This is the second part of a speech on poet Alan Sullivan that Timothy Murphy has delivered to Catholic and Protestant congregations on the High Plains.  (The first part appeared in the October issue.)  Mr. Sullivan, a frequent contributor to Chronicles, died on July 9, right after finishing his last work of translating David into meter.


Now let us consider Psalm 51, perhaps the greatest of the Penitential Psalms, which we hear in the Ordinary of the Mass.

Every Solemn High Traditional Latin Mass begins with the Asperges me, verse 7 of Psalm 51:

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,


Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

In the Novus Ordo Mass we no longer hear this great antiphon, which reads (in a common translation) “Purify me with hyssop, Lord, and I shall be cleansed.  Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  But before the consecration in every Mass the priest prays verse 2 of Psalm 51: “Wash away my iniquities and cleanse me of my sin.”

Similarly, we hear verse 17 in our Masses, our catechism, in innumerable homilies: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, God, you will not despise.”  We are told that, in the Primitive Church, every service closed with the congregation reciting Psalm 51 in its entirety.  Without Psalm 51, the Mass would be much diminished.

Poems of penitence, poems of praise and consolation, poems of unspeakable curses which we never hear in church—David’s emotional range is as immense as the figure portrayed for us by Samuel.  Then there is the matter of prophecy, of great importance to David’s Christian audience.  It can be uncanny, as in Psalm 22, where Sullivan translates verses 16 to 18 thus:

Curs encircle me;

a band of villains

has closed around me:

so would a lion

pinion my hands and feet.

I would tell it in my bones.

They would gawk and gloat,

apportioning my clothes,

casting lots for my garments.

Did Christ have these lines in mind when he watched the Roman soldiers doing just that and cried out from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”  (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  He cried out in Aramaic, our Lord’s everyday speech, but of course His crie de couer is the opening line of David’s 22nd Psalm.

And let us consider Psalm 2, cited three times in the New Testament.  Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 13, and Paul, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, quote the seventh verse: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you.”  And in the third chapter of Acts, when Peter and John are released by the Sanhedrin, they go forth rejoicing; and they quote the opening of the poem: “Why did the Gentiles rage and the peoples entertain folly?  The kings of the earth took their stand and the princes gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed.”  Where would we be without King David?

Here is the Sullivan translation:

Why are the nations seething

and people murmuring vainly?

Kings of the earth stand fast;

princes conspire together,

banding against the Lord,

against his anointed one:

“Let us break their bonds

and cast aside their cords.”

Seated on high, he laughs.

The Lord regards them with scorn,

then speaks to them wrathfully,

fills them with fear of his fury:

“I have set my anointed king

on my holy mountain, Zion.”

I will repeat the edict;

the Lord has said to me:

“You are my son; today

I have begotten you.

Ask me, and I will grant

the nations for your portion;

the utmost edge of the world

shall be in your possession.

With an iron rod you will break them,

smash them into pieces

like potters’ earthenware.”

Think carefully, you kings.

Be warned, you judges on earth,

and serve the Lord with awe.

Be glad, but tremble also.

Pay your homage sincerely

lest the Lord be angered,

and you be swept from the path

when his wrath is barely lit.

Happy are all who shelter in him.

David writes in two and three beat lines, occasionally in four.  But Sullivan makes no attempt to replicate David’s meters or preserve his presumed lineation.  Classical Hebrew is far more economical in syllable than is Modern English.  Unlike our polysyllabic, Latinate vocabulary, Hebrew can incorporate tense, person, gender, and number, as well as subjective and objective pronouns and even many conjunctions, as compacted prefixes and suffixes to verbs and nouns.  In the poetry of the Psalms, these are compacted further.  It is the reverse of the problem Alan and I faced in our translation of the Beowulf, where Modern English is so much more economical than the Germanic-inflected Anglo-Saxon.  No, Sullivan’s concern is to make a faithful rendition an effective poem in its own right in our language, and early on he realized that he had to “catch a tune” appropriate for every psalm.

Let’s look at another of the great ones, Psalm 33, where Sullivan begins with trimeter, three-beat lines.  Then when the tone of the original shifts, Sullivan gives us a block of four-beat lines, tetrameter, then compresses the great coda of the poem back into trimeter.  It is a strategy he frequently found himself employing in many variations.

Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous;

the praise of the just is fitting.

Adore the Lord with the harp;

strum on the ten-stringed lyre.

Sing a new song to the Lord.

Play it with skill and verve,

for the word of the Lord is pure,

and all that he does will endure.

He loves justice and judgment.

The earth abounds with his grace.

By the word of the Lord was the firmament made;

from the breath of his mouth sprang heavenly hosts.

He gathered the sea-waters, rounded them out;

he vaulted the deep to hold them like treasures.

Let the whole world revere the Lord;

let earth’s dwellers be struck with awe.

He spoke; all was.  He enjoined; all stood.

The Lord annuls the designs of nations;

he frustrates human contrivances.

The Lord’s design endures forever,

his heart’s intention for all generations.

Blessed, the people whose God is the Lord,

the nation granted inheritance.

The Lord looks down from heaven,

beholding the sons of men.

From his dwelling place he presides

over the dwellers on earth.

He formed their hearts alike;

he assesses all their deeds.

No king will be reprieved

by the hugeness of his host;

no mighty fighter saved

by strength, however great.

A horse is a phantom of safety,

its vigor secures no escape.

The Lord’s eye lights on the reverent,

on those who yearn for his goodness

to rescue their souls from death,

to keep them alive in famine.

Our soul has awaited the Lord:

he is our help and shield.

Our heart will rejoice in the Lord

for we trusted his holy name.

Bestow your grace, O Lord,

in accord with our yearning for you.

David’s relationship with God is of a loving intimacy we would all do well to imitate in private prayer.  Indeed, for all the beauty and power David’s poems give to our public prayer, our liturgies, they have an equally lofty value in teaching us how to pray.  For all his astonishing achievement, rising from a shepherd boy’s obscurity to unify the tribes of Israel and settle Jerusalem as the capital of the nation, David has much for which to atone.  A military genius, he was a great killer, and indeed the people sang of him as they danced: “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”  Coveting Bathsheba, he sends her husband to certain death.  His prowess arouses the envy and nearly deadly enmity of Saul.  His son Avshalom (Absolom) rebels against him and, trying to overthrow his rule, is killed.

A genre of lyric now neglected is the flyting, the curse on one’s enemies, and David was its inventor and master nonpareil.  He implores the Lord to smash his enemies like potsherds, to break their jaws, to make them portions fit for foxes as the dogs lap up their blood.  When I was sorely beset by certain bankers and lawyers, I asked my spiritual advisor whether I could call down David’s curses on my enemies, and he patiently explained that since Jesus died for our sins, saying, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” that outlet is closed to the people of the New Dispensation.

I have memorized and recited poems from childhood on, most all of them in English, because for me it’s the English poems in rhyme and meter that sing out in performance.  That has not prevented me from studying poetry in translation and being deeply influenced by the thoughts of my great predecessors with whose tongues I have scant or no acquaintance.  Having engaged in verse translation, I know how unspeakably difficult it is to smuggle a foreign text into our language, to produce an English poem which is both “true and beautiful.”  I believe the Sullivan translations come closer to that ideal—far closer—than any translations of David I have read, and I have read enough to wallpaper a cathedral.  And this is not just any poet.  More than any poet, more than Dante, more than St. John of the Cross (even as translated by Rhina Espaillat), more than Donne, Herbert, Milton, or Hopkins, more than all of them put together, David brings us to God.  Since my return to the Faith I’ve written many poems that quote and converse with David, and I’ll close with one that owes its merit to four of its eight lines being David’s, not mine.

To The Chief Musician


“Break the teeth in their mouths, O Lord,” he cried.


We Christians can no longer pray this way

to Him our mortal sins have crucified,

but at our funerals we often say:


“Where shall I find my refuge and hold fast

except under the shadow of Thy wings

until all my calamities are past?”

So, from antiquity, King David sings.