We all know this word, this mellifluous holy ululation of elation, this exclamation of exultation in exaltation. It is, in any language other than Hebrew, not a verb or a noun (except when converted to one to refer to the original: “I will hallelujah a hallelujah”); it is a thing you shout to laud the Lord and enjoin rejoicing. In the Hebrew original it is an imperative: hallelu “praise” yah “God”. Those familiar with the more charismatic strands of Christianity will know the parallel invocation praise the Lord!

Christmas is, of course, a hallelujah-­heavy season, thanks to various carols (some of which spell it alleluia) and, of course, the Hallelujah chorus from Händel’s Messiah, a work originally intended for Easter performance – the hallelujahs are for the resurrection – but now a Christmas staple. Hallelujah is a word that is beautifully well made for singing; every sound is a continuant, a “singable” sound – the opening breath, /h/, the pneuma, the ruach, the wind of the spirit; the vowels making the round of the mouth from /a/ to /e/ to /u/ and back to /a/, swirling like that whirlwind of the Word; the lovely liquids /l/ and /l/; the glide /j/, almost another vowel /i/. It’s like a falalalala that has gained its angel wings. The exultation and exaltation are further expressed orthographically by the raised arms of the h ll l h (or, in the alternate spelling, then ll l i).

If you should find yourself in an Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (such as the one my wife grew up attending), you may find in the pews books with the title Kiriku Laulu- ja Palveraamat. “Church song- and prayerbook.” Estonian for “song” is laul, the genitive of which is laulu, which is identical to the Finnish word for “song”. (“Life” in Estonian is elu; I will not say that Estonians see life as a song, but song is very important in Estonian culture: they have an annual song festival that involves much of the Estonian population, and it was through a “singing revolution” that they broke away from the USSR.)

A charming coincidence? Perhaps. Words for “sing” and “song” vary from language to language, and while they are mostly singable, I think Estonian and Finnish win the prize among those I have seen. Estonians and Finns are not the most exuberant people going; they have a certain nordic restraint. But I can’t think of hallelujah now without thinking of the scores of books in the pews of the church in which we were married.

Words for “praise” also vary from language to language, naturally, and the Latin is laudare, which is pretty much in the same line; others are usually less singable. Words for “god” are often somewhat less singable – typically shorter, often with a stop and/or a fricative. But Arabic, which is overall a very fluid language, manages one of the most melodic and alleluia-sounding phrases going in its basic confession of faith: lā ʾilāha ʾillā l-Lāh, “There is no god but God.” The equivalent Hebrew phrase is Adonai Eloheinu Adonai ehad, “the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” – not quite as liquid but still very singable.

But the basic human experience of transcendence and release is universal, extending beyond confession and creed. Even an atheist who would never exclaim praise to any asomatous entity will still, on achieving a hoped-for goal or avoiding a dreaded event, have an urge to shout a yahoo or yesss or even perhaps a nonsectarian hallelujah, just as he or she would surely gladly surrender to positive emotions at the sound of a lovely song. Why not?

And so Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah has caught on quite broadly (by the way, it is not Jeff Buckley’s song. He just did a cover version, and it’s not even the best cover version, as far as I’m concerned – I like kd lang’s better). It invokes a religious connection, as many of Cohen’s songs do (he is Jewish, still observant, but also a Zen Buddhist – not a contradiction, as he explains: “in the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief” – but he also has an at least modest fascination with the person of Jesus, who shows up in some of his songs: “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water”… see “Suzanne”). But it also has a very strong emotional and sexual connection, as, really, all of his songs do:

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

His hallelujah is a joy in the face of despair, a joy that owns despair because life has despair and despair is how we know joy:

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Even in the face of brokenness, the spirit must move upwards, reaching, hoping, singing. Such is the human condition: in the cold hollow light when the dream has dissipated and the reality may still elude you, you nonetheless look to be the lotus blossoming in the mud, a shining royal penny in the tea of aborted dreams. It is as in William Wordsworth:

The incumbent mystery of sense and soul,
Of life and death, time and eternity,
Admitted more habitually a mild
Interposition – a serene delight
In closelier gathering cares, such as become
A human creature, howsoe’er endowed,
Poet, or destined for a humbler name;
And so the deep enthusiastic joy,
The rapture of the hallelujah sent
From all that breathes and is, was chastened, stemmed
And balanced by pathetic truth, by trust
In hopeful reason, leaning on the stay
Of Providence; and in reverence for duty,
Here, if need be, struggling with storms, and there
Strewing in peace life’s humblest ground with herbs,
At every season green, sweet at all hours.

or as in Carl Sandburg:

The phantom of a yellow rooster flaunting a scarlet comb, on top of a dung pile crying hallelujah to the streaks of daylight

Hallelujah. The word for a nativity or resurrection, a goal achieved or evil defeated. Or perhaps simply the sound of a lost sailor alone on a little island, singing a solo “hello” in the surrounds of sea and sky, the eternal illative irruption of existence aware that it is, that it is.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting hallelujah and alleluia.

3 responses to “hallelujah

  1. By coincidence, this comic appeared immediately before this article in my RSS reader. It subverts the word a touch, though.

  2. Fascinating post! Thank you so much for the close attention you pay to the words we use.

  3. Your searchbox gives no result for inkhorn. You could have fun with that subject.

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