BACON'S TRANSLATION

 OF 

THE PSALMS

by

R.J. A. BUNNETT, F.S.A.

from Baconiana January ,1943 Number 106

 

 

Referring to Mr. R.L. Eagle's article, " Lord Bacon was a Poet," in the October, 1942, Baconiana, it is to be noted that with regard to the Translation of certain Psalms, made only two years before his death, when his powers were declining, Bacon had written in his Essay of Youth and Age,

 "The invention of young men is more lively than that of old , and imaginations stream into their minds better and, as it were, more divinely."

This passage is itself poetry, though in prose form.

Sir Sidney Lee declared :

"Such authentic examples of Bacon's efforts to write verse as survive prove beyond all possibility of contradiction that, great as he was as a prose writer and philosopher, he was incapable of penning any of the poetry assigned to Shakespeare.
His Translation of Certaine Psalmes into English Verse (1625) convicts him of inability to rise above the level of clumsy doggerel."

Against this prejudiced diatribe, we have Spedding's judicial summary of the facts of the case. Of the "Translations" he wrote :

"It has been usual to speak of them as a ridiculous failure; a censure in which I cannot concur.......I should myself infer from this sample that Bacon had all the natural faculties which a poet wants— a fine ear for metre, a fine feeling from imaginative effect in words and a vein of poetic passion......The truth is that Bacon was not without the fine phrensy of the poet."

It is obvious that Bacon as a true poet would choose for each Psalm the form most suitable to it; and it must be remembered that he was translating, if somewhat loosely, and not writing original verse.
Is not the line in the first stanza of Psalm XC (which, with CXXVII and CXLIX, is written in six-lined stanzas):

Or that the frame was up of earthly stage,

reminiscent of the familiar stage of the Globe theatre?
Of the poet's version of the 3rd verse of this Psalm ("Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, 'Return ye children of men' ")

Both death and life obey thy holy lore
And visit in their turns as they are sent,

Spedding wrote, "The thought in the second line could not well be fitted with imagery, words and rhythm more apt and imaginative, and there is a tenderness of expression in the concluding couplet :

Or as a watch by night, that course doth keep,
And goes and comes un'wares too them that sleep,"

which comes manifestly out of a heart in sensitive sympathy with nature, and fully capable of the poet's faith:

that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

Take the stanza of this Psalm:

Thou carriest man away as with the tide;
Then down swim all his thoughts that mounted high;
Much like a mocking dream that will not hide
But flies before the sight of waking eye;
     Or as the grass, that cannot term obtain
    To see the Summer come about again.

The "Summer" and the "mocking dream" are Bacon's own invention : he seems to be thinking the life of man is as brief as the mocking dream of a midsummer night. Did he regard his own end so near that, like the grass, he might not have respite to see the summer come again?
There is an exquisite beauty and richness in the poetry in which the poet clothed the thoughts he added to his translation of Psalm CIV :

Upon thy head thou wear'st a glorious crown
All set with virtues, polish'd with renown:
Thence round about a silver veil doth fall
Of crystal light, mother of colours all.

This is a profoundly poetic transcription of,

"Who covereth thyself with light as with a garment : who strectheth out the heavens like a curtain."

"The heroic couplet," remarked Spedding, "could hardly do its work better in the hands of Dryden."
What could be more delightful than the dainty simile :

The moon so constant in inconstancy?

We are reminded of Juliet's exclamation to Romeo :

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb.

There is nothing in the Bible like the line:

The greater navies look like walking woods,

but it is a re-echo of the Messenger's statement in Macbeth :

As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look'd toward Birnam, and methought
The wood began to move.

Also what fine poetic concepts there are in the following lines, chosen at random from this Psalm :

The lofty cedars, tall like stately towers.
The vales their hollow bosoms opened plain,
The streams ran tumbling down the vales again.

and of birds:

Stroking the gentle air with pleasant notes.

For Psalm CXXVI, Bacon uses the lightest and most smoothly flowing metre. Take the following stanza :

When God returned us graciously
     Unto our native land,
We seemed as in a dream to be,
     And in a maze to stand.

And when he wishes to be brief, and yet adhere as closely as possible to the original, he is never at a loss for the apt expression :

Who sows in tears shall reap in joy,
     The Lord doth so ordain;
So that his seed be pure and good,
     His harvest shall be gain,

is the poet's simple rendering of the somewhat laboured verse in the A.V. "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him."
Of Psalm CXXXVII beginning :

When as we sat all sad and desolate,
By Babylon upon the river's side,

Spedding wrote,

"For myself, I may say that deeply pathetic as the opening of the 137th Psalm always seemed to be, I have found it much more affecting since I read Bacon's paraphrase."

Repeatedly in these translations we come across the word "Will" (with a capital "W" in the original) as it is played upon in Sonnet 136 :

Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will.....
Thus far for love, my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.

In Bacon's version of Psalm CIV, we read :

His angels spirits are that wait his will,
As flame of fire his anger they fulfil.

The last two lines of this Sonnet run :

Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lov'st me, for my name is Will.

Bacon, writing of the earth in the Psalm, says :

Never to move, but to be fixed still;
Yet hath no pillars, but his sacred will.

The poet dedicated the volume of the "Translations" to his young friend, Mr. George Herbert, then 32 years of age. It is said that Bacon held the scholarly poet in such high esteem that he used to submit his writings to him before publication, and we know that Herbert translated part of the Advancement of Learning into Latin.

*****