The Lincoln Psalter: Versions of the Psalms
Gordon Jackson
Carcanet, 1997, (172 pp., 9.95)

The first question may be 'why?'. There are many (some think too many) modem Bibles which of course include translations of the Psalms. Sunday by Sunday Anglican worshippers sing David B Frost's versions in the ASB or Coverdale's in the BCP. The King James Bible contains a stately rendering often used for private devotion and occasionally for public reading.

The genesis of Mr Jackson's versions may be traced, despite his urbane and useful 'Preface', to irritation. A poet's irritation, to be precise. How many modem translators kept steadily before them the fact that the Psalms, whether sung, said or read, are poems? Was this a major consideration, for that matter, for King James's men, or even for Coverdale?

As a poet, Mr Jackson was an apprentice of the sixtier, and a remarkably accomplished one. Now in full maturity he is master of tradItional forms, inventor of a new line, and an unprejudiced user of free verse. Here he diverges from Donald Davie, for Jackson reverences the work of D H Lawrence and William Carlos Williams and their predecessor, Walt Whitman. Nor would he, I think, agree with Davie's opinion in the 'Afterword' to this book that all the good of the sixties took place in Cambridge.

Jackson does not claim that his versions are definitive. As a Christian poet, he is deeply engaged with meaning and form in the contemporary world, with making explicit what is so often latent in other translations. For example, his plain, colloquial Psalm 1 :

O how well off he will be ...

Well off! Isn't this crassly materialistic for 'Blessed'? Jackson's word actually brings out the connection in Hebrew thought between righteousness and prosperity. In the context of the psalm it also re-values our notions of being 'well off' .It is a condition of ethical sociality, not merely cash in the bank. And what does 'Blessed' mean to a twentieth century person? (Finding a word for the Greek makarios in the Beatitudes seems to me a major headache for modem translators.) For sixteenth and seventeenth century men and women, 'Blessed' spoke of the vital affirmative love of God for man, and of his/her joyous reciprocation. Does 'Blessed' carry this weight today? 'Happy the man' (Jerusalem Bible), despite its Horatian connotations, won't do either. Our culture is soaked in the idea that happiness is a poodle or a fat cigar or simply the absence of pain or want. 'Well off' with its suggestions of health as well as wealth really does the job.

But does Jackson go too far with 'walked in the counsel of the ungodly'? Possibly, but he really makes me think what this may mean now: 'whose nose has not been led by the knowalls'. Vulgar? Fresh, certainly, reinvigorating and combining by alliteration and near-rhyme two colloquial expressions to demonstrate the vulgarity as well as the banality of evil. His translation speaks to twentieth century conditions:

whose feet have not been swept along with the crowd,
who has not joined in the laughter of those who belittle whatever is decent.

There is much contemporary social and political criticism here. The brutality, the obscenity and the sheer conformity of much behaviour (including entertainment), in western culture and beyond, are put under the psalmist's microscope. Jackson's plainness deprives individual and group corruption of the wrappings of popularity and fashion. The translation, in its old fashioned severity and simplicity, is thorougWy modern. It speaks of'the just society, and brings out that 'the way of the wicked ' is actually the route chosen by those 'that get their own way'. They, we are warned, 'will live to regret it'.

In the preface to his translation of the psalms (The Psalms, Penguin, 1976), Peter Levi wrote of Psalm 119 that it is 'so complicated in its form as to be pedantic' (p. ix). He dismisses the abecedarian or alphabetic technique used in this and other psalms as decadent. He finally sinks the original of Psalm 119 by suggesting that it is 'the work of a student'. Would that there were such students about. True poet that he is, Gordon Jackson delights in the technical challenge of the work and makes his version fully abecedarian. In the opening lines we're back with 'happy' (Jerusalem Bible, Levi, Revised English Bible) and 'Blessed' (RSV, King James and Coverdale). The Jerusalem at first sticks to the Hebrew pattern for the initial line of each section, Aleph, Beth, Ghimel, etc. but Jackson, translating, carrying across, subjects every turn of thought to the Latin alphabet from A to W, excluding only Q. Thus he equates twenty-two English letters with twenty-two Hebrew ones and makes every line in a section alliterate initially. Thus echoes of ancient English and Hebrew verse practices are combined.

Does it work? The opening line of Jackson's version:

Ah that joy is theirs who keep perfect step,
whose feet are sure in the dance of the Yahweh

seems to me a triumph. This is not pedantry but the celebration of how deep (rabbinical?) study of the word and will of God become the dance of life. This psalm, so memorable in Coverdale's version, does provide the apperently untranslateable:

For I am become like a bottle in the smoke (Coverdale)
Though smoked dry as a wineskin (JB)

We know what it means, but how to say it in modern English?

Though I shrivel like a wineskin in the smoke (REB)

Again, clear but not of our time and place. What modern or recent domestic culinary smoking process can we evoke? Jackson:

Kitchen smoke kippers a wineskin;
I and shrivelled as much, yet I trust.

Alphabetic and alliterative features support the filled-out exactitide of this; and 'kippered' is still sometimes used of unwise sunbathers as well as of smoked herring. The ancient smoke-filled kitchen, the non-British wineskin are not concealed or falsified, but 'kippered' brings them across into our kitchen, our world.

Of course, no translator is uniformly revelatory or successful. I find Jackson's Psalm 122, verse 3, disappointing -- or, indeed, largely absent:

Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself (Coverdale)
Jerusalem, a city built compactly and solidly (REB)

If the second plumps for one part of the meaning only, it does at least try for unified identity even if it sounds like town planning. Jackson has merely:

Jerusalem, most beautiful of cities.

This seems vague and unfocussed. Is he working from a different text or reading? This is quite uncharacteristic of his work as a whole, and his Psalm 122 picks up well later on. For me the best modern version is the Jerusalem Bible's:

The city, one united whole ...

In general, however, this is an excellent book. Carcanet Press have done the poetry and Bible reading publics a service in bringing it out. They even preserve its double ending, two versions of Psalm 150. If you don't know who Gordon Jackson is and what he is about, Donald Davie's 'Afterword' does full justice to this great and neglected contemporary poet. Jackson's Psalter is a gift to Lincoln and to the English speaking world.

J C Davies

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