Selected Poem - 'The 23d Psalme'

Within George Herbert's 'The Temple', this poem is of particular interest. It is the only metrical psalm. It is also one of only two verses in the whole collection set in Common Metre (CM). And although Herbert's poems make a great many allusions to the Bible, both direct and indirect, this is the only one in which he 'translates' a complete passage of text.

'The 23d Psalme'

THe God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grasse,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently passe:
In both I have the best.

Or if I stray, he doth convert
And bring my minde in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.

Yea, in death's shadie black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
To guide, thy staff to bear.

Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine,
Ev’n in my enemies sight:
My head with oyl, my cup with wine
Runnes over day and night.

Surely thy sweet and wondrous love
Shall measure all my dayes;
And as it never shall remove,
So neither shall my praise.

Commentary

In this poem Herbert gives us an original interpretation of the very popular and well known psalm about the good shepherd. There are some phrases and thoughts in Herbert’s poem that had never appeared in previous metrical versions of the psalm.  In today’s parlance, Herbert put his own ‘spin’ on the psalmist’s words.

For example, his opening line ‘The God of love my shepherd is’, introduces for the first time the word love – it is an invention, not a translation, because it appears nowhere in the Hebrew, Greek or Latin originals.  The concept of the love of God is a common thread that runs all through ‘The Temple’. What Herbert is doing here is to mould the psalm to fit his theme. He is also putting the poem firmly in a New Testament setting, reflecting the words in St. John’s gospel that ‘God is love’.

While ‘tender grasse’ and ‘streams that gently passe’ certainly draw on earlier metrical versions, Herbert adds the new idea ‘in both I have the best’.  This is personalising his poem in a way that is entirely different in tone from previous interpretations. It is a particularly joyous phrase that seems to emphasise how much his own life is enriched by following, indeed devoting his life to, the good shepherd

 

'Or if I stray’ is a Herbert invention, and so is the phrase ‘bring my mind in frame’. Not for him the ‘paths of righteousness’ – as usual, he is more concerned with his own relationship with God, and yet another original phrase ‘all this not for my desert’ is a typical George Herbert reflection on his own unworthiness and on the fact that he is loved by God despite his shortcomings.  This is a concept entirely absent both from previous translations of the psalm and any other metrical version.

In the fifth stanza there is one very significant new introduction. Yes, Herbert’s cup ‘runneth over’ but in his case it is specifically ‘with wine’. Again, this is an innovation and quite typical – Herbert deliberately makes a reference to the Eucharist in order to stress that his version of the psalm is written around and reflects his New Testament beliefs.

In drawing all this together, Herbert ignores ‘goodness and mercy’ and goes back to his old, all embracing theme of ‘sweet and wondrous love’ which, rather than passively following him, ‘measures all his days’.  In other words, he adopts a much more active concept which places on him the lifelong responsibility to acknowledge and be grateful for the love of God, which never fails and, as Herbert promises in his final flourish ‘so neither shall my praise’. It probably does mean that he will ‘dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’ but he doesn’t feel the need to say so.

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