Formal Analysis And The Psalms -- By: Mary M. Crumpacker

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 24:1 (Mar 1981)
Article: Formal Analysis And The Psalms
Author: Mary M. Crumpacker

Formal Analysis And The Psalms

Mary M. Crumpacker*

Along with an increased interest in literary criticism have come new techniques for analyzing poetic works. One of these is formal analysis as practiced by the Chicago Critics.1 Formal analysis looks beyond metrics, prosodic molds, such as odes and sonnets, or conventions like Hebrew parallelisms, or any of the other interesting but external features of poetry, to a system of internal relationships. These relationships do not resemble the mechanical and impersonal ones Vern S. Poythress describes in his summary of structuralist approaches.2 And despite some verbal similarity, formal analysis is not Hermann Gunkel’s form criticism. Neither is it the cult-functional approach of Sigmund Mowinckel nor the time-historical one of Moses Buttenwieser. Instead it is a technique for approaching poems as unique artistic wholes to discover a system of inner relationships in which form and content are inseparable. These relationships, which I shall call the total intrinsic form, are best grasped by concrete illustrations.

My purpose is twofold: to provide examples of the method, and to give an idea of what this sort of approach can add to traditional grammatico-historical exegesis both in appreciating the poet’s artistry and in furnishing additional answers to hostile critics. For instance its principle of unity, as it applies to structure, meaning, and effect, should be especially helpful in choosing between the various possible translations of words. I have selected Psalms 1 and 51 partly because their brevity and familiarity should facilitate my task of illustrating the technique—or rather, the results of the technique—and partly because, in both cases, a formal analysis demonstrates that there is usually no artistic justification for the attacks of those who would undermine the inspiration of the Scriptures. Let us begin with an analysis of Psalm I and then examine how this can help us reply to one critic.

To arrive at the intrinsic form the critic asks three kinds of questions. These questions have to do with how each element (character, action, thought, image, or word) is introduced, why it occurs where it does, and how it relates to the others. A lyric poet seeks to paint an emotion, thought, intention, or some other intangible of this nature, to produce the most powerful effect possible within the limits of his art. This will require economy without sacrificing richness, and clarity without destroying unity of effect. With regard to the latter the poet generally aims to keep all of the elements before the reader’s mind so that th...

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