Psalm 139 by Mary Sidney

In the last installment of our Christian Humanism Lecture Series, we heard from Professor Brett Foster of Wheaton College [click here for full audio], who spoke about the legacy of Christian humanism in Renaissance poetry. Although Dr. Foster covered several poems in the talk, perhaps this beautiful rendition of Psalm 139 by Mary Sidney embodies the spirit of Christian humanism most wonderfully. The verses, which march gallantly in accordance with the very best in poetic imagination and discipline (as opposed to “literal” translation!), re-illuminate the ancient wonder of the Old testament in a way that can only be self-evident:

 

O LORD, O Lord, in me there lieth nought
But to thy search revealed lies,
For when I sit
Thou markest it;
No less thou notest when I rise;
Yea, closest closet of my thought
Hath open windows to thine eyes.

Thou walkest with me when I walk;
When to my bed for rest I go,
I find thee there,
And everywhere:
Not youngest thought in me doth grow,
No, not one word I cast to talk
But yet unuttered thou dost know.

If forth I march, thou goest before,
If back I turn, thou com’st behind:
So forth nor back
Thy guard I lack,
Nay on me too, thy hand I find.
Well I thy wisdom may adore,
But never reach with earthy mind.

To shun thy notice, leave thine eye,
O whither might I take my way?
To starry sphere?
Thy throne is there.
To dead men’s undelightsome stay?
There is thy walk, and there to lie
Unknown, in vain I should assay.

O sun, whom light nor flight can match,
Suppose thy lightful flightful wings
Thou lend to me,
And I could flee
As far as thee the evening brings:
Even led to west he would me catch,
Nor should I lurk with western things.

Do thou thy best, O secret night,
In sable veil to cover me:
Thy sable veil
Shall vainly fail;
With day unmasked my night shall be,
For night is day, and darkness light,
O father of all lights, to thee.

Each inmost piece in me is thine:
While yet I in my mother dwelt,
All that me clad
From thee I had.
Thou in my frame hast strangely dealt:
Needs in my praise thy works must shine
So inly them my thoughts have felt.

Thou, how my back was beam-wise laid,
And raft’ring of my ribs, dost know;
Know’st every point
Of bone and joint,
How to this whole these parts did grow,
In brave embroid’ry fair arrayed,
Though wrought in shop both dark and low.

Nay fashionless, ere form I took,
Thy all and more beholding eye
My shapeless shape
Could not escape:
All these time framed successively
Ere one had being, in the book
Of thy foresight enrolled did lie.

My God, how I these studies prize,
That do thy hidden workings show!
Whose sum is such
No sum so much,
Nay, summed as sand they sumless grow.
I lie to sleep, from sleep I rise,
Yet still in thought with thee I go.

My God, if thou but one wouldst kill,
Then straigh would leave my further chase
This cursed brood
Inured to blood,
Whose graceless taunts at thy disgrace
Have aimed oft; and hating still
Would with proud lies thy truth outface.

Hate not I them, who thee do hate?
Thine, Lord, I will the censure be.
Detest I not
The cankered knot
Whom I against thee banded see?
O Lord, thou know’st in highest rate
I hate them all as foes to me.

Search me, my God, and prove my heart,
Examine me, and try my thought;
And mark in me
If ought there be
That hath with cause their anger wrought.
If not (as not) my life’s each part,
Lord, safely guide from danger brought.

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