Mary Sidney is among the greatest Elizabethan poets in English, her translations of the psalm an achievement of a style both abrupt and mellifluous. Here is her translation of Psalm 120, with the near-contemporary King James Version and the earlier (1560, revised 1599) Geneva Bible translation preceding it:
I called unto the Lord in my trouble, and he heard me.
Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.
What doth thy deceitful tongue bring unto thee? or what doth it avail thee?
It is as the sharp arrows of a mighty man, and as the coals of Juniper.
Woe is to me that I remain in Meshech, and dwell in the tents of Kedar.
My soul hath too long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
I seek peace, and when I speak thereof, they are bent to war.
King James Bible:
In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me.
Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!
My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.
As to th’Eternall often in anguishes
Erst have I called, never unanswered,
Againe I call, again I calling
Doubt not againe to receave an answer.
Lord ridd my soule from treasonous eloquence
Of filthy forgers craftily fraudulent:
And from the tongue where lodg’d resideth
Poison’d abuse, ruine of beleevers.
Thou that reposest vainly thy confidence
In wily wronging; say by thy forgery
What good to thee? what gaine redoundeth?
What benefitt from a tongue deceitfull?
Thought like an arrow strongly delivered
It deeply pierce, though like to a Juniper
It coals doe cast, which quickly fired,
Flame very hott, very hardly quenching?
Ah God! too long heere wander I banished,
Too long abiding barbarous injury:
With Kedar and with Mesech harbour’d,
How? in a tent, in a howslesse harbour.
Too long, alas, too long have I dwelled here
With frendly peaces furious enemies:
Who when to peace I seeke to call them,
Faster I find to the warre they arme them.
The poem is an exemplar of poetry’s sensuous reason. The metrical experimentation, characteristic of her intellectual circles, is uncharacteristic in its success. Though I can’t say what precedent she imitates, I wonder whether she is not playing on a variation of sapphics; in either case, the poem abounds in trochees. What matters for the reader, though, is the consequent cadence: with the trochaic substitutions, each line pulls up and against the natural fall of English, and the stressed syllables, where the iambs thrust against trochees, cluster suddenly, and then wash out in unstressed lulls. The voice drives into a wind, on a stormy sea.
It is both undaunted and fatigued: “again” repeats three times in the first line, the repetition a boast of faith but also a show of patience, a testament to suffering. God never fails to answer, but God must answer repeatedly. The poem frequently testifies to a grinding monotony, an inability to move on. The first simile: “As…again I call” is not so much a comparison since the point is that the two halves are identical: in the way that I once called God in anguish, thus I call him again, still believing but also still suffering. There is the full rhyme of “unanswered and answered,” where the latter word does more than answer to the former: it negates it, as its opposite, but also returns to it: the need for an answer persists, though it will not be a part of this poem. To look ahead, the boldest of the “rimes riche” of the poem is in the fifth stanza, where “harbour’d” finds itself in “harbor” but this harbor is no haven, since it is the harbor of a nomadic people. She is “harbour’d” but without a standing house.
The interrogation of “how” in the final line of the fifth stanza feels like an anticipation of Hopkins in its suddenness: it also possesses ambivalent status as a question: it is a real question in so far as anyone who knows Kedar will know them to be nomadic and so fail to understand how they provide a harbor. In that case, it anticipates a question and provides a sneering, sardonic response: I’m in a damn tent. On the other hand, it is not a real question; it is rhetorical, a dramatization of helplessness, a question that needs not be answered because the answer is self-evident, already present in the line before, just as the line’s culminating rhyme is already present in the line before. The rhyme of “harbour’d” and “harbour” speaks to the doubleness of the word itself here: it is a harbour of sorts, but not a harbour of the sort we might expect, and the transformation of the verb “harbour’d” to the noun “harbour” unearths how the colloquial adequacy of the verb cuts the root noun, which is what the speaker lacks: a stable house, in a stable homeland. Mesech is a place, not itself wandering, but this is a psalm written from exile and so it is inadequately a place to call a “harbour,” too. The rhyme words cannot move past themselves, but they are themselves false, untrue to the situation of the speaker: she [I realize that the Biblical speaker is not feminine, but I will give Sidney priority] is trapped in her exile, unable to leave not just her enemies, but the falseness of the language. That word is itself a product of the “tongue deceitful” of which she speaks. It’s hard not to hear the spittled rasp of the “h” as she breathes out “howseless harbour.”
I will postpone a discussion of the final ‘rime riche’ to return to the first stanza, where the experience of exile is one of repetition and long endurance, so that in the first line when “often” abuts against “Eternal,” we are presented with the divide between the human and the divine, the “Eternal” negating even the possibility of any of the adverbs of frequency and duration that Sidney adds to the stanza: “often,” “erst,” “never,” “again,” “again,” “again.”
Sidney’s translation of the second stanza situates the Psalm within the context of courtly betrayals and deceptions served by the blandishments of Renaissance rhetoric, and she herself indulges in the blandishments of sound and speech in the alliterative exorbitance of the second line. That sequence of fricatives both registers the threat and implicates her in it; she is touched by its powers, and capable of them. She asks the Lord to rid her “from” “treasonous eloquence | of” but the inversion of the prepositions would tell a different story, and the “from” is pulled, by alliterative magnetism, in the orbit of the second line: “Lord rid my soule of treasonous eloquence | from filthy forgers”. That is not, of course, what it says, but even the verb “rid” conspires, as indeed the rhetoric of treasonous eloquence must conspire, to suggest that the soule needs to be rid “of” rather than, more perplexing in its grammatical implication, “from.” The sentiment itself places great stress on soule; rid her soul, but not her tongue? Samuel Johnson: “clear your mind of cant.” A lofty goal, but not so lofty as clearing the tongue of it. “You may talk as other people do” he went on. Sidney might agree. “And from the tongue where lodg’d resideth” holds the possibility of suspicion towards her own tongue. It might be even the poison’d abuse of believers towards the damned that holds their ruin (though the denunciations of the damned do not seem to threaten the righteous in the Old Testatment). “Lodg’d” looks forward to the “harbour” of the fifth stanza, and makes a contrast between the fixedness of the poison’d abuse and the speaker’s vulnerability to it.
That same implied contrast is felt in the next stanza. “Thou that reposeth vainly thy confidence | In wily wronging” could be read two ways, either with an implied pause after “vainly” or without: in the former, “you who vainly repose, your confidence in wily wronging” and in the latter “repose” takes “your confidence” as its object to mean something like “you who vainly set your confidence in wily wronging.” I think we are supposed to hear both, since the thought that her enemies not only place their confidence in wily wronging, but are themselves reposing, at peace and settled as she is not, seems a significant contrast.
“Say by thy forgery” is wonderfully double—showing the speaker capable of cunning, if not necessarily duplicitous, wording: “By thy forgery” could mean “by means of” since they can speak no other way; that would also then anticipate the emptiness of their answers to her questions. In that case, the question would be: “say what good comes to you?” The alternative, perhaps primary, reading is: “Say why good comes to you by means of your forgery?” The three questions are somewhat redundant, piling on and magnifying one another. That copiousness would corner her enemies, as if they might find their way through subtle differences in sense to deny her question’s validity.
The matter of the fourth stanza is not a question at all in the King James or Geneva versions, but its relation to the prior line does not preclude its being offered as one. Sidney, though, allows the simile to steer into a question only by virtue of punctuation; the syntax alone would make her lines a statement. The syntax does a great deal of work, nonetheless. “Thought like an arrow strongly delivered | It deeply pierce” could be read as expressing the same comparison as the Geneva and King James versions: the false tongue is like an arrow that deeply pierces thought, striking, as it were, to the depth of the mind, impossible to guard against. The syntax cunningly dramatizes the effect itself, where we first think that thought is itself like an arrow strongly delivered, capable of piercing the forged tongue; and yet that possibility is not entirely cancelled by the subsequent line: it could be that thought is capable of piercing the forgeries. Hers seems to be. The cry of vulnerability leaves room for strength; the question mark now has new pointedness, referring us back to the uncertainty of how to make sense of the syntax. With “though,” Sidney again breaks from the Biblical versions, which leave the two comparisons (to arrow and coals of the Juniper) in parallel without providing grounds for the equivalence. “Though” admits the tension in the two: their forgeries are somehow, impressively and dauntingly, able to be like both. But again, the alternative readings proliferate: it could be that the false tongues are like arrows and also like the coals of the juniper; it could be that “thought” is capable of penetrating the false tongues even though those thoughts burn like coals of a juniper; it could be that the false tongues are capable of penetrating thought even though thought burns like the coals of a juniper. As before, the question marks speaks to the perplexity of the figure; it becomes itself a figure for perplexity, the sort we would expect the speaker to suffer when made subject to the forgeries of the enemy’s tongues. The figures of the stanza are nonetheless affirmations of the speaker’s poetic faculty, her image-making powers (true, as opposed to false, metaphors), against the enemy’s strength.
The open vowel of “Ah” that opens the next stanza resolves into the “I,” as the speaker situates herself in the “here” of the poem. “I” is itself situated between “wander” and “banished,” since the speaker belongs to both, even as they look in different directions: “wander” to having no resting place, and banished to having a resting place from which one is excluded. The placement of “I” is both a syntactical wandering and a small dislocation. “Abiding” in the following line is poignantly ironic, since the meaning of staying in place, being at rest, in an abode, is bemoaned elsewhere in the stanza and suppressed in the word as it is used.
I have discussed the final two lines of this (the fifth) stanza, and the repetition of “too long” in its first two lines carries us to the sixth and final stanza, where “too long” is again repeated; the poem fixes onto its own term of complaint, to press close to the expression of duration, as if soothed by the pain it reflects. “Too long, alas, too long have I dwelled here,” she writes, dwelling still with the wording itself. She has dwelled too long in exile, abiding without an abode, harbour’d without a house; a dwelling that cannot be itself. She has also dwelled “here” in the poem, in the complaint itself, for too long perhaps; this is the concluding stanza and that thought of needing to move on from the utterance might be in part what brings the poem to a close.
In the final lines, alliterative “f” makes its return, and marks the speaker’s return into the fray of her enemies, as she recounts her speech thwarted by their wills. “Friendly peace’s furious enemies” chiasmatically emblematizes their opposition to peace, insisting also on what they share; the chiasmus is interwoven by the “f” so that “Friendly” and “furious” are alliteratively set against “peace” and “enemies” even though the chiasmus would set “Friendly” against “Enemies” and “peaces” against “furious.” (Another interweaving, supporting the alliteration, is adjective-noun-adjective-noun). The alliteration will not leave well alone; the treasonous eloquence works against her order.
“To peace I seeke to call them” both because she seeks peace and because she seeks to call them to peace. But most powerfully and impressively in the final two lines, the rhyme of “them” and “them”: the richest rhyme of the poem, except that grammatically the “them” of “arme them” would be reflexive whereas the “them” of “call them” is an object: she would seek to make them the object of her call, but instead them make themselves object of their own action. The rich rhyme here shows their obduracy; her inability to move them, and also their affirming themselves within and against her speech, asserting themselves as object of their will rather than hers. The lines themselves move with the speed of Wyatt’s verse, the flurry of monosyllables allowing the syntactical swerves greater speed; since each word occupies a single move in the syntactical game, monosyllables allow for more moves. They also register the speed and dexterity of those against whom she is set; the language can register and reflect, but not outmaneuver “them.”