” Babylon” ,Psalm 137 is read against the backdrop of the Babylonian exile, often interpreted as a metaphor for personal exile and the search within. The psalm is generally understood as an allegory for sinful thought which is brought into question and forces a reflection on the reader or listener.
Don McClean recorded verse 1 on his American Pie album, a wistful rendition on banjo which placed the listener within the biblical context from which the verses were composed. He captured an aesthetic balance between sadness, learning and hope in which the music and text share equal billing without conforming to each other.
By the waters
We lay down and wept
For thee Zion.
” … the composer retells a text by
creating a particular feeling or mood musically. Music breathes life into the text through
its use of devices such as tone, rhythm, phrasing, versification etc. In setting a particular
text to music, the resultant product is different in its interpretation than are the words on
their own. The composer also has control over the musical aesthetics to which the words
are set, and with each choice made, they shape the resultant “new” text with which future
audiences will engage.”
The closing verse has proven to be problematic, ” Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock”, implies certain ethical implications which cannot be wiggled out of in the literal sense. C.S. Lewis has stated:
” I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonia babies against the
stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of
small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled
hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so
helpless, that in resisting them we feel that we are being cruel to animals…. Against all such
pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best. Knock
the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done.” ( C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms )