The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Written in the first person, “King Saul and I” is a poem of fifty-five lines divided into three sections. As the title suggests, the poem is based on a comparison of the lives of the legendary King Saul and the author. The tone of the poem indicates that the poet is speaking directly to the reader, undisguised, in the classic tradition of lyric poetry.

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Section 1 has three stanzas. The first stanza emphasizes the difference between king and poet in the opening two lines: “They gave him a finger, but he took the whole hand.” By contrast, the poet has been offered “the whole hand” but did not “even take the little finger.” This is followed by a reference to King Saul’s “tearing of oxen,” which refers to the king’s action when he needed to raise an army to defend the Israelites against the Ammonites. He cut up a yoke of oxen and sent the pieces throughout Israel, threatening to do the same to the oxen of the men who would not join him. The second stanza has four lines which again emphasize the difference: The poet’s pulse was like “drips from a tap”; the king’s, like hammers pounding. The third stanza states the relationship between the two in a slightly different way. “He was my big brother,” the poet says, and in a homey, familiar image, adds that he got the king’s used clothes.

King Saul is the subject of the second section. The first two-line stanza is a simile, comparing the king’s head to a compass that will always bring him to the “sure north of his future.” The “sure north” refers to the north pole, necessary for navigating precisely. This section ends with a reference to the asses in the story of King Saul in the first book of Samuel from the Old Testament. It is typical of Yehuda Amichai to juxtapose images from modern life with biblical images, defining the cultural heritage from which he creates literature. The ass image is continued into the third section of the poem. When King Saul was looking for his father’s lost asses, he inquired of King Samuel, the prophet, which way he should go. Samuel recognized and embraced him as a prince of Israel, and Saul gave up his search for the asses. In a bold leap of time from the Old Testament to the modern era, Amichai writes that he, the poet, has now found the asses, “But I don’t know how to handle them./ They kick me.”

Other references to the story of King Saul abound. The third section of the poem tells of the anointing of Saul, of the people who were below his shoulders when he came among them, and of his triumph. Yet the poem ends in a series of couplets that create a mood of resigned weariness, ending with “He is a dead king. I am a tired man.” Glory, power, and victory are associated with Old Testament time, while in contemporary time the poet leads a weary, diminished life.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

Amichai’s career is the longest and most productive in the history of modern Hebrew literature, and he is the most widely read Israeli poet, both in the original Hebrew and in English translation. Although something is always lost in poetic translation, Amichai has a formidable reputation among American readers. He grew up in an Orthodox household but abandoned formal religious practice in his adolescence. He retained his love for the poetry of the Jewish liturgy, which he exploits in his work. “Words are a new beginning with the stones of the past,” he said in an address to a writers convention in Jerusalem in 1968: “No matter how small these stones are or how broken they are the new building will be stronger.”

Many early biblical documents, such as the Song of Deborah, the Song of Moses, and the Song of Songs, are couched in rhythmic verse, and even the historical prose in the Pentateuch and the stories of Esther and Ruth are close to poetry in their cadenced sentences. The ethical ideas that contribute to Western civilization made their impact because they were written in poetic language. Instead of developing a symmetry of poetic feet, which is the unifying principle of Western poetry, Hebrew poetry developed a symmetry of units called parallelism. There are essentially three types of parallelism: sameness, antithesis (or opposition), and complement. A good example of sameness in the poem is the couplet “My sleep is just/ My dream is my verdict.” A solemn sense of justice is suggested in the first line, and the second line, in parallel syntax, reinforces the judgmental quality of his life.

Antithesis is the main device used to organize the poem and create tension. The two opening lines are based on antithesis, and the poem ends with a series of parallel oppositions: “My arms are short, like string too short/ to tie a parcel./ His arms are like the chains in a harbor/ For cargo to be carried across time./ He is a dead king./ I am a tired man.” Another interesting use of antithesis describes the poet’s life: “I was raised with the straw,/ I fell with heavy seeds.” This couplet is also complementary, for although the verbs “raised” and “fell” are antonyms, the second line extends the metaphor in which the poet is a crop growing from the land.

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Themes