Hannibal Hamlin. Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 302pp. ISBN 0 5218 3270 5.

L. E. Semler
University of Sydney

Semler, L. E."Review of Hannibal Hamlin, Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 11.1-9<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-1/revhamli.htm>.

  1. Anyone who has played the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” will know its deliciously demonstrable premise that practically every actor in the western filmic tradition may be “linked” to Bacon in very short order via a method of mentally stepping through co-actors in shared movies. It is astonishing that almost all actors may be so linked in under ten steps, many in just a couple, but even more astonishing that only one or two actors have so far managed to elude entirely such a matrix (possessing the enviable “Infinite Bacon Number”). What all this says about western culture is anybody’s guess, but consider what a short step it is from Bacon to Hamlet — and that’s by name alone, without recourse to Hamlet’s “nasty sty” or the theory of an earlier Bacon writing the works of Shakespeare. One can imagine “Six Degrees of Prince Hamlet” in which players demonstrate how literary scholars of early modernity either cite Hamlet directly in published work or cite a colleague who elsewhere cites Hamlet, or cite a colleague who elsewhere cites a colleague who ... etcetera. Indeed, the tenor of our discipline is so predictable in this regard that we could probably rename the game “Two Degrees of Prince Hamlet”, but usually we’d not have to go that far because sooner or later, if not in this publication then in our next, we will all inevitably fall and cite Hamlet: “if it be not now, yet it will come.” (In raising the problem here, I’ve altruistically excluded myself from ever possessing the Infinite Hamlet Number.)

  2. So what has “Psalm Culture” to do with Hamlet? Turn to pages 215-17 of Hannibal Hamlin’s book and you’ll find out. Or persist to the end of this review. I found Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature a fascinating exercise in reading. Of particular interest was the book’s structure, which not only distributed a nebulous field into useful and memorable sections, but in the process aroused in this reader some tantalizing reflections on personal and disciplinary predilections. “Psalm Culture” — or any other sobriquet one might employ to designate the mobilization of the Psalms in early modern England — is indeed one of the most pervasive cultural forces in our favorite period and hence very difficult to reduce to manageable dimensions. Companion books to Hamlin’s could be written on the place of the Psalms in the various histories of English architecture, visual arts, music, religion, or courtly or daily life. Leaving these histories aside as relatively peripheral to Hamlin’s chief concern of literature — which is not to say he does not connect with some of them, as indeed he must — it becomes clear that the Psalms are so pervasive in early modern English reading and writing practices that they oftentimes seem to fly below our radar ... unlike Hamlet which needs no more than an imagined puff of relevance to trigger a fire alarm in any context and thus to draw a crowd.

  3. Hamlin succeeds in delivering survey-like scope and detailed close analysis by dividing his book in half. The first half gives what might be called a regular academic analysis of English Psalm culture, detailing the ins and outs of the Sternhold and Hopkins phenomenon, the recurring seventeenth-century endeavour to replace the old psalter, the English quantitative response to the Psalms, and the impact of Psalm translation on early modern English verse more generally. The second half of the book contains detailed poetic case studies of the English translations and permutations of three high-profile Psalms: 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”), 51 (“Have mercy upon me, O God”), and 137 (“By the waters of Babylon”).

  4. Hamlin’s Introduction sets in play a number of evocative concepts that are characterized by what we might call a fertile indeterminacy within which creativity, interpretation and analysis can flourish. For example, Hebrew was very little understood and the psalm itself was obscure in terms of its genre: nonetheless, the Psalms were conceived of as “poems” that encompassed a marvelous diversity of forms and effectively conveyed their unchanging divine truth beyond the language barrier. Not only were they able to be linked imaginatively to Greek and Latin poetic genres, but English “translation” of the Psalms was not done from sources in the original language, nor was translation itself a properly theorized praxis in the period, and indeed the finest details of how the “translations” were actually used remain relatively unknown to us. The upshot of all this is that early modern English Psalm translation is characterized not by dutifully slavish imitation but often by dynamic originality, subtle doctoring or bizarre misprision, and Hamlin is particularly interested in it as very much an English poetic pursuit. 

  5. In Chapter 1 Hamlin gives a well-researched and readable account of the origin, content and cultural embeddedness of the “Sternhold and Hopkins” psalter with prolonged consideration of possible reasons for its extraordinary popularity. His conclusion — that “[t]he tunes are compelling, congregations enjoyed singing them, the texts were associated with the familiar tunes, and so the whole package resisted change for 150 years” (p. 50) — sounds simplistic here, but is not, for it comes at the end of a detailed argument that considers poetic features sensitively and historically. The second chapter uses Psalms 1, 22, 84, 100 and 148 as points of comparison for discussion of a number of seventeenth-century attempts (Wither, Dod, Sandys, Carew, King, The Bay Psalm Book) to replace Sternhold and Hopkins with a new psalter, or at least to offer updated translations. The defining opposition is that between Parliamentarian poet-prophet George Wither, and George Sandys, celebrated translator and a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Charles I: this is an aesthetic dichotomy which is connected by Hamlin (not unreasonably) to the emerging political divide in the period. Wither “kept his psalter deliberately simple” (p. 66) and was one of many translators who “tried to beat ‘Sternhold and Hopkins’ at their own game, using the same meters and the (by now) traditional tunes” (p. 51). Sandys, contrariwise, produced an elegant literary work, “the most highly praised English translation” after the Sidney Psalter (p. 64), which experimented with various classical meters. Neither would unseat Sternhold and Hopkins because reiteration of its popular qualities on the one hand, and elegant poetizing of the text on the other, are not compelling reasons for the mass of people to abandon a perfectly workable and culturally familiar psalter.

  6. Chapters 3 and 4 offer a fascinating and at times moderately technical discussion of English Psalm translations that present themselves as explicitly literary works. Hamlin’s metrical detail is particularly welcome in his exploration of the quantitative presentation of the Psalms. By far the most interesting feature of these chapters is the extensive space accorded the Sidney Psalter, particularly Mary Sidney’s contribution, as the stand-out expression of quantitative brilliance in English Psalm translation. Hamlin is at pains to emphasize the poetical quality of the Sidney Psalter: “a tour de force of the fashioning of English verse forms” (p. 199); “[m]any of the Sidney psalms can stand, as poems, alongside the greatest lyric accomplishments of the period” (ibid.); “[t]here is no volume of lyrics of a similar quality, variety, and coherence in English verse before Herbert’s The Temple, for which the Sidney Psalter was clearly the model” (ibid.). The discussion of biblical and classical negotiations going on in various quantitative Psalm translations — such as syncretistic terminology in Stanyhurst and Fraunce; the significance of hexameters in biblical translations; and the use of modified elegiacs by Mary Sidney for Psalm 114 — serve to refresh many enduring questions about the nature of the Renaissance itself. 

  7. Hamlin then moves to his case studies, which deal with Psalm 23 and pastoral; Psalm 51 and sin, repentance and the sacrifice of the heart; and Psalm 137 and exile — all in the context of English variations on these texts. Rather than giving here a précis of the content of this section, I want rather to comment on the effect of this change of gear in this sort of book. It is a refreshing move on Hamlin’s part, and generically decorous, to conduct these case studies in a verse-by-verse manner which self-consciously evokes biblical commentary and yet melds this mode with a strategy of close-reading (informed by an awareness of historical context, literary genres and tropes). The reading experience for me here took an unexpected and quite personal turn. Arising from this blend of exegesis and literary analysis, from this exploration of biblical metaphors and cruces as poetical tropes and opportunities for ideology and invention, was a sense of the enormous beauty and richness of the Psalms. More directly — and I say this without shame, and also without implying it was Hamlin’s intent or necessarily will or should be the experience of other readers — I felt a certain devotional impact. And if my reading of the book and its personally inflected conclusion is anywhere near the mark, I would suggest that Hamlin has demonstrated at least one way ahead for Literary Studies by delivering a post-New Historicist combination of intelligent critical analysis and heartfelt love of verse. The secularization of the West has undoubtedly driven us a long way from the Renaissance, and of course we should not be faulted for seeing the period with our own eyes. Yet, as the paradigm-making literary scholars of the mid-twentieth century pass away, and take deeply and personally inhering biblical and classical knowledge with them, it might be time for us to ramp up the effort to rediscover the meaning of biblical and classical devotion so as to maintain some contact with the foundations of our field. Importantly, the revisionist re-telling of early modern classicism and humanism is well underway and a similar rediscovery of the biblical influence is following (which is not to deny the longstanding and ongoing work of certain excellent modern scholars who have made these fields their own). Interestingly, the dazzling field of early modern women’s writing is beautifully placed to pierce and illuminate the refigured domains of classicism and biblical studies. The results are already startling and will become more so as we demonstrate our capacity to empathize not just with women writers but with the varied and alien impulses of their time.

  8. And what of Hamlet? Well, he’s still a sexier topic for publishers and readers than the Psalms, but I wager there’s less than One Degree of Separation between just about any Renaissance author and the Psalms. That’s got to count for something. So how does Hamlet feature in Hamlin’s book? I’ve decided not to say. Any of us can do Hamlet gymnastics in our sleep. Psalm gymnastics are another matter.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).