Rhyming Psalms

Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Columbia both tell me that Bible translations were the first free verse or prose in English.  Right off the bat that confuses me since Hollander in The Skalds: a Selection of Their Poems, With Introductions and Notes (out of print) says the Old Germanic format, a four-beat measure with alliterations falling on two or three of those beats and every long line divided into two half lines, is the device used for practically all Old West Germanic (Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, and Old Saxon) poetry, Beowulf frequently being cited as an example, and says it “remained in popular favor in England down into the Middle Ages”. Scandinavian skaldic meters were more complex; Snorri Sturleson listed them with examples in Háttatal, the last (3rd) section of his Prose Edda.

So England, Germany, and the Nordic areas were all using alliterative poetry forms based on the dróttkvætt. Of course it was the French who were so into rhymes, although there were rhymed psalters in Dutch and Italian too, but somehow rhyming Psalms got into English, to the point where they had to be gotten out again by translators like Wycliffe in the 13th century. Here is a rhyming Psalm in Middle English. this is actually quite a bit of fun.  The researcher says,

While it is not possible for me to duplicate exactly the Middle-English alphabet, I have reproduced it as near as possible to enable you to see and hear what Middle-English sounded like. But before you can read the Psalm 23 from the Surtees Psalter in Middle English, some instruction needs to be given. When you read Middle English, it is almost imperative that you do so out loud. This will help you to make intellectual sense of the strange-looking words; what looks strange to the eye is often more familiar to the ear. In fact, one of the chief delights of reading 700-year-old English is the aha! of understanding that comes with this ongoing revelation: Middle English is a foreign language that you already know. If you have no formal training in Middle English phonology, that’s all right. It is believed that medieval English vowel sounds were more or less the same as those in modern European languages.” Early Middle English was written before (or in the earliest stages of) the “Great Vowel Shift.”

Oh good, I’ve always meant to learn something about the Great Vowel Shift, and there’s nothing like diving right in.

There follow several instructions, fairly easy ones, for pronouncing Middle English.  Here is the Psalm:

Surtees Psalter — Psalm 23

1. Lauerd me steres, noght wante sal me:
In stede of fode are me louked he.

2. He fed me ouer watre ofe fode,
Mi saule he tornes in to gode.

3. He led me ouer sties of rightwisenes,
For his name, swa hali es.

4. For, and ife .I. ga in mid schadw ofe dede,
For ou wi me erte iuel sal .i. noght drede;

5. i yherde, and i stafe ofe mighte,
ai ere me roned dai and nighte.

6. ou graied in mi sighte borde to be,
Ogaines as at droued me;

7. ou fatted in oli me heued yhite;
And mi drinke dronkenand while schire es ite!

8. And filigh me sal i mercy
Alle daies ofe mi life for-i;

9. And at .I. wone in hous ofe lauerd isse
In lenge of daies al wi blisse.

Peeking at the Latin Vulgate, and for some reason it’s the 22nd Psalm there, there doesn’t seem to be much that rhymes:

[ 1 canticum David Dominus pascit me nihil mihi deerit  2 in pascuis herbarum adclinavit me super aquas refectionis enutrivit me 3 animam meam refecit duxit me per semitas iustitiae propter nomen suum 4 sed et si ambulavero in valle mortis non timebo malum quoniam tu mecum es virga tua et baculus tuus ipsa consolabuntur me 5 pones coram me mensam ex adverso hostium meorum inpinguasti oleo caput meum calix meus inebrians 6 sed et benignitas et misericordia subsequetur me omnibus diebus vitae meae et habitabo in domo Domini in longitudine dierum]

But Psalms is not based on Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew as is the rest of the Vulgate OT; Jerome originally translated it as well and it was included initially, but several Latin versions of Psalms were already in circulation and the Gallicana translation from the Hexaplar Greek was used instead.

but here is the Hebrew transliteration for Psalm 23:

¹miz’môr l’däwid
‘hwäh roiy
lo ech’šär
[psalm of David]
[Jehovah pasture]
[not lack]
²Bin’ôt Deshe
al-mëy m’nuchôt
[in pasture sprout]
[crouch on four legs folded like a resting animal]
[above the water repose peacefully]
[ flow with a sparkle, (by inference) protect, sustain]
³ naf’shiy y’shôvëv
l’maan sh’mô
[breathing/vitality, return to the starting point]
[track, right/prosperous]
[on account of, position/honor]
4 Gam Kiy-ëlëkh’
B’gëy tzal’mäwet
rä Kiy-aTäh
[gather, walk]
[by gorge, shadow of grave]
[no fear]
[evil caused from you]
[support/sustenance/walking stick]
[sigh, pity, console]
5 Taárokh’ l’fänay
‘chän neged tzor’räy
vaSHemen roshiy
[set in a row, towards face]
[a table spread out, opposite, cramp]
[with grease/perfumed olive liquid richness, head]
6 akh’ ôv wächešed
l’orekh’ yämiym
[surely good kindness]
[run after]
[every day/warm (daylight) hours/space of time]
[and sit down/remain]
[among house/family Jehovah]
[for length, hot/day/warm hours/space of time]

I do think I see some end rhymes. Also it’s fun to mouse over the definitions in the linked Hebrew page translation and try on all the synonyms as puns.  (Or better yet, compare with Leonard Cohen’s “Who by fire” internal rhymes, double meanings, and alliterations.)

The Old Testament books of Proverbs and Song of Solomon were also said to be rhyming. I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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