The Biblical Renaissance and English Poetry
Not long ago, David Cameron delivered a speech extolling the continuing cultural relevance of the King James Bible (h/t Joe Carter). It stands as a fairly strong encapsulation of much of what has been said—especially in its just closed 400th anniversary year—about the translation:
Along with Shakespeare, the King James Bible is a high point of the English language…creating arresting phrases that move, challenge and inspire. […] I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations. The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror” They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning. Like Shakespeare, the King James translation dates from a period when the written word was intended to be read aloud. And this helps to give it a poetic power and sheer resonance that in my view is not matched by any subsequent translation.
There’s no need to challenge his assertions about the importance of the KJV to the history of English-language literature—but what does frequently go unmentioned is that the King James Bible itself sprang from a pre-existing store of literary fecundity, one created, in large part, by the very present 16th century task of bringing the Bible into English. This larger translation project, not the KJV, prepared the soil from which the likes of Shakespeare, John Donne, George Herbert, Philip Sidney, Andrew Marvell, and others worked.
Perhaps the most purely “literary” of these attempts is the Psalms of Philip and Mary Sidney. Philip began the project, completing the first 44 before dying of wounds received while fighting the Catholic Spanish in Denmark; his sister, Mary (also known by her married name, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke) took it upon herself to complete the task.* They were circulated only in manuscript form, and, by the end of the 19th century, fewer than ten still existed. The scarcity of the Sidney Psalms belied both their influence and innovation.**
Translation in this period was rife with theological implications—indeed, the act itself was both theological and political. On the one hand, vernacular prayer was itself a new innovation, and England, as Sidney began his task, was still in the midst of the Catholic-Protestant uncertainty of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. On the other, however, were the sentiments of some radical Puritans that an elegant or aesthetic translation was antithetical to true Christian ends. The Sidney Psalms were, in essence, the fulfillment of the aesthetic theory Philip laid out in his Defense of Poesy—an aesthetic with both political and theological implications. His defense of poetry and aestheticism depends, to great extent, on the existence of poetry and aesthetic qualities in the Bible. The Psalms of David were a “divine poem”—and if art is present in the Bible, then how can one claim that it cannot be put to good human use? Not only is it not improper to write poetry in the English language, but it may well be necessary: English alone, he asserts, is capable of utilizing and mastering the quantitative verse of Classical/Biblical languages and the stressed verse of modern tongues. In this, he implies (but never states outright) the national language of Sidney and his critics is superior even to the sacred tongues.
Sidney’s translation of Psalm 23 is useful as an illustration of what I mean by the above. It’s included in its entirety at the end of this post—take a look and note the formal qualities; it’s not the prose of many translations, or the ballad meter of sung versions. And each psalm in the Sidneys’ translation is translated into a different form—a veritable cornucopia of English verse forms, one from which Mary Sidney’s nephew, George Herbert, most likely drew inspiration for The Temple. The 23rd Psalm, one of the most popular in the early modern period as well as ours, was, at the time, thought of as a (in fact, the) Christian pastoral—“The Lord is my shepherd” it begins, and carries this theme until shifting suddenly in the fifth and sixth verses (of the typical numeration) to a meal. Sidney inverts the typical move made by contemporary translators, and assimilates the role of shepherd into that of a banquet host. This is achieved both through the diction of his translations (still waters are “sweet” waters; God “revives” rather than “restores” the soul, fears “ill” rather than “evil”—the former term the notably more physical, etc.) and formal arrangement. The six verses (translated by Herbert into six stanzas) become a mere four stanzas. The shepherd’s rod and staff are, as part of this compression, linked in stanza position and syntax to the table set by God-as-banquet-host—that is, they are tied where the original, the Vulgate, and earlier English translations found only disjunction.
The food God serves, in his own hall and on the table before the speaker’s enemies, is a desired food that pleases the senses—it is aesthetically pleasing, at least enough so to inspire an envy that is unique to the Sidney translation. This placing of the aesthetically pleasing at the center of a poem in which shepherd is subordinated to host and the language of good and evil is rendered physically points toward the role of the broader aesthetic in English and Christian life of the late 16th century. Just as the sense-pleasing food on “a table sett’st” is good, so the aesthetic and beautiful in this world can be understood as nourishment. This thought bears important implications for the vocations of translator and poet. Sidney’s formal structure, read against the more literal and prosaic contemporary translations, serves to aestheticize the psalm—and, through this act, to pair the pleasing psalm with the sumptuous food God sets before man. His form and poetic choices serve a spiritual purpose as well as a poetic one—though these have become, to some extent, intertwined. Such spiritual aesthetics connect the reading and writing of poetry with the act of prayer. In a way, it is merely a re-assertion of the word “psalm.” They were meant to be things of beauty that gave pleasure, as well as comfort, to those who heard and those who performed—or, in the case of the Sidney translation, to the reader and writer.
The lack of such an overriding aesthetic in the translations of Sidney’s contemporaries points toward a more important act of reclamation on Sidney’s part. Whatever one’s opinion of the King James translation of Psalm 23, it is clearly not lyric. Sidney’s, like the original, is. His translation does not ignore the claims of individual words. Rather, it views the original as more than the sum of its parts, subordinating the claims of components to the claims of the poem as a whole—of the music he might have imagined David playing in his gardens. The poetry of modern languages is not, by definition, capable of doing this—only English can, and the Sidneys work to point out the versatility and beauty of this newly ascendant tongue, one that can walk with equal ease in the religious and secular realms.
Philip Sidney’s translation of Psalm 23, then, serves to both assert and fulfill the claim that beautiful poetry is spiritually nourishing. This claim would also seem to flow in the opposite direction: prayer that is truly spiritually nourishing should be aesthetically pleasing. Such a prayer is equivalent to the pleasing, nourishing, comforting food of the third and fourth stanzas. The composition, reading, and recital of Sidney’s translation is itself a source of spiritual nourishment. This quality more than any other distinguishes Sidney’s project from contemporaneous translations of the Bible into English. His version of Psalm 23 strives to actualize what it describes, eschewing literal translation and a more straightforward English for the sake of the poem’s efficacy as both poem and holy text—as a prayer.
*It should also be said that she took much more than translation onto herself: she was, in effect, her brother’s literary executor, managing and promoting his reputation in the decades following his death.
**But this rarity shouldn’t make us think they weren’t read, with great enthusiasm, by those who had access to them—including George Herbert, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth and her court, and subsequent translators of the Psalms. They were, in essence, a poet’s book of Psalms.
Psalm 23, trans. Philip Sidney:
The Lord, the Lord my shepherd is,And so can never ITaste misery.He rests me in green pasture his:By waters still, and sweetHe guides my feet.He me revives: leads me the way,Which righteousness doth take,For his name’s sake.Yea, though I should through valleys stray,Of death’s dark shade, I willNo whit fear ill.For thou, dear Lord, thou me besett’st:Thy rod, and thy staff beTo comfort me;Before me thou a table sett’st,Ev’n when a foe’s envious eyeDoth it espy.Thou oil’st my head, thou fill’st my cup:Nay, more, thou endless good,Shalt give me food.To thee, I say, ascended up,Where thou, the Lord of all,Dost hold thy hall.