Sunday, 29 April 2012

Psalm Translations: By the waters of Babylon

I was thinking about something today - I don't know why - and as so often happens, a psalm at Evensong tonight resonated with my thought, and worked to crystallise it somehow. So if this post goes off on a tangent at the end, you'll have to forgive me.

It was Psalm 136/7:




1. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept : when we remembered thee, O Sion.
2 As for our harps, we hanged them up : upon the trees that are therein.
3 For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody, in our heaviness : Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
4 How shall we sing the Lord's song : in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, : let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth : yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem in my mirth.
7 Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem : how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.
8 O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery : yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee, as thou hast served us.
9 Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children : and throweth them against the stones.


I love that setting, which is by George Garrett; it's so beautiful it breaks your heart.

This is perhaps the most famous setting of the Latin version:



1 Super flumina Babylonis ibi sedimus et flevimus, cum recordaremur Sion.
2 Super salices in medio eius suspendimus citharas nostras.
3 Quoniam ibi interrogaverunt nos qui captivos duxerunt nos verba carminis et qui adfligebant nos laeti: canite nobis de canticis Sion.
4 Quomodo cantabimus canticum Domini in terra aliena?
5 Si oblitus fuero tui, Hierusalem, in oblivione sit dextera mea.
6 Adhereat lingua mea gutturi meo, si non recordatus fuero tui si non praeposuero Hierusalem in principio laetitiae meae.
7 Memento, Domine, filiorum Edom in diem Hierusalem dicentium evacuate evacuate usque ad fundamentum eius.
8 Filia Babylon vastata, beatus qui retribuet tibi vicissitudinem tuam quam retribuisti nobis.
9 Beatus qui tenebit et adlidet parvulos tuos ad petram.


Now for some medieval translations. I don't have an Old English translation to offer you, but I can direct you to this illustration from a Psalter produced at Canterbury in c.1000. The organ and harp hanging on the sinewy trees are wonderful!

The earliest English translation I could find is by Richard Rolle (I didn't look very hard, so there may be earlier ones).

1. Aboven the flodes of Babilon, thar we sat and gret whils we umthou3t of Syon.
2. In the wylghis in the myddis of hit we hang up our orgoyns.
3. For thar thei askyd us, tho that caitifes led us, wordes of songes, and tho that away led us ȝmpne synges til us of the sanges of syon.
4. How shal we syng the song of Lord in aliens land?
5. If I forgete thee Jerusalem, til forgetyng be gifen my riȝthand.
6. My tong draw til my chekis, if i had thouȝt not of thee, if i sett nouȝt of thee, Jerusalem, in begynnyng of my joy.
7. Be menand, Lord, of the sunnys of Edom in day of Jerusalem, the whilk seys "temys, temys, til the ground in hit."
8. Dowȝghtur of Babilon, wrech, blisful he that shal ȝeld til thee the ȝeldyng that thou ȝeldid til us.
9. Blisful he that shal holde and knok his smale til the stone.


Rolle's is a psalter with commentary, and his comment on this last verse is, "These small [things] are evil stirrings in man's thought, of pride, covetise and lechery, but he is blessed that holds them, that they pass not into delight, and knocks them against Christ, that they perish through his might, for if he let them wax, they will not so soon be overcome." I like that!

His comment on the first verse is, "Floods of Babylon are all things that are loved here and pass away, which holy men behold and forsake, sitting above them, and weeping for their own pilgrimage and their sins that are ravished into the floods while they think of Sion - that is, of heaven, where nothing runs away, but all joy is together. Worldly men weep for the loss of their goods or their friends, as they joy in nothing but in their wealth; but each man should weep when thinking of Sion."

We'll come back to that.

Here's a Wycliffite translation from the late 14th century:

1. On the floodis of Babiloyne there we saten, and wepten; while we bithouyten on Syon.
2. In salewis in the myddil therof; we hangiden up oure orguns.
3. For thei that ledden us prisoners, axiden us there the wordis of songis. And thei that ledden awei us seiden "Synge ye to us an ympne of the songis of Syon."
4. Hou schulen we singe a songe of the Lord in an alien lond?
5. If I foryete thee, Jerusalem, my riyt hond be youun to foryeting.
6. Mi tunge cleue to my chekis, if I bithenke not on thee, if I purposide not of thee, Jerusalem, in the bigynnyng of my gladnesse.
7. Lord, haue thou mynde on the sones of Edom, for the dai of Jerusalem. Whiche seien, Anyntische ye, anyntische ye; til to the foundement ther ynne.
8. Thou wretchid douyter of Babiloyne; he is blessid, that schal yelde to thee thi yelding, which thou yeldidist to vs.
9. He is blessid, that schal holde; and hurtle doun hise litle children at a stoon.


It took me a ridiculously long time to realise that the word ympne in "Synge ye to us an ympne of the songis of Syon" is of course hymn. Should have spotted that sooner...

This would be a useful psalm to learn condemnations from. That "Anyntische ye, anyntische ye" in verse 7 means 'bring to nothing, destroy' (related to the French anéantir), while Rolle's "temys, temys" comes from a word of Old Norse origin meaning 'to spill, to pour out'. Choose your method of destruction.

Rolle was a Yorkshireman and our next translation is also from Yorkshire, from the thirteenth-century Surtees Psalter (the numbering of the verses is a bit different here):

1. Stremes ofe Babilon, þare sate we on,
And wepe, whils we mined of Syon.

2. In selihes in mide ofe ite
Our organes henge we yhite.

3. For þider asked vs, þat wrecches swa
Led vs, wordes of sanges ma;

4. And þat outlede vs: "ympne singe yhe
Til vs of sanges ofe Syon be."

5. Hou sal we singe sange with blisse
Ofe lauerd in outen land þat isse?

6. Ife I forgete þe, Jerusalem land,
To forgetelnesse giuen be mi righte hand.

7. Mi tunge to mi chekes cleuand be,
Ife þat I noght mine ofe þe;

8. Ife I forsete þe noght, Jerusalem, ai
In biginninge ofe mi fainenes al dai.

9. Mine, lauerd, ofe Edom sones, þat tem,
In daie ofe Jerusalem,

10. Þat saies: “lesses, lesses yhite,
Vnto þe grondstaþelnes in ite!”

11. Doghtre of Babilon, wrecched alle!
Seli þat foryhelde salle
To þe þi foryheldinge nou
Þat til vs foryhelded þou;

12. Seli þat sal hald on-ane
And giue þi smale vnto þe stane.


Seli is one of my favourite words for 'blessed'; in Middle English it means 'fortunate, favoured', but also 'innocent, blameless', and over time the latter meaning came to be used of things deserving of compassion or pity, like children or animals (especially sheep, for some reason - so you will sometimes find Christmas carols which have the shepherds 'leave their silly sheep'). And this tender epithet came to have overtones of 'weak, foolish', and thus we get today's silly, still used of things or people towards whom one feels more pity than contempt.


Songs and hymns, streams and floods and waters. I didn't even realise until I started writing this post just how close this psalm comes to what I've been thinking about in my own life. It's something about singing in exile. Rolle is quite right: "The floods of Babylon are all things that are loved here and pass away". Recently I've been feeling self-conscious about the things I love - essentially, all the stuff I post about on this blog. It's such an odd and silly assortment, and pretty much no one I know in real life shares my love for any of it. I've spent my whole life being a little embarrassed about my taste in music and literature, and wishing really that I could just be normal and like the things everyone else likes; I don't feel that as much as I did when I was younger, but I still wish I could love my own things a little less. Perhaps it's just an extreme case of the grad student's curse - which is the knowledge that absolutely no one cares about your subject as much as you do - but I suspect really it's a manifestation of Sehnsucht, C. S. Lewis' Joy, the 'inconsolable longing for we know not what', and the sense of utter aloneness which comes with it.

And somewhere in there is Chesterton, and his idea of things 'saved from the wreck':

Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck...

I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe's ship. That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added. The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton's Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.

'The greatest of poems is an inventory' - I love that. I've quoted it before in reference to this poem (and it's even more true of this one). Chesterton was being typically ebullient, but hoarding hills and seeing in them a sudden glimpse of the hills of heaven are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes it's cosy, sometimes it's "the old stab, the old bittersweet". Everyone would have their own list of things saved from the wreck; this was C. S. Lewis':

the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

That longing, that love, is an endless hunger of hopeless things, and sometimes it's more wonderful than painful, and sometimes the other way around. I suppose everyone feels it to some degree, but some people seem more susceptible than others; and these days I wish I was less susceptible.

And I've forgotten what this has to do with the psalm.

5 comments:

PW said...

You're not alone!

Super Flumina is one of my favorite Palestrina motets. There's also the German chorale version "An Wasserflussen Babylon" which, unfortunately, never made it into English. The tune is always used for the text "A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth" instead, so when I needed an English version for a project (recreating a service from Reformation-era Strasbourg), I matched the music with this hymn-hobbiest's translation: http://bit.ly/IhHzxz

Here's Bach's setting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYdCCW8Fhig

Clerk said...

I'd never encountered that - the Bach is lovely! (And how great is it that you recreated a service from Reformation-era Strasbourg! That sounds amazing)

mfi said...

An Wasserflüssen Babylon was set a fair bit in early Baroque Germany. I'm currently writing a series of posts dealing with Baroque German Cantatas and was quite surprised at how often this particular psalm crops up.

Bob Belvedere said...

-I have just discovered your wonderful site [and lovely writing style] via Tom Holland's Twitter Account. Like so many others, I am now enjoying my journey through your archives. Thank you for this site.

-Regarding this post, a related item that may be of interest: American Composer William Billings wrote Lamentation Over Boston based on the same works to commemorate the British occupation of Boston in the aftermath of the battles at Concord and at Lexington. It always stirs my Soul:

By the Rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept,
We wept when we remembered thee, O Boston,
When we remembered thee, O Boston.
As for our prayers, Lord God of Heaven,
Preserve them, defend them, deliver, and restore them unto us,
Preserve them, defend them, deliver, and restore them unto us again.
For they that held them in bondage
Required of them to take up arms against their Brethren
Forbid it, Lord – God forbid
That those who have sucked Bostonian Breasts
Should thirst for American Blood.
A voice was heard in Roxbury which echoed thro’ the Continent,
Weeping for Boston…
Weeping for Boston because of their Danger.
Is Boston my dear Town, is it my native Place?
For since their Calamity I do earnestly remember it still!
I do earnestly remember it still!

If I forget thee, yea, if I do not remember thee,
Then let my numbers cease to flow,
Then be my Muse unkind,
Then let my Tongue forget to move and ever be confined;
Let horrid Jargon split the Air and rive my nerves asunder.
Let hateful discord greet my ear as terrible as Thunder.
Let harmony be banished hence and Consonance depart;
Let dissonance erect her throne and reign within my Heart.


A musical rendition, performed by The Essex Harmony at the Old South Meeting House on 11 April 2010, may be found at my site:

https://thecampofthesaints.org/2014/04/20/sunday-nocturnal-william-billings-lamentation-over-boston/


Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you for sharing that - it's beautiful and moving.