Lest readers misunderstand, it must be said at the outset that these poems, selected from Psaumes de tous mes temps (1974), by Patrice de La Tour du Pin (1911-75), are not translations, even rough ones, from the Psalms of the Bible.  The poet did serve as a translator for the Catholic Church when use of the vernacular was approved after Vatican II (and he composed lyrical chants as well), and he was familiar not only with the Vulgate version but also French precedents, from Clément Marot in the early 16th century to Paul Claudel.  But in these poems he neither translated nor paraphrased the biblical texts, rarely even echoing them (except by addressing God, both in praise and supplication).  Rather, his creations are autonomous, “new songs” as it were, or, in his words, “remade psalms.”  This selection has been beautifully translated by Jennifer Grotz, a professor of poetry and translation at the University of Rochester and a poet in her own right.  She has the skills that Richard Wilbur named as essential for successful translation: an excellent knowledge of the original tongue and dexterity in using her own language poetically.

La Tour du Pin was among the major French Catholic poets in the mid-20th century; others are Pierre Emmanuel (1916-84) and Jean-Claude Renard (1922-2002).  These three followed in the wake of Claudel (1868-1955), Charles Péguy (1873-1914), and Pierre Jean Jouve (1887-1976), who, in their varying ways, contributed earlier to reinvigorating Christian poetry after its decline over two centuries and more.  None of these six poets is truly well known in the United States, though Emmanuel and Renard lived or traveled widely in America, and Claudel’s diplomatic career took him to Washington.  (He does have a following in academic circles here.)

Translating poetry, acknowledged generally as a difficult enterprise, is particularly challenging in the case of most of these authors, whose diction and style offer resistance even to many French readers.  This is so although the verset (a flexible form modeled roughly on the Psalms or, alternatively, called Whitmanesque) and other forms of free verse used by all these poets would seem to lend themselves to translation more readily than rhymed lines do.  In fact, Claudel and especially Péguy irritate many readers by their expansive, oratorical style, hard to render effectively, and the others’ poems are often dense and subtle, marked by oblique expression, obscure allusions, understatement or omission, and other forms of arcana.  The verse of La Tour du Pin is more easily accessible, perhaps, than that of the other poets mentioned above.  “Strive to remain simple,” he counsels himself.  “A higher register will furnish you nothing” (“Psalm 14”).

La Tour du Pin was born into an old aristocratic family and spent his childhood, as well as most of his adulthood, in the family château.  His father was killed (as was Péguy) in the Battle of the Marne.  His mother was a descendant of the French philosopher Condorcet and a great-granddaughter of the Irish parliamentarian (and Napoleonic general) Arthur O’Connor.  The poet studied at lycées in Paris, then at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques.  In the army in 1939, he was captured by the Germans in October and interned until his repatriation in 1942.  He had already proved himself; an early poem, “September’s Children” (included in the volume under review), which appeared, along with others, in the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Française, then in a collection, achieved unusual celebrity for a very young writer, and a half-dozen books came out before the war.  During his imprisonment he worked on what became his Somme de poésie, a nearly life-long enterprise.

To some degree, Psalms of All My Days is a recasting and rethinking of earlier work, part of a noble ambition to write “the great prayer of our time” (“Psalm 6”).  The poems are devotional and contemplative, not dogmatic.  No hortatory aim is visible.  Nor is self-flagellation nor self-justification at the forefront, though there is evidence of personal struggle, and no poet dealing explicitly with his Christian faith can write without a vein of humility and an underlying hope for mercy.  The tone, the manner of address (the poet speaking to God, or to himself), the sentiments are very personal.  Unlike Jouve and Emmanuel, La Tour du Pin does not involve his faith or its expression with eroticism, though he is not “ashamed” of his flesh and acknowledges desire.

Moreover, he is modest about the undertaking, to the point of self-doubt and what Grotz characterizes as near-embarrassment.  “I am the only one who doesn’t find / my secret ambition ridiculous” (“Psalm 23”).  He asks, without affirming it, whether poetry could be a kind of grace, a way of renewing things for God.  He recognizes that to speak so much about God is risky (both poetically and theologically).  “My most profound desire to speak of you; / my shame, to compromise you! / So I will speak only to you” (“Psalm 35”).  Pervading the collection is a theme found also in Emmanuel’s and Renard’s work, that of the incommunicable; divine truth, divine Presence are beyond human grasp and yearning, beyond even the rarest, most beautiful, most subtle language.

A short but very useful Introduction by Grotz precedes the poems.  Her versions follow the texts closely, but not slavishly; sensibly, there is no attempt to restyle the original (printed here on the verso pages) in any fashion.  The poems are in couplets or tercets, separated by generous spaces.  This form, pleasing to the eye and allowing room for reflection (and, one might say, for silence, as if to permit the voice of God to be heard), is respected in the translation.  The two- or three-line stanzas, and individual lines, constitute very loose approximations of typical biblical verses.  Rhyme is not used, but no reader will get the impression that the language is merely cut-up prose, since lines are shaped according to syntactic logic (as punctuation usually shows), parallelism, and sound.  Except when beginning a sentence or naming God, lines do not start with capital letters.  No line is so long that it cannot be pronounced—and thought—as if in one breath.  The result of these technical choices is a quiet accessibility, without drama, without undue rhetoric—contemporary but not coarsely so.  God is addressed by the familiar second-person thou, not used generally by French Catholics (Claudel in his Cinq Grandes Odes uses vous, for instance) but characteristic of French Protestants, whom André Gide called the “tutoyeurs de Dieu.”  The choice is felicitous, introducing a familiarity not disrespectful in the least but betokening lifelong acquaintance, daily discourse.  “For there, I speak to God in familiar terms” (“Psalm 24”).

The English title Grotz chose for these psalms felicitously suggests the “works and days” of Hesiod, here turned, so to speak, into “prayers and days”; the word temps in the French title, meaning weather as well as time, suggests the poet’s sensitivity to the natural world over the decades of “all my time.”  Even Hesiod’s emphasis on cultivation is present, in the form of a garden, which the poet enjoyed on his property throughout the decades.  It plays an important role as a manifestation of divine action, the original model of creation, in which man, animals, and plants participate.  He writes of himself as having roots and leaves and blossoms, which he must cultivate (“Psalm 7”).  “No one could count me among the visionaries! / Nothing in this dimness allows itself to be seen. // I make my poems the way an ash tree makes leaves . . . ”  The image suggests the light of photosynthesis and, behind it, the light of being.  The writer then adds, “Before you take me back entirely, Lord, I ask you kindly: / Dapple light upon my leaves” (“Psalm 24”).  “Your night burns with joy,” writes the poet, a kind of summary.  This fresh, direct, devout understanding of the Christian life and the poet’s function is the great appeal of these psalms.


[Psalms of All My Days, by Patrice de La Tour du Pin, translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press) 147 pp., $18.95]