Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Stocks, Simon P., The Form and Function of the Tricolon in the Psalms of Ascents. Introducing a New Paradigm for Hebrew Poetic Line-form (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012). Pp. xv + 274. Softcover. US$32.00. ISBN 978-1-61097-808-8.

The volume under review contains the PhD thesis of Simon Stocks completed under David Firth at Cliff College, Derbyshire. Firth is now at St. John's College, University of Chester; Stocks is now at the Southeast Institute for Theological Education, London. The thesis is the fruit of research carried out by Stocks between 2007 and 2010 at Cliff College.

The monograph takes a close look at aspects of the poetry, structure, themes, and rhetoric of Pss 120–134. Particular attention is given to the division of each psalm into cola, lines, and strophes. The goal of the monograph is to investigate lines of verse divisible into three as opposed to the usual two parts. “Tricolon” is the adopted label for a tripartite line in ancient Hebrew verse, over against the more frequent “bicolon” and the rare to non-existent “monocolon.” With a minimum of hard and fast presuppositions, Stocks investigates the form and function of tricola in his corpus of choice. He also interacts in a responsible manner with a wide range of approaches to the same corpus, strophic, rhetorical, and thematic analyses included. Ultimately, Stocks shies away from generalizable conclusions in his discussion of the function of tricola and paratricola.

The corpus Stocks investigates is limited: roughly 120 lines of song across 15 biblical songs. Stocks identifies 117 lines and concludes that five of the 117 lines are to be classified with relative certainty as tricola, five as possible tricola, ten as probable and nine as possible “paratricola” (bicola in which the “a” colon is divisible in two roughly equal parts), and one as a monocolon.

By “tricolon” Stocks means a line of Hebrew verse half again as long as the bicola which dominate the corpus under review: grosso modo 3 + 3 + 3 versus 3 + 3 lines, according to the counting units of a strong stress theory of ancient Hebrew verse. Beyond what one might refer to as genuine tricola, Stocks focuses on another kind of line, lines that divide easily into three equal parts but which are no longer than a typical bicolon: grosso modo 2 + 2 + 2 lines. As already noted, he calls these lines “paratricola” and identifies ten relatively certain and nine possible cases in the corpus (pp. 180–81).

Stocks's overview of past research on tricola (pp. 3–8) and “theories of poetic structure” (ch. 2) is thorough and laced with pertinent observations. He chooses to adopt Jan Fokkelman's description of a well-formed colon—typically, six to nine syllables in length, with cola as short as four and as long as 12 syllables nonetheless allowed.[1] At the same time, Stocks wishes to ascribe normative value to the accents of the Masoretic tradition for the purposes of interpretation and proposes to use major disjunctive accents as a criterion for determining the boundaries of cola within a Masoretic pasuq or prosodic sentence and the boundaries of lines in pesuqim which contain more than one line of verse.

However, though he adopts Fokkelman's definition of a colon, Stocks and Fokkelman disagree in a very high percentage of cases when it comes to the subdivision of Masoretic pesuqim into tripartite lines (or into a bipartite followed by a monopartite line).

An author Stocks overlooks is Beat Weber.[2] Like Stocks, Weber pays a great deal of attention to form and function and divides psalms into cola, lines, and strophes on a case-by-case basis. Stocks's analysis represents an advance over that of Weber and Fokkelman thanks to the distinction Stocks makes between “true” tricola and “false” tricola, or paratricola.

Nonetheless, it is symptomatic of the arbitrary nature of prosodic analysis, if not undertaken within the bounds of a discriminating working hypothesis, that Fokkelman, Weber, and Stocks seldom agree on the identification and internal partition of lines except in the case of straightforward bicola.

With respect to the divisibility of lines into one, three, or four parts (Weber makes 128:5–6a into a tetracolon), Fokkelman, Weber, and Stocks concur in four cases only, to wit, that 123:4; 125:2; and 130:5, 6 are tripartite lines. Even this tiny list of agreements is compromised, since Fokkelman and Weber classify 130:5, 6 as tricola, whereas Stocks (rightly) identifies them as bicola with a longer, bipartite “a” colon (“paratricola”). In the following table, strong stress counts are given in the leftmost column; syllable counts in the adjacent column. Double-stressed orthographic units in the Hebrew are marked with a circulus where the second strong stress occurs.



הַבּוּז לִגְאֵיוֹנִים

הַלַּעַג הַשַּׁ֯אֲנַנִּים

רַבַּת שָׂבְעָה־לָּהּ נַפְשֵׁנוּ




מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם

וַיהוה סָבִיב לְעַמּוֹ

יְר֯וּשָׁלַםִ הָרִים סָבִיב לָהּ




וְלִ֯דְבָרוֹ הוֹחָלְתִּי


קִוִּיתִי יהוה קִוְּתָה נַפְשִׁי




שֹׁמְרִים לַבֹּקֶר


נַפְשִׁי לַאדֹנָי מִשֹּׁמְרִים לַבֹּקֶר


Fokkelman, Weber, and Stocks are sensitive, close readers of ancient Hebrew poetry. But without a strong hypothesis that stipulates prosodic constraints specific to identifiable varieties of ancient Hebrew verse, such that a majority of controversial cases are ruled in or out based on recursive induction and the hypothesis itself, there is no way to adjudicate between the findings of these three scholars.

As an example, the working hypothesis I published in 2007 rules out monocola and tetracola and stipulates, in the case of mashal and qinah meters, that each colon range in length from six to nine syllables, with four, five, and ten syllable cola also allowed but (against Fokkelman) eleven and twelve syllable cola disallowed.[3] The bicola of qinah and mashal poems are characterized almost without exception by a long “a” versus a shorter “b” colon in the case of qinah, and by roughly identical “a” and “b” cola in the case of mashal. True tricola in mashal and qinah poetry are rare; when they occur, they have a “c” colon with a length range very much like that of “a” and “b” cola: 5–9 syllables.

On this hypothesis:

(1) Pss 120–125, 128–130, and 133–134 are written in qinah meter, and Pss 126–127 and 131–132 in mashal meter.

(2) Almost all of Stocks's paratricola (unbalanced bicola with a longer “a” colon divisible into two roughly equal parts)—his “probable,” “possible,” and even some of his rejected paratricola—are confirmed (120:2, 3, 7; 121:4, 5, 8 [not 6]; 122:5; 124:6; 125:1, 3ab [not 5abc]; 126:1, 2abc, 2def [“b–a” paratricolon, very rare], 3; 127:2abc, 5abc; 130:5, 6; 133:3cde; 134: last word of 1 + 2a [with LXX]), with other cases to be so classified (120:5; 129:7; 132:17; 133:1). 130:5, 6 are set out in the table above.

(3) Four out of five of Stocks's probable tricola are confirmed (123:4; 125:2; 129:8; and 130:7; the lineation of 122:3–4 is a crux), with Stocks's “possible tricola” to be classified as a tricolon in one instance (128:5); paratricola in two instances (124:1, 2); and as two bicola, with Fokkelman and Weber, in another instance (131:2). 134:1–2 is a crux with the lineation offered by the LXX remaining the preferable guess. 123:4 and 125:2 are set out in the table above.

As this example hopefully shows, the interest of a strong working hypothesis is that in almost all cases, line identification and internal division of lines flow from the hypothesis itself, rather than from ad hoc judgments developed on a case-by-case basis.

The chief difference between the results obtained by Stocks and those obtained if the model I propose is applied is the classification of the Psalms of Ascents into two distinct varieties of meter both of which are well-attested in the larger corpus of ancient Hebrew verse: qinah or long/short meter and mashal meter.

In sum, this volume by Stocks is marked by sound judgment and a breadth of interaction with previous scholarship. The distinction Stocks makes between “true” and “false” tricola is helpful. However, Stocks fails to put forward a testable model of ancient Hebrew verse capable of being confirmed or disconfirmed on a case-by-case basis.

John F. Hobbins University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

[1] J. P. Fokkelman, The Psalms in Form: The Hebrew Psalter in its Poetic Shape (Leiden: Deo, 2002). reference

[2] Beat Weber, Werkbuch Psalmen II. Die Psalmen 73 bis 150 (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2003). reference

[3] John F. Hobbins, “Regularities in Ancient Hebrew Verse: A New Descriptive Model,” ZAW 119 (2007), 564–85. reference