Defining the Distance

Gordon Jackson's translation of the Psalms
The Lincoln Psalter (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997)

The idiot has convinced himself
Men are, in the main, vile, disgusting, depraved;
As for doing good, none of them tries it.
From high in heaven God inspected the children of Adam,
to find just one, perhaps, who kept him in mind.
But no, not one; they were infidels to a man;
and as for doing good, no one was trying it.
They have swallowed up my people as if they were bread,
and did anyone think to say grace?

Compare Coverdale: "...eating up my people as if they would eat bread? They have not called upon God." Gordon Jackson (who lives in Lincoln and is distinguished as a poet, publisher, printer and teacher) has now completed his translation of the Psalms, of which many striking individual versions are included in the late Donald Davie's Psalm anthology, published by Penguin. There is a rhythmic vitality about these poems, combined with plain idiomatic English ranging from lyricism to slang, and including many effects comparable to the sardonic irony in our example.

It would be a very revealing exercise to read the versions of Coverdale and Jackson alternately, one after the other. I think the effect would be to highlight what is greatest about Coverdale: his awesome authority, the range of his emotions, the sheer beauty of some passages, the sublimity of others. Where Coverdale's Psalm 19 has "a tabernacle for the sun: which cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course", Jackson has

...a bridegroom
Dressed for his wedding in dazzling splendour,
or like an athlete on the day of the race
with every atom alert and keen for the off.

This doesn't cancel out Coverdale's image of the giant, but shows us all its best and most telling associations. But bearing in mind the obscurity of some passages in Coverdale, where archaic English overlays and further perplexes a defective understanding of the Hebrew, the effect is sometimes like seeing a foggy overexposed photographic print suddenly reprinted and brought up sharp and clear.

I admit that I don't make a habit of reading through the Psalms ten or twenty at a stretch; our normal use doesn't cover all the range. But reading these versions I find both the clarity and the range: the extraordinarily forceful summary of, and reflection on, the history of Israel in all its phases up to the Captivity. Plain modern English (though it sometimes prompts us to remember the wry tones of Jewish humour) also brings out what is alien in the Psalmists' world views; but the occasional vengefulness pales into insignificance besides the moral passion, and the sheer love of God (and the vitality of God) which these versions uncover. Speaking to us in the tones of today, they both define their distance from us, and take their stand alongside us.

Robert Cockcroft
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997