Renaissance translations of the Psalms are maybe the closest English poetry comes to what we encounter in the religious paintings of Renaissance art: variations on standard subjects, which are exceptional in the opportunity they offer for imagining divine love, human suffering, and the alloying of the one onto the other. Keeping Renaissance religious paintings in mind when we read the Psalms might be helpful in another way too: they are representations of an ideal type rather than self-portraits. In them, we find literary equivalents to the set-pieces of religious painting. The utterances of David and Israel afford poets the chance to discover anew, in English, what human cries to God might look like–or rather, what they sound like. The challenge of the Psalms is not invention, not the discovery of new subject matter, but instead composition and color, the decision of how to find an appropriate meter and suitable diction for David’s voice. They are, in effect, depictions of the human voice, as its outward utterance resolves itself with the inner striving of an exemplary will; in contrast, the depictions of the human form in the religious painting resolve the outward movement with the inner striving of exemplary will. Yesterday, I saw Michelangelo’s drawing of the resurrected Christ (it can be seen by scrolling down the page I link to here) and wondered what the literary equivalent of that upward sweep of surprise and urgency of a single human-divine form might look be; I think one answer is the Psalms, not because they are divine but because they depict a voice in comparable poses.
Any successful translation of the Psalms then will depend on the disposition of the voice on the page, in the service of whatever urgency, aspiration, or humility; whatever the particular posture, it is to be ideal, an exemplar, and not therefore what we find in, say, Hopkins’ terrible sonnets, which, for their religious intensity, resemble a post-Romantic painting. The orientation of voice on the page and the adjustment of sound to sense are resistant to criticism, but to appreciate the greatness of Mary Sidney’s translation of the Psalms (she lived 1561-1621; her brother, the more famous poet and courtier, Philip Sidney, translated the first 43 psalms until his death in 1586, and sometime soon after she took up the task of translating the remaining 107) to see how they are a high watermark of English poetry, they need to be acknowledged.
Fortunately, where appreciative criticism is inarticulate when confronted with the position of the voice in the line and on the page, comparison with later and earlier poets can illuminate. To hear Sidney’s success in this psalm, keep in mind Hopkins, and think of how she preserves in its ideal form the willing and willfulness of prayer that his poetry presents, self-consciously, intentionally, in a ruefully fallen form. The opening of Psalm 115:
Not us, I say, not us
But thine own name respect, eternal Lord,
And make it glorious
To show thy mercy and confirm thy word.
Why, Lord, why should these nations say:
“Where doth your God now make his stay?”
You ask where our God is?
In heav’n enthron’d, no mark of mortal eye;
Nor hath, nor will he, miss
What likes his will, to will effectually.
What are your idols? we demand:
Gold, silver, works of workmen’s hand.
The density of the stresses, the abrupt turns of address, and the compounded clauses (“nor hath, nor will he”), are appreciated because of what Hopkins can teach us to hear in them; saying so is not to subordinate them to Hopkins, but to ask Hopkins to serve and elucidate their achievement.
She is a master of what Pound called melopoeia, the charging of words through their musical properties; again the example of Hopkins tunes the ear to what how she tunes language, but also serves as a contrast, since her extremes register, I think, an inspired coherence of self, rather than a fracturing. The third stanza of Psalm 58:
Lord, crack their teeth! Lord, crush these lions’ jaws!
So let them sink as water in the sand;
When deadly bow their aiming fury draws,
Shiver the shaft ere past the shooter’s hand.
So make them melt as the dishoused snail
Or as the embryo, whose vital band
Breaks ere it holds, and formless eyes do fail
To see the sun, though brought to lightful land.
The self that she presents, however, is not intimate with her own voice; it is instead comparable to the selfhood of Christ we see in one of El Greco’s paintings of Christ casting the money changers from out of the temple. The alliterative effects that she, like Hopkins, deploys are found elsewhere, with a modulation of intensity suitable to verse form and occasion; the potential for excess is recognized, but the verse does not break beneath it, any more than David or Israel breaks. See in her translation of Psalm 74 how the alliterative effects rise and then subside:
As men with axe on arm
To some thick forest warm
To lop the trees which stately stand,
They to thy temple flock
And, spoiling, cut and knock
The curious works of carving hand.
Thy most, most holy seat
The greedy flames do eat
And have such ruthless ruin wrought
That all thy house is rased,
So rased and so defac’d
That of that all remaineth nought.
Nay, they resolved are
We all alike share fare,
All of one cruel cup shall taste.
For not one house doth stand
Of God in all the land
But they by fire have laid it waste.
The last verse, attesting the intended conflagration of all of God’s people and all of their lands, does not itself go up in flames; the threat of fire, and the fire in the earlier stanza, and the outpouring of enthusiastic agony in the alliteration, has been contained by the prayer and the voice. At the same time, the alliterative effects of the central stanza opened themselves to, and allowed the voice to bear the stress and strain of, the destruction that was wrought.
Hopkins is one touchstone; Tennyson provides another. That such divergent masters of meter serve to fix the sound of her poetry testifies to its range of feeling as well as form. Here from her translation of Psalm 139:
Do thou thy best, O secret night,
In sable veil to cover me,
Thy sable veil
Shall vainly fail;
With day unmask’d my night shall be,
For night is day, and darkness light,
Of father of all lights, to thee.
Each inmost piece in me is thine:
While yet I in my mother dwelt,
All that me clad
From thee I had.
Thou in my fame hast strangely dealt;
Needs in my praise thy works must shine,
So inly them my thoughts have felt.
It is tempting to think that we notice the central ABBA In Memoriam stanza because of the subject matter common to both the Elizabethan and Victorian poems: their vulnerable self-reflection, the sense that the poet, in looking inward, is growing smaller against the night and universe to which he stands exposed (but in fact, all that changes is the scale of proportion). But in fact, it is not the ABBA rhyme that anticipates Tennyson’s stanza, but the underlying principle of the stanza: rhymes embracing rhymes. Hence I hear Tennyson most clearly when I come to the penultimate and ultimate lines, “shine” reaching back to “thine” and “light to night,” but also “felt” to “dwelt” and “thee” to “me.” I suspect that hearing these touchingly reaching rhymes, we are made to feel also the isolation, smallness, and utter dependency of the poet.
If we take Tennyson and Hopkins as occupying opposing ends of an axis of metrical and melopoetic effects, we should be more impressed when Sidney accommodates both into the same lines, as she does in the stanza that follows in Psalm 139:
Thou, how my back was beam-wise laid
And raft’ring of my ribs, dost know;
Know’st ev’ry point
Of bone and joint
How to this whole these parts did grow,
In brave embroid’ry fair array’d
Though wrought in shop both dark and low.
The price of metrical ambition might be distortion of syntactical norm and so a fracturing of the sense to achieve a harmony of the voice. But where Sidney does so, there is semantic reward. From Psalm 147:
The stately shape, the force of bravest steed,
Is far too weak to work in him delight;
No more in him can any pleasure breed
In flying footman, foot of nimblest flight.
Nay, which is more, his fearers in his sight
Can well of nothing but his bounty brave;
Which, never failing, never lets them need
Who fix’d their hopes upon his mercies have.
O then, Jerusalem, Jehovah praise,
With honour due thy God, O Sion, raise.
“Can well of nothing but his bounty brave” tests a limit; it might seem at first that “who fix’d their hopes upon his mercies have” breaks that limit. But “have” is not set down only as an auxiliary verb attached to “fix’d”: severed thus from the verb, it floats free, able to take on the semantic charge of possession and to speak, accordingly, to all that those who fear and trust in God; it cancels and redeems “the need” that they might feel, as God does the same.
In Psalm 147, as in others, the mastery of meter and music lies not only within lines, or within stanza form, but also within the sudden shifts of musical achievement between stanzas, while the form and meter remain constant. The stanza following that just discussed (“thy God, O Sion, raise”):
His strength it is thy gates doth surely bar;
His grace in thee thy children multiplies;
By him thy borders lie secure from wars,
And finest flour thy hunger satisfies.
Nor means he needs; for fast his pleasure flies
Borne by his word, when aught him list to bid.
Snow’s woolly locks by him wide scatter’d are,
And hoary plains with frost, as ashes, hid;
Gross icy gobbets from his hand he flings,
And blows a cold too strong for strongest things.
A more perfect ripening of lyric is difficult to fathom.