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.

Book Review, Part 1—The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre

The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre, Dennis Tucker, Jr. and W. H. Bellinger, Jr. (editors), Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017. 216pp. hb. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4813-0556-3

At the outset I would like to thank Baylor Press for their willingness to not only supply a review copy of this book but to send it across the Atlantic to the UK.

The title of this volume bears testimony to the new scholarly consensus on the nature of the biblical psalms. Probably the majority of scholars now recognise the biblical psalms as a Psalter—that is they comprise a book shaped with intent and purpose. All twelve contributions in this edited volume, to a greater or lesser extent, explore the implications of such a canonical approach. This book is also the proceedings from the Baylor University‒University of Bonn Symposium on the Psalter. This origin signals that this is a technical work which will appeal largely to advanced students and scholars of the Hebrew Bible.

The volume starts with a rather brief introduction which explains the rationale behind the book and the purpose of the symposium from which it originated. The twelve contributions that follow are organised into three groups. The rest of this two-part review records these three headings and the chapter headings so as to aid the interested reader in assessing the scope and content of the book.

Part 1: Theological Approaches to the Psalms

Poetry and Theology in the Psalms: Psalm 133, W. H. Bellinger Jr.

Despite its focus on just one of the Psalter’s very shortest psalms, this chapter provides an excellent point of departure for the volume. Bellinger follows Zenger’s articulation of Psalm 133’s structure. This structure is helpful from the outset in showing how the individual elements come together to make a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Bellinger’s exegesis and theological reflection make a compelling case for Psalm 133’s rich claims about community as a place for divine blessing. This nuanced meaning which arises from the psalm’s structure is all the more poignant when compared to the thin interpretations that can arise if verse 1 is allowed to eclipse the rich imagery and the closing blessing of the psalm.

Feminine Imagery and Theology in the Psalter: Psalms 90, 91, and 92, Nancy DeClaissé-Walford

This second chapter also focuses on the rich imagery of the Psalter. With the purpose of ensuring the psalms speak to all, DeClaissé-Walford examines the imagery for God which challenges the all too common absolutizing use of the central image of Yahweh as king. The role of imagery which concerns wombs, mother hens and weaning is considered along with the centrality of wisdom—the Hebrew Bible of course conceives Wisdom as feminine. More specifically it is argued that Psalms 90‒92 are not only a literary whole, but that there is a feminine voice which can be heard in these three psalms.

“Who is Like the Lord Our-God?”: Theology and Ethics in the Psalms, Harry P. Nasuti

The rich possibilities afforded by the canonical approach come to the fore in this contribution. Psalm 113 is examined from different canonical perspectives, as part of the Hallelujah triad, Pss.111‒113, and as the opening psalm of the Hallel Psalms (Pss.113‒118). Nasuti also considers wider intertextual connections with the Book of Job and with Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel chapter 2. In this way the potential of the canonical approach to enable individual psalms to come to life with theological and ethical challenge in the present is showcased. For Psalm 113 this is specifically ‘a full-bodied act of praise’ [p.45] which goes beyond praise and is a call to imitate God.

David and the Political Theology of the Psalter, Stephen Breck Reid

Like the previous chapter this fourth contribution makes much of the possibilities enabled by a canonical approach. The underlying presupposition here is that the shaping of the Psalter by the Yahwistic community reflected a ‘dangerous memory of David’. Breck Reid argues that this memory was ‘an anti-imperial metaphor for political agency’. This is helpfully acknowledged as essentially a working hypothesis. Most of this contribution is concerned with examining various Royal Psalms and paying careful attention to their position within the fivefold Psalter. This approach makes sense of the David who is ‘both the architect and patron of the Jerusalem temple and liturgy as well as the exemplar of the suffering penitent’ [p.49]. His proposal concerning David as cipher is certainly richer than Gerald Wilson’s rather rigid role for David which was a key part of the initial canonical movement.

Spatial Theory and Theology in Psalms 46‒48, Till Magnus Steiner

This chapter commences with an exploration of Psalm 48 where Magnus Steiner makes the case for the existence of a dominant pre-exilic base to which vv. 8, 10‒12 and 14b (versification as per the Hebrew text) have been added at a later date. This opening typifies the approach adopted in this chapter in which though the explanation is rational, but it is difficult to entertain that it is the most likely of many possibilities that might explain the final form of these three psalms. There seems little doubt that Psalms 46, 47 and 48 were intentionally placed together because of their Zion Theology. It is also quite possible that they were edited to make their connection clearer. The tendentious application of spatial theory proposed here demonstrates that the canonical approach does not escape from one of the frustrations of the more traditional historical critical methods, namely the seemingly endless proposal of rival theories.

 

Part 2, in which chapters 6–12 are reviewed and some final comments are made, will follow soon.