Songs of Comfort

May 6, 2020 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

What to read during a pandemic?  Since the Book of Psalms (Sefer Tehilim) is the traditional Jewish prescription for times of crisis, I opted for a new historical novel about the psalms, Lux by British poet Elizabeth Cook, a wise and wonderful work.

Lux takes place partly in the biblical world of King David and partly in the 16th Century English court of Henry VIII. What links the two periods are the psalms. In biblical times, King David composes them. And in the Tudor king’s era, poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) translates them into English. There are thematic links too – rulers who abuse power, adultery, murder, and desire. King David wants Bathsheba, and Henry VIII wants Anne Boleyn.

A little about Psalms

The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 poetic prayers contained within the Writings (Kethuvim) portion of the Hebrew Bible. The English word “psalms” derives from the Greek word psalmos, which in turn translates the Hebrew mizmor, “a song with the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.” Jewish tradition attributes the authorship of Psalms to King David, described in the Bible as a poet, the player of a stringed instrument, and “the sweet singer of Israel.” Modern scholars reject this blanket attribution, although some say that some of the psalms are ancient enough to have been composed by David.

Biblical and Tudor Characters

Lux begins by retelling the David story set forth in the biblical books of Samuel. When the prophet Nathan accuses David of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, David is anguished and contrite. In Lux, he flees the royal household, takes refuge in a cave and there, fasting and reflecting, begins to compose seven psalms.

Centuries later, these seven psalms and David’s story resonate with Thomas Wyatt, a courtier to Henry VIII. Henry, musically talented, identifies with King David, even purchasing for court display exquisite tapestries depicting David’s life. But the haughty King Henry is no David; when Henry sets himself above the law, he closes his ears to criticism and never repents. To Lux’s Wyatt, Henry resembles the boorish ogre-giant Goliath more than he does David.

Defying the Pope, King Henry breaks with the Catholic Church to divorce his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. He adores Anne and, moreover, is desperate for a male heir. Over time, Henry’s ardor cools, especially when Anne fails to produce the longed-for son. The King accuses Anne of adultery. She is beheaded, along with five supposed lovers, leaving Henry free to marry a third wife (he would have six in all).

During King Henry’s tumultuous reign, Wyatt is imprisoned twice on dubious charges of treason, but later released. Although Wyatt’s compositions are undated, Lux imagines that it is during these dark periods of confinement that Wyatt, alone and afraid, creates English paraphrases of the Latin versions of seven psalms. As Lux’s Wyatt ponders the psalms, he feels connected to the countless others who have found comfort in them.

A Psalm for a Pandemic

One psalm meaningful to Wyatt was Psalm 130. This psalm famously begins, “Out of the depths I call You, O Lord.” According to biblical scholar Robert Alter, “the depths” allude to the depths of the sea, suggesting the most profound despair.

As the verses continue, the psalmist, desperate for deliverance, feels a kinship with night watchmen eagerly peering into the darkness for the first flicker of dawn. Hidden in our homes, fighting fear, we too urgently look for hints of light and hope – a treatment, a vaccine, a passing of the plague.