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finding the original David Psalm and e. e. cummings poem

June 23, 2012

Reading the Psalms this week, I found something perplexing, perhaps.  Just beautiful is one of David’s Psalms, Psalm 27, and particularly verse 8.  However, translators seem to struggle with the original.  As David originally pronounced it, of course, the lines go exactly and unmistakeably like this:

You understand that I’m being sarcastic, silly even.  How could we know how David’s original pronunciation sounds?  And if we could hear them, then how would it matter to us who might listen to appreciate them or might hear the phrasing to sing it?

We’d best listen in English then.

But then we would do well to see the phrasing, to see whether form and formatting might suggest what’s on the face of these poetic, lyrical, strummed phrases. We might learn how to pronounce the Psalm originally, more or less.

Here’s how Robert Alter’s wonderful translation presents it to us readers:

Or is it more helpful to understand, to have the Hebrew explained to us?  What if in English we heard it this way?

27:8 My heart tells me to pray to you, 24 

and I do pray to you, O Lord. 25


24 tc Heb “concerning you my heart says, ‘Seek my face.’” The verb form “seek” is plural, but this makes no sense here, for the psalmist is addressed. The verb should be emended to a singular form. The first person pronominal suffix on “face” also makes little sense, unless it is the voice of the Lord he hears. His “heart” is viewed as speaking, however, so it is better to emend the form to פָּנָיו (panayv, “his face”).

25 tn Heb “your face, O Lord, I seek.” To “seek the Lord’s face” means to seek his favor through prayer (see 2 Sam 21:1; Pss 24:6; 105:4).

Well, that clear explanation — here from the NET Bible online — “makes little sense” unless, of course, the NET Bible online tells us what sense the new English makes more than the Hebrew.  I’m being silly and sarcastic again.  The NET Bible here may be committing what Alter calls the “heresy of explanation.”

Of course, the Psalm is not non-sense.  It could be, but just assuming the translator has all of the meaning there is to be had, leaves little for listeners and readers to seek.  But is that the point of the song of David?

And yet our translators approach the song it seems, as if the point is to solve it like a riddle, to explain it, to stop all seeking.  Ironically, in fact, a whole line up of English translations, and of commentaries, offers little help on how to hear, how to see the face of, this original.  Take a look for yourself here.  We see what the Psalm means, but there’s so little agreement about what this verse means.

I’d like to suggest that David’s Psalm perhaps is not one that “makes no sense” or even that “makes little sense.”  Can’t it be that David’s original pronunciation and his original grammar and his original phrasing for Psalm 27:8 are meant to involve the listener and the reader in making meaning about seeking meaning?

I wonder about another poet I may know a little better.  I wonder about this poet and one of his poems as I read David’s original and all of the English translations, as I read my co-blogger Theophrastus’s post on “The Original Pronunciation Movement: KJV and Shakespeare.”  The poet I wonder about is e. e. cummings.  His poem that makes me wonder is “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond.”

This poem “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” somehow reminds me of Psalm 27:8.  Isn’t it about meanings sought and found, not in obvious in-your-face ways?

Well, here it is:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

How much sense, if any at all, does it make to attempt rhyme, or free verse, or sonnet form or punctuation or a line break that depends on what the reader might see, or hear? Would it help for us to hear these lines in Cummings’s original pronunciation, somehow in his own voice? How did he originally pronounce “travelled,gladly”?

Does it help to hear a British speaker tell someone he loves to read it, and then to watch her reading silently in her American English?  If so, how’s this (from the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters)?

What does our heart tell us to seek here?  And how does the psalmist or the poet help us find it, from the original?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2012 7:22 pm

    Re Psalm 27, this is the first psalm in which seek, בקשׁ (bqsh) recurs. It is worth a note that the three times it occurs in this poem are in this form: first person singular (v4), second person plural, then first person singular (v8).

    I may be wrong, but I rendered vs 8a as “he said to you, my heart” – then we get the plural בַּקְּשׁוּ (baqeshu) addressed to both individual poet and readers in general. Perhaps it emerges in recitation as a command to the hearers. Then the poet takes up the repetition of אֲבַקֵּשׁ (abqesh) I will seek in verse 4. The intent perhaps is to get the reader / hearer to participate by identification with the poet – so the command to seek is less introspective than the modern grammatical mind.

    Heart (beginning, middle and end) and the 13 occurrences of the divine name tie the whole together.

    There is another singular-plural issue in the Psalter. It seems that one may often speak for the many. I am less and less inclined to think in Western individual terms after reading these poems closely. (I am still here though and still me … and therefore at times still in solitude – I don’t discount the individual – I just cannot always isolate the subject ‘I’ in the psalms).

    As I have said before about the NET Bible and others – ‘making sense’ in English has become a cerebral thing. But it is God who makes our senses – the created order in front of our senses – and the sense by which we sense them – hear, smell, touch, see, speak, and balance in them – so with a little madness from Psalm 34 – we are to taste and see… God is a little more than cerebral. God incarnates metaphor – i.e. God makes ‘sense’.

    Note that verse 7 has no recurring words in the poem except the name.
    Hear יהוה my voice, I will call
    and be gracious to me and answer me

    It’s a good invitation. I wonder – does the first part of the Psalter raise the question – who will live in your tent (Ps 15), and the remainder of the Psalter respond? … ending with the adoration of Ps 119, the steps to the holy from the tent of blackness in Ps 120 to the Holy place – even to the Most Holy place (Hebrews / Ps 139)?

    I leave this to the speculative prayer – as one person was famously and shrewdly known to have said, “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.” But I don’t want to build a House of Cards – when I leave out a card, someone’s fingers hold up the structure while I put in a bit of chewing gum. Thanks for the fingers.

  2. JKG permalink
    June 23, 2012 10:16 pm

    Thank you very much for all your insights here. I apologize because I somehow earlier missed this comment of yours, and even not I only have just a bit of time to say I’ll want to reply in appropriate detail some time later. You remark that you “rendered vs 8a as ‘he said to you, my heart’,” and I believe that’s wonderful. Alter and you have nearly the same, but even so I wonder all that the Hebrew can imply here. Craig R. Smith, as you probably know, has, “You say to my heart, ‘Seek my face,’ and so it is your face I seek!” For him, it’s YHWH speaking, as quoted by the psalmist. Well, I have to run, but will be back.

  3. June 25, 2012 1:34 am

    We sang Ps27 at Compline tonight (the psalm is part of the greater Compline tradition I think)

    I noted that the BCP translation is very precise: My heart hath talked with thee: ‘Seek ye my face’; ‘Thy face Lord, will I seek’

    The switch in voice and point of view is common in the Psalms – Bravo Coverdale. But of course we have to get used to dialogue.

  4. June 25, 2012 6:15 pm

    You’re right that “the BCP translation is very precise,” which is sort of ironic since the Hebrew seems not to be. Nonetheless, just your sharing that much, the very very nice translation “My heart hath talked with thee: ‘Seek ye my face’; ‘Thy face Lord, will I seek’” is helpful. Yes, it seems to be some sort of suggestion of a dialogue in this verse of the Psalm. How could we know? And what might it matter?

    I’ve been thinking about it all day and imagine what you’ve shared here will inspire me to post more on this perhaps soon.

  5. June 26, 2012 12:44 am

    There is another singular-plural issue in the Psalter. It seems that one may often speak for the many.

    If we understand the psalms as liturgical texts, this makes perfect sense. As someone who was blessed for several years with the privilege of periodically serving as psalmist for Sunday Mass, it was very clear to me that sometimes I sang to the assembly, as a call evoking a response; and sometimes I sang for the assembly, as a leader evoking an affirmation. This last is the same dynamic that appears in collects or other prayers that are proclaimed by the presider to which the people respond Amen.

    O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good:
    Eternal is his mercy!

    I shall not die, but live — and declare the works of the LORD!
    This is the day the LORD has made, let us be glad and rejoice!

    (Both paraphrases from different musical settings of Ps 118)


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