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Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621)
Psalm 70
Lord, hie thee me to save;
      Lord, now to help me haste:
Shame let them surely have
      And of confusion taste,
            That hold my soul in chase.
                  Let them be forcèd back,
                  And no disgraces lack,
            That joy in my disgrace.
Back forcèd let them be
      And for a fair reward
Their own foul ruin see
      Who laugh and laugh out hard
            When I most inly moan.
                  But mirth and joy renew
                  In them thy paths ensue
            And love thy help alone.
Make them with gladness sing:
      To God be ever praise.
And fail not me to bring,
      My downcast state to raise.
            Thy speedy aid and stay
                  In thee my succour grows:
            From thee my freedom flows:
                  Lord, make no long delay.

Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.
This week, I’ve chosen a Psalm – which is, of course, the poetry anthology that is part of the Bible!  Jackie O’Ryan will read Mary Sidney Herbert’s translation of Psalm 70, which dates to the end of the 16th century, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Thank you, Jackie.
This poem is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there’s its author. Mary Sidney was born in 1561. Upon her marriage at the age of 16, she became the Countess of Pembroke and one of the wealthiest and most influential women of her time. With her wealth and status, Mary Sidney had access to education which was extremely rare for women of her time. She was exceptionally well read, and fluent in French, Italian, and Latin. Her poetry was circulated widely among her friends.

Mary’s older brother was the poet Sir Philip Sidney. When Philip died at the young age of 31, Mary (just 25 years old at the time) became his literary executor and completed his unfinished translation of the book of Psalms. She not only edited her brother’s work on the first 43 psalms, but translated the remaining 107 psalms herself. It is an extraordinary achievement. Every one of the psalms is in a unique meter and rhyme scheme, some of which had never been attempted in English before. The translation had a significant impact on English poetry. John Donne called it “the highest matter in the noblest form,” and said of the Sidneys: “they tell us why, and teach us how to sing.”

And then there’s the Psalm itself.  The Book of Psalms is an anthology, a hymnal, if you will—a collection of prayers and hymns which were used in worship at various times during the year. The Psalms include a huge range of moods, from festive joy to lament. There are prayers of repentance, prayers of trust and confidence in God, and prayers of praise.

Psalm 70 is a lament. It begins with an urgent prayer for help:  “Lord, hie thee me to save” – “now to help me haste.” (In parentheses, these lines have a significant place in the liturgy—they are used at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Hours – “O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”) What might surprise us is where the Psalm goes from there. The Psalmist asks God to punish enemies – “Let them be forced back / And no disgraces lack, / That joy in my disgrace”; “For a fair reward / Their own foul ruin see / Who laugh and laugh out hard / When I most inly moan.” The Psalmist asks that those who mock and pursue him be punished with shame, disgrace, and ruin.

Typical of the laments in the Book of Psalms, the text doesn’t stay in this place of imprecation, but moves in a new direction, as the psalmist asks God’s blessing on those who trust in God: “mirth and joy renew / In them thy paths ensue”; “make them with gladness sing.” The Psalm ends with an expression of hope and a renewal of the speaker’s plea for help. “Fail not… / My downcast state to raise… Lord, make no long delay.”
It’s easy for us to get distracted by the imprecations in Psalm 70 and other psalms of lament—wait, we’re not supposed to be asking God to punish our enemies, are we?! I think the more important thing to recognize here is the honesty of this prayer. The Psalmist doesn’t hold back, but brings everything to God—including feelings of resentment, abandonment, and betrayal. When we pray, whether on our own or as a community, I think we sometimes feel like we need to be on our best behavior, burying our resentments, our anger, our frustration, or our fear. The Psalms teach us a different way to pray: they urge us simply to be ourselves with God, and to say what’s on our mind and heart. They also remind us to keep coming back to the foundation of our prayer, trust in God, and God’s time: “In thee my succour grows: / From thee my freedom flows: / Lord, make no long delay.”
Read a contemporary Catholic translation of Psalm 70 from the Revised Grail Edition.
Read the King James version of Psalm 70, and explore many other translations:



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