It has long been maintained that Psalm 1 is not only introductory to but is also programmatic for the rest of the collection of the Psalms (cf. Dahood 1966). It stands to reason, then, that the same would be true of the versions of Psalm 1 found in the various verse translations of the Psalter that were produced all over Europe in the sixteenth century in an outburst of literary and devotional activity that died away almost as quickly as it had arisen (Gaertner 1956). In this paper I propose to examine the opening Psalms of three of the most important of such versifiers—Helius Eobanus Hessus, whose Psalterium Davidis carmine redditum was first published in 1537; George Buchanan, author of Psalmorum Davidis paraphrasis poetica (1565/66); and Theodore Beza, who was an associate and admirer of Buchanan’s paraphrases and who later made his own version of the Psalms, his Psalmorum Davidis et aliorum Prophetarum libri quinque (first published in 1579, though an earlier version of Psalm 1 was included with Buchanan’s paraphrases in 1566)—in order to elucidate, first, the literary principles at work in these poems (and therefore in the collections as a whole) and, next, the intertextual relations in play among the three authors.
In relation to the former of these two concerns, a discussion of meter will play a large role. Hessus composed Psalm 1 in elegiac couplets—but he composed all 150 Psalms in elegiac couplets, so the meter in this particular instance cannot carry any special weight. The collections of Buchanan and Beza, on the other hand, are polymetric, and I shall argue that their metrical choices for Psalm 1 (for Buchanan, dactylic hexameters; for Beza, iambic strophes) are of great programmatic significance when seen against their classical antecedents. As one example, it is surely not accidental that Beza begins his poem with the words beatus ille qui, for these are the very words Horace used to introduce Epode 2, also written in iambic strophes. The allusion becomes even more complex when one notes that Paulinus of Nola, late in the fourth century, also opened his paraphrase of Psalm 1, written in iambic trimeters, with the words beatus ille qui. At the same time, the opening is reminiscent of the Vulgate’s beatus vir qui. In his first three words, then, Beza has formulated a crasis of the classical, early Christian, and biblical worlds. This last point also draws attention to the fact that it will be important to evaluate how closely each author hews to the biblical exemplar, or, conversely, how much creative license he takes with the text.
In relation to the second concern, then, my paper will examine the debt of influence these authors owe to one another—for Hessus was familiar to both Buchanan and Beza, and the latter two worked closely together—and at the same time how each rivals and departs from his earlier models. Buchanan begins his poem with the same word as Hessus (felix), but immediately departs from him in giving a more explicitly interpretive rendering of the poem in his remark that the “man” of Psalm 1 is happy “in mind” (animi), a particularization which is not stated expressed in the biblical text. Amplifications such as this are frequent in his rendering. Beza, a great devotee of Buchanan (cf. McFarlane 1981), shares a great deal of vocabulary with him (e.g., irrisoribus [Beza 5]/irrisoribus [Buchanan 4]; margine [Beza 11]/margine [Buchanan 7]; arbos [Beza 13]/arbor [Buchanan 8]; turbine [Beza 20]/turbine [Buchanan 13]; vultum [Beza 21]/vultus [Buchanan 18]), but he nevertheless reduces the scope of Buchanan’s expansions and in some ways returns more nearly to the biblical model.
By engaging in a close reading of these three opening Psalms, I shall draw attention to the richness and sophistication of this short-lived genre and demonstrate that these poems ought to be treated as works of literary merit in their own right.