Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

The Israeli writers of Amichai’s generation were born between 1915 and 1930. They were either born in Palestine or had immigrated there when very young. They were the first generation to speak Hebrew as their mother tongue, and they were the first to have grown up in the Israeli landscape with its biblical references. Amichai’s personality as a poet is a reflection and distillation of this generation, typified by his identification with Israel’s historic processes, his argument with Jewish Orthodoxy, and his perspective on contemporary society. He declared that all poetry is to an extent autobiographical, meaning that it allows insight into the mind and heart of the writer. The lyric “I” that pervades his poetry is a poetic myth of himself, derived not only from his life events but also from biblical motifs, including victories of ancient heroes such as King Saul. The characteristic long runs of metaphors and similes are linked by the spokesman who is at the core of the described experience.

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A sense of loss in contemporary life is the mood that dominates “King Saul and I.” In addition to individual sets of antithetical lines, the poem as a whole is built on the antithesis between the biblical Saul and “I”; “I” refers to a generalized speaker rather than to a totally individualized one. In every comparison between King Saul and the modern speaker, the speaker is timid, derivative (“I got his used clothes”), and diminished. In this way the poem typifies the social and political disillusionment of Amichai’s generation with a state of Israel that had failed to create the agrarian, utopian community for which they had fought.

Amichai’s poetry is not strictly chronological. His verse rests on the processes of remembering and forgetting, and through the procedures of memory time becomes an individual, existential, nonhistorical time. The poet is not remembering past events but incorporating them into the desires and disappointments of his present. Time is important in this poem; King Saul’s heart is set “like an alarm clock,” and “Dead prophets turned time-wheels.” Significantly, the asses that King Saul was seeking at the beginning of his own story are still present and have been found by the speaker, although he does not know how to handle them. A bridge is thus created between the past and present.

The dualism so prominent in this poem is characteristic of the body of Amichai’s work and points to conflicts in the poet’s own autobiography. Personal oppositions are a model for oppositions in the poetry and provide a method of perception which allows a thing and its opposite to be perceived at the same time. The “I” of the poetry speaks from the tension between incompatible poles of his life: past and present, orthodoxy and apostasy; love and death; and two different languages, German and Hebrew. The reference to sleeping and dreaming in “King Saul and I” introduces one more opposition; that of the real and the illusory. In another of Amichai’s poems, “This Is the Story of Dust,” the poet tells readers that “between my going out in the morning/ and my return in the evening half of what is to happen happens/ and in my sleep, the other half.” Amichai’s precise imagery is designed to force awareness of the vital contradictions that shape both his life and that of his nation.

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