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Bleak Theology: Hopeful Science

Sunday Sonnet

The scholars worry about what hyssop was. But it was mentioned in the Torah, and was part of the Passover ceremony. A priest used hyssop to declare a leper clean, and able to come into the camp.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Psalm 51:7

Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

Exodus 12: 22-27

This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look. Then, if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live1 clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh2 water. He shall take the live bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field. And he who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean.

Leviticus 14:2-8

Anne Locke takes the usual idea that Hyssop was a form of a herb. The modern version clearly is.

From Wikipedia

Sprinkle me, Lorde, with hisope and I shalbe cleane: washe me and I shalbe whiter then snow.

With swete Hysope besprinkle thou my sprite:
Not such hysope, nor so besprinkle me,
As law vnperfect shade of perfect lyght
Did vse as an apointed signe to be

Foreshewing figure of thy grace behight.
With death and bloodshed of thine only sonne,
The swete hysope, cleanse me defyled wyght,
Sprinkle my soule. And when thou so haste done,

Bedeawd with droppes of mercy and of grace,
I shalbe cleane as cleansed of my synne.
Ah wash me, Lord: for I am foule alas:
That only canst, Lord, wash me well within,

Wash me, O Lord: when I am washed soe,
I shalbe whiter than the whitest snowe.

Anne Locke

Sprite is now archaic, and has the connotations of a twee fairy. The correct translation of line one would be sprinkle you my spirit, leaving the inverted grammatical structure. I’ve left light in but gone softer in the first line. In the second line I changed hyssop to herbal: again the repeitition sounded wrong with modern grammer and vocabulary.

Wight is soul, and behight is behold, view. The second stanza has the archaic words to keep the rhyme scheme.

Grace should not rhyme with alas, but once it did. Locke was writing during a vowel shift: at least most of the time to modern ears the rhymes work. Chaucer, a hundred years earlier, is a shift too far.m

With sweet Hyssop may you my renew my sprite
Without such herbal, let you sprinkle me
As law unperfect, shade of perfect light
Did use as an appointed sign to be.

Foreshowing figure of your grace behight
With death and bloodshed of your only son
The sweet hyssop, cleanse my defiled wight
Sprinkle my soul, and when you so have done

Bedewed with drops of mercy and of grace
I shall be clean, as cleaned of my sin
Ah wash me Lord, for I am foul, Alas:
As you only can, Lord, Wash me well within

Wash me , O Lord, when I am washed so
I shall be whiter than the whitest snow.

Anne Locke, Translit.

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