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Happiness and the Psalms
By Stephen J. Harris
Old English Literature and the Old English Testament, eds. Michael Fox and Manish Sharma (Toronto, 2012)
Throughout Anglo-Saxon England, on each day of the year, at all hours of the day, thousands of men and women sang the psalms. Harried schoolchildren fumbled with their styli as they scrawled psalm verses into the hard wax of their tablets. People in the midst of profound emotion recited psalms, and during the daily liturgy and offices throughout Christendom the psalms echoed off the walls of chapels and churches, cloisters and cathedrals. If any poetry could be said to have saturated the Anglo-Saxon literate classes, it was the poetry of King David and his psalmists. It is no surprise, then, that the imagery of the psalms pervades Old English poetry. Words and phrases that were an integral part of daily prayer sound in the literary productions of those who prayed. Joseph Dyer reminds us, ‘Years of daily encounters with the prayers of the psalmist fostered a rich contextuality of associations.’
These associations included not only words but also images, later partially reconstituted in vernacular poetry. When we look for the source of an image, we may do well to look in the Old Testament, perhaps among the psalms. Patrick Wormald wrote that an ‘Old Testament model is always a likely inspiration for an image cultivated or a policy pursued.’ When we observe the same appositional and accumulative style in both Old English poetry and the psalms, we might wonder whether the songs of the scriptorium were implicitly measured against the songs of the psalter. In short, as Dyer writes, ‘it would be difficult to overestimate the power of the psalms in the lives of those who prayed and sang the Office.’ A relation between Old English literature and the psalms is felicitous since images or phrases that are found both in the psalms and in the poetry can link us to a long intellectual tradition of Christian commentary.
We can make sense of the poetry in part by making sense of the psalms. Whatever else an eadig wer might be in vernacular verse, he was primarily the figure of the first psalm: the blessed or happy man (beatus uir). Thus, when we read in Andreas that Matthew was eadig ond onmod (blessed and resolute [line 54a]), the first psalm hovers around that claim. Judith, too, is called eadig. Strangely, she is called eadig at the moment that she is threatened with rape. The poem Judith is not very clear on the subject of her happiness. However, commentary on the first psalm may help us to understand what may have been intended by the term at that moment in the poem.