Sunday, 24 January 2010

Cæli enarrant gloriam Dei...

The average Catholic Mass regularly provides a number of trials for a person who wants to worship without being distracted by infelicitous language or music. One of the hardest - for me, at any rate - is the Responsorial Psalm, which every week, without fail, is one of the oddest linguistic constructions ever to masquerade as a sacred text. This morning we were treated to a few verses from Psalm 18, which I actually managed to forget (until I got home and looked it up) is one of my favourite psalms. This is the whole thing:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handy-work.
One day telleth another, and one night certifieth another.
There is neither speech nor language, but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words into the ends of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course.
It goeth forth from the uttermost part of the heaven, and runneth about unto the end of it again, and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The law of the Lord is an undefiled law, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, and giveth wisdom unto the simple.
The statutes of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, and endureth for ever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is thy servant taught, and in keeping of them there is great reward.
Who can tell how oft he offendeth? O cleanse thou me from my secret faults.
Keep thy servant also from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me: so shall I be undefiled, and innocent from the great offence.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Quite apart from anything else, this is an extraordinary piece of poetry. The version we hear in church has not a trace of its fluent elegance, its glorious imagery. We heard the flattest, most pedestrian bit of prose you can imagine. Here:

The law of the Lord is perfect, it revives the soul.
The rule of the Lord is to be trusted, it gives wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right, they gladden the heart.
The command of the Lord is clear, it gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is holy, abiding for ever.
The decrees of the Lord are truth and all of them just.

May the spoken words of my mouth, the thoughts of my heart,
win favour in your sight, O Lord, my rescuer, my rock.

I suppose we must leave aside the fact that this omits the first half of the psalm - that majestic picture of night and day, planet and star, all time and all creation rejoicing together in the greatness of God - and the verse about "secret sins" which I personally have always found a helpful prayer; that might not be the translator's fault. I can just about forgive the first three verses, flat and uninspiring as they are.

But what kind of unimaginative person would choose, in translating that portion of the psalm, to omit the verse about the law of the Lord being more precious than gold and sweeter than the honeycomb? That's the poetic climax of the three preceding verses; the rhetorical structure, which has been repetitive, changes to give force to the climax. That is the beautiful, memorable image which fixes the previous three verses in the mind.

Something about "the spoken words of my mouth" (as opposed to the words of the mouth which are just mimed?) is no substitute.

All the psalms at Mass are like this - every week. They're not exactly offensive, the way some bad music is; to anyone who cares about cadence, though, they grate badly. I say this as someone who has had to sing these texts as a cantor on numerous occasions, and struggled desperately to find profundity in them worth bringing out in the music. I choose the music to set the psalms I sing very carefully, but when you're stuck with banal words, there is only so much you can do to bring beauty to it. At least we heard it read this morning and not sung, because the repetition makes this an especially tough psalm to sing without sounding like a strange robotic machine (and notice how the fourth verse is shorter than all the rest? That will catch the congregation out every time. The psalm translations we have to use are full of such needless snags to comprehension). Eventually I found a Gregorian melody to sing it to, and then it was a thousand times better. But that doesn't improve the words.

Luckily we're singing the whole thing at Evensong tonight. Anglican chant. Proper dignified translation. Poetry, and praise. I will be happy.

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