By the rivers of Babylon
The middle of Lent is approaching, exciting because it’s the Pink Sunday in the middle of so much purple, because it’s Mothering Sunday, because it’s the one that starts by encouraging us to rejoice; and also it has Psalm 136/137 as its responsorial Psalm for this year, Year B.
This has to be one of the best song lyrics ever written. It’s a good length (four verses); it’s regular without being repetitive or boring; it’s poignant, but not simply miserable; and it’s beautiful. It’s also elegant, witty and self-reflexive: it is a song written about the impossibility of writing a song. It talks about the impossibility of singing, while singing.
The two verses we leave out
There are two more verses, which are usually omitted in performance, as you might say. The first one is a curse against those who attacked Jerusalem, to pull it down; the second amplifies the curse and warns Babylon that vengeance is coming, climaxing in a truly horrific image of the child of the guilty man being seized and dashed against the rock. I’m not going to speculate about whether these verses are part of the original psalm, as I don’t have the linguistic tools or the expertise. I would just say that this was written in a time very different and remote from our own, in a culture where cursing your enemies and seeking violent vengeance was accepted, expected and even virtuous. Jesus showed a different way, for which we are deeply grateful. But you can’t edit bits out of a historic text just because you don’t like them. However, you can choose which bits to use in the liturgy, so it’s fair enough to stop after the four verses we have for Sunday.
Unusual shape for a psalm
The form is really unusual. It has five short lines to each verse, and the UK Response has such a strong ternary movement that it is written as three lines in the Missal (I think this is unique among the psalms). The Response has an exclamation mark, which is again unusual, but intended to show strong feeling (which, as the words are a self-curse, is also arresting). The line of the verses looks short, but in fact it rolls on like a great wave, with the parallelism (‘our captors, for songs; our oppressors, for joy’) that is so strong a feature of the psalms here deepening the feeling and accumulating it until the wave breaks into the response. It reminds me of the movement of the lines in ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ when you suddenly realise that each seven-line stanza is only one sentence (a wonderful piece of hymn translation).
It’s a perfect lyric because it is attractive in both shape and content, and you can see immediately why so many people have wanted to set it to music. Presumably some are attracted more by the form than the matter, and vice versa, but the whole is irresistible to musicians. From Palestrina to Don Maclean, from Victoria to Boney M, it calls out to be set to a good tune, and the tune we make never fulfils all our aspirations, so we have to keep trying.
Singing a sad song
Unlike many psalms, though, it is only rarely used in the liturgy (this is its one outing as a Sunday psalm, so only once every three years). I think this is because it is painful to sing. It is a lament. Crucially, it is in the past tense, so we are looking back at past rather than undergoing present suffering, and I think this is because it would be unbearable if it were in the present tense. As well as a lament, it is a prayer for survival. We are reminded of the Jewish orchestra in Terezin concentration camp. Singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land has been a part of the Jewish experience for centuries. As it says in the Book of Tobit,’I give him thanks in the land of my captivity'(ch 13). The paradox of making a song to renounce music is itself comforting. If we were not able to look back at the experience from a better place, we would not be able to address it at all.
Setting the scene : water and trees
The words are immediately gripping, and we identify with them so simply that it’s easy to miss how clever they are. ‘By the (rivers or waters) of Babylon/there we sat and wept, remembering Zion’, and we are immediately there in the story, remembering, or imagining, if we are lucky, how it feels to be desolate. The waters of Babylon remind the psalmist of the beloved and blessed river Jordan, but the setting is also somewhere which should be a place of pleasant repose: ‘near restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit’ (Psalm 22/23) and every locus amoenus has a water feature. River banks are green and pleasant places.
Here are also trees, and it was only when I came to think about this that I realised that I think of them as weeping (of course) willows, because that’s what I associate with rivers. These are poplars, because that’s what grows in the Holy Land, but apparently ones that look like willows, according to the Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible. Job has willows by the stream (40, v.22) which are also translated as poplars. It seems that foreign tree names are as tricky to translate as exact species of fish. The US translation has aspens. When I was little, reading Anne of Green Gables in an English edition, one of the later volumes was called Anne of Windy Willows. I felt cheated to discover it was Anne of Windy Poplars in the US and Canada, but I reckon this is another case of the same overlap.
The trees are where the harps are hung….and left behind. This is a total renunciation of music, and goes with the awful self-curses which make up the Response. Remember, this is in a culture where every joyful event, every victory, is marked by singing a new song. Here though, my tongue should cleave (CAN cling) to my mouth, I should be unable ever to sing or even speak, and my right hand, the one I use to play, should wither and be of no further use. I shall not need my harp, so I hang it on a tree (I don’t destroy it, because others might be able to use it) and I leave it behind. Rivers mark borders as well as resting places.
Not silence but silenced
The idea of silencing people is a terrifyingly powerful act. That is why the protests where people sew up their mouths are especially horrific. Even a taped mouth produces a visceral fear in the onlooker. It seems even worse than gagging, because it obliterates the means of communication (remember that bit in The Matrix, where Neo’s mouth is removed). Taking away someone’s voice is a sign of complete hostile power (the legend of Philomela, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the Church’s attitude to female voices singing or speaking until very lately). This is why speech therapists are so important, and why what they do has so much impact.
What had happened before the psalm was written
The link between the First Reading and the chosen psalm this week is particularly clear. The first reading tells the history of the destruction of the Temple and the whole of Jerusalem, with Nebuchadnezzar carrying the survivors off to Babylon and into captivity, but ends on a note of hope as Cyrus, in a voice like a bugle, says that God has ordered the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem. He continues,’Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him! Let him go up.’ This would truly be a situation full of joy, and therefore, naturally, songs of joy. ‘I will come to the altar of God, the God of my joy. My redeemer, I will thank you on the harp, O God, my God’ (Ps 42/43).
Jerusalem the other character in the story
Zion or Jerusalem is lovingly named in every verse, in the context of remembering, not forgetting, or singing. The song itself does what it is talking about not being able to do, and the tenses move from a simple dreadful past (sat and wept, hung up our harps) to a past conditional (how could we sing) and then pivots towards the future: ‘if I forget…if I prize not Jerusalem’. The psalmist moves from renunciation to a determination to keep the song going, and prays only for the physical capacity to do so, for the memory to stay green. Like Henley’s Invictus, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, who specifically rejects ‘eternal silence’, this perfect lyric is a testimony to the unquenchable human spirit, so it never goes out of fashion. From the ashes of desolation arises a strong determination never to give up, never to stop singing.
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