Biblical implications of the expression “seven times” in the poem “The sterile seed” by José Zacarías Tallet

By: Ernesto Caveda and Ariel Arjona

The biblical scriptural tradition, in its oral and textual form, spans an extensive period of approximately 1,500 years. This tradition produced an extensive collection that, within its Judeo-Christian canonical expression, has an average of about eighty books (taking into account the Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Ethiopian and Protestant versions of the canon). As with any religious text, the biblical corpus is closely linked to the mentality of the sociocultural context that produced it. Its content is located (although not absolutely conditioned) in a specific historical space. Therefore, it reflects the psychosocial expressions characteristic of his time (worldviews, imageries, literary topics) as well as the changing interpretive paradigms that shaped these expressions.

Within the framework of the mentality underlying the biblical text, the number seven has a special value. Seven is associated with the idea of ​​‘fullness, perfection, completeness, completeness’ and therefore, closely linked to the theological sphere and to the vision of divine nature. In this essay, this sense is displayed in the reading of the poem “The sterile seed”, by José Zacarías Tallet. For the reading of the biblical implications in Tallet’s poem, the context of the number seven is exposed first and the subsequent expression seven times. Then, it continues with a global summary of Tallet’s poem in order to finish by displaying the use of the biblical sense of the expression seven times in its relation to the theme of the poem.

In principle, the semantic association around the expression seven times is framed from the production of the public language itself. For example, in Hebrew, the cardinal number “seven” (שֶׁבַע šě · ḇǎʿ) except for a diacritical point, 1 is written exactly the same as the word “abundance, fullness” (שָׂבָע śā · ḇāʿ) .2 However, the linkage either way did not result in a proprietary use for the Hebrew context. We can also find it in several peoples associated with the Semitic linguistic group (Arabic, Mesopotamian, Aramaic and Canaanite peoples). However, the inheritance and subsequent influence of this semantic value for the number seven within the Hebrew mentality, transcends the purely mathematical and astronomical limits of its use, to become strongly rooted in the most dissimilar spheres of culture. In this way, different references to the number seven are found within the discourse of biblical cosmogony, as evidenced, for example, in the fact that the creation had been completed in seven days. Then, it also refers us to elements of the identity and national memory of Israel. Here the cases of the seven nations of Canaan and the seven days that the days to the walls of Jericho lasted stand out. Finally, the meaning of the expression seven also appears in the configuration of the civil-religious calendar (which has a hebdomadario cycle of festivities).

In the New Testament, they are worth highlighting: the sevenfold principle by which both genealogies of Jesus are structured (Mt 1.1 and Lc 3.23); the mention of the seven evil spirits that Mary Magdalene had (Lk 8.2) perhaps expressing the complete degree of moral corruption to which she had reached. Probably in the Apocalypse the symbolism of the number seven reaches its maximum literary expression. In the visions are counted: seven churches (1.4), seven lampstands (1.13), seven stars (1.16), seven spirits (1.4; 4.5), seven seals (5.1), seven horns and seven eyes (5.6), seven trumpets in hands of seven angels (8.2ss.), seven thunders (10.3-4), seven heads with diadems (12.3) and seven plagues (15.1ff.). In the specific case of the expression “seven times”, and its presence within the biblical imaginary, we can find many more significant examples, but ultimately, most of the time, both in Hebrew and in Greek, this expression conveys the idea of fullest number of possible attempts for a given act.

Brief examples of this symbolic meaning, within memorable biblical passages are: the seven times that the priest annually had to sprinkle the blood in the sanctuary to atone for the sins of the people (Lev 4.6); the seven times that Elijah’s servant went up to see the coming rain (1R 18.43); the seven times that Naaman the Syrian had to immerse himself in the Jordan River, to be definitively healed of his leprosy (2R 5.14); the seven times that the fiery furnace was heated where Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego were to be punished by order of Nebuchadnezzar (Dn 3.19). And, in addition to all the aforementioned, there are also the various mentions within the poetic and wisdom literature.3 At this point, it must be added that seven appears intimately related to working life. Thus, one rests on the seventh day, Shabbat, when the work week has reached its “fullness”. Then, particularly in agriculture, it is mandatory that the farmlands rest for a full year, after seven years of exploitation. And it is precisely from this section, in relation to the direct work of the land, that the discursive economy of “The sterile seed” (33-34) is framed. In short, this poem develops the story of a sower who fails seven times to germinate his field of cultivation: “He saw the long-awaited spring pass seven times, / and in vain seven times he waited for his harvest …”. Although it is not the end of the story, this failure determines the subject discursively.

In 1958, during the lecture series Lo cubano en la poesía, Cintio Vitier frames Tallet’s poetic intentionality from the fact that: “he had the right to understand the poetic possibilities of vulgarity, of everyday nothingness, of individual failure and collective, and of everything that then […] could seem pedestrian and antipoetic par excellence ”(364) .4 It is not that Tallet was rejecting the archetypal transcendentality of the poetic, but rather that he seeks to reformulate the expression of said transcendentality from a formal point of view. That is why he moves away from the aesthetic molds that governed until the end of the nineteenth century, in order to thus delve into the narrative fabric of daily contingency. In the poem “The sterile seed”, the first thing that stands out in reading is the simple composition of the text. Without appealing to the use of jitanjáforas, the poem describes an individual who tries to cultivate the field without success in the action of it.

Thus, from the first stanza of the poem, the poetic subject, the smiling sower, is introduced, who later appears linked to the field from the intimate existential connection produced by direct work with the land: “The sower, young man overflowing with happiness, / in the ineffable dawn, to the garden of life / went out to sow ”. In the second stanza, the discursive intention is maintained by indicating that the germination gesture, the work of cultivating the seeds in the field, comes from the heart of the subject. In this way, a close relationship is established between the subject’s body and his field of work. This link is corroborated in the third stanza, where the sonorous sensation of pleasure in the song of the birds is described, along with the execution of the work in the field. And thus close to two verses that are fundamental to the poetic intention that has been described. Verses 13 and 14 of the poem express, in a direct way, the transfiguration of the body of the poetic subject in the figure of his work that, in short, represents the appropriation of the land. “And while he sowed his / her golden seed, he gladly watered it with sweat from his brow.” The corporal is revealed as a formal extension of the initial intention of the poetic subject.

The fifteenth verse proposes a turn in the poem, since it inaugurates the end of the working day. That is, after work, what remains is the expectation of the result of the work. Thus, the next two stanzas are very particular in detailing the image of absolute rest. On the one hand, the reference to the relationship between the poetic subject and the field of cultivation is suspended; on the other, it refers to an element of time that completes the symbolic meaning of space. So, in the seventh stanza, when the sterility of the earth is presented, what is done is to contextualize the feeling of frustration of the poetic subject, from the perspective of an object that does not legitimize his work. The result is a scene in which the poetic subject only finds frustration. Thus, in the eighth stanza, the bodily element that waters the field is not the sweat of work, but the cry of disappointment. “Afflicted, the young man went around the field, / again watered the crops with his tears.” However, after the continuity of the cycle that leads to the infertile verification of the cultivated field, the sower ends with “a strange smile”. While, with the final verses of the poem, the historical sense of the appropriation of the land is represented, the strange smile is the grimace that guarantees a new image about the discourse of the land that is later manifested in all the republican social criticism of those years. This is the pessimistic sense that dominates much of Tallet’s poetics, whose cut comes from the political positioning of the insular literate city in the nascent republican period. Tallet and many other authors of that time embrace the idea of ​​Enrique José Varona, that republican Cuba was the twin sister of colonial Cuba.

Once the general meaning of the poem, of pessimism anchored to the earth, has been presented, the importance of the verse that refers to the biblical expression “seven times” is understood. As explained in the first section, the expression “seven times” is the number of possible attempts for a certain act. No matter its context, this idea denotes the rigor of completeness in the action predicate. In “The sterile seed”, at the end of the poem, when the sower has failed “seven times” in his attempt to germinate his harvest, what actually happens is that, from a symbolic point of view, the sower exhausts the amount of possible attempts to germinate the crop field. Once the seventh time has been completed, the sower has no choice but to walk away with a strange grin. What does this grimace imply? In Tallet’s text there are no verses left to display the trace of pain. But from a certain point of view, the doll could also represent a figure of irony in the sower. Sorrowful grimace, ironic grimace: seven times, grimace. How to understand the tragedy of his effort between the sacrifice of her innocent devotion and the certainty of his frustrated experience?

The poetic work of José Zacarías Tallet has been worked on very little, if one considers how much has been said about his political work. Unlike other poets, the collection of poetry The sterile seed is his only book of avant-garde poetry and was published late, in 1953, although it had been written since the 1920s. However, the literary merit of his work is reflected in the fact Tallet has received the 1984 National Prize for Literature, in its second edition, even before other much better known writers and with a greater work such as Eliseo Diego, Dulce María Loynaz and Cintio Vitier. This award is sustained when it is considered that his poetic work constitutes a meditation on the insular being during the republican period. In the poem “The sterile seed”, as reflected in this essay, the biblical referentiality of the expression “seven times” articulates the narrative meaning of the failed action that persists on the experience of failure until its last consequences. Ω



Cited works

Swanson, J .: Dictionary of Biblical Languages ​​with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament), Oak Harbor, Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Tallet, J. Z .: Poetry and prose, Havana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1979.

Vitier, C .: The Cuban in poetry, Havana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1970.




[1] It is interesting that both HALOT and Swanson record the hypothetical form שֶׁבַע (lit. seven) associated with the text of Proverbs (3.10), substituting the word שָׂבָע “abundance”. That is, in some cases both words would appear written without any diacritical difference. Thus, the text would read almost literally: “And your barns will be filled with seven, and your presses will overflow with new wine” (translated from the Hebrew by Ernesto Caveda).

2 According to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages ​​with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament), this term refers to a: “condition of plenty and more than enough (Ge 41.29, 30, 31, 34, 47, 53; Pr 3.10; Ecc 5.11 [EB 12] +) ”(a“ condition of abundance and more than sufficient ”).

3 We believe that the two best examples can be, within the Psalms: “Seven times a day I praise you because of your just judgments” (Ps 119.164); and within Proverbs: “But if he is caught he will pay seven times; he will give up all the assets of his house ”(Pr 6.31). For the prophets, we have selected Isaiah 30.26 speaking about redemption: “And the light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun seven times greater, like the light of seven suns, on the day the Lord will sell it. wound of his people… ”.

4 Vitier also indicates that Tallet’s work is determined by: “the bitterly prosaic flatness of his verses and the depth of wounded sentimental candor that transpires. Frustration, mediocrity, inertia, impotence, are his constant themes, but always surrounded by self-irony, losing his composure in the dissolving atmosphere of choteo ”(360). Incidentally, these elements are the ones that relate Tallet’s work to the republican malaise managed in the 1920s and 1930s that produced other texts such as La convulnsión cubana (1906) by Roque Garrigó, Cuba y su evolution colonial (1907) by Francisco Figueras. , the Manual of the perfect fulanista (1916), by José A. Ramos, La decadencia cubana (1924) by Fernando Ortiz, Indagación del choteo (1929) by Jorge Mañach and El cubano, ostruz del trópico (1934) by Enrique Gay Galbó.

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