Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Psalm Translations: The Lord is my light

Psalm 27 is appointed for the fifth evening of the month, and so here are some various translations of it. This is one of my favourite psalms and, as I've said before, the source of the motto of the University of Oxford, so it seems a fitting place to start an occasional mini series on medieval psalm translations.

So for a reminder, here's the Book of Common Prayer version:

1. The Lord is my light, and my salvation; whom then shall I fear :
the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?

2. When the wicked, even mine enemies, and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh :
they stumbled and fell.

3. Though an host of men were laid against me, yet shall not my heart be afraid :
and though there rose up war against me, yet will I put my trust in him.

4. One thing have I desired of the Lord, which I will require :
even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to visit his temple.

5. For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his tabernacle :
yea, in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me, and set me up upon a rock of stone.

6. And now shall he lift up mine head :
above mine enemies round about me.

7. Therefore will I offer in his dwelling an oblation with great gladness
: I will sing, and speak praises unto the Lord.

8. Hearken unto my voice, O Lord, when I cry unto thee :
have mercy upon me, and hear me.

9. My heart hath talked of thee, Seek ye my face :
Thy face, Lord, will I seek.

10. O hide not thou thy face from me :
nor cast thy servant away in displeasure.

11. Thou hast been my succour :
leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.

12. When my father and my mother forsake me :
the Lord taketh me up.

13. Teach me thy way, O Lord :
and lead me in the right way, because of mine enemies.

14. Deliver me not over into the will of mine adversaries :
for there are false witnesses risen up against me, and such as speak wrong.

15. I should utterly have fainted :
but that I believe verily to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

16. O tarry thou the Lord’s leisure :
be strong, and he shall comfort thine heart; and put thou thy trust in the Lord.

I couldn't find any Old English versions of this psalm, nor access Rolle's commentary on it; but here's the version from the Wycliffe Bible, from the end of the fourteenth century. Emphasis for the things which struck me:

1. The Lord is my liytnyng, and myn helthe; whom schal Y drede? The Lord is defendere of my lijf; for whom schal Y tremble?

['lightening'! Isn't that great? Of course it's in the sense of 'something which lightens' rather than, you know, like you get in a thunderstorm; but it's still a great choice of word.]

2. The while noiful men neiyen on me; for to ete my fleischis. Myn enemyes, that trobliden me; thei weren maad sijk and felden doun.

[nice alliteration. 'noiful' is, as you may be able to guess, related to annoying. And 'neiyen' is draw nigh.]

3. Thouy castels stonden togidere ayens me; myn herte schal not drede. Thouy batel risith ayens me; in this thing Y schal haue hope.

4. I axide of the Lord o thing; Y schal seke this thing; that Y dwelle in the hows of the Lord alle the daies of my lijf. That Y se the wille of the Lord; and that Y visite his temple.

[observe how close the bolded phrase is to the BCP version, which is a literary descendant of the Wycliffite Bible]

5. For he hidde me in his tabernacle in the dai of yuelis; he defendide me in the hid place of his tabernacle.

6. He enhaunside me in a stoon; and now he enhaunside myn heed ouer myn enemyes. I cumpasside, and offride in his tabernacle a sacrifice of criyng; Y schal synge, and Y schal seie salm to the Lord.

7. Lord, here thou my vois, bi which Y criede to thee; haue thou merci on me, and here me.

8. Myn herte seide to thee, My face souyte thee; Lord, Y schal seke eft thi face.

9. Turne thou not awei thi face fro me; bouwe thou not awei in ire fro thi seruaunt. Lord, be thou myn helpere, forsake thou not me; and, God, myn helthe, dispise thou not me.

10. For my fadir and my modir han forsake me; but the Lord hath take me.

11. Lord, sette thou a lawe to me in thi weie; and dresse thou me in thi path for myn enemyes.

12. Bitake thou not me in to the soules of hem, that troblen me; for wickid witnessis han rise ayens me, and wickydnesse liede to it silf.

13. I bileue to see the goodis of the Lord; in the lond of `hem that lyuen.
14. Abide thou the Lord, do thou manli; and thin herte be coumfortid, and suffre thou the Lord.
[be 'manly'! In the sense of 'brave, resolute', of course; a translation of the Vulgate's Latin 'viriliter', for which the BCP chooses 'strong'.]

The psalm in Latin and English, from British Library, Harley 1896

The next translation is a metrical version, earlier than the Wycliffite Bible by about a century, and from Yorkshire. It's from the Surtees Psalter, which is online here. If you want to read it in a Yorkshire accent, that would probably help.

1. Lauerd mi lightinge es in lede,
And mi hele; wham i sal drede?

2. Lauerd forhiler of mi life;
For whate sal [i] quake, swerde or knife?

3. Whil neghes ouer me derand,
To ete mi flesche fote and hand,

4. Þat droues me mi faas þat are
Þai are vnfeste and felle sare.

5. Ife stand ogaines me kastelles ma,
Noght drede sal mi hert for þa;

6. Ife vprise ogaine me fighte,
In þat sal i hope in mighte.

7. Life ofe lauerd asked i,
Þat sal .i. seke inwardeli:
Þat [i] wone hous ofe lauerd ine
Alle þe daies ofe life mine,

[ditto to the above note.]

8. Þat i se wille of lauerd swa,
And seke his kirke in forto ga.

[note 'kirke' for tabernacle, here as in the next verse; and if you have a scholarly interest in these things, you may be interested in this article.]

9. For he hide me in his kirke in iuels dai,
He hiled me in hidel ofe his telde ai;

10. In stane heghed me on-ane,
And nou heghed mi heued ouer mi fane.

11. I vmyhode, and offrede in telde hisse
Offrand ofe berand steuen þat isse;
I sal singe bi night and daie,
And salme to lauerd sal i saie.

12. Here, lauerd, mi steuen, þat i crie to þe;
Hafe merci ofe me, and here me.

13. To þe mi hert saide: “þe soght face mine;
I sal seke, lauerd, to face þine”.

14. Ne turne þine anleth me fra;
Ne helde in wreth fra þi hine swa.

15. Mi helper be; ne me forlete,
Ne me forse, god mi hele swete.

[this is a nice rhyme. 'forse' = 'forsake']

16. For mi fader and mi moder me forsoke þai;
Lauerd sothlike vptoke me ai.

17. Lagh set to me, lauerd, in waieþine,
And right me in right stiyhe, for faes myne.

18. Ne hafe giuen me onhande
In saules ofe me drouande;
For in me raas wicked witnes,
And leghed to þam þair wickenes.

19. I leue godes of lauerd to se
In þe land ofe liuande be.

[note that here we already have the famous phrase 'land of the living'. So you can be a little sceptical when, in this King James Version anniversary year, you hear well-meaning people listing all the phrases the KJV has given to the world and including 'land of the living' among them (as for instance in this BBC article, despite David Crystal's warning in the very next sentence). The Vulgate Latin, by the way, is 'in terra viventium'.]

20. Abide lauerd, manlike do nou,
And strenþhed be þi hert, and lauerd vphald þou.

Manly again!

Moving on from the medieval examples, you know who else did a metrical translation of the psalms? Lovely Philip Sidney, and his amazing sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke. They are a very cool pair of literary siblings, and their version of the psalms was praised by John Donne (in this poem), so you know it's good. Here's what they (possibly just Philip, since this is one of the early psalms) did with Psalm 27:

1. The shining Lord He is my light,
The strong God my salvation is,
Who shall be able me to fright?
This Lord with strength my life doth blisse;
And shall I then
Feare might of men?

2. When wicked folk, even they that be
My foes, to utmost of their pow'r,
With rageing jawes environ me,
My very flesh for to devoure,
They stumble so,
That down they go.

3. Then though against me arrays were,
My courage should not be dismaid;
Though battaile's brunt I needs must beare,
While battaile's brunt on me were laid,
In this I would
My trust still hold.

4. One thing in deed I did, and will
For euer craue: that dwell I may
In house of high Jehova still,
On beauty His my eyes to stay,
And look into
His temple too.

5. For when great griefes to me be ment,
In tabernacle His I will
Hide me, ev'n closely in His tent
Yea, noble hight of rocky hill
He makes to be
A seat for me.

6. Now, now shall He lift vp my head
On my beseiging enemyes;
So shall I sacrifices spred,
Offrings of joy in Temple His,
And songes accord,
To prayse the Lord.

7. Heare, Lord, when I my voice display,
Heare to haue mercy eke on me;
'Seek ye My face,' when Thou didst say,
In truth of heart I answerd Thee:
O Lord, I will
Seek Thy face still.

8. Hide not therfore from me that face,
Since all my ayd in Thee I got;
In rage Thy servant do not chase,
Forsake not me, O, leaue me not,
O God of my
Salvation high.

9. Though father's care and mother's loue
Abandond me, yet my decay
Should be restor'd by Him aboue:
Teach, Lord, Lord, lead me Thy right way,
Because of those
That be my foes.

10. Vnto whose ever hating lust,
Oh, giue me not, for there are sproong
Against me witnesses unjust,
Ev'n such, I say, whose lying tongue
Fiercly affords
Most cruel words.

11. What had I been, except I had
Beleivd God's goodness for to see,
In land with living creatures clad?
Hope, trust in God, bee strong, and He
Unto thy hart
Shall joy impart.

The last verse, being the most beautiful sentiment, makes the most beautiful poetry. (Although can he really have meant 'clad'? How can a land be 'clad' with living creatures? That puzzles me. And the word order he uses a few times, 'tabernacle His', 'temple His', 'beauty His', strikes me as extremely strange. You almost never see that in English verse. But that last verse is so lovely!)

For other metrical translations, see:
Isaac Watts
A version from the Scottish Psalter of 1650

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