Thomas Fairfax, ‘Psalm 42’ (1650s): From Politics to Poetry

I’ve chosen something a bit different for my ‘lockdown poem’ – an unexceptional translation of a Psalm by a man not noted for his poetical achievements:

Thomas Fairfax, ‘Psalm 42’ 

Like as the Hart that, hotly chased,
The water brooks do panting seek,
So doth my soul with sighing waste
Till God my Saviour it doth meet.

For God, the living God, my soul
In ardent thirstings pines away,
And longing thoughts about it roll,
To come before him I shall know the day.

For day & night my meat hath been
Half broken sights in salt tears sod
Whilst wicked men do proudly deem
Me quit for sake of my God.

When to my thoughts these things do come,
How sadly doth my soul deject
Who gladly once to thy Temple run
With multitudes thy praises there t’erect.

Why art thou then cast down my soul,
And frettest thus with in my breast?
To praise thy God yet be thou bold
His countenance shall give thee rest.

Lord what soul grief I have thou knows,
Yet still remember thee I will,
From land where fertile Jordan flows,
And top of Herman’s shady Hill.

When deep on deep doth loudly call,
Thine aqueducts their streams send out;
So on me doth thy billows fall
And waves encompass me about.

Yet will the Lord command for me
His kindness in the daytime there,
And in the night his songs shall be
The subject of my thankful praise.

Then will I say to God my rock:
In sadness thus why doe I go?
Why hast thou me quite forgot
Whilst I’m oppressed of my foe?

Reproach & scorn they on me lay,
As swords into my bowels thrust,
Whilst unto me they daily say:
Where is the god in which thou trusts?

But why art thou cast down my soul,
And thus disquieted in my breast?
To praise thy God yet be thou bold
His countenance shall give the rest.

(1650s)

What does Thomas Fairfax’s translation of Psalm 42 have to do with the COVID-19 lockdown? And why, of all the possible poems I could have chosen – particularly at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week – did I select this one?

It helps to know a little about who Thomas Fairfax was. In mid-seventeenth century England, and well beyond, pretty much everyone knew him by reputation: he was, as John Milton put it, ‘Fairfax, whose name in armes through Europe rings / Filling each mouth with envy, or with praise’ (Sonnet XV’, 1648). This was Thomas, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron, commander-in-chief of the New Model Army during the English Civil War – a Parliamentarian at least as important as Oliver Cromwell until the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Although on the winning side of the Civil War, ideological differences led Fairfax into political, social, and geographical isolation in the 1650s. He refused to sign the King’s death warrant, and, when in 1650 the Council of State determined to send an army into Scotland against the Covenanters, he resigned his commission. As Cromwell began his rise to the position of Lord Protector (a title that he took on in December 1653), Fairfax maintained a position of political retreat at his Yorkshire estates of Denton and Nun Appleton.

Although not in ‘lockdown’, Fairfax was aware of the need to keep a low profile. Some had seen him as the natural choice to lead the country after the regicide; others had feared such an outcome. The pamphleteer Marchmont Nedham, for example, stoked those fears in early December 1648: in his Royalist pamphlet Mercurius Pragmaticus, he recorded that, when Fairfax arrived in Whitehall in December 1648, he had done so ‘as if he meant to King it, and brought along with him 4. Regiments of Foote; part of which became Courtiers’. Although Fairfax left London after his retirement, it is unsurprising that Cromwell remained conscious of the potential threat he posed, since Yorkshire was the county in which Fairfax had distinguished himself in so many successful military campaigns. That Cromwell continued to regard Fairfax as a threat throughout the Interregnum is evidenced by the fact that he had his letters intercepted by his spymaster, John Thurloe (see Hopper, p. 117). Rightly so, perhaps: in November 1659, only just over a year after Cromwell’s death (September 1658), Fairfax joined forces with George Monck to reinstate the monarchy, and he even provided the horse upon which Charles II rode to his coronation in 1660.

Fairfax could receive guests, but political isolation was coupled with increasing physical disability not only from his years of battle but also from gout. By 1664, he had fully lost the use of his legs and was confined to a wheelchair (pictured below). Fairfax also appears to have gravitated towards a quieter life for the sake of his mental health. In his resignation letter (addressed to the Speaker William Lenthall), in fact, he refers to ‘debilities both in body and minde, occasioned by former actions and businesses’. Even if these debilities were in part a handy excuse for extricating himself, they existed and were recognized by Fairfax as factors affecting his life.

Those years of retreat during the Interregnum are a neglected period of Fairfax’s life – a life that, in the centuries since, has been side-lined more generally by Cromwell-focused history (see Hopper, p. 54). What is known, however, is that during these years Fairfax turned to literature, and especially to poetic translation. His version of Psalm 42 is just one of his outputs from this period. He actually translated all 150 psalms, as well as poetry by the French libertine poet Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant (1594–1661); and he wrote his own verse.

Of that body of work, I selected Psalm 42 because it appears to have held particular significance for Fairfax. It is one of the small selection of psalms that appears in the rather straggling collection of his draft work that is Additional MS 11744 (British Library), and it is there in fair copy in MS Fairfax 40, which contains the full Psalter (Bodleian Library). It is also the psalm that, having called for his copy of the Bible, he read aloud just before he died (see Gibb, pp. 255–56).

Psalm 42 is particularly appropriate to the moment before death, as it talks – in strikingly physical terms – of the longing of the soul to reunite with its God, and of the comfort that Fairfax (like the original psalmist) found in what he felt was a connection with God in times of trouble (when ‘waves encompass me about’ and ‘Whilst I’m oppressed of my foe’). Occasionally, there are even traces in this translation of the old soldier: the Authorized Version of the Bible (1611) refers to the enemies’ reproaches as ‘a sword in my bones’ but Fairfax knew too well the harsher facts of wars in which swords are ‘into … bowels thrust’.

In retreat on his estates, Fairfax could reflect on past political friendships and his new isolation, and, as Philip Major has noted, his translations reveal him ‘reading his own circumstances’ into his source texts (p. 181). Fairfax’s translations, as well as his original composition, then, are the unlikely sources through which we can gain insights into what Roy Tanner has described as ‘a lost decade in an otherwise much recorded life’ (p. 214).

The once great General Fairfax used his isolation to explore literature, including sacred literature, not only to reflect his tastes and religious beliefs, but as a means by which to investigate and adjust to his own condition. Perhaps during the isolation that many have experienced during the COVID-19 lockdown, there are others who have turned from their usual working identities and towards poetry. Perhaps they’re using poetry to make sense of the new world in which we find ourselves. Perhaps they’re using it for their mental health. Perhaps it’s good. Perhaps not. It doesn’t matter which. It’s all good.

 

Bibliography

Thomas Fairfax, ‘To the Honourable Will: Lenthull [Lenthall] Esquire speaker of the Parliament’ (25 June 1650), reproduced in The Diary of Sir Henry Slingsby, of Scriven, Bart., edited by D. Parsons (London: Longman, 1836), pp. 340–41.

Andrew Hopper, ‘Black Tom’: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007).

Philip Major, ‘“O how I love these Solitudes”: Thomas Fairfax and the Poetics of Retirement’, in Andrew Hopper and Philip Major, England’s Fortress: New Perspectives on Thomas, 3rd Lord Fairfax (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 169–191.

Mercurius Pragmaticus 36-37 (5–12 December 1648), [p. 4].

Rory Tanner, ‘An Appleton Psalter: The Shared Devotions of Thomas Fairfax and Andrew Marvell’, in Andrew Hopper and Philip Major, England’s Fortress: New Perspectives on Thomas, 3rd Lord Fairfax (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 213–234.

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