Poem of the Day: ‘Psalm 138’

In a moment in which Israel faces the fury of the evil, there is little poetry can do — little but inspire hope and remind us of the enduring deepest truths.

Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons CC4.0
Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Detail of stipple engraving by W. T. Fry, 1835, after M. Gerards. Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons CC4.0

The poem reads, “From angry foe thy succor shall me save. / Thou Lord shalt finish what in hand I have,” and concludes, “Thou Lord, I say, whose mercy lasteth ever, / Thy work begun, shall leave unended never.” In a moment in which Israel faces brutal tribulation and the fury of the evil, there is little poetry can do — little but inspire hope and remind us of the enduring deepest truths.

The versifying of the psalms has a long history in English verse, particularly in the making of metrical versions that could be sung by Protestant congregations. And one of the earliest versifyings was begun by Philip Sidney (1554–1586). Sidney was an extraordinary figure: soldier, diplomat, courtier, poet, and theorist of literature.

At around age thirty he undertook the profoundly difficult task of making a compendium of English poetry forms out of a translation of the psalms. (This spring the Sun ran his version of Psalm 13 as a Poem of the Day.) By the time of his early death at the Battle of Zutphen, Sidney had finished only forty-three of the poems. His sister undertook the job of completing the project and presented a finished copy of the Sidney Psalter to the queen in 1599. 

That sister, Mary Sidney — Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke (1561–1621) — was just as extraordinary as her brother. A writer, translator, patroness, she formed the Wilton Circle, a literary salon that included leading figures of the day. Her greatest work, however, is her finishing of the psalms in a way that showed the many capacities of English verse (at a time in which English was considered a minor European language).

As in much of the Old Testament, the compression of both narrative technique and the proclivities of Hebrew keep Psalm 138 brief. “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me: thou shalt stretch forth thine hand against the wrath of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me,” as the King James Version of the Bible renders verse 7.

Instead of trying to render that compression, Mary Sidney opens the poem up to four six-line stanzas of rhymed pentameter couplets. And in that expansion, she captures the psalm’s sense of Israel’s praise for the Lord even in times of tribulation. Perhaps especially in these times.

Psalm 138 
translated by Mary Sidney

Even before kings by thee as gods commended, 
And angels all, by whom thou art attended, 
            In hearty times I will thy honor tell. 
            The palace where thy holiness doth dwell 
Shall be the place, where falling down before thee, 
With reverence meet I prostrate will adore thee. 

There will I sing how thou thy mercy sendest, 
And to thy promise due performance lendest, 
            Whereby thy name above all names doth fly. 
            There will I sing, how when my careful cry 
Mounted to thee, my care was straight released, 
My courage by thee mightily increased. 

Sure Lord, all Kings that understand the story 
Of thy contract with me, nought but thy glory 
            And means shall sing whereby that glory grew; 
            Whose highly seated eye yet well doth view 
With humbled look the soul that lowly lieth, 
And, far aloof, aspiring things espieth. 

On every side, though tribulation grieve me, 
Yet shalt thou aid, yet shalt thou still relieve me, 
            From angry foe thy succor shall me save. 
            Thou Lord shalt finish what in hand I have: 
Thou Lord, I say, whose mercy lasteth ever, 
Thy work begun, shall leave unended never.

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With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.


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