Among the ancient poets the Bible’s King David ranks as a personal favourite. He might not have quite the rhythm and mysticism of Rumi, but since I know neither Persian nor Hebrew a comparison is probably unfair.
In any case, I prefer the old Afrikaans versions to any English translations, King James Bible included. But take this as an example, from Psalm 139:
O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways…
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me…
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well…
Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
(HERE, U deurgrond en ken my.
U ken my sit en my opstaan; U verstaan van ver my gedagte.
U deurvors my gaan en my lê, en U is met al my weë goed bekend…
Neem ek die vleuels van die dageraad, gaan ek by die uiteinde van die see woon,
ook daar sou u hand my lei en u regterhand my vashou.
En as ek sê: Mag tog net die duisternis my oorval en die lig nag wees tot my beskutting,
dan is selfs die duisternis vir U nie donker nie, en die nag gee lig soos die dag, die duisternis is soos die lig…
Ek loof U, omdat ek so vreeslik wonderbaar is; wonderbaar is u werke! En my siel weet dit alte goed…
Deurgrond my, o God, en ken my hart; toets my en ken my gedagtes;
en kyk of daar by my ‘n weg is van smart, en lei my op die ewige weg!
Ou Afrikaanse Vertaling 1933)
Besides his poetry and psalms, there is another side to this shepherd king that appeals to me – his near-arrogant disregard for the accepted standards of the time. I do not mean his adultery or murder plans, of course, or his ambition to build a marvelous temple. What I really like about David is his barefoot attitude to life.
Still only a shepherd boy, he is faced with the prospect of single combat with the Philistine giant Goliath. King Saul arms David with his own armour, which includes a bronze helmet, a coat of mail and a sword. But David is not used to such encumbrances, so he throws them off. He takes instead only his staff, a slingshot and five pebbles from the stream. And proceeds to kill the giant.
Later in his life, now a respected and feared warrior and king, David dances “with all his might” before the ark of the Lord, clad only in a loincloth.
Maybe this feeling of kinship with David stems from a childhood of running around barefoot, swimming naked in the mountain streams, riding a horse bareback or standing on the back of a truck with the wind in your hair. It was a life unfettered by rules and regulations or health and safety laws.
These days I often feel like David in Saul’s armour and I bet it looks like this:
It would be easy and satisfying to make a wild assumption about poetry (art) thriving in an atmosphere unencumbered by human and social laws. But it would be far from the truth. Many great works of art were completed in, even inspired by, situations of constriction, imprisonment or fear of retribution (Neruda, Solzhenitsyn, Breyten Breytenbach, Paul Klee, to name but a few).
Exterior circumstances, whether free or restrictive, can never keep a good poem down. It is the soul alone that needs to be free.