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Books

Discovering poetry: how the Psalms made the English

19 February 2013

11:14 AM

19 February 2013

11:14 AM

Psalm 42, verses 1-8

Philip Sidney                                         Miles Coverdale

Miles Coverdale’s translation of the psalms was among the first fruit of Henry VIII’s ambivalent reformation. The religion of Henry’s England was essentially Catholicism without the Pope; but he did permit the translation of scripture into English, and in 1535 Coverdale printed the first full English bible. His Psalms were later included in the Book of Common Prayer and are still used in Anglican services today. Philip Sidney’s translations of the psalms were written about fifty years later. They were unprinted and incomplete when he died in 1586. These two translations of the opening of Psalm 42 differ in many ways. These differences are a result of the fact that the translators anticipated two very different audiences for their work.

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One was the whole nation imagined as a religious community –  the Church of England which Henry had conjured into existence and to which all his and his successor’s subjects automatically belonged (too bad if you didn’t like it). Coverdale’s translation is for this audience. His bible as a whole was intended to convert the people of England to Protestantism by giving them direct access to God’s word. He was also a great fan of the German Protestants’ habit of singing psalms as a congregation and he published a separate collection of hymns and psalms for this purpose.

Today Coverdale’s psalms are normally sung by a choir, rather than the congregation, but his translation is perfectly suited to inclusion in public services. His syntax is much simpler than Sidney’s, making it easier for a congregation to make sense of what they hear. Compare his sonorous line ‘My tears have been my meat day and night’ with Sidney’s version: ‘Day and night my tears out flowing Have been my ill-feeding food’. Coverdale creates a direct, compact, epigrammatic version of the psalm. This makes it memorable. ‘My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God’ sticks in the mind far easier than Sidney’s ‘My soul thirsts indeed in me, After ever living Thee’.

A common stock of quotations is one of the things which tie a people together as a nation. For the English, much of that stock was drawn from the English texts provided for their worship. Coverdale’s terse verses are a forerunner of the countless snippets from the King James Version which would later work their way into every nook and cranny of the English language. They have shaped the speech of millions who have never seen the inside of a church. Language, as much as belief, makes a nation.

Sidney’s translation looks the other way. Whilst Coverdale addresses a whole people, Sidney turns his gaze into himself. Coverdale’s version of the Psalm is a communal property; Sidney’s is a lyric portrait of his own private soul. It is unsuitable for liturgical use and its style grows out of Sidney’s interest in Petrarchan love poetry. This is the ultimate inspiration for arresting paradoxes like ‘ill-feeding food’, and the ‘chased hart’/ ‘chaste heart’ pun in the first line.

Sidney is careful to give a far clearer sense than Coverdale does of the rhetorical context in which the psalm is spoken. He adds repeated direct addresses to God to his first stanza, which brings out the shifts in perspective in the rest of the psalm. It begins by addressing God before moving to a more vaguely directed confession about the psalmist’s spiritual state (in which God is referred to in the third person). Finally the psalmist turns his gaze completely inwards as he addresses his own soul. Sidney emphasises these transitions, which Coverdale smooths over. He is deeply interested in the relationship between the psalmist and God because his translation is a form of spiritual exercise. It is a way of thinking about his own relationship with God.

Two different sorts of authorship are on show in these translations. Coverdale was writing for print. He anticipated his version being placed in homes and churches all across England. Once they’d turned over the title-page, Coverdale’s readers could forget about him. His words become an anonymous conduit for God’s Word. But Sidney’s version was kept in manuscript, seen only by people who already knew who he was. His version would never be anonymous. His readers, who might even have borrowed a manuscript in Sidney’s own hand, would always remember that he was writing about himself.

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