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Psalm the 137th: paraphras'd to the 7th: Verse

Proud Babilon, thou saw’st us weep,
            Euphrates, as he past along
Saw on his banks, the sacred throng
            A heavy, Solemn mourning keep,
Sad Captives, to thy Sons, and thee,                             5  
When nothing, but our tears were free.

A Song of Sion, they require,
            And from the neighb’ring trees, to take
Each man, his dumb, neglected Lyre,
            And chearfull sounds on them awake;          10   
But chearfull sounds, the strings refuse,
Nor will their Masters greifs, abuse. 

How! can we Lord, thy Praise proclaim,
            Here, in a strange, unhallow’d Land,
Least we provoke them, to Blaspheme                     15  
            A name, they do not understand,
And with rent garments, that deplore
Above, what e’re we felt, before.

But thou Jersualem, so dear,
            If thy lov’d Immage, e’re depart,                   20      
Or I, forgett thy suff’rings here,
            Lett my right hand, forgett her Art, 
My tongue, her vocal gift resign,
And Sacred verse, no more be mine.

About the poem

Finch wrote many devotional lyrics and several paraphrases of scripture. Psalm 137, of which this poem is a paraphrase, is an expression of grief over the Babylonian Captivity. Hannibal Hamlin calls Psalm 137 a “powerful resource for those who felt alienated and oppressed,” and it became “the quintessential psalm of the Renaissance and the Reformation” (Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004], 219). During the Interregnum, exiled Royalists used the psalm, but the exile it mourns was often taken throughout the early modern period to denote a spiritual condition (Hamlin 219). Many supporters of James II after the revolution of 1688 compared themselves with the Israelites in exile, even if the Euphrates they sat beside was most likely the Thames. Hamlin’s study of the psalm’s translation history (218-252) suggests Finch might have seen dozens of versions, many of which elaborated on the biblical text and incorporated musical allusions and puns. Most previous versions included verses 7-9, a vengeful curse on future Babylonian children.

Finch calls her poem a paraphrase, in Dryden’s sense of a “translation with latitude” (see Stuart Gillespie and David Hopkins, eds., The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English 3: 1660-1790 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], 56). Unlike contemporaries who also paraphrased this psalm, she refrains from characterizing the psalmist’s enemies. Instead, Finch transforms the psalmist’s question, “How shall we sing the LORDS song: in a strange land?” (137: 4, KJV) into the assertion that the Israelites’ lyres, extensions of the captives, refuse to insult their owners by producing cheerful sounds. Finch follows the precedent of earlier poets, who had blended the biblical image of the inspired David, playing his harp, with the classical myth of Orpheus, inspired by the muses, playing his lyre (Hamlin 227). She adds details such as the captives’ “rent garments” (17) and defines the psalmist’s tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth (as found in KJV) as the loss of the “vocal gift” to compose “Sacred verse” (lines 23-24). Finch and her contemporaries could have known iconographical representations of the Babylonian Captivity, including this example from Francis Quarles’s Emblems; with the Hieroglyphicks, Book 4. London, 1696, p. 244 (from the Rare book & Special Collections Library of the Library of the University of Illinois) show image.

Dates and Sources

The composition date for this poem is unknown although internal evidence suggests it may have been written during or after the revolution, that is, in late 1688 or 1689. The latest possible date of composition is c. 1696, based on its first printing in Miscellanea Sacra (1696). Surviving copies of the poem appear in these sources known to have been supervised by either Anne Finch or her husband Heneage Finch: the octavo MS “Poems on Several Subjects Written by Ardelia” (Northamptonshire Record Office, call number FH 283); the folio MS “Miscellany Poems with Two Plays by Ardelia” (Folger Shakespeare Library, call number Nb3); and Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions (London, 1713). The copy-text used here is “Miscellany Poems with Two Plays by Ardelia.” The transcription follows these conventions: i/j and u/v are altered to reflect modern use, superscript letters and numbers are lowered, and abbreviations no longer current are expanded.