06 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 6

Today is both Good Friday and the first night of Passover, so it seems only suitable to turn to the Psalms, a collection of ancient Hebrew poetry which (as translated in the King James Bible), has had a deep influence on English literature generally. This is also poetry that has profoundly touched, moved, and inspired people who don't normally read other poetry. Here are three versions of one of the most celebrated of these songs, Psalm 130.

From the King James Bible (1611):

A song of degrees.
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.
My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

The next version actually predates the King James Bible. The so-called Sidney Psalter was begun by Sir Philip Sidney, who translated the first 43 Psalms before his death in battle in 1586, after which his sister, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, revised and completed the translation of the whole Book of Psalms. Like her brother, she had a humanist education and like him worked off Latin, French, and Italian translations rather than the Hebrew originals. Their translation circulated in manuscript and was known among poets and literary connoisseurs, but it was not published until the early nineteenth century. Oxford World's Classics has recently republished the Sidney Psalter, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Hannibal Hamlin, Michael G. Brennan, Margaret P. Hannay, and Noel Kinnamon. The Introduction has a very interesting discussion of the cultural context of the translation and the Sidney siblings' reasons for choosing a wide variety of meters. You can buy a copy of the book here and luxuriate in the thought that you can so easily acquire something John Donne could only borrow in manuscript. In the second stanza, "cark" means burden.

De profundis.
From depth of grief
Where drowned I lie,
Lord, for relief
To thee I cry:
My earnest, vehement, crying, praying,
Grant quick, attentive hearing, weighing.

O Lord, if thou
Offenses mark,
Who shall not bow
To bear the cark?
But with thy justice mercy dwelleth,
And makes thy worship more excelleth,

Yea, makes my soul
On thee, O Lord,
Dependeth whole,
And on thy word,
Though sore with blot of sin defaced,
Yet surest hope hath firmly placed.

Who longest watch,
Who soonest rise,
Can nothing match
The early eyes,
The greedy eyes my soul erecteth,
While God's true promise it expecteth.

Then, Israel,
On God attend:
Attend him well,
Who still thy friend,
In kindness hath thee dear esteemed,
And often, often erst redeemed.

Now, as before,
Unchanged he
Will thee restore,
Thy state will free,
All wickedness from Jacob driving
Forgetting follies, faults forgiving.

The final version is from Robert Alter's 2007 Translation with Commentary of the Book of Psalms, scrupulously translated from the original Hebrew:

A song of ascents.
From the depths I called you, Lord.
Master, hear my voice.
May your ears listen close to the voice of my plea.
Were You, O Yah, to watch for wrongs,
Master, who could endure?
For forgiveness is Yours,
so that You may be feared.
I hoped for the Lord, my being hoped,
and for His word I waited.
My being for the Master –
more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.
Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,
for with the Lord is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him.
And He will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs.


Civic Center said...

One of the most unintentionally disturbing things I have ever read in my entire long, widely read life was the Old Testament. I was a 16-year-old working as a ski lift operator in Squaw Valley, living in a weird SRO in Tahoe City with hardly any money, and reading any classic I could get my hands on at the tiny Tahoe City library. That's where I read "The Magic Mountain," the first half of "Remembrance of Things Past" ("Cities of the Plain" defeated me), and the Old Testament in a brilliant, historically informed then-new British translation from Oxford in the late 1960s.

So thanks for the three wildly divergent translations of Old Testament text, but it reminded me of my initial reaction in Lake Tahoe, which is that I was appalled by the vengeful, cowering, sacred text, and probably always will be.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Interesting, and thanks for the vividly sketched encounter with the Old Testament. But it's such a varied book (or, more accurately, collection of books) -- did you feel that way about the entire thing, including the Psalms, or just parts? One reason I chose this particular psalm is that I think it captures a truly universal human experience of profound dejection and a hope for hope, regardless of time, place, or particular spiritual beliefs. But to each his or her own: there are as many reactions as readers.