Sunday 18 September 2011

The Psalms - second attempt


A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was intending to read and 'chant' through the Psalter (the Book of Psalms in the Bible, specifically the Authorized/ King James version) every month until I began to know them.

Well... I almost managed this for a month, but did not quite keep-up the rate.


And now it comes to start the cycle again I find that - although the experience was very worthwhile - I seem utterly unable to learn the Psalms - and have only managed four lines of a single Psalm thus far...


I wondered why this might be, and concluded that the reason was that - although the Psalms in the KJB or Book of Common Prayer/ Coverdale versions are supremely poetic - they are not in fact poems.

Poems are memorable - that is indeed one of their main functions.

But while the KJB Psalms are superbly speak-able (being designed for euphonious reading) they are not actual poems since they lack regular rhythm, rhyme and formal alliteration.

Yet I wanted to memorize the Psalms, so they would be with me when I needed them.

What to do?


Then I recalled from childhood the 'metrical' version of Psalm 23, which had lodged in my mind and was a lovely lyric:

The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.


A little Internet research revealed that version this was from the Scottish Psalter of 1650 - mostly done in England but finished and adopted by the Scottish Church. This is a classic of scriptural translation, designed to be both easily understandable, and easily singable - every psalm is done in the Common Metre

Ti-tum Ti-tum Ti-tum Ti-tum
Ti-tum Ti-tum Ti-TAY
Ti-tum Ti-tum Ti-tum Ti-tum
Ti-tum Ti-tum Ti-DAY

In principle, and if necessary, therefore all the Psalms could be sung to a single tune! - bringing performance of the entire Psalter within the scope of the most minimally-musical congregation (in-line with reformation ideals).


So... Although the Scottish Psalter has not quite the beauty and variety of the KJB/ BCP versions, it does comes from the same great post-reformation era of English Christian translation, bears the hallmarks of being an inspired work, and has the crucial virtue of memorability.

So... I have ordered a copy of the Scottish Psalter and will try again on cycles of reading - hoping this time to learn at least some of the Psalms by heart.



Brett Stevens said...

It always seemed to me that the point of poetry/music was to induce a rhythm and change narrative from the individual's thoughts to that of the tune, thus liberating people (for a few minutes) from the neurotic delirium of being a self-aware animal.

Daniel said...

Wow, very interesting. It makes me want to get my own copy of the Scottish Psalter. That about half my ancestors come from Scotland as far back as I can trace makes it even more appealing.

Bruce Charlton said...


There are some internet versions:

And here is some background:

The Crow said...

The idea of Bruce Charlton chanting is an amusing one :)
Still, chanting has its pluses.
Try "Om". It is a spaceship, to the farthest edges of the cosmos. This is not commonly known, in the West.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - ahem...

And what will there be at the edge of the cosmos?...

The Crow said...

"And what will there be at the edge of the cosmos?..."
Yet more cosmos. "Edge" is used, here, as a metaphor to give some sense of scale to the scaleless :)
What I was saying was that "Om" is a lot easier to remember, than the Psalms. And what is chanting, but man giving voice to his reverence for the Creator?
Or to the Creation that contains him, and that he is part-of?

dearieme said...

Scot to Englishman: You and I worship the same God, you in your way and I in His.

The Crow said...

"Scot to Englishman: You and I worship the same God, you in your way and I in His.>
How likely do you think it is that God worships God in His way?
It goes to show the Christian obsession with seeing God as human, and humans being intermediaries for God.
And seeing the whole Creation as all about humans, solely for their benefit.
Not a lot of gratitude or humility, there.
This whole Redemption-quest: yet another selfish desire to obtain something for oneself.
What is it about humans that makes them so unable to place their professed God above and beyond themselves?
It's all very puzzling.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - You do not 'get' Christianity - I mean as contrasted with 'getting' it and then rejecting it.

I was exactly the same until not very long ago - indeed I didn't really get it until some time after I nominally became a Christian.

Christianity is apparently one of those things which modern intellectuals find very difficult, although people in the past, and simple people, apparently have no trouble. That just seems to be the reality we have to deal with.

The Crow said...

re: "getting it"...
An interesting blog entry, and apropos of this thread:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - My sense is that you are trying to subsume Christianity within Taoism/ Zen/ Eastern meditative practices. That was also how I saw it for a long time, up to c 2007 indeed.

I saw the good bits of Christianity as like Eastern philosophy, and the rest as unnecessary and probably destructive/ misleading.

From the other side of the fence I see that I profoundly misunderstood Christianity.

The methods have similarities but the objective is totally different. Chanting Om is one thing, Zen sitting is similar; but the Heschastic Christian practice of chanting/ repeating the Jesus prayer is specifically trying to move into closer communion with God, to move towards becoming a Son of God - God being the creator of the universe, outside the universe as well as in it and so on.

Salvation is not enlightenment, Nirvana is not Heaven, resurrection is not reincarnation etc.

It is just different!

The Crow said...

What have you understood now, Bruce, that you misunderstood before? In ten words or less :)
Is there a simple way to tell it?

What I am doing, I suppose, is weeding out the incredibly arcane complication that attends Christianity, and distilling the essence to utter simplicity:
One lives.
One is joyful/grateful, to live.
One becomes aware of one's essence, which is Godlike. (In His image).
One's body finally departs.
One's Godlike essence remains.

I think perhaps you equate such views with "new-age" claptrap. which it is not, at all.
Such views predate Christianity by some considerable margin. That they persist, today, must indicate some degree of utility, no?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow -

I interpret you now, as I always have, as a pagan - but of a modern kind which does not acknowledge the reality of evil in the way that ancient pagans did.

You seem to say that an adjustment of the individual mind, a different perspective, can lead to a state of timless harmony and bliss on this earth - which is either wholly Good, or else beyond Good and evil (which I interpret to be disguised evil).

I regard this is a glimpse of Heaven - not of the reality of this world - and the attempt to make it permanent or to place this psychological state at the centre of reality is a snare.

(This is the theme of Lewis's Surprised by Joy - Joy is his name for this state.)

Another way of thinking about it is the significance of The Fall. For Christians this is a fallen world, inhabited by fallen people.

What this means, why it is the only coherent explanation, is better explained by Pascal than I could manage.

Reality is mixed, Good tainted with evil in various proportions (never wholly the one or the other).

Therefore it is not desirable that humans-unchanged should harmonize with nature-unchanged: both humans and nature must first be re-made.

There is a distal and ultimate sense in which everything that is is Good - but not in this world, and not in time.

The Crow said...

A real crow often stuck his beak inside my ear, to murmur softly to me.
There were no words, of course, but what it seemed to be saying was: "I accept you, and it's fun, isn't it?"
And things like this happen without any "mind" or "psychological states".

The bottom line is to discover a way of living that enables one to live.
Without it all being terribly dire and un-liveable.

I prefer my way, having tried as many ways as I could find, to try.

The image of a crow, I suppose, is a difficult one, for people. That is probably why angels exist, within the lore of humans.

If you are able to love a crow, then what can you not love? Yourself, even?

Thanks Bruce.