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.



  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.
  10. Malcolm Guite.
  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.

The Long and the Short of it: Psalms 117 and 119

Psalms 117 and 119 stand out for being respectively, unusually short and remarkably long. If there is any sense of editorial purpose behind the Psalter it seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that these two psalms are so close together. Their odd length also means they must have been selected with good reason. Despite the fact that Psalm 119 is almost 100 times longer than Psalm 117 they are both equally singular in their focus.

Psalm 119, as was seen two posts ago, focuses on Torah. This focus was also that of Psalm 1. Some scholars have suggested that on its way to completion the Psalter opened with Psalm 1 and closed with Psalm 119. If this was the case this would have given a key place to Torah in the Psalter, however, the final form of the Psalter still places a strong emphasis on Torah, with Psalm 119 dominating Book V because of its massive size and prominence before the Songs of Ascents. In this way, Psalm 119 picks up a key aspect of the Psalter’s opening – delight in God’s Torah or instruction.

Interestingly Psalm 117 also effectively picks up on a key aspect of the opening too. It is worth quoting Psalm 117 in full:

O praise The Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise ye The Lord.

Compared to Psalm 2 something has happened, in Psalm 2 the question raised was: ‘Why do the nations rage, . . . .?’ (2:1). The nations appear many times in the Psalter and here in a positive light. Psalm 2 articulates the problem of particularity, the good news comes first to Israel and then the nations. Psalm 117 in all is simplicity anticipates the gospel having gone out to all the nations. This is the nature of the psalms, they are concerned with ‘the now’, but then there are glimpses forward. The psalms are eschatological and in this context articulate a simple worldview where all is resolved. This is what we find in Psalms 1 and 117. In other places the questions of now are at the fore. Such questions are there in Psalm 2: why do the nations reject Yahweh? Why have the kings of Israel failed. Psalm 119 for all its focus is still asking questions: is devotion to God’s Torah enough? Will the faithful find vindication in the end?

In a way this is what we have in the Psalter, a twofold blessing: (i) permission and language to deal with the troubles and challenges of the life of faith, (ii) glimpses of that perfect future when all has been set right.

Praise ye The Lord.