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In the "Poets' Book of Psalms," poet Laurance Wieder has tapped into the enormous poetic resonance of the psalms and produced a unique psalter, an anthology of the 150 psalms translated by twenty-five English poets from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. His selections are interesting. They range from the obvious -- Milton, Donne, Herbert -- to the less so -- Burns, Coleridge, Vaughan -- to the virtually unknown -- Mary Sidney Herbert, George Wither, and George Sandys.
Wieder brings suitable talents to the enterprise. He is himself the author of "One Hundred Fifty Psalms," the first complete psalter written in English since Christopher Smart wrote the "Psalms of David" in 1765. He also is the co-editor of "Chapters into Verse," a magisterial two-volume anthology of poetry in English inspired by the Bible.
Like anyone who knows poetry, I wondered about some of Wieder's choices. He provides a cogent answer in his Introduction by clearly enunciating his criteria for inclusion: 1. that the works stand as poetry, not just translation, 2. that the poems be without anachronisms, 3. that the version should imitate the form, not just the content, of the original, 4. that the plain be preferred to the fancy (hence the underrepresented metaphysics!), 5. that the language be accessible to modern readers, and 6. that anonymous works and versified songs be excluded. With these criteria in hand, I could understand why there were more poems by Mary than George Herbert, more by John Hall than John Milton, and only one by John Donne.
A useful feature of the collection is its appendix containing The Book of Psalms from the King James (or Authorised) Version of the Bible, probably the best known psalter in English. Wieder, quite rightly in my estimation, regards these poems as having "authority but not a living person's voice." Personally, I think he might have done just as well, if not better, if he had included Miles Coverdale's translations in the Book of Common Prayer as his counterpoise. They have both authority and a living presence as poems read and spoken today.
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"Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in the heavens."
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