Sunday, November 8, 2015

On Psalm Twenty-Three of the King James Bible

In this series, I am writing appreciations of some of the greatest poems ever written in the English language. Generally, I believe that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but my chosen poem on this occasion is an exception— in the sense that it is a translation into English of a poem from another language. It’s also the only religious poem in my list of greatest poems ever. Considering it is so short, I have room to quote it in full:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and they staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I believe that poetry is an extremely evanescent and elusive quality, one that lies as much ‘on the surface’ of the language as ‘underneath’. There have, of course, been innumerable other translations of this psalm. It is Psalm Twenty-Two in the Douay Rheims version of the Bible, which is (as it were) the Catholic equivalent of the King James Bible. The first line in the Douay Rheims version is: “The Lord ruleth me; and I shall want nothing”. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. It’s stately and graceful, and for all I know it may be closer to the original Hebrew. But it doesn’t have the same magic as ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. I think this shows that poetry is just as much about ‘how it sounds’ as what it means.

Of course, a purely technical analysis of this poem (and I shall henceforth term it a poem) can explain some of its power. We can see that almost every line is divided into two roughly equal halves. Every line seems to rise to a gentle crescendo half-way through, and to descend with equal gentleness in its second half. The rhythm of this poem is like the breathing of a sleeping child.

There is another quality to the poem that is equally child-like and that I can only describe as ‘crudeness’. Children like bright colours, sweet flavours, good heroes and villainous villains. They are not big on subtlety, to use modern parlance. There is something child-like about the imagery of the Bible, as a whole. It translates spiritual rewards and spiritual dangers into the most frankly material and even sensual terms. The unabashed eroticism of the Song of Songs (though hardly child-like, of course) is the most famous and eyebrow-raising example. But it’s a constant throughout Scripture, including the discourses of Our Lord. “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.”

Psalm Twenty-Three is certainly no exception to this rule. Its imagery is straightforwardly hedonistic; green pastures, an overflowing cup, a feast on a table. There is nothing ‘spiritualised’ or refined about it.

The image of reassurance and protection in the poem is equally appropriate to childhood. It is not the reassurance of a quiet conscience or an inner peace. It is the reassurance of a physical protector. “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”.

The appeal of all this child-like imagery is not only its naivety and its artlessness, but its humility. Pride is the greatest sin, and its also the most popular sin. It’s certainly my favourite sin. I’m guessing it’s yours, too. It’s the most insidious sin in the world, because it’s the sin that can best masquerade as virtue. The more ‘virtuous’ we are, in fact, the more room pride has to breathe.

But the ultimate truth about pride is that it’s exhausting. Like any drug, it feels great at first, but the toll it takes is immense. It hollows us out. It presses us down. In the words of G.K. Chesterton: “Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.”

So I believe that, even in the proudest heart, there is something that gasps for humility, as a choking man gasps for air—something that craves the sheer blessed relief of humility. It is this craving that responds gratefully to Psalm Twenty-Three.

We might take the imaginary case of a ‘self-made man’ who has spent his entire life cherishing his independence, his resilience, and his resourcefulness. These are all good qualities in themselves, of course, but let us also imagine this ‘self-made man’, like so many of us, has let himself be eaten up with pride in his own accomplishments.

I think it’s no great leap to think of such a man listening to the words of Psalm Twenty-Three—“Thou preparest a table before me in the face of mine enemies, thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over”—and feeling (even if unconsciously) what a burden his own self-satisfaction and pride has become. I can imagine him placing himself in the role of the narrator of the poem, and feeling relief in the idea of a child-like dependency and gratitude. Because, of course, we are all charity cases in the end, whatever our accomplishments. Our very skills and talents are God-given. “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7.)

One a purely poetic level, much of the poem’s appeal comes from a mixture of straightforwardness of subject matter with a certain stiffness in style. In the Good News Bible translation, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters” becomes “He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water”. The Good News translation has a simple beauty of its own, but it lacks the self-conscious poetry of the King James version. Again, there is something child-like about this. If you ever listen to children reading poetry aloud—or even reading prose aloud—they usually do so in a choppy, solemn, sing-song manner. We tend to smile at this, but I think their instincts are quite healthy. There is a magic to the written word, and indeed to the spoken word. It’s a shame that we ever lose this sense of the magic and solemnity of words, and we should do everything we can to hold onto it.

Finally, I ascribe much of this poem’s universal appeal, unsurprisingly, to its very universality. There is nothing in Psalm Twenty-Three which could not apply to anybody, anywhere, at any time. It is very hard to think of any literary work which is more universal.

Literary critics (and others) have written much on the idea of universality, and how it relates to particularity. I have sometimes encountered the claim that a work of art, to achieve universality, should be unabashedly particular. In other words, a movie about a fisherman in Nantucket, which aims to be nothing other than a movie about a fisherman in Nantucket, will achieve a universal resonance without trying—whereas a movie that goes out of its way to be about an Average Joe, that aims for the broadest appeal, will fall flat because there is really no such thing as an Average Joe. Everybody is somebody. Everywhere is somewhere. Vagueness kills art, and kills poetry.

It’s a plausible-sounding theory, but I don’t agree with it. I think vagueness can be a virtue in poetry. Psalm Twenty-Three takes the most hackneyed (or rather, the most timeless) symbols and makes unforgettable use of them. The narrator is nobody in particular and the landscape is nowhere in particular. In other words, the narrator is all of us, and the landscape is life itself.

 For all that we cherish our individuality and our identities, the things that matter the most are as common as the sky, the sun and the moon. I think that Psalm Twenty-Three speaks to our human condition in its most fundamental terms. And that is why its appeal is so enduring—and why I myself have been unable to write about it, in this article, without being moved several times to tears.

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