Love Song to a Psalter

Here’s a section from the manuscript. The poem stays in, but I’ve trimmed away most of the supporting material…


People who are familiar with the Bible are usually aware of the rather scandalous contents of the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs): it’s erotic love poetry narrating an unnamed woman’s quest for her lover, King Solomon. Clearly some of the more prudish interpreters in the Christian tradition have sought to downplay the literal sense of the text and have interpreted it in a spiritual direction. Thus, to some it is the soul’s quest for God, or perhaps the personified Church’s quest for God, or the Blessed Virgin Mary’s quest for God. And, thanks to the power of multi-level reading, at can be all three at the same time!

But readers formed in a modern Protestant perspective may not know that there is a complementary style of lyrics tucked away in the Wisdom Literature where a man is portrayed questing and lusting after a woman. While there are references and early forms of it in the books of Proverbs and Job, it reaches its apex in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach). To medieval readers, these two books were simply “Bible” but Protestant reformers placed them in the Apocrypha, a section of literature dating from between the Old and New Testaments, and even most faithful Bible readers never read them.

In these poems, the sage is questing after wisdom, personified as a beautiful woman. She is to be preferred above all else, and he will spend his time, effort, and wealth in order to woo her. There is a long section from chapter 6 to 9 in the Wisdom of Solomon that recounts Solomon’s wooing of Lady Wisdom in terms parallel (although not as explicit) as the Song of Solomon:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. . . . I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction. I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works. (Wis 6:12–14; 7:8–14; 8:2–4)

Needless to say, monks were quite familiar with these texts and often cast themselves in this same role: forsaking all else in search of wisdom and in service to the Gospel.

These wisdom lyrics are the necessary context for a poem written by an old monk at the furthest range of the time period we are considering. The Irish monk Mael Isu O Brolchain died in 1086 in a monastery in Armagh having received the title “chief sage of Ireland.” At some point, he wrote a poem which for many years was assumed to be about an elderly nun in a kind of ascetic marriage. However, James Carney, a specialist in medieval Irish poetry, recognized the true object of the poet’s affections:

The problem lay upon my mind for many years before the easy and natural solution suggested itself: it was a poem written by a religious in his old age to an old and tattered copy of the Psalms which had been his first lesson book. The solution, which has found general acceptance by scholars, emerged quite clearly when I noted that in early Ireland a boy destined for the Church began his education at the age of seven, and that the Psalter, from which he learned Latin, reading, singing and religion , was his first lesson book. This book which he had used in his youth in its virgin freshness passed through four generations of young scholars before by some chance it came back into the old priest’s hands again.[1]

We have talked at some length in these two chapters about the Psalter and about when and how a student would have encountered it. What this poem reveals, though, is what they felt about it. Here, with the sages’ songs to Lady Wisdom echoing in our heads, we see the thoughts of an old man taking in his hands again the book of his youth:

 

Crinóc, lady of measured melody,

not young, but with modest maiden mind,

together once in Niall’s northern land

we slept, we two, as man and womankind.

 

You came and slept with me for that first time,

skilled wise amazon annihilating fears

and I a fresh-faced boy, not bent as now,

a gentle lad of seven melodious years.

 

There we were then on that firm Irish earth

Desirous, but in pure and mystic sense;

Burning with love my flesh, still free from fault

As fool of God in smitten innocence.

 

Your counsel is ever there to hand,

we choose it, following you in everything:

love of your word is the best of loves,

our gentle conversation with the King

 

Guiltless you are of any sin with man,

Fair is your name, and bright, and without stain,

Although I know that when you went from me

Each in his turn, four lay where I had lain.

 

And now you come, your final pilgrimage,

Wearied with toil and travel, grimed with dust,

Wise still but body not immaculate:

Time it is that ravished you, not lust.

 

Again I offer you a faultless love,

A love unfettered for which surely we

Will not be punished in the depths of hell

But together ever walk in piety.

 

Seeking the presence of elusive God

wandering we stray, but the way is found,

following the mighty melodies that with you

throughout the pathways of the world resound.

 

Not ever silent, you bring the word of God

to all who in the present world abide,

and then through you, through finest mesh,

man’s earnest prayer to God is purified.

 

May the King give us beauty back again

Who ever did his will with eager mind,

May he look on us with eagerness and love,

Our old and perished bodies left behind.[2]

 

In Mael Isu’s poem, Lady Wisdom—the beautiful, the desirable, the beloved—is none other than the Psalter itself. Images of fleshly intimacy are cooled with a spiritual admonition, but the monk paints with exquisite colors a lover who initiates him into the arts of love and directs him to ultimate love in God: the Psalter is his Diotima.

Of course, this is one look at the Psalter from the far end of the learning process. Undoubtedly other young Irish lads did not feel this way while slowly learning the text. The second earliest evidence of the Psalms we have in Ireland is a student’s tablet, wooden boards covered with a layer of wax, into which has been scratched with a stylus Psalms 29-31 in the Gallican translation. This artifact is known as the Springmont Bog Tablets because that is where they were recovered. While we will never know how they came to be there, I like to imagine a particularly willful student hurling his tablet into the bog in a fit of pique after a difficult time with his lesson!

[1] James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. xxviii.

[2] Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, p. 75-79.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *