Engaging insights and illumination concerning the dignity of life within the Renaissance period can be attained through a careful reading of the Psalms as translated by Mary Sidney Herbert (1561-1621). This essay will focus on Psalm 139, but it will first briefly touch upon the interesting contrast offered between Psalms 139 and 140. While Renaissance refers to a rebirth of literature and the arts, it is seldom considered a period where the dignity or sacred nature of human life was genuinely and passionately articulated within its literature or culture. The uneducated reader may erroneously consider the era only a short leap from the darkness of barbarism. Some might even go so far as to argue that the high infant mortality suffered by those in this period inured them to violence and death, and, in particular, the tragic loss of children. This is the same line of reasoning, of course, that asserts that young children were somehow less loved or less valued than their older siblings—all supposedly part of avoiding emotional attachment by the parents. This paper, however, will demonstrate that this misguided view has more to do with modern culture looking at the past through the distorting lens of the present than the true culture of the Renaissance family itself. This manner of darkness is especially far removed from Mary Sidney’s beautiful and compassionate translation of the Psalms, which are frequently infused with a profound sense of gentleness. On the surface, a fundamental contradiction in the value placed upon life could be debated between Psalms 139 and 140 but it is a complimentary perspective. In other words, seeking punishment with regards to the wicked does not diminish the value upon life, but demonstrates that life is something so cherished that it is worthy of taking up arms in its defense. A high regard for the dignity of human life, particularly the innocent life, is clear found within this translator’s eloquent work. In particular, Psalm 139 offers an astonishingly gentle and compassionate look at the sacredness of life.
According to a simple online translation tool, Psalm 140’s heading, “Eripe me,” is a call for rescue—e.g. rescue me. (Mahoney, Web) The psalm’s tone and language expresses a prayer that swift and terrible punishment be brought down upon evil men, even going so far as to refer to falling “coals” and “flames” play a part in divine justice. (Sidney, 179) The following passage is representative of the translation.
Protect mee lord, preserve mee, set mee free, / from men that be, so vile, so violent: / in whose intent, both force, and frawde doth lurke, / my bane to worke, whose tongues are sharper thinges / then Adders stinges, whose rustie lips enclose, / A poisoned hoord, such as in Aspick growes. (Sidney, 179)
From the perspective of the innocent seeking shelter from attack, this passage seeks divine deliverance from foes, but it has much more to say than this alone. Before moving towards deeper exploration, however, it may be helpful to the reader to see the same passage in the King James Version. After all, this discussion is upon the translation of these two psalms rather than authorship. (These versions are also from approximately the same period.)
Deliver me, O LORD, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; / Which imagine mischiefs in their heart; continually are they gathered together for war. / They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders' poison is under their lips. (Psalms, KJV)
Examining the cursory differences between these two versions, one is immediately struck by the slower pace and richer descriptions associated with Mary Sidney’s words. Her translation adds, or at least places greater emphasis upon, the distinction between force and fraud. By this act, the translator seems to be creating a greater immediate connection between the text and her particular audience. This attention alone upon the common and ordinary man, then, is describing each and every innocent and true life as something sacred and worthy of dignity in the eyes of God and man.
While important similarities exist, Psalm 139 conveys a much different tone and focus than that Psalm 140. It is a more peaceful exploration of hearts and minds as being open as “clossetts” in the sight of God. The following passage, for instance, highlights some of these differences.
O Lord in mee, there lieth nought / but to thy search revealed lies / for when I sitt / thou markest it / no less thou notest when I rise / yea closest Clossett of my thought / hath open windows to thine eyes.
Thou walkest with mee when I walke, / when to my bed for rest I go / I find thee there / and ev’rie where / not youngest thought in me doth growe, / No not one word I caste to talk / but yet unuttered thou dost know. (Sidney, 176)
Again, examine and contrast Mary Sidney’s translation with the same passage as within the King James version from Psalms 139:1-4.
O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. / Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. / Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. / For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. (Psalms, KJV)
While the meanings are essentially identical, Mary Sidney’s translation conveys a deeper and more personal connection, while, at the same time, also offering a gentler vision of the relationship between the reader and God. In fact, the argument could be made that within Mary Sidney’s translation, there is a suggestion of a personal relationship with Christ as opposed to a more distant, formal, or legalistic relationship. If one first reads “No not one word I caste to talk / but yet unuttered thou dost know,” before reading the corresponding verses from the King James version, one sees this sharp contrast. (Sidney, 176) In selection of this more personal voice, Mary Sidney’s translation is again emphasizing the sacred and dignified nature of man in a remarkably distinctive manner.
Psalm 139 includes a beautiful passage describing the unborn child being known to God. This reinforces the power and inherent value associated with human life, while also exposing a tender side of the Renaissance family. Notice the gentleness conveyed within the following passage.
Doe thou thy best O Secret night, / In sable vaile to cover mee: / Thy sable vaile shall vainelie faile / with daie unmask my night shallbe, / For night is daie, and darkness light / O Father of all lightes to thee:
Each inmost piece in mee is thyne, / while yet I in my mother dwelt: / All that mee clad / from thee I had / thou in my frame haste straungelie dealt, / Needes in my praise, thy works must shyne, so inly them my thoughts have felt.
Thou, how my backe was beamewise laide. / and raftering of my ribbs doest knowe: / know’st everie pointe / of bone and jointe / how to this whole theis partes did growe / In brave imbrordrie faire array’d / though wrought in shop both darke and lowe.
Naie fashionles one form I tooke, / thy all, and all more behoulding eye / My shapeless shape / could not escape / all theis with times appointed by / Ere one had being, in the booke / of thy foresight enrowld did lie. (Sidney, 177-178)
Comparing this passage with its counterpart in the King James version, one is struck by the more personal, tender, and rich language selected by Mary Sidney. For purposes of comparison, The King James passage follows (Psalms 139:12-16).
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee. / For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb. / I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. / My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. / Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalms, KJV)
Mary Sidney’s passage again arguably conveys a deeper and more personal sense of connection and immediacy. Her translation invests more language into painstakingly describing the unborn child who is thoroughly and intimately known by God. She describes the unborn baby’s growth in terms of building a structure. Using phrases such as “beamwise laide” and “raftering of my ribs,” she creates a stronger connection with her audience, as well as emphasizing the dignity and fathomless value of that unborn child. (Sidney, 177)
Through careful comparison and contrast between Mary Sidney’s eloquent and moving translation of the Psalms with the King James version, the reader is able to more clearly see the unique words and language selected by Mary Sidney. The profound contribution of language by this Protestant poet does more than further establish her role as Britain’s first woman poet, she has betrayed personal sentiments and beliefs in her words, which can shed further light on the “hidden transcript” of the Renaissance period with regards to the expressed dignity of life--especially the innocent life of an unborn child. These insights run counter to the assumptions of many concerning the Medieval and Renaissance periods. While both Psalms 139 and 140 provide complimentary pictures concerning the dignity of ordinary and innocent life, it is Mary Sidney’s particularly rich translation of Psalm 139 that so engages the reader to reconsider those stereotypes and assumptions concerning those who came before us.
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