18.06.09, O'Neill, ed., Old English Psalms

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Matthew Scribner

The Medieval Review 18.06.09

O'Neill, Patrick P., ed. Old English Psalms. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 42. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 2016. pp. xxxvi, 717. ISBN: 978-0-674-50475-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Matthew Scribner
Carleton University and Algonquin College

In the tenth century, Anglo-Saxons produced two translations of the biblical Psalms, both of which survive in a lone manuscript. The first translation is a prose version of the first fifty psalms, and the second is a rendering into traditional Old English verse forms. The verse translation presumably covered all 150 psalms, but the first fifty are missing from the manuscript, where the prose psalms take their place. The resulting complete (small lacunae aside) Old English Psalter is newly edited and translated into Modern English by Patrick P. O'Neill under the title Old English Psalms for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series. This edition marks the first published Modern English translation, and as such, this facing-page book makes a new leap forward in the study of this important Old English text.

O'Neill's introduction explains the textual history of the Old English Psalms in clear and rigorous detail. Insofar as the sources allow, he also discusses the reception of the Psalms in Anglo-Saxon England. They seem to have been popular, as they were quoted in other sources and were used in churches even after the Norman Conquest. The introduction further explains the difficulties in editing and translating the Old English Psalms, including how the numbering of the psalms in medieval sources differs from the numbering in modern Bibles such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The edition has three sets of notes: some brief notes on the text, twenty-one pages of editorial notes to the texts, and a meaty seventy-two pages of notes to the translations. It also has an index and, of course, a bibliography.

Each prose psalm has its own introduction that lays out the Old English writer's preferred interpretations. As expected, these often take an allegorical turn that reads Christ into the Old Testament stories. However, these introductions also make ample reference to the stories of King David (the author of the original Psalms, according to tradition) and sometimes make a further connection to other Old Testament stories. As O'Neill emphasizes, this historical approach is rare in medieval Old Testament interpretation. At times, the Old English introduction favors one interpretation over another, which in turn influences O'Neill's interpretation when a decision is necessary. Occasionally, however, the Old English translator will simply gloss a verse with a Christological interpretation, ensuring that multiple interpretations are active at once. Frequently, the introductions draw a connection between the struggles of David and his people and Christ's suffering--which the Old English writer is at pains to blame on Jews. For my part, seeing this infamous form of anti-Semitism in an Old English text was jarring. I, like many modern readers of Old English, am more familiar with Old English heroic poems, lyric poems, contemporary chronicles, and non-biblical religious writings, none of which present much opportunity for direct anti-Semitism. The two biblical narratives that come to mind, Judith and The Dream of the Rood, respectively portray Jews as heroes or seemingly ignore them in favor of Roman soldiers. In retrospect, though, Elene has some anti-Semitic themes. Nonetheless, seeing Anglo-Saxons participate in European anti-Semitism should not have been a surprise to me, but it was, and it speaks to how O'Neill's edition and translation contributes to a more complete understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture.

The Psalms' long transmission history has few rivals in world literature. Consequently, any translator can take inspiration from many earlier versions. The selection of sources can be overwhelming, and O'Neill wisely keeps his sights on the Old English. Given that the Old English is itself directly translated from Latin, the question arises of how much Latin material to include in the notes. Some context is crucial, but too much would quickly make the scope of the book unmanageable. (And given that the Old English is already removed from the Hebrew Psalms by Greek and Latin translations, minimizing reference to the original texts is a necessity.) O'Neill says in his introduction that he reserves notes on the Latin for instances of "particular passages of difficulty," and refers readers to his previous edition of King Alfred's Old English Prose Translation of the First Fifty Psalms for more detailed information (xxiii). Personally, I would have preferred more reference to Latin in the present volume when those references could identify ambiguities and additions unique to the Old English version. In the third verse of Psalm 4, for example, O'Neill leaves gode translated as "good (and/or God)" (8-9), leading me to wonder what the Latin says. As it turns out, the Vulgate simply makes no reference to either good or God in that verse. I believe that fact would have been worth mentioning, especially given that O'Neill cites Latin in three other notes to the same psalm, anyway. But then, the line on contextual material needs to be drawn somewhere. The Old English Psalms are, after all, their own text.

O'Neill's translation succeeds in conveying the solemn and devout tone of the Old English, though it is focused, for the most part, on literal meaning. As a result, O'Neill translates the verse psalms into prose, which is undoubtedly the correct decision. The downside of this is that the prose psalms and the verse psalms sound the same in translation, but trying to maintain the sound of the Old English verse while maintaining rigorous accuracy is no easy task. (And O'Neill is by no means the first translator of the Psalms to face this difficulty; indeed, O'Neill's notes make it clear that the Old English translator struggled with the same problem reading from the Latin.) O'Neill nonetheless manages to preserve some Old English flavor, finding in Psalm 54 (NRSV 55) the opportunity to turn wider-cwyda / wearn gehyrde; / drugon thæt on burgum / dæges and nihtes into "listened to a cacophony of contradictions; they carried out that activity in cities, day and night" (198-199) thus turning an old alliteration into a new one. Similarly, the litotes in Psalm 113's evocation of idols who mud habbad, / and ne magon hwæthere / wiht hleodrian comes through in O'Neill's "have mouths, and yet cannot make the least sound" (460-461). The equivalent verse is NRSV Psalm 115 does not sound nearly as biting.

That said, no translation is ever going to escape some criticism. In Psalm 62 (NRSV 63), O'Neill translates nu hi wæran geseald / under sweordes hand as "now that they have been handed over to the sword's edge" (228-229), which needlessly eliminates the personification present in the Old English and, for that matter, the Vulgate, which has manus gladii in the same place. O'Neill also leaves Hwæt (536) out of his translation of Psalm 129.5 (NRSV 130), which does nothing to affect the meaning, but does sacrifice a bit of the Old English character. Of course, these are just quibbles. Overall, O'Neill's translation is a masterful balancing act that maintains readability, fealty, and context.

The book itself is handsome. It has a built-in fabric bookmark, which I appreciated, especially when it came to flipping to the extensive notes and back. I did notice some typos: the adjective "christian" should be capitalized on page 163, and an instance of the word "so" is accidentally bolded on page 223. But given the complexity of the text, these are just trifles.

The Old English Psalms were important texts to the Anglo-Saxons, and they can shed insight into Old English culture. O'Neill's book is the ideal way to study these psalms, and I hope that teachers and scholars of Old English literature avail themselves of it.

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