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THE translation of certain Psalms into English verse (the only verses certainly of Bacon's making that have come down to us, and probably with one or two slight exceptions the only verses he ever attempted,) was made, as the collection of Apophthegms also was, during a fit of sickness in 1624. Had it been merely composed, fairly copied, and presented with a grateful and graceful dedication to his friend George Herbert, there would have been nothing in the matter to call for explanation. A full mind, accustomed to work under the excitement of an eager temperament and the consciousness of great purposes unaccomplished and the time fast approaching when no man can work, cannot find rest in inaction; but only in some other mode of activity, which may occupy without exciting or too deeply engaging it. For this purpose no exercises can be better than the turning over and reviewing of the miscellaneous stores of the memory, and the mechanical process of arranging words in metre.
But for the unquiet heart and brain
A use in measured language lies:
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
Bacon however not only composed these two little works, but published them': a fact which, considering how little he had cared to publish during the first sixty years of his life, and how many things of weightier character and more careful workmanship he had then by him in his cabinet, (including the entire contents of the Miscellany works and the Resuscitatio,) is somewhat remarkable. My own conjecture is, that things of more serious import he did not like to publish in an imperfect shape as long as he could hope to perfect them, but that he owed money to his
In December 1624. See Court and Times of James L., ii. p. 486.
printer and bookseller, and if such trifles as these would help to pay it, he had no objection to their being used for the purpose.
In compositions upon which a man would have thought it a culpable waste of time to bestow any serious labour, it would be idle to seek either for indications of his taste or for a measure of his powers. And yet as Bacon could not have gone on turning so many of the Psalms into verse without thinking a good deal about the way in which it should be done, there is some interest in watching his progress. At first he seems to have tried to keep close to the text: adding no more than the necessities of metre required. His two first experiments appear to be done on this principle, and the effect is flat enough. I fancy too that he felt it to be so. For as he advances he falls more and more into a kind of paraphrase; in which the inevitable loss of lyric fire and force is in some degree compensated by the development of meanings which are implied or suggested by the original, but not so as to strike the imagination of a modern reader; so that the translation serves for a kind of poetical commentary; and, though far from representing the effect of the original in itself, holds up a light to read it by. For myself at least I may say that, deeply pathetic as the opening of the 137th psalm always seemed to me, I have found it much more affecting since I read Bacon's paraphrase of it.
"By the waters of Babylon we sat down, and wept when we remembered Sion. As for our harps, we hanged them up upon the trees that are therein. For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody in our heaviness," &c.
When as we sate, all sad and desolate,
By Babylon upon the river's side,
Eased from the tasks which in our captive state
We were enforced daily to abide,
Our harps we had brought with us to the field,
But soon we found we fail'd of our account:
Did cause afresh our wounds to bleed again;
As for our harps, since sorrow struck them dumb,
We hang'd them on the willow trees were near, &c.
To those who heard the psalm sung, a word was enough to bring the whole scene with all its pathetic circumstances to the mind; the short respite from servile toil, the recurrence of the thoughts to Sion, and the overpowering recollections awakened by the melody. But to us they are not obvious enough to make description superfluous; and I doubt whether there are many readers who fully realise the situation. All poetry, but more especially lyrical poetry, requires many things to be translated besides the words, before it can bear flower and fruit in another language and another age. And it is possible that if an attempt were made to translate the Psalms of David on this principle, it might not end (as almost all attempts have ended hitherto) in the degradation of them out of very rich prose into very poor
Of these verses of Bacon's it has been usual to speak not only as a failure, but as a ridiculous failure: a censure in which I cannot concur. An unpractised versifier, who will not take time and trouble about the work, must of course leave many bad verses: for poetic feeling and imagination, though they will dislike a wrong word, will not of themselves suggest a right one that will suit metre and rhyme: and it would be easy to quote from the few pages that follow, not only many bad lines, but many poor stanzas. But in a work that is executed carelessly or hastily, we must look at the best parts, and not at the worst, for signs of what a man can do. And taking this test, I should myself infer from this sample that Bacon had all the natural faculties which a poet wants: a fine ear for metre, a fine feeling for imaginative effect in words, and a vein of poetic passion.
Thou carriest man away as with a tide;
Then down swim all his thoughts that mounted high;
Or as the grass, that cannot term obtain
The thought in the second line could not well be fitted with imagery words and rhythm more apt and imaginative; and there is a tenderness of expression in the concluding couplet which comes manifestly out of a heart in sensitive sympathy with nature, and fully capable of the poet's faith
that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.