Tyndale in Darkness


Defecerunt sicut fumus dies mei et ossa mea sicut gremium aruerun
(My days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth. Ps 102: 3)
The Old isn’t as easy as the New.
Greek's nothing, but I needed Germany
To teach me Hebrew. Then the endless trail
That drags from Genesis to Malachi!
Now the New's finished, printed, launched on the world,
Doing its work in England, in plain English,
All clinched and Bristol fashion. But I
Not there to see it. Flushed out
From Gloucestershire first by a rout of clownish priests
Who, because they are unlearned, when they come together to the ale­house, which is their preaching-place, they affirm that my sayings are heresy.[1]
Then in London, bluffed, swindled, bullied, 
Hounded at last abroad.
                                     Well, God’s work
Can be done here too, though I miss the rough sweetness
Of English. But on the run always, always I need more time,
Space, books and peace to do things properly.
And light, and warmth. These I miss here
In my palatial jail; the Emperor’s guest[2]
Still, I can get things done. But how I grieve
The watery deathbed of my Pentateuch[3]
In the deep roadsteads off Holland. Back to the start
Again. I did them all again. All five.
But it held me back. Here I am now
Still tolling through the waste of Chronicles,
When I could be at the Psalms, dealing with hope,
Injury, loss, despair, treachery, joy,
Not endless histories, churned out by some
Dull priest with a long memory. Only five books to go
But how long have I? I get used to Death
Leaning over my shoulder, with his noose and brand,
Breathing at each sentence end. I know he waits his day,
But not the day itself. I doubt I’ll ever reach
So far as the happy man who’s like a tree
Planted by water, that brings forth his fruit in its season,
And look, whatsoever he doeth, it shall prosper.
Well, Miles[5] gets the Psalms. My heir. He’ll bring forth his fruit,
The happy man.[4] But I too was planted by water, 
Born with the tune of Gloucestershire in my head, 
Knowing our English as much the language of heaven 
As Jerome’s[6] tawdry Latin, pagan patter, 
That Jesus and His fishers never spoke.
They say it cannot be translated into our tongue it is so rude. It is
not so rude as they are false liars. For the Greek tongue agreeeth
more with the English than with the Latin. And the properties of
the Hebrew tongue agreeeth a thousand times more with the
English than with the Latin.
Not many days left me, not many days.
They keep my working books, my Hebrew Bible,
Grammar and dictionary. I’d get on faster
If I had them, and light to work in the dark.
Sicut fumus dies mei, my days are consumed
Consumed? An empty word. Eaten is better.
Defecerunt Bloodless Latin! But English lives!
Will Miles be up to it? ? yes, eaten
Like smoke, and smoke will finish me
Here, in the marketplace at Vilvorde.[8] Et ossa mea
And my bones burned up like a hearth.
That too. But here, while I live, in the cold and the dark,
I long for a whole shirt, and a lamp at night.
I suffer greatly from cold in the head, and am afflicted by a 
perpetual catarrh ... My overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also
worn out ... And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening;
it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark.[9]
Vigilavi et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto
(I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top. Ps 102:7)
He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.
I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,
But He was first. I'm flake of His fire,
Leaf-tip on His world-tree.
                                          But I watch too,
As once I stood on Nibley Knoll[10] and looked
Out over moody Severn across the Forest
To the strangeness of Wales, Malvern’s blue bony hills, 
And down on the dear preoccupied people 
Inching along to Gloucester, the trows[11] with their sopping decks 
Running from Bristol with the weather behind them, 
And none of them knowing God’s meaning, what He said to them,
Save filtered through bookish lips that never learnt 
To splice a rope or fill a bucket. So I watched, 
And saw the souls on the road, the souls on the river, 
Were the ones Jesus loved. I saw that. Now I see 
The landscape of my life, and how that seeing 
Has brought me to this place, and what comes after.
So He saw the history of us, His people, 
From Olivet. And told His men to watch. 
Vigilate ergo (nescitis enim quando dominus domus veniat; sero an 
media nocte, an galli canto, an mane), ne cum venerit repente, inveniat
 vos dormientes.[12]
They couldn't keep their eyes open, poor souls. 
Vigilate. As well tell them to stand on their heads. 
Erant enim oculi eorum gravati.[13] For their eyes were heavy. 
I doubt I’d have done much better. 
It must have been a hard day for them, 
And they weren’t used to late nights, the disciples, 
But to early mornings, when the shoals come in.
Hard-headed men with blisters on their palms 
From the nets. Why did He ask them to stay awake 
When He knew they couldn’t? Because He always does. 
He picks the amateurs who follow Him 
For love, not devout professionals 
With a safe pair of hands. Look at Peter, 
A man permanently in hot water, chosen, 
Perhaps, for that very thing. God sets His mark 
On us all. You start, and it’s easy: 
I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,
And I thought. I could do that. Give him God’s word,
I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did,
      But it got so difficult: exile, hardship, shipwreck,
      Spies everywhere. Then prison, and the fire.
      God’s mark on me, as on Peter. I would have slept, too.
      Principes persecuti sunt me gratis
(Princes have persecuted me without a cause. Ps 119: 161)

      What can you do with power except misuse it? 
      Being so mighty makes these men afraid 
      That we, their subjects, might guess they’re men too. 
      That I can understand. It’s the followers 
      Who turn my stomach. The glib climbers 
      Greedy for money, land, influence, jobs for the boys. 
      They’re drawn by the power and the glory, 
      And kings aren’t fastidious. Consider Henry’s men –
      Cuthbert the cloth-eared Bishop of London,[14]
      Wolsey the Suffolk wolf; and foul-mouthed More,[15]
      The bitterest tongue in England. Consider also 
      Their noble master Henry, the subject-harrier, 
      Who drove me here. Well then, consider them. 
      They fear me. So they should. I plan 
      The invasion of England by the word of God. 
      And it will come. Just now, they burn my books. 
      An easy step from that to burning clerks.
      Burning this clerk for doing what God wants, 
      Turning God’s word to King’s English.
                                                             But not the King’s;
      The people’s; England’s English. That’s where Christ is. 
      Not a king to do business with Popes and chancellors, 
      But a servant, a man beneath us, who washes our feet, 
      Who goes before to try. out the hard things first, 
      Who opens gates so we can go easily through, 
      That is the king, one and only, who speaks our own words. 
      The powerlessness and the glory.
      Princes have persecuted me. Perhaps they have a cause.
      Scribantur haec in generationem alteram et populus qui creabitur laudabit Dominum
      (This shall be written for those that come after. and the people which shall he born shall praise the Lord. Ps 102:18)
      The powerlessness. This is the day He dies, 
      Jesus, the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross 
      Who forgives those who put Him there. He's dying now,
      And His world is dying too. I made this world twice 
      After God; twice I translated Genesis.[16] I know 
      The deep places in it. And God said,
      Let there be light, and there was light. 
      The accurate voice of God. And after Him, me; 
      Tyndale of Nibley. The human small-scale words 
      For the unimagined thing. And as Jesus hangs dying, 
      That same immense familiar light, that shines 
      Over Nibley and Bristol, London and Flanders, 
      Over all the countries we know glancingly of, 
      Goes out, as the world, more faithful than its people, 
      Mourns for its maker. The world itself dies.
      God says, Let there be no light.
      And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the 
      whole land until the ninth hour.[17]
      Starlings think it night, celandines shut their petals, 
      Trees in Westridge Wood[18] stand frostily waiting. 
      No light. No light. God said, Let there be no light, 
      While Jesus is dying.
      I want to die like that,
      Brave and forgiving. I may not be able. 
      The grace is not in us. We have to ask.
      We must also desire God day and night instantly to open our eyes.[19]
      So little time. We have to hustle God 
      Who, in His unhorizoned sphere of time, 
      Can hardly know how short our seasons are. 
      And I pray too for resurrection in the word. 
      This shall be written for those who come after. 
      And still, these tedious Chronicles waiting for me, 
      These kings and priests and rulers of this world, 
      These Jeroboams and Jehoiakims, 
      Between me and beatus vir, the happy man, 
      Whose leaf shall not wither. Unlike mine. 
      And look, whatsoever he doeth it shall prosper. 
      Et omnia quaecumquefaciet prosperabuntur. 
      Prosperabuntur? God’s teeth, what a word 
      For Christian tongues to wrestle with. Language for liars! 
      Our dear and patient English shall rip out 
      The rubbish Jerome stuffed in the Church’s mouth. 
      I must get on. Day and night. Instantly. 
      The Psalms are waiting. So are the English. 
      Vile the place is, but still my Father's house. 
      Lampless or not, He lights it.
              U. A. Fanthorpe
Explanatory Notes
      1.     ‘Who, because ... are heresy’ Tyndale, quoted in Demaus, William Tindale London, 1886.
      2.     The Emperor. Charles V.
      3.     My Pentateuch: Tyndale's first translation of this was lost when his boat sank.
      4.     The happy man: Psalm 1.i. Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly ... he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water.
      5.     Miles: Miles Coverdale, who worked with Tyndale and took over at his death. The Book of Common Prayer Psalms are Coverdale's.
      6.     Jerome: Translated the Old and New Testaments from Hebrew and Greek into Latin (the Vulgate).
      7.     ‘They say ... with the Latin’ From Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man.
      8.     Vilvorde: Where, in 1536, Tyndale was strangled and burned.
      9.     ‘I suffer ... in the dark’ Letter from Tyndale, imprisoned in Vilvorde Castle.
       10.   Nibley Knoll: in South Gloucestershire, where the Tyndale Monument now stands.
       11.   Trows: Severn barges.
       12.   ‘Vigilate ergo ... dormientes’ Matthew 24.42.
           * Watch ye therefore, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, Or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: lest coming  suddenly he find you sleeping.
       13.   ‘Erant .. gravati’ Matthew 26.43.
       14.   Cuthbert: Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London.
                 More: Sir Thomas More was . more vituperative in polemic even than Tyndale ? which is saying something!
       16.   Twice ... Genesis: The first translation was lost in the Rhine shipwreck.
       17.   And  when ... ninth hour: Mark15.33.
       18.   Westridge Wood: On the ridge above North Nibley.
       19.   ‘We must also ... our eyes’ From Tyndale’s A Prologue.

This poem by U. A. Fanthorpe was dedicated to Michael Foot with these introductory quotations:

Almost every good translation of the Bible ... has been undertaken by a single highly gifted zealot. Tyndale was executed before he could complete his task, but he set the English style ... which lives on in the King James Version (1611). A sacred book must be all of a piece, as though written by the hand of God Himself and this cad hardly happen unless a man of strong character, wide knowledge, and natural eloquence, working only for the love of God ? perhaps under threat of death ? sets his seal on it.

Robert Graves. The Crane Bag

St Jerome also translated the Bible into his mother tongue: why may not we also? – William Tyndale

Editor’s Note

The authoress has very kindly granted the Tyndale Society permission to reprint her poem, which she read recently at the Gloucester Cathedral Lecture, in this Journal. It first appeared in Safe as Houses Peterloo Poets, Storyline Press, Cornwall 1996.

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