Essay on Psalms 30 and 32

by Timothy Murphy

In his fifth year of chemotherapy for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and lymphoma, the late Alan Sullivan, a lifelong skeptic, experienced an epiphany that led him to a profound faith and trust in the Lord. The agent for his conversion was King David, whose poems I had read him repeatedly when the doctors pronounced his death sentence at Pentecost, 2005. 

Alan was a formidable verse translator.  Our Beowulf is in the Longman Anthologies of World and British Literature, and I hope Alan’s versions of the Psalms will soon follow.  On Easter Sunday, 2009, Alan decided to devote what little time was left him to a translation of King David’s poems by way of a thanks offering for the gift of faith at the end of life.  He enlisted the services of Seree Cohen Zohar, an Israeli scholar of Biblical Hebrew and a scion of the ancient priestly tribe.

The Jews ascribe 78 poems to King David, so this was an immense undertaking for a man dying of cancer, who had just been told he had a month to live.  He reluctantly resumed chemotherapy and completed his task on June 24, 2010.  He died July 9. 

David is the first poet we know by name, and his poems are regarded as Holy Writ by 3.2 billion Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  He is the father of lyric poetry, and I would argue that he is the most influential poet in history.  However, he has been singularly unfortunate in his translators.  The Catholic faithful to whom I read him in church don’t even know that he is a poet, for they only hear him in prose, be it the sonorous through-printed prose of the King James Version or the arrhythmic, lineated free verse of our approved lectionary.  And worse, we only hear brief, antiphonal snippets of his poems at Mass.  I explain to priests that in my view this is the literary equivalent of partial birth abortion, an analogy they understand.

David is an intensely formal poet, writing in two and three beat lines, occasionally four.  He employs a wide range of sonic and rhetorical devices, but his Semitic tongue is so far divorced from ours that we don’t even share an alphabet.  It is a very great deal harder to smuggle a David poem into English than it is to do that with Anglo-Saxon, our father tongue, from which we derive forty percent of our vocabulary and the accentual heart of our poetic rhythms.  So Alan’s task as he approached each poem was to find a tune, a metrical pattern, which would allow him to create a powerful poem in English.  Let’s look at two psalms, each of which required a different metrical solution: 

a psalm and song for the consecration of the house of David

01: I praise you, Lord, for you have drawn me up
      and not allowed my foes to celebrate.
02: Oh Lord, my God, I called, and you have healed me.
03: Oh Lord, you lifted up my soul from sheol,
      revived me from descent into the pit.
04: Sing to the Lord, you worshipers; give thanks
      at this remembrance of his holiness.
05: His wrath is brief; his favor lasts a lifetime.
      Tears come by night, but joy arrives at dawn.
06: Secure, I said: “I am unshakable.”
07: By your will, Lord, I stood up mountain-strong;
      but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.
08: I cry, “Oh Lord!” I beg the Lord for grace.
09: What good, my blood, if I go down the pit?
      Will dust commend you or declare your truth?
10: Hear me, Lord, take pity; pardon me.
11: You turn my lamentation into dancing.
      Off with sackcloth! You girdle me in gladness
12: that I might sing your praise and not be silent.
      Oh Lord, my God, forever I will thank you.

Here the approach was straightforward, the blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton.  Rarely would the solution be so apparent.  Often Sullivan found himself translating heterometrically, combining two, three, and four beat lines, and indicating by indentation the number of stresses to be read into each line.  Like David, Alan freely uses alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme.  Unlike Isaac Watts, whose Presbyterian Psalter was a great eighteenth century achievement, Alan never uses end rhyme, but then neither did David.  And of course the constraints of end rhyme in Watts’ song lyrics force him so far from David’s originals that his hymns are really homages to, rather than translations of, David.  At the other end of the metrical spectrum, here is Psalm 32.

to the choirmaster: a psalm of David, a mas‘kil

01: Happy is he
      whose trespass is pardoned,
      whose sin is expunged.
02: Happy the man
      in whom the Lord
      will discern no vices,
      whose nature is guileless.
03: When I held back,
      my bones decayed;
      I groaned through the days.
04: By day and night
      your hand was heavy;
      my marrow dried
      in the summer drought.
05: I yielded my sin,
      admitted my fault.
      I said: “I confess
      my offense to the Lord.”
      And you have forgiven
      the fault of my sin.
06: May the reverent entreat you
      and find you in time.
      You shall not be reached
      when floodwaters surge.
07: You are my shelter;
      you shield me from woe.
      You encompass me
      with songs of salvation.
08: I will guide you and teach you
      the way you should go;
      I will counsel you;
      my eye is upon you.
09: Do not be the horse,
      do not be the mule
      who cannot perceive,
      whose mouth must be tamed
      with bridle and bit,
      for they would not near you.
10: Many afflictions
      befall the wicked;
      but he who places
      his trust in the Lord
      is wrapped in kindness.
11: Be glad in the Lord;
      rejoice, you righteous,
      and shout for joy
      you upright at heart.


In both of these great poems, David admits his spiritual desperation and appeals to the Lord for succor.  Each poem begins in “the pit,” and ends in redemptive joy.  Confessional poetry?  David invented it three thousand years before Sullivan was born.  Here Alan’s solution is accentual dimeter, the most constraining of the many forms he used.  Whatever the number of syllables in a line, there are two primary stresses.  We learn accentual verse hearing Mother Goose in childhood.  We derive it from Anglo-Saxon, so it long predates the accentual-syllabic verse that is the norm for English poetry from Chaucer to the present.  And indeed Alan brought 3200 lines of experience in translating an accentual masterpiece to his project of translating King David.

Alan Sullivan and Seree Zohar had two objectives, to create the first powerful poetic translation of David in English, and to create a translation that employs modern Hebraic scholarship to rectify errors originally made in the Septuagint or Vulgate or King James which have come down to us to this day.  The final manuscript of The Poems of King David is presently being reviewed by Monsignor Robert Laliberte, Censor Librorum, for the nihil obstat (Latin for “no objection) of the Roman Church.   Interested readers of The Hudson Review can hear me read five of the poems from Psalms Book I  and hear Msgr. Laliberte chant in Gregorian Mode IV the great 139th Psalm at the following web address:  This podcast will give you a notion of how Alan wanted his versions to sound, whether they are declaimed from the ambo of a church or employed in private prayer.


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