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.

An A-Z of Praise: Psalm 111

In looking at this specific psalm we shall see how the idea of an acrostic works and at the same time consider how this specific psalm raises some broader issues that any A-Z of the psalms must address. Here is this psalm laid out so that the acrostic device can be seen:

1. Praise Yah!
Aleph – I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart,
Beth – in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2. Gimel – Great are the works of Yahweh,
Daleth – studied by all who delight in them.
3. He – Full of honour and majesty is his work,
Waw – and his righteousness endures forever.
4. Zayin – He has gained renown by his marvellous deeds;
Heth – Yahweh is gracious and merciful.
5. Teth – He provides food for those who fear him;
Yodh – he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6. Kaph – He has shown his people the power of his works,
Lamedh – in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7. Mem – The works of his hands are faithful and just;
Nun – all his precepts are trustworthy.
8. Samekh – They are established forever and ever,
Ayin – to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9. Peh – He sent redemption to his people;
Sadhe – he has commanded his covenant forever.
Qoph – Holy and awesome is his name.
10. Resh – the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom;
Shih – All those who practice it have a good understanding.
Taw – His prise endures forever.

[the above follows the NIV but with Yahweh replacing ‘The Lord’.]

When scholars discuss Hebrew poetry they use the term colon to describe the small parts that in English usage might be referred to as lines. The reason why the term colon is used is that Biblical Hebrew has rather different principles of grammar and punctuation which leaves much greater ambiguity than conventional English verse. In each of verses 1-8 of psalm 111 the Hebrew text is readily translated into a bicolon. In other words each of these verses reads as two statements, with the second elaborating or building on the first in some manner. Importantly the recognition of this poetic device will lead to a different translation than if each colon is taken as a statement in its own right. In the case of psalm 111, modern translations and scholars all follow this bicolon structure. The same structure follows in verses 9 and 10, it is just that in these two verses three colons have been allocated to each verse, potentially obscuring the bicolon comprising v.9c and v.10a.

What different biblical translations and scholars do not agree upon is how this psalm might be put into, what we might call, paragraphs or verses (the technical term strophe is often used in Hebrew poetry). Interpreters of psalm 111 also disagree to an extent over the context in which psalm 111 originated and was used. Fortunately such disagreements, in this case at least, do not lead to significant differences in what the psalm is understood to be claiming. This difficulty of establishing the original circumstances for which a psalm was written is a topic on which a whole scholarly career might, indeed has, been founded. We will return to this matter later, but for now we can note that perhaps this ambiguity is part of the reason why the canonical psalms were preserved-people of faith wanted something which they could ‘make their own’, they were not about the task of preserving archaic texts.

Returning to psalm 111, it does not take a lot of attention to see that its acrostic nature has constrained the poet and this has played a key role in making the poem what it is. As an artistic device which constrains, the acrostic pattern has taken the poet where they might otherwise not have gone. Similar results occur when poetry is written to conform to say, the iambic pentameter of a Petrarchan sonnet or the traditional 5, 7, 5 syllabic pattern of traditional haiku. The result of the constraint of the acrostic device, in this instance, produces pithy statements about the psalmist’s and audience’s actions, and in particular about what Yahweh has done. Sometimes the individual colons are formulaic echoing, or restating, ideas from elsewhere. This is the case with verse 10’s ‘The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom’, which is very similar to Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10, and is a pervasive motif in the Hebrew Bible.

Whatever the uncertainties regarding the original setting of psalm 111, its opening implies use within the community of faith-the differences of opinion amongst scholars concerns whether its use was (a) generic, (b) specific to a given festival or (c) used during a pilgrimage. Whatever the specific occasion of use, the opening bicolon implies that the psalm would be read by an individual on behalf of those gathered together. Verses 2 to 9 then rehearse the most fundamental claims about Yahweh the God of Israel, namely that:

1. His deeds are great and worth meditating on.
2. His righteousness and faithfulness are unchanging.
3. He is a God who will honour the covenant he made with his people.
4. His deeds testify to the veracity of the other claims being made.

The focus on Yahweh’s covenant with Israel is perhaps greater than the NIV translation used above indicates. This arises because of the ambiguity of tense in Biblical Hebrew. For example, in v.5a we hear of Yahweh providing food for those who fear him. In the context of covenant (v.5b) it might well be better read as ‘He provided food for those who feared him’; referring back to the gift of manna and quail during Israel’s wilderness wanderings following the Exodus from Egypt. The very next verse refers to the end of the wanderings as Yahweh grants them the Promised Land.

The psalm, having rehearsed this story, or worldview, then concludes with an exhortation as to the right three-fold response: (i) fear of Yahweh, (ii) following his precepts and (iii) praising him. All three of these are central to the content and themes of the Psalter. In this way psalm 111 is a neat A to Z of the reasons to carry on being a faithful Jew (or Christian).