named Moriah in Odessa, where he and Manya settled in 1900 and lived for the next quarter-century. Its goal was both to promote contemporary Hebrew letters and to edit and make available out-of-print and sometimes textually corrupt Hebrew classics, and its first major project was a midrashic anthology that Bialik worked on with Yehoshua Ravnitsky. Called Sefer ha-Aggadah, “The Book of Legends,” it took ten years to complete.

The vast corpus of midrash or aggadah, two roughly equivalent words designating everything non-halakhic in the rabbinic literature of the talmudic period, was at the time an unruly jungle of texts and passages not easily accessible to the Hebrew-reading public. These consisted of many different kinds of material: biblical exegeses, often of an imaginative or fictionalizing nature; stories about talmudic rabbis; rabbinic maxims and teachings; accounts of Jewish customs, folk beliefs, and superstitions; tales about God and man, angels and demons, this world and the next, and so on. Moreover, all of this was found in two different types of works: tractates of the Talmud itself, where it was interspersed with halakhic discussions to which it might or might not be connected, and such midrashic collections as Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, Lamentations Rabbah, and the like. These collections, however, were themselves miscellanies; though organized by means of a verse-by-verse progression through a biblical book, they worked by association, the same verse often evoking unrelated remarks or stories attributed to different rabbis. Not only that, but the same story might be found in different versions in different places, or else in fragments, parts occurring in one place and parts in another. And while much of this material was in Hebrew, much was also in Aramaic, which even educated Jews had difficulty understanding unless they had had lengthy talmudic training.

And yet in all of this profusion there was, alongside much humdrum matter, a wealth of Jewish lore and wisdom, including some of the most magnificent short-short stories—a genre in which midrash excels—in world literature. Jewish tradition, of course, never had thought of midrash, to which it accorded the same sacred status granted the rest of the Talmud, as literature. Precisely here, however, lay the Ahad Ha’amist rationale for the undertaking. The Hebrew reader demanded a literary experience of the highest order, one that could be found in the literatures of Europe but not in the Hebrew writing of the day. Midrash could provide such an experience—but only if sensitively edited by being removed from the realm of the sacred, which by its nature must not be tampered with. A valuable part of the Jewish religious past could thus be transmitted to the secular present with a minimum of violence to it.

This involved prodigious labors. Bialik and Ravnitzky had to wade through tens of thousands of pages; separate the wheat in them from the chaff; locate bits and pieces of stories and episodes and fit them coherently together; find an editorial principle or principles by which to arrange their selections; translate Aramaic passages into Hebrew; and append a gloss explaining unfamiliar words and concepts. For years, they worked together in their Odessa homes on a nearly daily basis, reading, collating, debating what and what not to include, puzzling over meanings and translations, and deciding where best to place each selection.

“The Book of Legends” was published in six volumes between 1908 and 1911. (An English translation of it appeared in 1992.) It was not the only midrashic anthology of its kind. Two others were being worked on in the same years, Louis Ginzberg’s English Legends of the Jews and Berdichevsky’s German Das Born Judas. But both Ginzberg and Berdichevsky resorted to paraphrase. Only in “The Book of Legends” were midrash’s own voice and language preserved, and only it became a Jewish classic and an indispensable presence on the Jewish bookshelf. Its influence has been even more pervasive than is sometimes recognized.

For example: one of the best-known of all midrashic stories is the one telling how, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai had himself smuggled out of the encircled city in order to found a center of learning in Yavneh, thus paving the way for the rabbinic institutions that enabled Judaism to survive the Temple’s destruction. As everyone who has ever heard or read about the episode knows, ben Zakkai left Jerusalem in a coffin. But as few know, this is not what the principal account of it, found in the talmudic tractate of Gittin, relates. There we are told that ben Zakkai was exposed to foul smells until he stank like a corpse and was carried in shrouds to the city gate, where rebels guarding it had to be dissuaded from stabbing him to make sure he was dead. But while it is only in a skimpier version of the story in Lamentations Rabbah that a coffin is mentioned, this detail, woven by Bialik and Ravnitzky into the fuller version in Gittin, is the one we all are familiar with. The two men compared and chose on the basis of their literary judgment, and it was their judgment that has determined in no small measure how we read midrash today.




In “The Book of Legends,” in the section dealing with the destruction of the Temple in which appears the story of Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, is a pithy midrash from the tractate of Ḥagigah that tells of 400 Jewish youths, half of them boys and half girls, taken captive at the siege’s end and shipped to Rome to be sex slaves. Realizing that this was the fate intended for them, the midrash relates, all leaped into the sea and drowned.

When Bialik, in the summer of 1905, wrote his prose poem “The Scroll of Fire,” he adapted this midrash to his purposes. “The Scroll of Fire” was longer and more ambitious than anything previously attempted by him. Although its initial scene was inspired, according to his own account, by the great fires that broke out in Odessa after the city was shelled by the mutinous battleship Potemkin in 1905’s revolutionary uprising, its themes had long been on his mind. It was as if, in deciding to tackle them, he was seeking to demonstrate that he deserved the national poet’s honors conferred on him.

This could only be done by a commensurate work. It would have to be less circumstantially bound than “In the City of Slaughter” and more deeply probing of the Jewish experience than “The Dead of the Desert.” It would need to be sublime in style, panoramic in scope, and of a symbolical complexity equal to the sweep of Jewish history. And it would be written not in ordinary verse but in the freer lines of a lyrical prose that had the stretch and reach to take all this in.

“The Scroll of Fire” begins with a prologue. The walls of Jerusalem have been breached. The Temple has fallen. The Romans have put it to the torch.

All night long oceans of fire surged on the Temple Mount and tongues of flame licked upward. Stars plunged from their place in the scorched sky to spatter hotly on earth. Had God kicked over His throne and smashed His crown to pieces? . . .

Only when dawn glimmered above the mountains and a pale mist lay over the valleys did the fire and flames abate in the gutted shrine. The holy choir of angels assembled to sing the day’s matins opened heaven’s windows and peered out as was its wont. Had the doors of the Temple been opened? Were clouds of incense wafting through them?

They looked—and there was the Ancient of Days, the Lord God of Hosts, sitting amid the ruins. He was cloaked in columns of smoke, a heap of cinders for His footstool. His head lay bowed on his arms beneath His towering anguish. Silent and desolate, He stared at the destruction.

This indeed had an elevated tone—and one, a sensitive reader might have feared, that did not portend well. Its sublimity is forced. It harks back to the inflating effects of old Hebrew tropes and rhetorical devices. Stylistically, it is a regression to the age of the 19th-century Hebrew novelist Avraham Mapu.

Already in the prologue, the symbolic structure of “The Scroll of Fire” starts to unfold. The more it does as the story progresses, the more it, too, seems wrong. The symbolism is too dense, too unremitting. Each sentence staggers beneath its burden of meaning. The structure is top-heavy, unable to support its own weight.

The first light of day exposes the ruined Temple. The morning star—ayelet ha-shaḥar, “the gazelle of the dawn,” in the rabbis’ and the poem’s language—looks down and sheds a tear. A young angel catches the tear in a cup and notices a last ember burning on the mount. He scoops up the ember, flies with it to a barren isle, and deposits it on a crag for safekeeping, beseeching God never to let it go out.

The scene shifts to the 400 captives. Instead of bringing them to Rome, the ship’s crew has abandoned them on the island visited by the angel, the young men at one end of it, the young women at the other. Two of the young men stand out, “one a fair-eyed youth, gazing upward as if seeking his life’s star; the other, eyes lidded with wrath, staring fearsomely at the ground as though searching for his soul’s loss.” The two vie for leadership as the group, hungry and thirsty, roams the island until it comes to a dark river. All but the fair-eyed youth slake their thirst, not knowing that they have drunk from “the river of perdition.” The wrath-lidded youth enjoins them poetically:

From perdition’s depths raise the song of destruction,
As black as the charred stumps of your hearts!
Take it among the nations and spread it among God’s wrathful
Until it is hot coals upon their heads.

“My brothers,” the fair-eyed youth remonstrates, “know you not the song of final consolation?” Unheeded, however, he falls silent—and just then the 200 young women appear on a cliff across the river, sleepwalking toward the edge of it, “the birth pangs of the messiah frozen on their faces, an eternal faith behind their shut eyes.” Oblivious of their surroundings, they plunge off the cliff into the water. The young men dive into it to save them. All perish. The fair-eyed youth, not having joined them, buries his face in his hands and weeps.

But he is not alone. Looking up, he spies on the cliff, in the beams of the morning star, a young woman who has kept aloof from her companions like himself, “as fresh and pure as an angel of chaste modesty.” “My sister, is that you?” he calls out. “In my childhood’s dawn I glimpsed your beauty and craved its hidden light!” In a long monologue he tells her about himself, starting with his birth “under climbing grape vines in the mountains of Samaria,” his cradle “woven from shoots and branches,” his lullaby “the song of birds,” his religion “the gods of the hills and valleys.” (Shades of Mapu once more!) One morning he is found by “an old man from Judea . . . a holy, awesome man of the Lord.” The old man takes him home and adopts him, instructing him “in his ways and in the worship of his God, banishing my soul’s delights and teaching me to look heavenward.” And yet, the fair-eyed youth tells the angelic figure, he needed “love, so much love! It was then that your image was born from my thoughts, appearing as a woman and a goddess.” She and the man of God contend for his soul. “Wherever I went, I looked for you . . . but I dreaded the old man, lest he see that my soul had been ravished and reduce it to cinders with the hot coals of his glance.”

All at once the angelic figure vanishes, leaving behind the morning star. The fair-eyed youth follows it and is led to the ember on the crag. As he reaches it, the young woman reappears in the depths of the river. Clasping the ember to his heart, he cries, “Heaven! Perdition! You!” and falls into the dark water. Dawn breaks.

“The Scroll of Fire” has an epilogue:

Then the waters spewed up the youth on the shores of a most distant land, the Land of Exile. And he roamed through all its countries among the exiles, passing through them like a legend of yore and a vision of days to come, a strange riddle to all. . . . Many came and bowed their heads in silence before his blessing and his curse, seeking the prayer and remonstrance of his lips and the hope and pity in his eyes. . . . Yet he hungered for the dawn alone, for its glow was a seal set upon his soul and the glimmering of its light was his life’s song.

How is one to navigate this morass of symbols? Bialik’s contemporaries did their best. The saved ember was Judaism—or it was the Jewish soul—or it was the Jewish faith in redemption. The 400 young men and women were the masculine and feminine halves of the Jewish psyche—unless they were the natural erotic life that was disrupted when the Jewish people went into exile. And yet might not the sleepwalking young women also represent the blind Jewish trust in God or His purported messiahs that more than once led to disaster in Jewish history? The fair-eyed and wrath-lidded youths stood for Jewish faith and Jewish skepticism, or for Jewish idealism and Jewish cynicism, or for Jewish hope and Jewish despair, or for true messianism and false messianism, or for Zionist construction in Palestine and Jewish revolutionary destructiveness in Russia, or for Bialik the tender lyricist and the rage-filled Bialik of “In the City of Slaughter.” Succumbing to the negative poles of such pairs meant the “perdition” of being lost to the Jewish people.

And still it didn’t add up, not least because the fair-eyed youth was both half of Bialik and all of Bialik. The mountains of Samaria, after all, were recognizably the fields of Radi. The old man from Judea was the poet’s grandfather. The years of banished delights were his years in the study house. The gazelle of the dawn—was this not the bright, guiding star of so many of Bialik’s poems? And was not the angelic soul-sister a fixture in them, too? And the wandering spirit of the epilogue—who could this be but the Jewish people’s visionaries, the keepers of the ember through the dark night of exile, of whom Bialik was now proclaiming himself to be one?

Moreover, if the wrath-lidded youth was the voice of “In the City of Slaughter,” or of the risen warriors in “The Dead of the Desert,” had this voice now been repudiated? Was its consignment to “perdition” a retreat from those poems’ denunciatory passion and cry of rebellion? Was the solitary survival of the fair-eyed youth the national poet’s promise to be a consoling voice of “hope and pity” rather than of fury from now on? Was this the capitulation to the “good little boy” mocked by Ira Jan when she accused Bialik of letting “the fire in his breast” go out even as he shouted “Fire!” over the rooftops of Jerusalem?

Reactions to “The Scroll of Fire” were mixed. Many readers were smitten by its lyrical intensity. Klausner thought highly of it. So did Fichman. The great Jewish writer Y.L. Peretz translated it into Yiddish. Yet Ahad Ha’am sat stonily through a reading of it given by Bialik in Odessa and failed to say a word about it to him afterward, while Brenner, the Hebrew novelist, found it “contrived” and “chaotic.” Berdichevsky wrote that Bialik had “drenched” his readers in “a sea of language brimming with every imaginable wave of pathos.” “The Scroll of Fire,” he said, was the work not of a poet but of “a rhetorician, albeit an inspired one, carried away by his own words.”

Most scathing was an article of Frischman’s. It started out on a complimentary note. Bialik, it declared, “is our most important poet.” Then, however, alluding to Klausner’s essay in Hashiloaḥ after the publication of “In the City of Slaughter,” in which Bialik was called “more of a poetic prophet than a poetic artist,” Frischman exclaimed: “They’ve taken our Bialik, the quintessential artist, and made a prophet of him!” The worst of it was that “in this flimsy age that believes all that it is told, our poet, too, has been flimsily led to believe that he is a prophet,” so that Bialik was now seeking to be “endlessly, immeasurably prophetic.” And yet, Frischman declared, Bialik wrote parodies of prophecy. The rage of the biblical prophets was genuine, whereas that of “In the City of Slaughter,” or of the wrath-lidded youth in “The Scroll of Fire,” was the posturing of a “modern, sensitive soul that could not lose its temper at a fly on the wall.” Both works were artificial, and “no work of mere artifice can truly impress us, least of all ‘The Scroll of Fire,’ whose artificiality is really a bit too much.”

Bialik kept his feelings about such criticisms to himself. Still, he was badly hurt. Although “The Scroll of Fire” would be praised by most critics in the years to come, it was his only work that he felt called upon to defend publicly, which he did many years later in a talk given in Tel Aviv. There, denying that he had internalized Klausner’s and others’ grandiose view of him, he also denied that the fair-eyed youth was himself. There were, he said, thousands like him in Jewish history. He was a representative type, not an autobiographical projection.

But what must have hurt most was the knowledge that Frischman was more right than wrong. Not about “In the City of Slaughter”—the passion in that was real. But “The Scroll of Fire” was an artistic failure because in it Bialik had consented to play a role that was imposed on him. More than that: he had, if only symbolically, surrendered psychologically to what he thought were that role’s demands. With this, Bialik was to come to agree. In 1908, a year after the appearance of Frischman’s article, he published a poem called “Evening”:

And again a sun rose and again a sun set
That I saw nothing of.
And again a day passed without even one note
To me from above.

Far in the west are the inchoate forms
Of cloud piled on cloud.
Tell me, my wise ones: are new worlds being born
And old ones destroyed?

No, nothing old ends and nothing will ever be new.
Darkness will fall
And the idiot evening will strew
Its gray ash over all.

I went looking for your farthing and I lost
My sovereign.
And Ashmodai stands at my back and guffaws
With his hideous grin.

“Evening” tells us what it is like for a poet to feel his inspiration failing—and what, to his mind, caused it to fail. The “your” of “your farthing,” prutatkhem, is in the plural, just as “my sovereign,” dinari, belongs to the poet alone. And the poet in him, so Bialik believed, was paying the price of having betrayed his talent by making it conform to what was wanted of it instead of letting it go its own way. So great—so exaggeratedly great, it might appear—was the trauma of this that the poet was never to recover. At such a spectacle of seduction by one’s public, Ashmodai, the Mephistopheles of Jewish legend, could only laugh.

Continued in part three here.

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