Sunday, 3 March 2013

Psalm Translations: O God, thou art my God

Some medieval English translations of Psalm 62/63, which I know best for this setting by Purcell:

The whole psalm in the Book of Common Prayer goes like this:

1. O God, thou art my God: early will I seek thee.
2. My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh also longeth after thee: in a barren and dry land where no water is.
3. Thus have I looked for thee in holiness: that I might behold thy power and glory.
4. For thy loving-kindness is better than the life itself: my lips shall praise thee.
5. As long as I live will I magnify thee on this manner: and lift up my hands in thy Name.
6. My soul shall be satisfied, even as it were with marrow and fatness: when my mouth praiseth thee with joyful lips.
7. Have I not remembered thee in my bed: and thought upon thee when I was waking?
8. Because thou hast been my helper: therefore under the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice.
9. My soul hangeth upon thee: thy right hand hath upholden me.
10. These also that seek the hurt of my soul: they shall go under the earth.
11. Let them fall upon the edge of the sword: that they may be a portion for foxes.
12. But the King shall rejoice in God; all they also that swear by him shall be commended: for the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped.

An Old English translation, from the Paris Psalter (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS 8824):

God min, god min, ic þe gearuwe to
æt leohte gehwam lustum wacie.
Min sawl on ðe swyðe þyrsteð
and min flæsc on ðe fæste getreoweð.
On westene and on wege swylce
and on wæterflodum wene ic swiðe,
þæt ic ðe on halgum her ætywe,
þæt ic þin wuldur and mægen wis sceawige.
Ys þin milde mod micele betere
þonne þis læne lif þe we lifiað on;
weleras ðe mine wynnum heriað.
Swa ic ðe on minum life lustum bletsige
and ic on naman þinum neode swylce
mine handa þwea halgum gelome.
Ys sawl min swetes gefylled,
swa seo fætte gelynd, fægeres smeoruwes;
weleras mine wynnum swylce
þinne naman nu ða neode heriað.
Swa ic þin gemynd on modsefan
on minre reste rihte begange,
and on ærmergen on ðe eac gewene,
forðon þu me on fultum fæste gestode.
Ic beo fægere beþeaht fiðerum þinum
and hiht on ðon hæbbe georne,
forðon min sawl on ðe soðe getreoweþ;
me ðin seo swiðre onfencg symble æt ðearfe.
Forðon hi on idel ealle syððan
sohton synlice sawle mine,
and geond eorðscræfu eodon geneahhe;
nu hi wæran geseald under sweordes hand,
syndon fracuðe nu foxes dælas.
Kynincg sceal on drihtne clæne blisse
hluttre habban, and hine heriað eac
ealle þa ðe on hine aðas sweriað;
forþon synt gemyrde muðas ealle
þa unriht sprecað ahwær landes.

One of the things I find interesting - and if I'm honest, quite moving - about comparing translations is spotting the phrases which have barely changed over the centuries. 'Min sawl on ðe swyðe þyrsteð' - once you know that swyðe means 'greatly', you can recognise exactly what that phrase is, even though this is the English of more than a thousand years ago.  It's our English but it's also very much the English of its time: this is a poetic translation rather than a literal one, and there are some familiar features of Old English poetic diction here - for example, in the phrase 'Ys þin milde mod micele betere þonne þis læne lif þe we lifiað on' ('thy merciful spirit is much better than this fleeting life in which we live').  The word læne crops up frequently in Old English poetry to describe human life on earth (there's a list of examples here); the sense behind it is of something 'loaned' and temporary - life is only a lease and can be taken away at any time.

Here's an illustration of the psalm from the eleventh-century manuscript British Library Harley 603 - I particularly like the smiling sun:

But better still is the invisible line of sight, right at the heart of the picture, which runs between the hand of the psalmist reaching up to heaven (from his bed) and the hand of God reaching down.  With the other hand the psalmist gestures towards his lips.  The trees and plants and goats (?) suggest a wilderness, and heaven is on the other side of the swirl of watery green, under the shadow of sweeping wings.  On the right side of the picture are the enemies 'going under the earth' and being made the prey of foxes, while a crowned king 'rejoices in God' by raising up his hands.

And a Middle English translation, from a Wycliffite Bible:

God, my God, Y wake to thee ful eerli.
Mi soule thirstide to thee; my fleisch thirstide to thee ful many foold.
In a lond forsakun without wei, and without water, so Y apperide to thee in hooli; that Y schulde se thi vertu, and thi glorie.
For thi merci is betere than lyues; my lippis schulen herie thee.
So Y schal blesse thee in my liif; and in thi name Y schal reise myn hondis.
Mi soule be fillid as with inner fatnesse and vttermere fatnesse; and my mouth schal herie with lippis of ful out ioiyng.
So Y hadde mynde on thee on my bed, in morewtidis Y shal thenke of thee; for thou were myn helpere.
And in the keueryng of thi wyngis Y schal make ful out ioye, my soule cleuede after thee;
thi riythond took me vp.
Forsothe thei souyten in veyn my liif, thei schulen entre in to the lower thingis of erthe;
thei schulen be bitakun in to the hondis of swerd, thei schulen be maad the partis of foxis.
But the king schal be glad in God; and alle men schulen be preysid that sweren in hym, for the mouth of hem, that speken wickid thingis, is stoppid.

1 comment:

Heliopause said...

Thank you! I was reading this psalm just recently,and it's a lovely surprise to find it here today!
I love the different translations (is 'a Wycliffite Bible the same as 'the Wycliffe Bible', or was it a different translation, based on that one?) and especially loved seeing the alliteration you pointed out, and the word laene for life ('lease' is still recognisable as meaning lifetime, I think? I googled the phrase "our lease is short" and came up with a 2004 Spectator article.)

I pored over the picture! :) (One of the animals is a bull, I think.) Thank you for sharing it, and for taking us through the detail of it, and how it 'works'.