This is the first part of a speech Timothy Murphy has delivered to Catholic and Protestant congregations on the High Plains.  The second part will appear in a subsequent issue.  Alan Sullivan, a frequent contributor to Chronicles, died on July 9, right after finishing his last work of translating David into meter, and we shall miss his contributions of prose and verse.

The Sumerian epic Gilgamesh predates King David by 2,000 years, so we know that poetry was an ancient art in the time of the king.  But David is the first poet in human history whom we know by name, and we regard him as the father of lyric poetry.  I also regard him as the most influential of all poets, because his poems are revered as divine writ by 3.2 billion people—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic.  David is an exceptionally gifted formal poet, whose works are exactly structured in strophes and stiches that predate our lineation and stanzas.  He employs assonance (like vowel sounds), alliteration (like consonant sounds), internal rhyme, exotic forms of parallelism, paranomasia (think of that as a spiritually serious pun!), acrostics—in short, a dazzling array of formal devices.  His rhetorical devices are equally sophisticated.  But he has been singularly unfortunate in his translations into English.

We Catholics hear a reading from the Psalms about 355 days each year—about half those readings from David, the other half from his followers, such as Asaph, a major poet in his own right.  Yet the congregations to whom I read don’t even think of David as a poet, because they hear him only in prose, lineated in versions such as the Revised Standard (RSV), glorious in the case of the King James, but nevertheless prose.  My friend and mentor Richard Wilbur, the great verse translator of our age and a church lector so devoted that he once read 40 days straight in Lent, has lamented with me for many years our lack of an adequate formal translation.  The famous Scottish hymnodist Isaac Watts devoted much of his life to producing rhyming translations that could be put to music and sung, but his versions depart so far from David’s intent that the Catholic Church would never countenance their use in the Mass.

Alan Sullivan was a fine poet and formidable verse translator who was my literary partner for nearly four decades.  I collaborated with Alan on his translation of the Beowulf, now widely studied in the Longman Anthologies of English and World Literature.  For five years he battled leukemia and lymphoma.  When he was first diagnosed, he had me read him the Psalms.  I did so twice, in their entirety.  An unbeliever, he experienced an epiphany on December 12, 2008, and within weeks he received the Sacraments and was admitted to full communion in the Roman Catholic Church.  At Easter 2009 he undertook a metrical translation of the 78 poems the Jews attribute to David as a thank-offering to God for granting him the gift of faith at the end of his life.

Early on in the project Alan enlisted the assistance of Seree Cohen Zohar, a scholar of Classical Hebrew and scion of the ancient priestly tribe.  Lacking Hebrew, Alan relied on Seree to straighten out the mistranslations that occur in every English version from the King James forward.  It was Alan’s objective to produce powerful metrical translations that a trained lector could read forcefully yet, within the confines of meter, achieve a level of accuracy that surpasses any predecessor version and fully takes advantage of modern scholarship.  What follows are some of David’s masterpieces in Sullivan’s new translations.  Here is a look at three versions of a little jewel, Psalm 133.  (Although the Bible does not ascribe it to David, there is general agreement among scholars that it is his.)  Here is the King James:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;

As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.

Here is the Revised Standard Version:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is

when brothers dwell in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,

running down upon the beard,

upon the beard of Aaron,

running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon,

which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,

life for evermore.

And here is Sullivan, with stresses capitalized to guide you in saying the poem aloud:

BeHOLD, it is GOOD and PLEASant

when BRETHren DWELL unITed:

it is LIKE a PRECious OIL

DROPping from HEAD to BEARD,

EVen the BEARD of AAron,

LONG as his LIMitless VIRtue;

it is LIKE the DEW of HERmon

DROPping on ZIon’s MOUNtains

where the Lord beSTOWED his BLESSing:


The King James is stately, beautiful prose.  The RSV is stately free verse, with anywhere from three to five stresses per line.  But to my ear its random placements of stressed and unstressed syllables rob it of any real rhythmic power.  Sullivan’s version, by contrast, is iambic trimeter, three firm stresses in every line.  Read aloud all three for yourself, and you’ll hear what I assert.

But what are we to make of the close of verse two, where the translators of the KJV and the RSV extend the great simile of the anointing oil of Aaron running down from his head to his beard, even to the extent of running onto his robe (the hem of his robe, in some versions)?  Seree Zohar believes that these translators have mistakenly interpreted middah for “the hem of a garment,” based on one of several secondary meanings of the Hebrew word.  The Septuagint has endumatos, and Saint Jerome has vestimentorum, so this interpretation long precedes the English language.  Instead, Seree Zohar explains that middah (“measure”) refers to the measure of the prophet, not his garment; and that therefore David has woven a second simile within his second verse, likening the length of Aaron’s beard to his virtue, an exquisite trope reinforced by the image of dew, an infinite phenomenon.

Psalm 133 is a Song of Ascents, or a Song of Degrees, to be sung when approaching Jerusalem or ascending the steps of the Temple.  So is 131, another of David’s short poems; and I want to cite it as translated by the RSV and Sullivan to reinforce my metrical argument for the Sullivan versions.  Here is the RSV:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;

like a child that is quieted is my soul.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time forth and for evermore.

Given my choice as David’s lector, I usually prefer to read the RSV because it comes closer to poetry than any version available to us.  But despite the careful lineation of the foregoing, it is rhythmically incoherent, no discernible pattern to the placement of stresses, which range from three to five per line, with no rhetorical justification.  Contrast the trimeters of Sullivan:

Lord, my HEART is not HAUGHty;


nor DO I MEDdle in MATters

too MARveLOUS for ME.

I have GENTled and SILenced my SOUL

like a CHILD WEANED from its MOTher;

my SOUL is a WEANling CHILD.

ISrael, HOPE in the Lord,

NOW and for EVerMORE.

And note that the poetry in Sullivan is not limited to its meter.  Consider the alliteration of heart/haughty and meddle/matters/marvelous in just the first verse.  This is music to move the heart in English.