25 April 2010

Sidney & Lewis on Cœli enarrant

C.S. Lewis once wrote of that Psalm numbered 19 in the Authorised Version and 18 in the Septuagint, ‘I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.’ (Indeed, Michael Ward sees the Chronicles of Narnia almost as a kind of interpretation of this Psalm.) It’s one that I admit I have not contemplated much, in part because like so many others it is so familiar. So I thought it would be worthwhile to post Sir Philip Sidney’s metred translation, in hopes that the unfamiliar wording might cause us to chew on this Psalm a bit more.

Psalm 19: Cœli enarrant

The heavenly frame sets forth the fame
Of him that only thunders;
The firmament, so strangely bent,
Shows his handworking wonders.
Day unto day doth it display,
Their course doth it acknowledge,
And night to night succeeding right
In darkness teach clear knowledge.
There is no speech, no language which
Is so of skill bereaved,
But of the skies the teaching cries
They have heard and conceived.
There be no eyen but read the line
From so fair book proceeding,
Their words be set in letters great
For everybody’s reading.
Is not he blind that doth not find
The tabernacle builded
There by His Grace for sun’s fair face
In beams of beauty gilded?
Who forth doth come, like a bridegroom,
From out his veiling places,
As glad is he, as giants be
To run their mighty races.
His race is even from ends of heaven;
About that vault he goeth;
There be no realms hid from his beams;
His heat to all he throweth.
O law of His, how perfect ’tis
The very soul amending;
God’s witness sure for aye doth dure
To simplest wisdom lending.
God’s dooms be right, and cheer the sprite,
All His commandments being
So purely wise it gives the eyes
Both light and force of seeing.
Of Him the fear doth cleanness bear
And so endures forever,
His judgments be self verity,
They are unrighteous never.
Then what man would so soon seek gold
Or glittering golden money?
By them is past in sweetest taste,
Honey or comb of honey.
By them is made Thy servants’ trade
Most circumspectly guarded,
And who doth frame to keep the same
Shall fully be rewarded.
Who is the man that ever can
His faults know and acknowledge?
O Lord, cleanse me from faults that be
Most secret from all knowledge.
Thy servant keep, lest in him creep
Presumtuous sins’ offenses;
Let them not have me for their slave
Nor reign upon my senses.
So shall my sprite be still upright
In thought and conversation,
So shall I bide well purified
From much abomination.
So let words sprung from my weak tongue
And my heart’s meditation,
My saving might, Lord, in Thy sight,
Receive good acceptation!

Here then are Lewis’s ‘reflections’ on this Psalm:

The actual words supply no logical connection between the first and second movements. In this way its technique resembles that of the most modern poetry. A modern poet would pass with similar abruptness from one theme to another and leave you to find out the connecting link for yourself. But then he would possibly be doing this quite deliberately; he might have, though he chose to conceal, a perfectly clear and conscious link in his own mind which he could express to you in logical prose if he wanted to. I doubt if the ancient poet was like that. I think he felt, effortlessly a nd without reflecting on it, so close a connection, indeed (for his imagination) such an identity, between his first theme and his second that he passed from the one to the other wihtout realising that he had made any transition. First he thinks of the sky; how, day after day, the pageantry we see there shows us the splendour of its Creator. Then he thinks of the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, theunimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west. Finally, of its heat; not of course the mild heats of our climate but the cloudless, blinding, tyrannous rays hammering the hills, searching every cranny. The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof’. It pierces everywhere with its strong, clear ardour. Then at once, in verse 7 he is talking of something else which hardly seems to him something else because it is so like the all-piercing, all-detecting sunshine. The Law is ‘undefiled’, the Law gives light, it is clean and everlasting, it is ‘sweet’. No one can improve on this and nothing can more fully admit us to the old Jewish feeling about the Law; luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant. One hardly needs to add that this poet is wholly free from self-righteousness and the last section is concerned with his ‘secret faults’. As he has felt the sun, perhaps in the desert, searching him out in everynook of shake where he attemptedto hide from it, so he feels the Law searching out all the hiding-places of his soul.


Elijahmaria said...

Then what man would so soon seek gold
Or glittering golden money?
By them is past in sweetest taste,
Honey or comb of honey.

I have NEVER been able to get to the last line here, no matter how much I prepare my mind for it, and read it without reading:

"Of honey comb or honey."

Doggerel Darnit!!


aaronandbrighid said...

Mary> I see your difficulty!

By the way, I just responded to your comment on Ora et Labora. I hope you take it as a sincere question and not an attack.