The Psalms as Poetry

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[This article originally appeared in the October 1953 issue of Commonweal]

The psalms are poems, and poems have a meaning—although the poet has no obligation to make his meaning immediately clear to anyone who does not want to make an effort to discover it. But to say that poems have meaning is not to say that they must necessarily convey practical information or an explicit message.

In poetry, words are charged with meaning in a far different way than are the words in a piece of scientific prose. The words of a poem are not merely the signs of concepts:  they are also rich in affective and spiritual associations. The poet uses words not merely to make declarations, statements of fact. That is usually the last thing that concerns him. He seeks above all to put words together in such a way that they exercise a mysterious and vital reactivity among themselves, and so release their secret content of associations to produce in the reader an experience that enriches the depths of his spirit in a manner quite unique.

A good poem induces an experience that could not be produced by any other combination of words. It is therefore an entity that stands by itself, graced with an individuality that marks it off from every other work of art. Like all great works of art, true poems seem to live by a life entirely their own. What we must seek in a poem is therefore not an accidental reference to something outside itself:  we must seek this inner principle of individuality and of life which is its soul, or "form."

What the poem actually "means" can only be summed up in the whole content of poetic experience which it is capable of producing in the reader. This total poetic experience is what the poet is trying to communicate to the rest of the world.

It is supremely important for those who read the Psalms and chant them in the public prayer of the Church to grasp, if they can, the poetic content of these great songs. The poetic gift is not one that has been bestowed on all men with equal lavishness and that gift is unfortunately necessary not only for the writers of poems but also, to some extent, for those who read them. This does not mean that the recitation of the Divine Office is an aesthetic recreation whose full possibilities can only be realized by initiates endowed with refined taste and embellished by a certain artistic cultivation. But it does mean that the type of reader whose poetic appetites are fully satisfied by the Burma Shave rhymes along our American highways may find it rather hard to get anything out of the Psalms. I believe, however, that the reason why so many fail to understand the Psalms—beyond the fact that they are never quite at home even with Church Latin—is that latent poetic faculties have never been awakened in their spirits by someone capable of pointing out to them that the Psalms really are poems.

Since, then, they are poems, the function of the Psalms is to make us share in the poetic experience of the men who wrote them. No matter how carefully and how scientifically we may interpret the words of the Psalms, and study their historical background, if these investigations do not help us to enter into the poetic experience which the Psalms convey, they are of limited value in showing us what God has revealed in the Psalms, for the revealed content of the Psalter is poetic.

 Let it therefore be clear, that since the inspired writer is an instrument of the Holy Spirit, Who, according to the Catholic Faith, is the true Author of the Psalms, what is revealed in the Psalter is revealed in the poetry of the Psalter and is only fully apprehended in a poetic experience that is analogous to the experience of the inspired writer. However, when I speak of the poetry of the Psalter and the content conveyed by its poetic form, I do not mean to imply that it is necessary for everyone to read or recite the Psalms in the original Hebrew, in which alone they possess their authentic and integral artistic form. I imagine that every contemplative would, at one time or other, wish that he could chant the Psalms in the same language they were chanted by Jesus on this earth, and in which He quoted them when He was dying on the Cross! This is a longing that very few of us will ever be able to satisfy. But it is accidental.

 Actually, the simplicity and universality of the Psalms as poetry makes them accessible to every mind, in every age and in any tongue and I believe that one's poetic sense must be unusually deadened if one has never at any time understood the Psalms without being in some way moved by their deep and universal religious quality.

THE Psalms are more than poems: they are religious poems. This means that the experience which they convey, and which the reader must try to share, is not only a poetic but a religious experience.

Religious poetry—as distinct from merely devotional verse, —is poetry that springs from a true religious experience. I do not necessarily mean a mystical experience. Devotional poetry is verse which manipulates religious themes and which does so, perhaps, even on a truly poetic level. But the experiential content of the poem is at best poetic only. Sometimes it is not even that. Much of what passes for "religious" verse is simply the rearrangement of well known devotional formulas, without any personal poetic assimilation at all. It is a game, in which souls, no doubt sincere in their piety, play poetic checkers with a certain number of familiar devotional clichés. This activity is prompted by a fundamentally religious intention, if the poem be written for the glory of God or for the salvation of souls. But such poems rarely "save" any souls. They flatter those who are comfortably "saved" but irritate the ones who really need salvation.

A truly religious poem is not born merely of a religious purpose.

A truly religious poem is not born merely of a religious purpose. Neither poetry nor contemplation is built out of good intentions. Indeed, a poem that springs from no deeper spiritual need than a devout intention will necessarily appear to be at the same time forced and tame. Art that is simply "willed" is not art, and it tends to have the same disquieting effect upon the reader as forced piety and religious strain in those who are trying hard to be contemplatives, as if infused contemplation were the result of human effort rather than a gift of God. It seems to me that such poetry were better not written. It tends to confirm unbelievers in their suspicion that religion deadens instead of nurtures all that is vital in the spirit of man. The Psalms, on the other hand, are at the same time the simplest and the greatest of all religious poems.

No one will question the truly religious content of the Psalms. They are the songs of men—and David was the greatest of them—for whom God was more than an abstract idea, more than a frozen watchmaker sitting in his tower while his universe goes ticking away into space without him. Nor is the God of the Psalms simply an absolute, immanent Being spinning forth from some deep metaphysical womb an endless pageantry of phenomena. The Psalms are not incantations to lull us to sleep in such a one.

The human symbolism of the Psalter, primitive and simple as it is, should not deceive us into thinking David had an "anthropomorphic" God. Such a mistake could only be made by materialists who had lost all sense of poetic form and who, moreover, had forgotten the violent insistence of the great Jewish prophets on the transcendence, the infinite spirituality of Jaweh, Who was so far above all things imaginable that He did not even have an utterable name. The God of the Psalter is "above all gods," that is to say, above anything that could possibly be represented and adored in an image. To one who can penetrate the poetic content of the Psalter, it is clear that David's concept of God was utterly pure. And yet this God, Who is "above all the heavens," is "near to those who call upon Him." He Who is above all things is also in all things, and He is capable of manifesting Himself through them all.

The men who wrote the Psalms were carried away in an ecstasy of joy when they saw God in the cosmic symbolism of His created universe.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firma-
    ment proclaims the work of his hands.
Day unto day heralds the message, and night unto night
    makes it known.
There is no speech nor words, whose voice is not heard:
Their sound goes forth unto all the earth, and their
    strains unto the farthest bounds of the world.
There he has set his tabernacle for the sun, which like
    to the bridegroom coming out from the bridal cham-
   ber, he exults like a giant to run his course.
His going forth is from one end of the heavens, and his
    circuit ends at the other…
 Praise ye the Lord from the heavens, praise ye him in
     the high places.
 Praise ye him, all his angels, praise ye him, all his hosts.
 Praise ye him, 0 sun and moon, praise him, all ye shin-
   ing stars.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that
   are above the heavens:
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he command-
   ed and they were created,
And he established them for ever and ever: he gave a
   decree, which shall not pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth, ye sea-monsters and all
    ye depths of the sea.
Fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind, that fulfil
    his word,
Mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars,
 Beasts and all cattle, serpents and leathered fowls
 Kings of the earth and all people, princes and all judges
    of the earth,
 Young men and even maidens, old men together with
 children:
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name
    alone is exalted.

ALTHOUGH we tend to look upon the Old Testament as a chronicle of fear in which men were far from their God, we forget how many of the patriarchs and prophets seem to have walked with God with some of the intimate simplicity of Adam in Eden. This is especially evident in the first days of the Patriarchs, of which the Welsh metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan speaks when he says:

My God, when I walke in those groves,
 And leaves thy spirit doth still fan,
 I see in each shade that there growes
An Angell talking with a man
Under a juniper some house,
Or the coole mirtles canopie,
Others beneath an oakes greene boughs,
Or at some fountaines bubling Eye;
Here Jacob dreames, and wrestles; there
 Elias by a Raven is led,
Another time by th'Angell, where
He brings him water with his bread;
In Abr'hams Tent the winged guests
(O how familiar then was heaven!)
 Eate, drinke, discourse, sit downe, and rest
Untill the Coole, and shady even.

 As age succeeded age the memory of this primitive revelation of God seems to have withered away, but its leaf is still green in the Psalter. David is drunk with the love of God and filled with the primitive sense that man is the Leitourgos or the high priest of all creation, born with the function of uttering in "Liturgy" the whole testimony of praise which mute creation cannot of itself offer to its God.

 

*Father Merton is a monk of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey. This article forms part of "Bread in the Wilderness," to be published next month by New Directions’

Thomas Merton was the author of "Man in the Divided Sea," and many other books. He was a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY. He died December 10, 1968.

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