Psalm Culture in the English Renaissance: Readings of Psalm 137 by Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and Others (*)

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1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

4. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

5. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

7. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

8. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

9. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (1)

The Reformation opened the door to both vernacular translation and individual interpretation of the Bible, and one of the immediate and lasting results was a widespread "psalm culture," in which poets, theologians, and devoted dilettantes produced hundreds of translations, paraphrases, and adaptations of the psalms, as well as meditations, sermons, and commentaries. Countless others turned to the psalms for inspiration, consolation, entertainment, and edification, in the spirit of Richard Hooker's question, "What is there necessarie for man to know which the Psalmes are not able to teach?" (12) No book was read in this period more widely or deeply than the Bible, and of the many biblical books, none was better known or more influential than the Psalms, especially for poets, since, as Hooker put it, "The choice and flower of all thinges profitable in other bookes [of scripture] the psalmes doe expresse, by reason of that poetical1 forme wherewith they are written." (3) The entire Psalter was read through each month in the worship services of the English Church, at which, by order of the Elizabethan Act of Uniformity (1559), attendance was compulsory. Of the Psalms, none was more widely read, quoted, translated, paraphrased, and alluded to than Psalm 137.

The history of the interpretation of this biblical lyric -- here unavoidably partial, since the influence of the psalm was confined by neither national nor period boundaries (4) -- provides a case study of the ways in which the Bible was made meaningful to its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers, or rather of the ways in which they, many of them writers, made it meaningful by a process of creative interpretation analogous to the imaginative commentaries of Jewish Midrash. James Kugel has recently argued that to understand a biblical culture (and this holds true of post-Reformation England as of ancient Israel) scholars must read not just the Bible, the relatively stable literary document that sits on the desk or library shelf, but the "interpreted Bible," the Bible as it was read, understood, and applied by its early readers. (5) To some extent, this "interpreted Bible" remains as inaccessible as its long-dead interpreters, but some of these interpreters were also writers of translations, paraphrases, commentaries, sermons, or allusive poems and plays. In these documents their interpretations survive. By gathering enough of them together, and focusing on one short but crucial biblical text, it is possible to reconstruct if not exactly a history then at least an anthology of informative anecdotes that comes close to recapturing the "interpreted Psalm 137."


"By the waters of Babylon we sat downe and weapte." (6)

This opening verse marks Psalm 137 as a lament, expressing the grief of the Israelites over the fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E., after they were led away captive to Babylon, The riverside setting of the psalm was felt to be appropriate to its subject, and Renaissance translators often exploited the close connection between the two streams of water, the river and the tears of the weeping Jews. …