Donald T. Williams, PhD
P.O. Box #800807
Toccoa Falls, GA. 30598

Expressing Emotion in Poetry: Grief and Recovery in Psalm 6

Literature of the Bible Study Group
The Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting
Toronto, Nov. 2002

According to Wordsworth in his "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, poetry by definition is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" which "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" (Noyes 365). Well, Pope might have quibbled about the spontaneity, noting that "True ease in Writing comes from Art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance" (155). And he might also have wondered at the focus on emotion at the expense of "What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well exprest, / Something, whose Truth convinced at Sight we find, / That gives us back the image of the mind" (153). So gargantuan a task it is to categorize a phenomenon so protean as Poetry, that those who attempt to do so run the risk of being contradicted by all the other blind men who happen to be holding onto another part of this indescribably vast Elephant. There is a real Elephant, with a truly elephantine nature, for all that; and it really is like a wall, as long as we do not forget the tree, the spear, the rope, and the snake.

One of Poetry's many functions then is to lend itself to the expression of emotion in ways that are more intense than is typical of prose. And one at least of the ways that it does so is suggested by Archibald MacLeish (50-51).


A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown--

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind--

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea--

A poem should not mean
But be.

What is MacLeish saying? He presents us with a series of statements about poetry that seem at first simply to be nonsense. A poem that was mute, dumb, or silent would be no poem at all, for poetry is an oral art form. In every century before the Twentieth it demanded to be intoned, chanted, or sung--or at least recited. And a poem that was wordless would also be no poem at all, for poetry is a verbal art form. An object that made use of neither surface, line, color, nor texture might be interesting, but one could hardly call it a painting. Nor can a poem be motionless in time. To be heard (or even read) it must progress from one phoneme, one word, to another, from the opening line to the last syllable of recorded sound. And as for meaning versus being . . . well; the prosaic might be excused if they simply shrug their shoulders and walk away.

Nevertheless, there is a method to MacLeish's rhetorical madness. How, the persistent reader is led to ask, should a poem be mute, silent, dumb, wordless, or motionless? And then we notice the parallel structure in which each assertion is stated in the form of a paradoxical simile. Each simile, moreover, has as its vehicle a concrete sensory image. The poem is mute the way a globed fruit is palpable; the way, that is, in which its shape, weight, and texture nestle into one's hand. The combination of visual with tactile imagery continues as the poem is dumb the way an old medallion feels to the thumb. Complex emotional associations are added next through romantically-tinged connotations, accruing as silently as moss on casement ledges. And then auditory imagery jumps in, making our hearts leap as wordlessly as the whir of wings from a suddenly spooked flock of quail.

MacLeish is saying by doing what Robert Frost had stated more prosaically: Poetry is "saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another" (24). Thus, MacLeish presents the two emotions that appear in his poem, grief and love, in terms of concretely realized pictures. Grief is conveyed by an empty doorway and a maple leaf, love by leaning grass and lights above the sea. And he explains how grief and love are related to these pictures with his cryptic statement that a poem should be "equal to, not true." Equal to what? Presumably to grief or love or globed fruit or flying birds. Well, this is another paradox: a poem about grief is not the same thing as sorrow, nor one about love the same thing as devotion. A poem cannot be literally "equal to" any more than it can be wordless.

But there was a truth in the lie that a poem could be wordless, and that same kind of truth appears again here. A poem cannot literally "be" grief or love, nor equivalent to them; it perforce must be a statement that "means" something "true." In what sense then is a poem true? One hopes it is a true statement about something. We need to supply that preposition about to match its sister preposition to: true about versus equal to. A poem can't be literally wordless, but it should, if it is to be true about the flight of birds, use words that convey the rush of those wings so vividly that we are not conscious of reading words but only of the object: the unavoidable words are virtually lost in the whir of wings. In the same way, a poem cannot be literally equal to grief or love, but it should be true about them in such a way that we are not conscious so much of reading words as only of the object: the unavoidable words are lost in the tears of loss or the heart throb of affection. The poem cannot really avoid being true about (except by being false, and hence not a true poem)--but it should seem equal to if it is to be effective at being affective poetically.

The way the poem achieves this seeming is through metaphor and concrete imagery. MacLeish suggests a plausible scenario. Perhaps the empty doorway is the one out of which the lover went, never to return. And perhaps she did so in autumn. And then one pauses years later before that doorway with the leaf blowing across it and the full poignancy of the original grief comes back in force. So we do not tell the reader that "the man was sad because he thought of his lost love." We park the reader in front of that doorway and let him get the impact of that blowing leaf, carried by its associations, even as the character in the poem would if it were really happening. Perhaps the waving grasses are in the dunes by the beach on which the two lovers walked with the beams of the lighthouses stabbing through the darkness.

Perhaps you can provide another scenario. It does not matter. What matters is that we use concrete words in such a way that they convey the same emotional associations that the concrete things they image do in life: globed fruit, casement ledges, old medallions. And it matters not whether the imagery is visual, tactile, auditory, or even olfactory. Have you never been transported back to your mother's kitchen in your childhood by the smell of bacon frying? Poetry conveys emotion by tapping into the mind's propensity to form associations between emotions, memories, and concrete experiences. And so we come to understand the last dyad of "Ars Poetica": "A poem should not mean / But be." "Mean" is parallel to "true about," "be" to "equal to." The poem cannot avoid meaning, but by the use of concrete imagery it means in such a way as to seem to do more: to be. Rather than simply making a statement about emotion, it recreates it by means of the magic of concrete imagery and metaphor.

How well does this analysis of modern English poetry apply to Hebrew poetry in the biblical text? Let's take a look at Psalm 6.

Psalm 6

To the Choirmaster:
With Stringed Instruments:  According to the Sheminith
A Psalm of David

1	O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger
Nor discipline me in your wrath.
2	Be gracious unto me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
Heal me O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
3	My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD--how long?
4	Turn O LORD, deliver my life;
Save me for the sake of your steadfast love,
5	For in death there is no remembrance of you;
In Sheol who will give you praise?
6	I am weary with my moaning;
Every night I flood my bed with my tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
7	My eye wastes away because of my grief;
It grows weak because of all my foes.
8	Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
For the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
9	The LORD has heard my plea;
The LORD accepts my prayer.
10	All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
They shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.  (ESV)

Hebrew poetry (like English) of course does much more than simply express emotion. And Hebrew poetry is providentially the most translatable poetry on the planet. It depends on the rhyming of ideas rather than sounds, the repetition of thoughts rather than meters, to create its prose-transcending structures. Thus the translator avoids the horrible dilemma of preserving either sound or sense, as they rarely can both be reproduced at the same time in a different tongue.

But this "Hebrew Poetic Parallelism" does more than that. By its very nature it creates a rhythm of contemplation. By hearing every statement twice, in different terms--one statement "in terms of another"--we are invited to pause and reflect on the potentialities of meaning and nuance, and we are simultaneously given space in which to do so. Often there are two key terms per statement, one pair of which is a simple set of synonyms so that attention is focused on the other pair, which interact in a more thought-provoking way. So anger is a synonym of wrath (v. 1), languishing of trouble (v. 2), death of Sheol (v. 5). These near equivalences invite us to meditate on the less obvious insights that rebuke disciplines (v. 1), grace heals (v. 2), and remembrance engenders praise (v. 5).

These insightful pairs in Psalm 6 are embedded in the larger binary structure that compares grief and recovery from that grief across the whole poem. The psalmist's prayer carries him through the period of apparent abandonment, his petition for relief buttressed by descriptions of his distress and the argument that if he dies he will no longer be able to praise his Lord in Sheol (v. 5). Then, when his prayer is "heard," i.e., "accepted," the mood shifts suddenly and dramatically to one of exultation in triumph over his enemies.

Now, these ideas in themselves are spiritually edifying; the way they are structured is intellectually satisfying. The role of emotion is to make them existentially compelling. To be effective as a poem as well as a prayer, the psalm must give the reader an opportunity to identify personally with the situation David is facing. He accomplishes this identification by means of images that convey the physical symptoms of emotional suffering. It is not the seemingly imminent triumph of his enemies but his apparent abandonment to them by the Lord that has him in such agony that his very "bones" are "troubled." His distress is unrelenting; he cannot let it go. It keeps him up at night. The central emotional image is that of the bed soaked with tears. Thus the reader is enabled to draw an analogy to his own experience, to compare David's grief with those griefs that have deprived the reader of his own sleep. And he knows that the crisis has passed when that imagery simply disappears. The shift in emotion from despair to confidence is signaled by the shift in focus from David's own inward feelings described in physiological terms to an outward view of his enemies as defeated ("Depart from me!") and of the Lord as having finally responded to his prayer. No explanation for the shift in mood is given; rather, the poem simply portrays the shift, which can only be attributed to the mystery of faith.

Just like MacLeish, David has used concrete words in such a way that they convey the same emotional associations that the concrete things they image do in life. For all the history of grief: blurred eyes and a tear-soaked mattress. For relief from that grief, in the form of recovered confidence that God cares: scattered enemies that are turned back and put to shame in a moment. The fact that this scattering is anticipated rather than observed makes a point about the emotional dynamics of doubt and faith that is not quite expressible in cold prose. In the context of the insightful parallels created by the structure of Hebrew poetry, this emotional identification through concrete imagery allows us not just to understand, but also vicariously to experience, the fact that during our own darkest moments we can hope for a like reversal. So David's prayer has not just "meant" grief and recovery through faith, but "been" that for us. And that, indeed, is what a poem should be.


Frost, Robert. "The Figure a Poem Makes." 1939; rpt. in Selected Prose of Robert Frost. Ed. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem. N.Y.: Collier, 1968.

MacLeish, Archibald. The Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Noyes, Russell, ed. English Romantic Poetry and Prose. NY: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1956.

Pope, Alexander. The Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed. John Butt. New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 1963.

Updated 10/11/2004 5:11 PM