The Song of Deborah

THERE comes one day in every year, when for me the drowsy peace of a Sunday afternoon is abruptly shattered; when I straighten up in my pew, all my pulses leaping with delighted excitement, and cease to be a Christian of the Twentieth Century and become a passionate Israelite delivered by one marvelous stroke from the hand of Jabin, King of Canaan, the captain of whose hosts was Sisera.

I know that this occurs some time in the late summer or early autumn, but as a rule I am taken unaware. I forget that anything out of the ordinary is about to happen. Outside are the usual whispered sounds of afternoon; and then suddenly the clergyman begins: ‘Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying, Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel,’ and that astonishing, passionate, magnificent song is upon us. My imagination leaps through the gate of the opening words, and instantly, breathlessly, I forget the time and place, and I see into the past. I see that jubilant return, and Deborah, the prophetess, and Barak, the son of Abinoam, singing together. ‘Hear, O ye kings, give ear, O ye princes; I, even I, will sing unto the Lord.’

What intoxication of inspiration! The spirit fairly lashes them into expression. ‘Awake, awake Deborah; awake, awake; utter a song; arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive.’

Like a torrent the song tumbles over itself, holding certain words up in the glory and delight of repetition.

‘ The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon.’

Then the song rises to its climax in that magnificent tribute — the tribute which one woman’s genius pays to another’s achievement. ‘Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be; blessed shall she be above women in the tent.’

In her savage irony, Deborah conceives the picture of the waiting mother of the dead man: ‘The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?’

But in the end her religious fervor stems the savagery of her triumph, and the singer remembers that she is paying tribute to the Lord, and concludes: ‘So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord; but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might.’

It is amusing to note how different clergymen read this song of Deborah and of Barak. Some — those, no doubt, with the most imagination — abandon themselves at once to the splendor of the music, and read the words with an echo of the passion that they must have had when they were first flung forth. Others begin with the determination to give it the religious rendering suitable to the rest of the service, and manage this tone well enough until they come to the words, ‘Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song’; when, in spite of themselves, they are swept off their feet by the poet’s emotion and are carried gloriously away, until the concluding words of the lesson, ‘And the land had rest forty years,’ restore them once more to the accustomed religious atmosphere. Others, again, imply by their tone that though there is a certain deplorable impression of barbaric exultation in the words, Deborah was in reality a very meek and pious woman.

I think these last are glad to come to the end of that song, particularly if they chance to be married — and turn with relief to the second lesson,which begins, amusingly enough, ‘Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; . . . whose adorning . . . let it be . . . even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit. . . . For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves,’— no doubt devoutly hoping that their wives will not ask them any searching questions as to the meek and quiet spirits enjoyed by those two holy women of old, Deborah and Jael. They must find Jael extremely hard to explain, particularly when they remember that there was peace between ‘Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.’ And difficult also for them to explain Deborah’s laudation of her, for certainly the climax of the poem is its tribute to Jael. Others are mentioned with curses or blessings according as they had given their help or refused it, but Jael is the heroine, the great protagonist of Deborah’s song, and the singer brings all the treasure of her genius and lays it in tribute at the feet of the woman of the tents. I do not know any other great poem that has this peculiarity — the passionate celebration by one woman of another woman’s achievement. Will this modern awakening of women bring us great women poets to sing inspired songs about their sisters?

Would it might be so! And would, too, that all our poets, both men and women, might inform their songs with some of Deborah’s passionate fire.

The spirit of the age appears to be tolerance. No doubt a very good spirit for an everyday, jog-trot life, but not so good for the making of poetry. It keeps us, to be sure, from burning at the stake those whose opinions differ from our own, but it also keeps us from burning ourselves at the stake of poetic fire. To write a big poem we must be able to ‘see red.’ We have nowadays that paralyzing attitude of mind that makes us think that, after all, our opponents may be as nearly right as ourselves. We are too much like the tribe of Reuben — ‘For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart. Why abodest thou among the sheep-folds, to hear the bleating of the flocks? ’

This hesitancy and mistrust, these searchings of heart, and particularly this haste to laugh at our own ideals before others can do it, has kept Pegasus in the sheep-fold, and a Pegasus so stabled will result in songs whose technique grows ever more perfect, and their passion more faint.

In his tribute to Shelley, Francis Thompson says, ‘In poetry as well as in the kingdom of God we should not take thought too greatly wherewith we should be clothed, but seek first the spirit and all these things shall be added unto us.’

How much do you suppose Deborah paused to find the best word? And yet here is her song as fresh and as pulsing with emotion as when she flung it triumphantly forth so many hundreds of years ago. Words were the servants of her emotion; not things to be wooed and cajoled, but things to be imperiously commanded.

She had found her Kingdom of Heaven, and the right words delighted to add themselves to it. If we cannot approve of Jael’s method of disposing of Sisera, we may at least learn something from Deborah’s method of making poetry.

I believe it is Mr. Chesterton who points out that we have no longer any great satirists because we have no longer any passionate beliefs about anything. And if this is true of satire it is much more true of poetry.

But is there not already a rekindling of spirit through the land? And are there not already the voices of new singers heard at the threshold, or those of old singers, singing with a new, more passionate note? Singers who are finding their kingdom of Heaven, and are imperiously able to command the right word? This new century, so packed with emotion and new ideals, must it not break down the walls of artificiality? Must it not create at least a few great poets of both sexes — Deborahs as well as Baraks — to voice its passion?

Well, ‘and the land had rest forty years.’ The lesson comes to an end and we return to the present. We remember the time and place, but for a few breathless, golden moments a Mother in Israel has shown us what abiding stuff words may become when played upon by tremendous emotion.