Donald Davie, ed., The Psalms in English

Some anthologies, some translations for that matter, seek to close things down. Their ambition is to be definitive and magisterial, to fix a cultural process or moment for the reader. Donald Davie's The Psalms in English (Penguin 1996), published after the editor's death the previous autumn, has quite other aims. True, it is supported by Davie's scholarship, with intelligence and seniority as an historian-critic of English (especially Protestant Christian) poetry. But this book goads, infuriates, surprises, informs. It has a Poundian pedagogy which seeks to shatter idées reçues. There is here little comfortable donnishness, and no comfort at all for the cultural conventions of our time. Fundamentalist and liberal alike may find it at moments distressing. Instead of lulling the reader into that sense of official inevitability that things are so, Davie's introduction, selection and commentary ask us to rethink:

  1. the history and importance of translation within English culture since 1500 and in particular its place in English poetry

  2. what a psalm is and what it might be for

  3. what English poets have have impoverished ourselves by neglecting (very Poundian, this) and

  4. given the twin nature of psalms as performed (said and sung) scriptures and as poetry, what are the resources of late twentieth century English for Englishing them?

The view of translation as a low activity which can plead literal accuracy as its only, virtue is relatively new. Davie blames ‘the romantic assumption that the translation of ancient texts was a task too servile for the true poet to stoop to.’[1] If in Romanticism Davie includes the nineteenth century philological notion of ‘classics’ which supplanted the older tradition of the educated Greek and Latin reader, then I agree with him. The idea of originality combined with that of professional specialism, drove many translator poets from the field. This was also the case with texts originally written in the third learned language, Hebrew, especially with the psalms. From 1500 until the birth of Romanticism nearly every poet tried his hand at them. As Davie's anthology shows, the excellent verse versions of eighteenth century poets such as Isaac Watts, Christopher Smart and Charles Wesley grew out of live engagement with texts and a notion that infinite readings of Holy Scripture were both possible and desirable, In turn these translators, inherited a tradition which began in Tudor times.

While not slighting the criterion of accuracy, Davie asks us to read a translated psalm as a poem, as speaking art rather than its pale shadow the crib or its pallid surrogate, devotional writing. This is true whether we are reading the remarkable Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621) or the daring and at times brazenly colloquial Gordon Jackson (b. 1938). Compare, for example:

Not us, I say, not us, but thine own name respect, eternal Lord
And make it glorious to show thy mercy and confirm thy word.
(Ps. II 5, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Psalms in English, p.73),


Not ours, Lord, no not ours, the glory is yours alone
The honours belong to your name for keeping faith with us
For your love that never wearies.
(Gordon Jackson, Psalms in English, p.369)

Here by plainness of diction each poet immediately achieves a tone of genuine humility, of facing the God-man relationship as the Psalmist conceives of it. By contrast, Kipling in his version of part of Psalm 115 (Psalms in English, p.298) incorporates the first line of the Latin version of the psalm, Non Nobis Domine. This invokes the music of national ritual and reminds the English reader of the glories or Agincourt (see Henry V Act IV scene 8). Kipling achieves a sonorous, stately effect, and ceremonious image of the great bowing before the Greatest which can also be read out of the text. These three examples illustrate the versatility of an individual psalm and the variety of this anthology. Again and again the book demonstrates the power and range of available versions and translations.

In his ‘Introduction’ Davie reminds us, in case felicitous translating should make us forget, of the otherness, the foreignness of psalms, as well as of the various theories about their original contexts and uses. In denying Richard Hooker's claim for the Psalter Davie goes too far for this reader, for it is out of the authenticity of human emotion, sometimes under an extreme stress too familiar to our century, that some psalms speak:

happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
thy little ones against the stones
(Psalm 137 v. 9 A.V.)

This comes from experience of what we now call ethnic cleansing or pogrom or, simply, atrocity. Someone has seen this happen to his own children. Such pain, such anger cannot be erased by easy piety. When Hooker wrote:

‘What is the necessary for man to know which the psalms are not able to teach?’

he was surely considering the Psalter as a whole, whether or not he knew that it had been put together from divers sources over many centuries. All human life (or Israelite life, anyway) is surely there, from the erotic (Psalm 45; see Davie's note, p.48 on Golding's version), to the despairing (Psalm 22, espec.vv. 1,2,14 and 15), to the assured (Pss. 23 and 24), to the satirical (see Psalm 53, especially in Jackson's translation, Psalms in English, p.348), to the confessional (Psalm 51, especially Coverdale in the B.C.P.), to the communally triumphant and praiseful (Pss. 24 and 150). Davie's choice of translators is similarly wide and inclusive and he is aware of the various uses psalms are put to now, which include silent reading, public reading as part of Scripture, corporate reading aloud, and singing to Anglican chant. Here his insights are especially useful as he distinguishes between psalm as lyric poem, as metrical hymn, and as read or heard poem. The distinction between sung and spoken/read he finds particularly relevant to twentieth century versions. Where translations meant to be sung (Frost's in the A.S.B.) differ sharply from those to be read or heard (Jackson, Wilmer and Davie himself). Davie rightly spots a cultural fault-line here between Biblical scholars and theologians, to whom he refers as ‘Hebraists’ and to whom he attributes a philistine if not sinister influence, and twentieth century poets. In general the former seem oblivious of the fact that the Hebrew texts are literature, the latter for the most part quite uninterested in Judaeo-Christian writing. Davie provides excellent exceptions among the latter. David L Frost, is conservative and sometimes ‘literary’ in a bad sense for example:
‘O praise the Lord, and 0 sing to the Lord a new song’
where neither the ‘O’ nor the word order to the second clause ('sing a new song to the Lord' would surely be better) seem so much twentieth century as prayerbookese', an idiom unknown to Coverdale. Nevertheless Frost's versions can be sung and are capable of sudden surprises, such as the bitter sarcasm Davie cites:

They shall be cast down
by that Mighty One who is their judge:
and how pleasing shall my words be to them then!
(Psalm 141, v. 7 Psalms in English p.326)

All the same Frost usually seems to be nearer to the colourless crib than to the imaginative transference that is true translation. By contrast, Jackson and Davie himself are sharply idiomatic, getting across the argumentative tone found in many a psalm. Here is part of Davie's adaptation of Psalm 39, included in the anthology at Jackson's insistence:

I said to myself ‘That's enough. Your lifestyle is no model. Keep quiet about it, and while you're about it, be less overt.’
(Psalms in English p.329)

This illustrates what one translator has learnt from another; here Davie's master is Ezra Pound, the Pound who in turn learned from Villon and Laforgue as well as from Browning, and who wrote Further Instructions and The Lake Isle. Pound the (reluctant?) echoer of Hebrew poetry is also anthologized by Davie, who in his notes to these items for The Cantos shows himself as usual the careful literary detective.

However, as Michael Alexander has pointed out [2], this book does contain solecisms, though I take the ‘Wayfarer’ of ‘Introduction’ to be a proof-reader's mistake for ‘Sea-farer’ which Davie's death prevented him spotting. Also the mistake may well be Frost's since Davie is quoting him at the time. Again Davie does not include any material from newer translations of the Bible as a whole. The ‘Hebraists’ are not always that damaging. For example, this, from The Jerusalem Bible (orig 1967), seems to me at least as good as Frost's in the A.S.B.:

Look after me, God, I take shelter in you.
To Yahweh you say, ‘My Lord you are my fortune, nothing else but you’
and what about:
Why stand far off, Lord?
Why hide away in times of trouble?
Psalm 10 v1 Revised English Bible (1989)

Admittedly these translations often lapse after a verse or two, but since Davie deliberately includes examples of the thoroughly bad from earlier centuries for comparative purposes (see for example, Oldham's Paraphrase upon the 137th Psalm, pp. 163-167), would not some critical sampling and exegesis of versions much used now be useful?

Aware though Davie is of the historical and contemporary centrality of music to and in the psalms, I think that he is wrong about it. He quotes W.H. Auden:

... Since music, generally speaking can express only one thing at a time, it is ill adapted to verses which expressed mixed or ambiguous feelings ... (p.lii)

I simply do not find this to be so, except possibly in the more flat-footed hymn tunes to which some metrical psalms are sung. Neither Anglican chant nor the better hymn tunes are an excuse for banal translating, and while sung lyric may demand a simpler clearer line, this does not remove the possibility of complexity for a skilled poet-translator.

In conclusion this anthology is an act of criticism — Davie's last, as it happens. It has expanded my sense of English poetry — the Countess of Pembroke and the obscure Michael Cosowarth are alike major discoveries for me — and opened up discussion of translation, the functions of Hebrew writing in the modern world and the state of English literary culture. It is honest, pugnacious, moving and informative by turns. And it brings to a wider audience contemporary translators who are important poets in their own right, in particular Clive Wilmer, Gordon Jackson and Donald Davie himself. Essentially this book is rooted in the Reformation. Implicitly it judges other writing by the standards and assumptions of Tyndale, Coverdale, and their eighteenth century evangelical heirs. It makes theology and faith live factors in criticism; and it demands both faith, and strenuous thinking from the faithful and the unbelieving alike.

© J. C. Davies

  1. Donald Davie, ed. The Psalms in English Harmondsworth, Middlesex; Penguin Books 1006, p.xxxiii. All references in the text are to this edition.

  2. Michael Alexander, ‘New Penguin Classics’ Agenda, Vol.34, No. 1 183-184.

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