(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Originally composed over a period of centuries by professional musicians who served in the sanctuaries and royal courts of ancient Israel and Judah, the Hebrew psalms have nurtured the faith of Jews and Christians for more than three thousand years. Believers have chanted and recited these sacred canticles during religious ceremonies and read them during private prayer. The psalms have also sparked the imaginations of well-known doubters such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Why have the psalms enjoyed such longevity and appeal? One answer could be because they are part of a sacred text, but their canonicity cannot fully explain such devotion or fascination. A second possible reason is that readers see themselves in the psalms’ candid portrayal of the human condition, as well as in the representation of the sometimes contentious and often blessed relationship humanity shares with the divine. A third reason is that, because the psalms were composed over a period of a thousand years, they were often reworked or adapted to mirror later social, political, and religious realities. This fluidity of composition contributes to the timeless quality of the psalms, keeping the poems fresh and vital.

In Words to God’s Music, Laurance Wieder follows the lead of previous psalmodists as he refashions the ancient songs into contemporary treatments of the biblical text. He is not the first poet to attempt to reinterpret these sacred texts. John Milton (1608-1674), George Herbert (1593-1633), and Ben Jonson (1573-1637), among others, all tried their hand at translating some of the psalms. Wieder claims, however, that in addition to Mary Sidney Herbert (1561-1621), her brother Philip (1554-1586), and Christopher Smart (1722-1771), he is the only other writer to produce a poetic rendering of the entire Psalter in English. Some of the poems included in this collection have been previously published, but many are appearing here for the first time.

Wieder arranges his collection of 150 poems in five sections, mirroring the traditional Hebrew division of the psalms into five books. A midrash, or rabbinical commentary, on the original biblical version of the first psalm records that the psalms were divided in this manner because David (c. 1030 - c. 962 b.c.e.) wished to have the five books of his songs correspond to the five books of the Pentateuch written by Moses. The format of the biblical psalms leads readers on a spiritual journey from existential angst to a renewed relationship with God, just as the Pentateuch guides readers from creation in Genesis to the promised land of Deuteronomy.

Wieder follows the traditional scriptural framework, with each of his poems corresponding to a biblical psalm. Functioning in a way similar to the superscriptions of the originals, most of Wieder’s titles consist of one or two words which concisely convey the themes of the individual pieces. Many of the titles are plays on words. For example, the title of Psalm 13 is “Unlucky,” while the “Penult” and “Last” are the headings for Psalms 149 and 150, respectively. Wieder’s renderings are not strict interpretations or translations. Some adhere fairly close to the biblical originals, others function as commentaries, while still others have little to do with the primary text.

The first section of Words to God’s Music is titled “One Will Blossom” and covers psalms 1 through 41. The word “blossom” in the title suggests a correlation to the Genesis myth, and the first poem, “The Happy One,” reinforces the allusion to Eden by using garden imagery. In it, the righteous man:

. . . turns the Lord’s laws over night and day,
A gardener tilling the holy ground.
And the happy one will blossom
Like the fruit trees in a watered field
Bearing plum peach walnut pear and apple
Cupped by green leaves the long season,
Harvest bushels crated by the orchard.

In contrast, the faithless are like “dead leaves,/ Clippings flattered by the wind.” Foreshadowing the spiritual and psychological angst in many of the succeeding poems, “The Happy One” captures the tension between life and death, obedience and disobedience, faith and doubt, and sinfulness and redemption, emphasizing humanity’s fallen condition, as well as humankind’s longing for God.

Many of David’s songs are familiar to modern readers who hail from a Judeo-Christian heritage, but perhaps the best known is Psalm 23. Underscoring the fact that his renderings are not literal translations of the biblical psalms, Wieder notes in his “Brief Explanation” that rather than trying to “improve what can’t be improved,” he...

(The entire section is 1930 words.)