The Biblical Renaissance and English Poetry

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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16 Responses

  1. Rufus F. says:

    Cameron is, of course, referring to, “now we see through a glass, darkly.” The KJV is much like Shakespeare in that, when you finally sit down to read it, you find that you’ve been hearing its echoes all your life, even outside of whatever religious background you might have. I’ve never heard that verse translation of psalm 23. It sounds very wrong at first and then quite lovely. Thanks for posting this.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Ah, yes, the line he’s talking about must have been somewhere in the portions I trimmed.

      The cadences of Sidney’s translation are completely different — but I realized that if you look at the standard (JPS) printing of the Hebrew, it’s in twenty some-odd short, choppy-looking lines (like Sidney) and not the 6 verses favored by the KJV and most others.  I don’t know whether the JPS line breaks are traditional, the result of contemporary scholarship on Biblical poetry, or some combination — but part of me does want to hold out hope that Sidney picked this meter because he’d seen the way the Hebrew looked on the page, even if he couldn’t read it.  (That he couldn’t read it didn’t stop him from making wildly inaccurate claims about it as if they were common knowledge, however.)Report

      • Probably an off-topic observation / musing:  In that translation of psalm 23, I thought I heard some sort of kinship with Donne’s “Song” (“Go and catch a falling star….”).Report

      • wardsmith in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        JL, thank you for this. I was looking forward to it and you didn’t disappoint. I’m wondering, since you know Hebrew, have you ever taken a crack at translating/poetifying these or other psalms yourself?Report

        • J.L. Wall in reply to wardsmith says:

          I wouldn’t say that I “know Hebrew” — with a facing translation, a dictionary/grammar, and some time and quiet, I can muddle through simpler Biblical passages (but in the way that Virginia Woolf read Greek — with grammatical accuracy sacrificed).  It’s really more that, from other languages, I know how to hone in on a curious word or phrase and get a sense of what’s going on with it.

          So the answer is no, I haven’t — and until I get around to formal study of Hebrew (one of these days… [Sooner, rather than later, my professors insist]) I’ll just defer to Blaise on this.  (See below, if you haven’t.)Report

    • James K in reply to Rufus F. says:

      In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins cites a good page and a half of biblical references explaining why knowledge of the Bible is important as part of a well-rounded education – you can’t understand Western Literature without it.Report

  2. kenB says:

    I’ll echo Rufus’s thanks — I’d never heard of the Sidney translation.  I’m not sure I’m so very fond of that version of the psalm, but that may just be due to the tyranny of the first-encountered.

    I wonder if I could ask you to expand on one bit of this post that I didn’t understand:

    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.

    I’m not clear on what it is about English that sets it apart from other languages.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to kenB says:

      I meant that, from Sidney’s perspective, only English can utilize both Classical/quantitative meter (based on syllable length) and Modern/stressed meter (based on syllable stress).  In reality, English doesn’t work so well for quantity — certainly not well enough to make it stand out from other modern European languages.  This didn’t stop him and some of his contemporaries from trying to make it work on occasion.

      So what sets English apart is, on a basic level, just what it can do poetically, compared to others — it can bridge a gap between religious and secular writing/language.  But that ability is a claim about the uniqueness and power of English compared to the “religious” languages as well as the “secular” ones — to take it in the direction of his Psalm translations, perhaps even that not only does the Bible not lose anything in English translation, but it might even gain by it.Report

      • kenB in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        Oh, I see — thanks. Yes, I’m pretty sure there was no phonemic vowel quantity in English by that time, so it wouldn’t have been much like classical meter.

        FWIW, Slovenian and some western Serbo-Croatian dialects have both free stress and phonemic vowel quantity.  I don’t know anything about Slovenian poetry to be able to say whether or how these features are employed.Report

  3. BlaiseP says:

    My own translation from Hebrew, Psalm 23

    David’s Song.

    Yahweh shepherds me. I shall not lack
    In wadis of vegetation he makes me recline myself.
    To the watery resting places he leads me.
    My soul he restores.
    He guides me on the trails (rounds) of justice for his own name’s sake.

    Though I must go through the ravine of shadow-of-death
    I shall not fear evil for you are with me,
    Your club and your stick are comforting me.

    You arrange a table for me, facing my foes.
    You sleek my head with oil until it is sated.

    Yes, goodness and kindness shall pursue me
    all the days of my life.
    And I shall live in the house of Yahweh for all days.Report

    • wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:
      Blaise, you polymath you,
      know(s) Hebrew too
      Words wise and strong
      (and not overly long)
      Ring both free and true


    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Blaise, meant to note I enjoyed yr translation of Psalm 23 very much.  Tho it doesn’t sing as well as verse, yr pointed translation deepened the poetry.

      Yes, goodness and kindness shall pursue me
      all the days of my life.

      “Pursue.” How striking.


      • BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Thanks, Tom.   Psalm 23 is full of interesting verbs. radaph, forming irdphu-ni  == they shall pursue me.

        The oddest and most evocative word for me is magal, forming b’mogli == the shepherd’s track.Report

        • Tom Van Dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

          That was the other one I particularly liked, Blaise, as you mention it.  David, although a Man of Destiny, wasn’t a man of destiny.  He was just David, the most human fellow in the Bible and not coincidentally the man most after God’s own heart.  Sometimes he cheated, sometimes he stole, sometimes he murdered.

          Sometimes he sang.  Wrote hymns…psalms.  Whatever seemed to be the thing to be doing while he was making the rounds of this life.  No plan; no destination.  Just being, being human.

          Since I have you here, Blaise, the Psalms say to me that David doesn’t know what happens in the afterlife or even if there is one.  He loves God in this life.  Which is beautiful.

          In the Christian sense, however, he fulfills the First Great Commandment exquisitely, like no other man, to love God with his whole heart and soul and mind.  OTOH, he wasn’t real good with loving his neighbor, the 2nd GC.  That wasn’t cool what he did to Ukiah.  While he was on the run from King Saul, he plundered and murdered the countryside.

          In fact, a fundamentalist type [a Rastafarian actually] reminds me that David isn’t permitted to build the temple [this falls to his son Solomon] because David has too much blood on his hands.  God loves David more than any other figure in the Bible, not because he’s the perfect human but because he’s so perfectly human.

          But that doesn’t make him holy.  Anything but: he is the natural man.

          Hey, it’s the weekend and I thought a digression might be OK.  Does the above square with your own understanding?  Cheers.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

            We know more about the life of David than anyone in the Bible, with the possible exception of Joseph in Genesis.  We have more insight into the genius of his poetry and song making.

            There are two men in history I’d love to hear sing.  One was Da Vinci, who was by many accounts an extremely good musician.   The other would be King David, who wrote for choirs and what I might suppose be called orchestras with a character named Asaph, another poet who appears in the Psalms.   It’s a great pity we don’t have any scores, though at least we have the lyrics.

            David the King endured the bipolar fugues of King Saul, playing music to him when he’d get black moods.   To get a grip on King David, we have to see him as a musician first.   I’ve heard many fine sermons on his sins and triumphs but precious few explications of him as a musician.Report

            • Tom Van Dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Blaise, as a musician & poet [bad or good] meself, I get David. Keith Richards has murdered far fewer people.

              As for musical geniuses, the Islamic polymath


              philosopher, physician, musician, makes the Western world’s da Vinci look like a dilettante.  Among al-Farabi’s [d. 951 CE] permanent legacies is establishing the tone scale the eastern/Arabic music uses to this day.

              But mostly, Blaise, I wanted to tap your expertise on the Old Testament and actual knowledge of Hebrew and kick it around in a colloquy for our gentle readers to enjoy on the weekend.  The fundie/Protestants and the Catholics aren’t really good in this area, what the Bible actually says and means, never mind those who only read the Cliffs Notes.

              Yr call.