Psalm 23 in Early Modern Culture

On Monday’s class we’ll be considering one of the most famous poems in the Old Testament, Psalm 23.  Chances are, if you’ve heard of the Bible, you’ve heard of this poem.  For our class, we’ll read Psalm 23 as existing within the literary pastoral tradition.

Although not required (i.e., we won’t spend too much time in class talking about this article) I encourage everyone to take a look at this chapter by Hannibal  Hamlin, “‘Happy me! O Happy Sheep!’  Renaissance Pastoral and Psalm 23″

You also might want to read over the sample links roundup on Psalm 23.  Finally, please read and think about some of these popular translations of the Psalm that were printed during the Renaissance.

Authorized Version, or King James Version (1611)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

George Sandys, A Paraphrase Upon the Psalmes of David (1636)
The Lord my Shepheard. me his Sheep
Will from consuming Famine keep.
He fosters me in fragrant Meads,
By softly-sliding waters leads;
My Soule refresht with pleasant juice:
And lest they should his Name traduce,
Then when I wander in the Maze
Of tempting Sinne, informes my waies.
No terrour can my courage quaile
Though shaded in Deaths gloomy vale:
By thy Protection fortifi’d:
Thy Staffe my Stay, thy Rod my Guide.
My table thou hast furnished;
Powr’d pretious Odors on my head:
My Mazer flowes with pleasant Wine,
While all my Foes with Envie pine.
Thy Mercy and Beneficence
Shall ever joine in my Defence;
Who in thy House will sacrifice,
Till aged Time close up mine eyes.
Richard Crashaw, Steps to the Temple (1646)
Happy me! o happy sheepe!
Whom my God vouchsafes to keepe
Even my God, even he it is,
That points me to these wayes of blisse;
On whose pastures cheerefull spring,
All the yeare doth sit and sing,
And rejoycing smiles to see
Their greene backs were his liverie:
Pleasure sings my soule to rest,
Plenty weares me at her brest,
Whose sweet temper teaches me
Nor wanton, nor in want to be.
At my feet the blubb’ring Mountaine
Weeping, melts into a Fountaine,
Whose soft silver-sweating streames
Make high Noone forget his beames:
When my waiward breath is flying,
Hee calls home my soule from dying,
Strokes and tames my rabid Griefe,
And does woe me into life:
When my simple weaknesse strayes,
(Tangled in forbidden wayes)
Hee (my Shepheard) is my Guide,
Hee’s before me, on my side,
And behind me, he beguiles
Craft in all her knotty wiles:
Hee expounds the giddy wonder
Of my weary steps, and under
Spreads a Path cleare as the Day,
Where no churlish rub saies nay
To my joy-conducted Feet,
Whil’st they Gladly goe to meet
Grace and peace, to meet new laies
Tun’d to my great Shepherds praise.
Come now all yee terrors, sally
Muster forth into the valley,
Where triumphant darknesse hovers
With a sable wing, that covers
Brooding Horror. Come thou Death,
Let the damps of thy dull Breath
Overshadow even the shade,
And make darknesse selfe afraid;
There my feet, even there shall find
Way for a resolved mind.
Still my Shepheard, still my God
Thou art with me, Still thy rod,
And thy staffe, whose influence
Gives direction, gives defence.
At the whisper of thy Word
Crown’d abundance spreads my Bord:
While I feast, my foes doe feed
Their rank malice not their need,
So that with the self-same bread
They are starv’d, and I am fed.
How my head in ointment swims!
How my cup orelooks her Brims!
So, even so still may I move
By the Line of thy deare Love;
Still may thy sweet mercy spread
A shady Arme above my head,
About my Paths, so shall I find
The faire Center of my mind
Thy Temple, and those lovely walls
Bright ever with a beame that falls
Fresh from the pure glance of thine eye,
Lighting to Eternity.
There I’le dwell for ever, there
Will I find a purer aire
To feed my Life with, there I’le sup
Balme and Nectar in my Cup,
And thence my ripe soule will I breath
Warme into the Armes of Death.

Sir Philip Sidney, The Psalmes of David (1580)
1. The lord the lord my shepheard is,
And so can never I
Tast misery.
2. He rests me in green pasture his.
By waters still and sweet
He guides my feet.
3. He me revives, leads me the way
Which righteousness doth take,
For his name’s sake.
4. Yea tho I should thro vallys stray
Of death’s dark shade I will
No whit feare ill.
For thou Deare lord Thou me besetst,
Thy rodd and Thy staffe be
To comfort me.
5. Before me Thou a table setst,
Ev’en when foe’s envious ey
Doth it espy.
With oyle Thou dost anoynt my head,
And so my cup dost fill
That it doth spill.
6. Thus thus shall all my days be fede,
This mercy is so sure
It shall endure,
And long yea long abide I shall,
There where the Lord of all
Doth hold his hall.

If you have never heard of the pastoral mode, or if you’d like to read more about it, you might consider looking at this brief description, which I’ve written for another course. After reading through these documents, you might want to consider the following questions.

What is the pastoral mode, and how do we see it evidenced in Psalm 23?

What makes a poem a pastoral poem?

Why was Psalm 23 such an integral part of culture in the English Renaissance, as Hannibal Hamlin argues it is, and why is it so famous within our own culture?  Do any of the translations revel aspects of what pastoral did for that culture, or for our own culture?

How might understanding the formal qualities of pastoral poetry help us to interpret Psalm 23?


About Andrew Battista

Andrew Battista is Librarian for Geospatial Information Systems at New York University
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