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Those Who Go Down to the Sea in Ships

a poetic paraphrase of Psalm 107:23-30

The men who go down to the sea in their ships,
Who sail on the water and pursue their trade,
The sound of the sea echoes back from their lips;
Their eyes see the wonders of what God has made.

Then God gives the word and the winds start to blow,
Releasing the waves to rise up and be free.
They mount to the heavens above all below
And fall to the depths of the fathomless sea.

The sailors’ hearts melt as the tempest bears down,
They reel to and fro, as if drunk on new wine
And helplessly cling to the mast lest they drown
While crying out to God to be spared from the brine.

The Lord hears their plea, as their cries fill the air,
By grace stills the storm and becalms every wave.
And then they are glad, for the Lord heard their prayer
And guides them to harbor, and spares them the grave.

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James A. Tweedie is a retired pastor living in Long Beach, Washington. He has written and published six novels, one collection of short stories, and three collections of poetry including Mostly Sonnets, all with Dunecrest Press. His poems have been published nationally and internationally in The Lyric, Poetry Salzburg (Austria) Review, California Quarterly, Asses of Parnassus, Lighten Up Online, Better than Starbucks, WestWard Quarterly, Society of Classical Poets, and The Chained Muse.


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7 Responses

  1. Cynthia Erlandson

    I love the musical sound of this. The rocking dactyls seem especially appropriate for the subject matter.

    Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    I was reminded of a musical version of Joseph Conrad’s novella, Typhoon.

    Nicely done, James. You’re not letting the grass grow under your feet, I see.

    Thanks for a vivid and exciting read.

    Reply
  3. James A. Tweedie

    For some reason the Biblical text was not attached to my paraphrase. Here is it (from the NKJ translation) for comparison:

    Psalm 107:23-30
    New King James Version

    Those who go down to the sea in ships,
    Who do business on great waters,
    They see the works of the Lord,
    And His wonders in the deep.

    For He commands and raises the stormy wind,
    Which lifts up the waves of the sea.
    They mount up to the heavens,
    They go down again to the depths;

    Their soul melts because of trouble.
    They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man,
    And are at their wits’ end.
    Then they cry out to the Lord in their trouble,

    And He brings them out of their distresses.
    He calms the storm so that its waves are still.
    Then they are glad because they are quiet;
    So He guides them to their desired haven.

    Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    Versifying the Psalms has had enormous attraction for poets, and you are in good company. Sir Philip Sidney did about a quarter of the entire Psalter from Latin before his premature death, when his sister Mary took over the project, producing a volume that was popular for centuries. And last time I was in France, I bought a 17th-century anthology of poetry at a train station, in which it seemed that every poet of note had rendered his or her favorite psalm. Such a heavy dose was not what I expected for my travel reading!

    Since you offered the NKJV as your working text, I looked to see how it and your version compared with my interlinear Hebrew/English. Your second stanza is marvelous, and I would say gives the feel of the Hebrew better than NKJV. The verses corresponding to your second and third stanzas read in Hebrew as if sailors necessarily commit overreach just by sailing. The most impressive phrase says that the storm swallows up their wisdom (that’s where NKJV says they are at “wit’s end” and you describe them as helpless). Awesome to do a rendering where you can be sure the original is inspired!

    Reply
  5. James A. Tweedie

    Margaret! How typical of you to go right back to the inspired source! I didn’t even think to go back to my Hebrew or Hebrew/English interlinear texts for this project. It is such a familiar psalm to me (I learned it from the Revised Standard Version which is quite literal) and just felt an urge to rework it into traditional English verse.

    The use of parallelism in Hebrew poetry (including the Book of Psalms) is unsurpassed in building thematic tension, for enriching a thought by coming at it from two different angles, and for offering internal commentary by which to more clearly understand the text. I remember translating psalms and other Old Testament texts back in my biblical Hebrew class and reveling in the etymology of words and the wonderful alliterations and word-play that is interwoven into the texts as something akin to “inside jokes” which provide internal meaning that is lost in literal translations (which often require a footnote to better explain the text).

    In my rendition of this section of Psalm 107 I tried to provide a version as close to the English translations as possible but, when forced to stray by constraints of rhythm and rhyme, to attempt to say the same thing in a different way (such as my injecting the presence of the ship’s mast into the text or reworking the parallel lines

    They see the works of the Lord,
    And His wonders in the deep

    to read

    The sound of the sea echoes back from their lips;
    Their eyes see the wonders of what God has made

    by which I added to the psalm by suggesting that the sailors are not only observers of the works of the Lord but have become inseparably entwined with them.

    Another example is my addition of the phrase “and spares them the grave” at the end, a thought that, although it isn’t explicit in the Hebrew seems to follow smoothly from what is implied in the phrase “then they were glad”– as well as providing a rhyme with the word “wave.”

    In any case, as the subtitle suggests, I approached this poem as a “paraphrase” rather than a “translation.”

    Reply
  6. Damian Robin

    Thank you James for this fine lilting poem showing the instability of life and man’s need to acquiesce to a higher power.

    And thank you and Margaret for delving into original meanings and texts. Very illuminating regarding interpretation, translating from Hebrew, and naming Bibles. Thank you both.

    One small thing I noticed :
    In “While crying out to God to be spared from the brine.”
    is it your intention to have an extra unstressed syllable to add to the desparation ? A stricter following of the dactyls would have “crying to God” or “And cry out to God”.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Sorry to be so late but just noticed your comment re “While crying” where I self-consciously conflated the word “crying” into one syllable. A bit sloppy, but it reads well when read that way out loud (which is how I test all of my poems). Your suggestion to rephrase it as “And cry out to God” is a good suggestion for improvement.

      Reply

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