Poem of the Day: ‘Psalm XIII’

As with the trajectory of so many of the psalms, Philip Sidney’s paraphrase ends in a resolution to trust and rejoice in the goodness of God.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Detail of a portrait of Philip Sidney. Via Wikimedia Commons

It seems impossible now that in his lifetime, Philip Sidney (1554–1586), poetic innovator and theorist, could have gone unpublished. Lauded, almost as soon as he was buried, as a major literary influence in Tudor England, during his life he was hardly an obscure figure. He served as a diplomat in the court of Elizabeth I and became son-in-law to her spymaster, Francis Walsingham. He was the dedicatee of Edmund Spenser’s 1579 pastoral, “The Shepheardes Calendar.” His sonnet cycle “Astrophel and Stella,” with its experimental riffs on Petrarch’s rhyme scheme, helped to establish the sonnet in English as a flexible, innovative form.  He wrote a romance, “Arcadia” and a “Defence of Poetry.” Yet it was left to his friend, biographer, and fellow poet, Fulke Greville (1554–1628), to instigate the posthumous publication of these works.

Toward the end of his brief life, Sidney undertook another massive poetic project: to paraphrase all hundred-fifty psalms. 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. (For an excellent selection from this tradition over the centuries, hunt down a copy Laurance Wieder’s “The Poets’ Book of Psalms.”) In Sidney’s case, by the time of his death (from injuries in the Battle of Zutphen), the sixteenth-century poet had completed only forty-three verse psalms. His sister, Mary Sidney, finished the project and, in 1599, presented a copy to the queen.

Today’s Poem of the Day, “Psalm XIII,” reflects the experimental energy Sidney brought to the making of verse. The metrical shifts in these abab quatrains, from iambic pentameter in the a lines to a thumping spondaic dimeter in the b lines, are the sort of formal move that would come, in a successive literary generation, to characterize the poetry of George Herbert (1593–1633). In Sidney’s rendering, the voice lamenting, “How long, O Lord, wilt thou hide thy face from me,” begins in actual outrage. How long? What, forever? But as with the trajectory of so many of the psalms, it ends in a resolution to trust and rejoice in the goodness of God. 

Psalm XIII
by Sir Philip Sidney

How long, O Lord, shall I forgotten be? 
                                What, ever? 
    How long wilt Thou Thy hidden face from me 
How long shall I consult with careful sprite 
                                In anguish? 
 How long shall I with foes’ triumphant might 
                                Thus languish? 
Behold me, Lord, let to Thy hearing creep 
                                My crying; 
Nay, give me eyes and light, lest that I sleep 
                                In dying: 
Lest my foe brag, that in my ruin he 
    And at my fall they joy that trouble me 
No, no! I trust on Thee, and joy in Thy 
                                Great pity;
   Still, therefore, of Thy mercies shall be my 
                                Song’s ditty.


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 will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, 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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