According to Hannibal Hamlin, in Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature (2004), English versions and translations of the Book of Psalms, the original book of Dave - supposedly written by King David, the Neim Z'mirot Yisrael ('the sweet singer of Israel') - 'substantially shaped the culture of 16th and 17th-century England, resulting in creative forms as diverse as singing psalters, metrical psalm paraphrases, sophisticated poetic adaptations, meditations, sermons, commentaries, and significant allusions in poems, plays and literary prose by English men and women of varied social and intellectual backgrounds, accommodating biblical texts to their personal agendas, whether religious, political or aesthetic.' Reading the English translations of the Psalms - reading Tyndale, Coverdale, Milton, Sidney, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Francis Bacon, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw and the inspired committee-work of the Authorised Version - one immediately notices that the biblical texts are really quite vile, and that the poets' 'personal agendas' seem almost without exception bizarre, baffling or psychotic. In psalm after psalm, translation after translation, fantasies of punishment and self-punishment segue into expressions of great joy, deep despair and exaggerated, frabjous praise. Indeed, of all the books in the Bible there is perhaps none more sick and giddy, none more clearly and floridly mad, none more self-righteous, more thrilling or demented, more full of fear and anxiety. These are works characterised above all by a spirit of hatred which, according to C.S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms (1961), 'strikes us in the face . . . like the heat from a furnace mouth'.
LRB 6 July 2006 | PDF Download