Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

Poetry is an art and not a science. Rather than existing by virtue of agreed rules, or laws, it has conventions. The art of poetry is to obey and, at times, break these conventions. Over time, these conventions evolve and change. Some fossilise and are admired at a distance or honoured by the homage of modern poets.

The biblical psalms are many things. Above all they are poems. This comes first, ahead of any other claim on their form and content. I recently explored the implications of this for the preacher, in a short article [1]. Others have explored a psalm’s poetic nature to a fuller extent, and in a more scholarly manner [2].

The Psalms have, at times, had modern poetic conventions foisted upon them. This unhappy situation largely ended with the work of Robert Lowth (1710–1787) [3]. Lowth mercifully rescued the psalms from the anachronism of applying Graeco-Roman poetic ideals to them. This welcome outcome still left the question open as to how we moderns might inhabit and celebrate these ancient poems, given our quite different notions of poetic form. One obvious way in which the psalms are contemporised is through being set to music for corporate worship. This is generally not just a process of translation but a process of transformation too. It is commonly the case that such works not only provide rhythm but also make use of rhyming. A notable recent and accomplished example of this is Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era [4].

Such work is essential for the ongoing recovery and rediscovery of the Psalms. Valuable though this is, it is not enough. Poetry is polysemic and as such, one transposition cannot capture all its possibilities. Given these poems are Scripture we should welcome multiple translations, transpositions, and responses. Even those fluent in biblical Hebrew and culture could not leave these texts fossilised, for they inhabit the modern world, as well as the world of Second Temple Judaism (cf. Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ interpretive paradigm [5]). To make interpretation even more complex we should note that there is not even a singular ancient horizon—the psalms were written, collected, arranged, selected, and edited over hundreds of years [6].

Every translation and every setting of a psalm is a response to that psalm. They vary in freedom depending on the aims of the new poet. There is increasing freedom from strict literal translation, such as that of an interlinear, to readable translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, to paraphrases, such as The Message. The poetic freedom continues as interpreters and poets seek new poetic forms. This trajectory continues as the interpreter breaks free of any notion of representation to aim for re-presentation. Of course such responses can differ in both form and use. They are for study, prayer, sung worship, meditation, or reflection. All such attempts look to the original, and pay homage in different ways—this might range from a meaningful bow to a knowing nod.

Three examples of such responses, in alphabetical order by surname, are:

1. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody [7]. This is a response in the form of poems describing a relationship, between a secular man and a Christian woman, in which aspects of the Psalms and the Life of David are echoed.
2. Edward Clarke’s A Book of Psalms [8]. This is a personal response to each psalm. Sometimes the poetry is very close to that of the original text, sometimes beautifully and even provocatively distant.
3. Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown [9]. Which we refer to below.

The diagram below captures something of the nature of the ‘responsorial’ freedom in translating and presenting the psalms. The scale is not meant to be linear and is presented to enable readers to reflect for themselves. The diagram reminds us that the English Bible versions, even those that are not metrical, are a step away from the original Hebrew. This is true of all attempts to translate, such as the LXX which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. Even today’s critical Hebrew text is a reconstruction using multiple manuscripts, of what is the best effort to match the unknowable autograph produced by the ultimate editors of the Psalter.

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

Once an effort is made to not only translate but to set to music then the freedom of interpretation increases so as to make the task possible. The three responses to the psalms mentioned above are also shown on the diagram. Whilst it is easy to argue that Apichella’s work is the one that has the most freedom, and therefore distance from the biblical Psalter. There is room for debate with the other two. Let the reader make up their own mind.

To conclude this post, we turn to Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown. This is in one sense a live project. Every few days Malcolm posts the next poem on his Blog [9]. On the day of writing he has reached Psalm 29. The complete work will be available as a full response to the Psalter when published by Canterbury Press, hopefully in early 2021. In Malcolm’s own words:

So I have begun a new series of short poems, responding freely to the daily psalms, and drawing on their leading images, as a starting point for Christian reflection. My hope is to weave these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic. [10]

His poems are indeed woven together just like that first crown of thorns. The delightful play on words links not only Christ’s suffering and Covid-19 but additionally they allude to a poetic convention. I had not heard of this convention until his project began. The convention is simply stated, but rather more challenging to deliver. Each poem in a corona, or crown, of sonnets is linked to its neighbours. This is achieved, as Guite explained above, by the closing line of one poem being identical to the opening line of the next. Fifteen sonnets linked in this way can be termed a heroic crown. I am not sure what term might be given to 150!

This remarkable project sublimely conveys the idea of convention and convention-breaking in poetry. In the first instance there is immense discontinuity in this response to the Psalter and the entity that inspired it. Each and every psalm response has the same literary form. This is clearly not the case with the original psalms. Indeed, scholars still spill ink on their categorisation. The continuity is found in some rich connections between the defining convention of a corona and some features ubiquitous in the Psalter.

The intertextual link, of identical closing and opening lines of adjacent psalm responses, is a reminder of the parallelism that is so characteristic of biblical poetry. The richness of parallelism, which goes beyond the three proposed ideals of Robert Lowth [3], is still the subject of analysis to this day [11]. This link also echoes another feature of the psalms. The biblical psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours. This pairing takes on many forms. Sometimes it is simply through the use of headings or repeated opening and closing words. The Hallelujah Psalms, Psalm 111 to 118, exemplify this with their propensity to open or close with Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). Sometimes chiasmus is employed. A good example of this is how Psalms 1 and 2 are linked with a macarism, or blessed/happy saying, see Psalms 1:1a and 2:12. Phrases can also be used. For example, ‘holy hill’ in Psalms 2:6 and 3:4. This linking of psalms forms a continuous chain and has therefore been termed concatenation [12].

The precision of the parallelism in Guite’s project also reflects a peculiar feature of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134) which have the poignant convention of making the same statement twice. Perhaps most famously in Psalm 130:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NRSV

I hope that many readers will join me in waiting for the complete Corona Spina that echoes not only David’s crowning glory, the Psalter, but the glory of the one who bore the crown of thorns for us all and today bears a better crown.

 

References

  1. Mark Whiting, ‘Singing a New Song’, pp.3–5, The Preacher, 178, July 2020.
  2. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Poetry of the Psalms’, pp.79–98 in The Oxford Handbook the Psalms, William P. Brown (editor), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  3. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, G. Gregory (translator), Andover: Codman Press, 1829 [Latin original 1753].
  4. Adam Carlill, Psalms for the Common Era: Hebrew Psalms in Modern Metrical English for Individuals, Choirs and Congregations, Independently Published, 2018.
  5. H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (translators), New York: Continuum, 1989.
  6. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macron: Mercer University Press, 1997.
  7. Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016.
  8. Edward Clarke, A Book of Psalms, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  9. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/corona-spina-the-crown-of-thorns-and-the-crown-of-glory-psalm-21/
  10. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/beatus-vir-a-reflection-on-psalm-1/
  11. Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.
  12. David M. Howard, Jr, ‘Editorial Activity in the Psalter: A State-of-the-Field Survey’, pp. 52–70 in Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, J. Clinton McCann (editor), Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, p.54.

Knowledge and Wisdom

Anyone reading the Book of Proverbs in a major English translation will encounter ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘understanding’. Sometimes in the Book of Proverbs these three words sound like they mean the same things—the parallelism, that is such an important part of wisdom literature, appears to indicate this. So, for example:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that knowledge is both wisdom and instruction. In addition, we can note that Proverbs later argues that:

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 2:6 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that wisdom is also knowledge and understanding.

It should be noted that these various terms belong to a wider group of what we might term cognitive processes that cluster as concepts. Other terms include prudence and shrewdness. Wider usage of these words in the Hebrew Bible indicates that these words have distinct meanings within this Hebraic cluster of concepts. In this way we need to ensure that any exploration of wisdom can account for the distinctiveness of these terms and at the same time their close relationship.

We have already seen that wisdom conveys the idea of making wise choices and often has a strong moral dynamic. Knowledge is theological in the sense that it comes from a relationship with the God who founded the world through knowledge, although again we should note the parallel use of wisdom and knowledge in the verses that affirm this most succinctly:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place;

by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

Proverbs 3:19–20 (NIVUK)

In the Hebrew Bible knowledge of God is all about right relationship with him. Such a right relationship will be characterised by love and trust. There is a semantic relationship between the relationships between human beings, as creatures, with their Creator and the intimate knowledge between man and woman in marriage. Such a strong relational meaning for knowledge, and hence wisdom, is a strong antidote to some conceptions of knowledge and wisdom centred on sterile abstract thought or a faith founded in dry propositions. It is wise to see knowledge as founded in prayer and worship as well as being the cognitive processes recognised in contemporary thought.

 

Hebrew and Wisdom

The books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are of course part of the Hebrew Bible. This means that biblical wisdom is not in any simple sense a timeless philosophy of how to live well. It is instead a way of living well rooted in both Israelite culture and the Hebrew language. This is the organic particularity of all Hebrew and Christian Scripture. For this reason attention to the Hebrew nature of the wisdom material is necessary in order to appreciate it. This post will examine just a single facet of this Hebrew dynamic, a feature know as parallelism.

Parallelism is the name given to the widespread feature of biblical Hebrew whereby the written material can be seen to contain statements that are closely related. It is especially dominant in those parts of the Hebrew Bible that are identified as poetic.

It was Robert Lowth who famously laid the foundations of the modern understanding of parallelism in biblical Hebrew in the eighteenth century. He coined the term parallelism and identified three distinct forms, know as synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism and synthetic parallelism. Although this simple threefold classification has been shown to be a gross oversimplification of the riches of this literary phenomena, these three categories are still helpfully instructive as an introduction to parallelism.

In synonymous parallelism, two statements are made which have the same meaning. The following is an example from the Book of Proverbs:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.     Proverbs 1:20 (NRSV)

Antithetic parallelism is very widespread in the Book of Proverbs and can often be recognised by the use of the word ‘but’. The two parts of the proverb have the same meaning but they are stated as opposites, as for example here:

The thoughts of the righteous are just;
the advice of the wicked is treacherous.     Proverbs 12:5 (NRSV)

In synthetic parallelism a second statement in some way advances or develops the first. A good example of this is:

Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.     Proverbs 16:3 (NRSV)

Paying attention to these three types of parallelism will soon reveal that it is not always easy to distinguish between synonymous and synthetic parallelism—how much development demarcates the two? Adele Berlin in her monograph titled The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism has shown that parallelism is a far richer linguistic characteristic than the threefold categorisation indicates. I would strongly recommend this book although it assumes a high level of familiarity with complex linguistics and grammatical terms.

Parallelism goes beyond simply the occurrence of paired statement. It can follow a threefold or even longer set of statements. Its ubiquity invites us to see the common use of the inclusio as an extension of this manner of organising ideas and thoughts. On the larger scale it is echoed in the narratives of the Bible which seem to parallel one other. On a larger scale it can be seen in the rich intertextuality so important to both the first and second testaments of the Christian Bible. In this sense parallelism operates over the same three scales recognised in earlier posts on the Book of Psalms: microstructure (neighbouring lines), mesostructure (use of the inclusio) and macrostructure (intertextuality).

The ubiquitous presence of parallelism becomes a way of thinking and capturing reality, in other words its implications go beyond linguistic convention and the wisdom writings.

 

Further Reading

Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.