On Translating the Bible--The Countess of Pembroke

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This is one of my favorite psalms, and for a variety of reason, I truly love this setting of it.

Psalm 139
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke

Psalm 139
by Mary (Sidney) Herbert,
Countess of Pembroke

      O LORD, O Lord, in me there lieth nought
    But to thy search revealed lies,
            For when I sit
            Thou markest it;
    No less thou notest when I rise;
Yea, closest closet of my thought
    Hath open windows to thine eyes.

Thou walkest with me when I walk;
    When to my bed for rest I go,
            I find thee there,
            And everywhere:
    Not youngest thought in me doth grow,
No, not one word I cast to talk
    But yet unuttered thou dost know.

If forth I march, thou goest before,
    If back I turn, thou com'st behind:
            So forth nor back
            Thy guard I lack,
    Nay on me too, thy hand I find.
Well I thy wisdom may adore,
    But never reach with earthy mind.

To shun thy notice, leave thine eye,
    O whither might I take my way?
            To starry sphere?
            Thy throne is there.
    To dead men's undelightsome stay?
There is thy walk, and there to lie
    Unknown, in vain I should assay.

O sun, whom light nor flight can match,
    Suppose thy lightful flightful wings
            Thou lend to me,
            And I could flee
    As far as thee the evening brings:
Even led to west he would me catch,
    Nor should I lurk with western things.

Do thou thy best, O secret night,
    In sable veil to cover me:
            Thy sable veil
            Shall vainly fail;
    With day unmasked my night shall be,
For night is day, and darkness light,
    O father of all lights, to thee.

Each inmost piece in me is thine:
    While yet I in my mother dwelt,
            All that me clad
            From thee I had.
    Thou in my frame hast strangely dealt:
Needs in my praise thy works must shine
    So inly them my thoughts have felt.

Thou, how my back was beam-wise laid,
    And raft'ring of my ribs, dost know;
            Know'st every point
            Of bone and joint,
    How to this whole these parts did grow,
In brave embroid'ry fair arrayed,
    Though wrought in shop both dark and low.

Nay fashionless, ere form I took,
    Thy all and more beholding eye
            My shapeless shape
            Could not escape:
    All these time framed successively
Ere one had being, in the book
    Of thy foresight enrolled did lie.

My God, how I these studies prize,
    That do thy hidden workings show!
            Whose sum is such
            No sum so much,
    Nay, summed as sand they sumless grow.
I lie to sleep, from sleep I rise,
    Yet still in thought with thee I go.

My God, if thou but one wouldst kill,
    Then straigh would leave my further chase
            This cursed brood
            Inured to blood,
    Whose graceless taunts at thy disgrace
Have aimed oft; and hating still
    Would with proud lies thy truth outface.

Hate not I them, who thee do hate?
    Thine, Lord, I will the censure be.
            Detest I not
            The cankered knot
    Whom I against thee banded see?
O Lord, thou know'st in highest rate
    I hate them all as foes to me.

Search me, my God, and prove my heart,
    Examine me, and try my thought;
            And mark in me
            If ought there be
    That hath with cause their anger wrought.
If not (as not) my life's each part,
    Lord, safely guide from danger brought.

There is an ease and a beauty here that does not show in the sinewy and strident translations of Milton. There is also a music here that is lost in most other translations (the exceptions being the 1662 BCP and the King James and some of its predecessors.) You can imagine this psalm set to music, to baroque music--trumpets and flourishes. Unlike the weedy, thin and well-nigh indecipherable knots of words that we call our modern translations. No grandeur, no stateliness. What can one say of this:

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;
you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.
Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side


Or this:

Psalm 139

O LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.
My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar.


Sounds like the work of an extraterrestrial stalker.

Consider a point I made a day or so ago. How we speak may have some influence on our thought. It would seem that when we speak of God we should do so in the best way possible. That is, that the prayers we recite and the psalms we sing should be formulated in words the best reflect the majesty of their Subject.

Taste varies, and often people say that poetry is such a subjective art. And yet, we all know, nearly instinctually what makes a great poem, what makes a sing-song rhyme, and what makes an execrable butchery of the language. Can you imagine an ancient Hebrew poem in which the word "probed" is actually used? Or one in which the utterly prosaic and ghastly, "Even though I walk through a dark valley. . ." It is no wonder our prayer lives are so hampered if these are a materials we are given to start with. They treat God and his word as if he were our Home Boy or our local Val. Like, AS IF.

Okay, I've bent your ear enough. But we can do better than what is presently put before us, and we should strive to do so, seeking out not merely adequate, but truly magnificent translations--words that stir the heart and stick in the brain.

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Psalms... from The Commonplace Book of Zadok the Roman on October 13, 2004 6:59 AM

To my mind, some of greatest paraphrases of the psalms can be found in the hymnody of the the English Nonconformist Isaac Watts. Particularly fine is his hymn O God Our Help in Ages Past which is a paraphrase of Psalm 90. Read More


Howdy, Mr. Riddle!

Someone (hint, hint) should put together a Psalter by choosing the best one or few English renderings of each psalm. How magnificent would that be? If you're not into the production side of things, I could typeset it with TeX/LaTeX and we could send it off to Jeff Culbreath to be printed & bound. The St. Blogs Psalter?

Any thoughts?

Cheers -


That is a good idea. The nice thing about LaTeX is that you can also convert it to HTML, PDF, or other electronic formats and distribute it online.

Peace, Steven.

Poems can be for various purposes. The poetry of sung lyrics can be far different that what is magnificent for oral, non-musical proclamation. Some poems might work in one or the other medium, but not both.

Francis Patrick Sullivan made an interesting try in the 80's: (his version of Ps 139, a favorite psalm, somewhat unfamiliared here) "You be judge, God, you be jury for me! If I sit, if I stand, you know it first. If I think thoughts, you know it miles away."

A poet will spin her own meaning into poetry: art is always that way, but the current Roman climate would squish innovation.

But I agree: language can and should be more deep, and I think we can do away with archaic nuances of "Thou's" as well as pedestrian modern language.

Dear Todd,

We will differ here. Thou is not an "archaic nuance." Most languages have at least two ways of addressing the second person--one formal, one informal. Calling God "You" is another example of the democratization of the language and the usurpation of God's rightful place that we call progressive. There is nothing whatsoever that is even difficult to understand in "Thou" or "thee" and it is a continuous reminder of the numinous and the "other" as in Martin Buber's "I and Thou." Tradition is not all bad you know--we needn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that this tendency on the part of liturgists is what so often is alienating. The "Oh dear, that has a thou in it, we shouldn't sing it" syndrome which typifies some parishes (and I'm not speaking of you or yours--only of the extreme application of what you suggest above) leaves us with hideous broadway show-tune hymns and deprives us of the grandeur of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. Perhaps education in "the nuances" would better prepare people to worship in a fitting fashion.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 12, 2004 8:08 AM.

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