Poem of the Week

A Patriotic Poem People Really Should Listen to Before Singing

Rahel the Poetess suggests quieter ways than warfare to fete one's homeland. Plant a tree, for instance.

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To My Country

Rahel Bluwstein

I’ve not hymned you, my land,
Nor glorified your name
With tales of bravery,
Many battles’ spoils.
My hands just planted trees
The Jordan’s banks are still
My feet just beat a path
Walking through fields.

Yes very scant indeed
This, Mother, I knew
Yes very scant indeed,
Your daughter’s gift,
Just a joyous shout
On the day the light breaks through
Just hidden bursts of tears
At your impoverishment.

Tel Aviv, 1926. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden with Maya Eden

This poem answers the question: How has the poet expressed love of her country – pre-state Palestine, the land of Israel, under the Ottomans and the British Mandate, to which she came in 1909?

Known to every Israeli, it is sung to Yehuda Sharett’s music at ceremonies and sing-alongs with that pious look of honoring the Zionist heritage while not paying much attention to the words.

In fact, it is critical of unthinking patriotism. Rahel Bluwstein (1890- 1931), called “Rahel the Poetess,” contrasts belligerent patriotism to true love of the land.

The poet opens with spectacular things she has not done: She has not composed stirring patriotic songs, she has not praised her land to the skies, she has not written about heroes and prizes of battles. She probably had in mind stirring anthems like La Marseillaise (“The day of glory has arrived Form your battalions), from France where she studied agronomy or “God Save the Tsar” (“Dread of his enemies / Faith’s sure defender”), from Imperial Russia, where she was born. By listing things she hasn’t done she is, paradoxically, doing them without doing them. The “I” here is the poet, making it clear that she is using her poetic voice in a different way.

In the next bit, she says what she has done; the doers are her hands and feet rather than her poetic persona and the deeds, practical rather than rhetorical, are prefaced by the word “just,” meaning “merely” or “only.” She has planted trees (a major pioneering enterprise) and has walked through fields: Agriculture was the mainstay of the pioneering ethos to which she subscribed.

Then, with further conspicuous modesty – if that isn’t a total tautology -- “scant” (or “meager”) appears twice. Russian and English call the native land the “motherland” and the Hebrew word is derived from the root for birth. The poet revives the moribund metaphor by addressing the land as Mother and referring to herself as a daughter.

Rahel Bluwstein
Wikipedia

The mother, of course, is a Jewish mother and the daughter seems to ask forgiveness for not living up to some high expectations. Yet the daughter loves her and is prepared to share her emotions openly: Once the dream of the homeland is fulfilled – “the day the light breaks through” is in the future tense – she will shout with joy and in the meantime she weeps for the land’s – the mother’s – poverty, both physical and spiritual.

*Bonus: Chava Alberstein understands the words: