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In that strange poetical manifestation called psalmody the Psalms went through a test by way of translation into the English tongue that no other book of poetry ever experienced, and that none other could have stood, attesting in a hundred ways the perpetual vitality of those ancient lyrics and their inextinguishable beauty. In translations, many of which were crude to the extent of grotesqueness, their lyric beauty and their spiritual power still moved deeply the hearts of a whole nation for generations. There were exquisite translations of many of the Psalms; but the translation in which they caught the ear of the English people, that of Sternhold and Hopkins, was not exquisite. Yet no other book except the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer ever went through so many editions and printings as did the Sternhold and Hopkins’s “Psalms in Meter.” Probably no other book was ever so roughly—although devoutly—handled in translation as the Psalms; surely no other book of songs ever so went to the heart of the nation.
The Psalms in meter first sprang into prominence not in England nor in Germany but in France, at the court of Francis I. The gallant and facile court 117 poet, Clement Marot, was once urged by some one that in place of his “profane” verses he should turn the Psalms into the sprightly verse form of which he was so clearly a master. In 1533 that “poet of princes and prince of poets” began his versification. Within a few years he had published fifty-two of the Psalms constructed after the manner of his songs. And they caught the French ear as quickly as his songs had done. Printed without tunes, they were set to popular ballad airs and became enormously fashionable and popular. Soon the king and queen and notables of the realm had each selected a favorite psalm and set it to a favorite air. Prince Henry the Dauphin chose one for himself beginning,
Ainsi qu ’on vit le cerf bruyere,
to sing as he rode hunting. This is the forty-second Psalm, rendered a century and a half later by Tate and Brady in England,
The king of Navarre selected the psalm beginning,
Revenge moy prens la querelle.
Catharine de’ Medici chose one for herself, and also procured a copy of the Bible. The king of Spain sent gifts to the poet requesting a special versification of his favorite Psalm. The austere John Calvin was charmed by the songs, and Marot’s wish came true, that the boatmen and wagoners and harvesters 118 might make France ring with the pious ditties. Calvin at Geneva employed the best musical talent he could find and set Marot’s verses to better music. D’Israeli in his “Curiosities of Literature” describes the consternation among orthodox leaders of France when these Psalms appeared in the “Geneva Hymn Book”:
Now the Cardinal of Lorraine found that the reigning court beauty, Diane de Poictiers, not only was singing them but following the lead of Catherine de Medici, had got a Bible. Having thrown the Bible down and condemned it, he (the cardinal) remonstrated with the fair penitent that it was a kind of reading not adapted to her sex, containing dangerous matters: if she is uneasy in her mind she should hear two masses instead of one and rest contented with her Pater Nosters and her Primer, which were not only devotional but ornamented with a variety of elegant forms, from the most exquisite pencils of France.
Marot under the persecution of the church fled to Geneva, where he continued his translations. He died in 1544. Theodore de Beza continued the work, removing from Marot’s songs any unseemly gaieties and fashionable allusions. This book, “Les Psaumes mis en rime françois par Clement Marot et Theodore de Beza,” became one of the most famous books of the age. It was translated into nine different languages, including the Hebrew. David Breed, in his “History and Use of Hymns,” states that it passed through at least one thousand editions.119
Marot’s influence was never so strongly felt in England as it was on the Continent, though he seems to have given to the Reformation generally the idea of versifying the Psalter. In England appeared a book by Myles Coverdale, the great translator of the Bible, “Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songes drawen out of the holy scripture for the Comforte and Consolacyon of such as love to reioyse in God and his words.” Bishop Coverdale spent much time at Geneva, first as a scholar, later as a refugee during the reign of Mary. The hymns of his book are mainly from the German, rather than after the models of Marot. In the address to the reader, Coverdale repeats Marot’s pious wish about psalm-singing:
Yea, would God that our Minstrels had no other thing to play upon, neither our carters and plowmen other thing to whistle upon, save psalms, hymns, and other godly songs such as David is occupied withal! And if women, sitting at their rocks or spinning at their wheels had none other songs to pass their time withal, than such as Moses’s sister, Glehanna’s wife, Deborah, and Mary, mother of Christ have sung before them they would be better occupied than hey nony nony, hey troly loly and such like phantasies. If young men also that have the gift of singing took their pleasure in such wholesome ballads as the three children in his last chapter, it were a token that they felt some spark of God’s love in their hearts . . . for truly as we love so sing we. . . . As for the common sort of ballads which now are used in the world, I report me to every good man’s conscience what wicked fruits they bring.
This book contained fifteen Psalms, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the “Magnificat,” in rime, and twenty pieces less directly taken from the Scriptures.
Stanzas of Coverdale’s one hundred and twenty-eighth Psalm will indicate the plain, prosaic earnestness of style of the book:
Blessed are all that feare the Lorde,
Worshyppyng hym nyghte and daye,
Ordrynge theyr lyfe after his worde
And walking ever in his waye.
One of the original hymns begins with this stanza:
O, hevenly Lorde thy goodly worde
Hath long been kept away from us;
But throrow thy grace, now in our dayes
Thou hast showed the so plenteous,
That very well we can now tell
What thy apostles have written al
And now we see thy words opēly
Hath given antychrist a great fall.
In these uncouth verses we see two patterns of church song: one, after the idea of Calvin, adhering literally to the biblical text; the other, after the idea of Luther, not necessarily dependent upon biblical phraseology. Till the beginning of the eighteenth century England and Scotland followed mainly the idea of Calvin.
“Goostly Psalmes” was published in 1539, and though the ban placed upon it was removed not long 121 thereafter the book seems never to have gone far in England. Coverdale’s power in shaping English history was not exerted through his hymn-book.
But if neither the metrical Psalms nor the hymns of Coverdale took much hold in England, there was soon to follow a metrical Psalter that did take hold.
The young king, Edward VI, one day overheard a courtier, Thomas Sternhold, playing on the organ and singing “for his own godly solace some Psalms which he had turned into meter and set to music.” The king was pleased. Soon thereafter was published and dedicated to him, “Certayne Psalmes chosē out of the Psalter of David and drawē into English Metre by Thomas Sternhold groome of ye Kyng’s Maiestie’s roobes.” There is a copy of this undated first edition in the British Museum. It contains nineteen Psalms. In 1549, after Sternhold’s death, a second edition was published containing thirty-seven Psalms. Another edition followed with seven added Psalms by John Hopkins. Thus arose the Old Version of the Psalms. Additions were made by Hopkins and others till all the Psalms were translated. The title of the edition of 1564 reads:
The whole book of psalmes collected into Englyshe Meter by Thomas Sternhold, J. Hopkins, and others, conferred with the Hebrew, with apt notes to sing them withal faythfully perused and allowed according to thorder appointed in the Queenes Maisties Iniunctions. Very meete to be used of all sorts of people privately for their godly solace and comfort laying apart all ungodly songes and ballades, whych tend to the nourishing of vyce and corrupting of 122 youth. Whereunto is a short introduction to learn to synge the Psalmes.
Thus came a book, curiously one of the most widely popular that England ever saw. By 1600 it had passed through more than fifty editions. There are now in the British Museum, dated between 1564 and 1841, copies of about six hundred and fifty separate editions of this book.
The verses are rugged, frequently crude, sometimes absurd, and in rare instances charming. They are in the ranks of poetry, one might say, somewhat like the tassels of corn in the realm of flowers, dun in hue, not very fragrant, and their connection with rich stores of corn not at once apparent. The verses lumber and jolt along like a loaded ox-cart; but with the jolting one can hardly fail to notice the heart-of-oak sturdiness and strength of mind and spirit that is in them.
Sternhold’s version of the twenty-third Psalm may be taken as fairly representative, though it is much better than some parts of the book:
My shepherd is the liuing God, nothing therefore I neede;
In pastures faire with waters calme he set me for to feede.
He did conuert and glad my soule, and brought my mind in frame:
To walke in paths of righteousness for his most holy name.
Yea though I walk in vale of death, yet will I feare no ill;
Thy rod and staff doth comfort me, and thou art with me still.
And in the presence of my foes, my table thou shalt spread:
Thou shalt O Lord fill up my cup, and eke anoint my head.
Through all my life thy favor is, so frankly showed to me
That in thy house foreurmore, my dwelling place shall be.
The following is part of Hopkins’s rendering of the forty-second Psalm; Hopkins states in a short preface that he knows that his verses are not to be compared with Sternhold’s “most exquisite doynges”; and he is not quite as good as Sternhold:
Like as the hart doth breath and bray, the wellspring to obtain:
So doth my soule desire alway, with thee Lord, to remaine.
My soule doth thirst and would draw neare, the liuing God of might:
O when shall I come and appear, in presence of his sight?
The tears all times are my repast, which from mine eyes did slide:
The wicked men cry out so fast, where now is God my guide?
Alas what griefs is his to thinke, what freedome once I had:
Therefore my soul is at pits brinke, is most heauie and sad.
The spirit of poetry wore strange garb in those days. But clad thus in hodden-gray, she crossed countless thresholds over which she otherwise could not have entered at all as a ministrant of hope and courage and ideals of upright life. These verses were written before the time of Elizabethan splendor, and are a product of sturdy England yet untransformed by the Renaissance. In spite of the 124 ridicule leveled at them through two hundred years, and in spite of their openness to ridicule, they exerted an enormous influence in the shaping of modern England.
Ruskin says that as poetry they are “half paralytic, half profane, consisting partly of the expression of what the singers never in their lives felt or attempted to feel; and partly in the address of prayers to God which nothing could more disagreeably astonish than his attending to.”99“Rock Honeycomb, Broken pieces of Sir Philip Sidney’s Psalter Laid up in Store for English Homes”, “The Works of John Ruskin,” ed. Cook and Wedderburne, Vol. XXXI, p. 116. But Ruskin says in the same book with equal unreason, “The general mass of amiably and pleasantly religious persons can no more understand a Psalm than a kitten a Greek tragedy.” The generations of sturdy folk who sang the plain honest rimes of “Sternhold and Hopkins” knew, and felt in their hearts, what they were singing. And, whatever faults these folks might have had, over amiability and softness were not among them. They knew quite well what a psalm was and what they meant when they sang it.
An idea of the great prevalence and sway of the metrical Psalm in England may be gained from details such as a bill for books rendered by Thomas Sternhold, royal printer to King Henry VIII.1010Published in “Transcript of the Register of the Company of Stationers,” Vol II, p. 51. Privately printed, London, 1875. Of the forty-four items on the king’s bill for books eleven items are copies of the Psalms. One reads:125
Item delivered to the kinges highness for a little Psalter taken out of one book and setting in another in the same place, and for gorgious bynding of the same book xijd and to the Goldsmythe for the taking off of the clasps and corners and for setting them ageyn xvjd Summa ijs, iiijd.
This glimpse into the king’s book buying indicates that the Psalter was a favorite gift-book, and that the heavy but sturdy paraphrase would find favor in the most exalted circles as well as among the common people.
Of course the princes and scholars had not so much needed the translations. The Psalms in Latin were familiar and dear to the hearts of many. The example of Sir Thomas More may not perhaps be cited as typical of learned England in his day, but it is significant. He recited every morning seven of the Psalms in Latin—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 148. In the boat on his way toward the Tower—and the block—he was singing psalms; and thereby, he told his son-in-law, William Roper, he “gave the devil a foul fall indeed.”
But the Psalms were wanted in the common tongue, and the poets from Wyatt and Surrey on had been turning them into meter—none so agreeable to popular taste, however, as Sternhold and Hopkins. Their metrical Psalter was to bring into English familiar life the greatest of all song-books, and bring it in the homely honest guise of popular song. The Psalter was to be more than merely a book for “gorgious bynding.” In the Sternhold 126 and Hopkins translation it was to prove one of the mighty books of England.
Bishop Jewel in a letter dated March 6, 1560, says:
A change appeared now more vividly among the people. Nothing promoted it more than the inviting of the people to sing psalms. That was begun in one church and did quickly spread itself not only through the city but in the neighboring places; sometimes at St. Paul’s Cross there will be six thousand people singing together.
These metrical Psalms were set to music by the leading musicians of the time, Tallis and Byrd and John Milton, father of the poet. Many of their airs are still familiar in the hymn-books. The Psalms were sung also to popular street tunes, “Greensleeves” for example, as Mistress Ford tells in “Merry Wives.” Says Masson in his great “Life of Milton,” concerning the Psalm music of Milton’s father:
“The tenor part of York tunes,” we are told by Sir John Hopkins, “was so well known that within memory half the nurses in England were used to sing it by way of a lullaby” and the chimes of many country churches had “played it six or eight times in four-and-twenty hours from time immemorial.” And so apart from all that the scrivener of Broad Street has given us through his son, there yet rests in the air of Britain, capable of being set loose wherever church-bells send their chimes over an English or Scottish fire-side, some portion of the soul of the admirable man and his love of sweet sounds.
There are a great number of religious songs and paraphrases and many volumes issued, such as, for example, William Hunnis’ “Seven Sobs of a Sorrowful Soul for Sin,” 1559. Portions of the Book of Genesis were turned into rime with the title, “A Hive Full of Honey”; another book was “A Handful of Honeysuckles: Blessings out of Deuteronomy.” These titles hint why the sober Sternhold prevailed.
John Donne said that religious song must not be bedizened. Archbishop Parker’s version of the Psalms, 1557, had something of that fault. His rendering of the twenty-third Psalm begins:
To feed my neede: he will me leade
To pastures green and fat:
He forth brought me: in libertie
To waters delicate.
The following lines constitute the first stanza of the “De Profundis” of George Gascoigne:
From depths of dole wherein my soule dooth dwell,
From heavie heart which harbors in my breast,
From troubled sprite which seldom taketh rest,
From hope of heaven, from dreade of darksome hell,
O gracious God, my lovely Lorde alone,
To thee I call, to thee I make my mone
And thou good God, vouchsafe us gree to take
This woeful plaint
Wherein I faint:—
O hear me then for thy great mercy’s sake.
The court musician, William Byrd, issued in 1558 his “Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Piety.” The verses are too involved and fanciful for hymnody:
If that a sinner’s sighs be Angel’s food
Or that repentant tears be Angel’s wine,
Accept, O Lord, in this most pensive mood
These hasty sighs and tears of mine
That went with Peter forth most sinfully
But not with Peter wept most bitterly.
A stanza from Sir Philip Sidney’s version of the nineteenth Psalm—“More than gold, yea, than much fine gold, sweeter also than the honey and the honeycomb”:
Then what men would so soon seke gold,
Or glittering golden money?
By them is past, in sweetest tast,
Honey and combe of honey.
Throughout the Elizabethan period there was a great deal of religious lyrical verse, and much effort was spent upon it. In his “Defense of Poesy,” Sidney says:
How well it [lyrical poetry] may be employed and with what heavenly fruits both public and private singing the praises of the immortal goodness of that God which giveth us hands to write and wits to conceive!
A stanza from Francis Davidson’s twenty-third Psalm is as follows:129
He feedeth me in fields that beene
Fresh and greene,
Mottled with Spring’s flowery painting;
Through which creeps with murmuring Crookes
To refresh my spirits fainting.
The following lines from a paraphrase of the fourteenth Psalm are attributed to Queen Elizabeth:
Fooles, that true faith yet never had,
Sayth in their hearts, there is no God!
Fylthy they are in their practyse,
Of them not one is godly wyse.
Another example of religious lyrical verse may be cited here, that of Mary, Queen of Scots, who wrote in her book of devotions just before her execution a Latin hymn of which these lines are typical:
Longuendo, gemendo, et genuflectendo,
Adoro, imploro, ut liberas me!
The one hundred and fourth Psalm as translated by King James I begins:
Thy mercy will I sing & justice eke
With music will I prayse Iehove great
I will tak heed and righteous path to seik
Till time thou call me to Thy mercy seat.
Still shall I wake in uprightness of soule
Within my house which hallowed is to The,
Mine eyes upon no wicked thing shall roule,
For all such deides I hate & shall thaime flee.
Why it was necessary to turn Psalms into “versification” is a question. Why should not the two superb renderings, that of the Prayer-Book and that of the King James Bible suffice? Why were the powerful and beautiful rhythms of those renderings superseded by the astonishing Psalms in Meetre that were brought out in such endless profusion?
One might be inclined to say that some of this fantastic riming of the Psalms was an outcropping of the otherwise suppressed human playfulness and frivolity of the Puritans; though the gay Cavaliers jingled them, too, not confining themselves to common meter. Of course Psalms in the ballad form were easily learned and kept in memory. And in the days when the ability to read was less general than now, these rimes, scattered so freely broadcast, took root in many a mind and contributed powerfully to the righteousness and stability of the nation.
And though the verses appear uncouth to us, they were effective poetry to the folk who made and sang them. One cannot believe that the Covenanters would have marched to battle and to the stake singing what to their minds was grotesque.
Poetry is always changing its garb and manner, so that the poetic fashion pleasing to one generation may not be so to another. Reams of heroic couplets were not tiresome to Dryden and his age, but Chaucer and Shakspere were. There is no question that the lovers of the metrical Psalms found much poetical and spiritual nurture in them, even in 131 such volumes as that brought out by Dr. William Loe, in 1620: “An Hymn or song of seuen strains or strings set to the tune of seuen sobs, and sighs of a seuen times seuen sad souls for sinne, and is to be song to the tune of ‘I lift mine eyes to thee.’”
One stanza of Dr. Loe’s book is enough to indicate his style:
O God if thou wouldst waighe
My waise and take a veue
I could not scape thy rod
Thy wrath I should it rue.
Crashaw’s translations, published twenty-eight years later, are different, as may be seen in the lines rendering: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters”:
Happy me, O happy sheep!
Whom my God vouchsafes to keep;
Even my God, even he it is
That points me to those paths of bliss;
On whose pastures cheerful Spring
All the year doth sit and sing
And rejoicing smiles to see
Their green backs wear his livery.
At my feet the blubbering mountain
Weeping, melts into a fountain,
Whose soft, silver-sweating streams
Make high noon forget his beams.
The twenty-third Psalm has been translated and paraphrased, we may suppose, more than any other piece of literature in the world. It makes its way down through English history, expressed variously as the times have passed, and as various persons such as King Alfred, Milton, and Byron in their turn, and as innumerable peasants, clerks, courtiers, poets, and scholars have rendered it, changing as the language has been changed, yet bearing always the same happy and sure faith in the Good Shepherd. It is itself a water-brook of poetry by whose banks are grateful shade and green pastures. To read a single passage of this Psalm in a few of its English forms will suggest to the imagination something of what it has meant to English folk in town and country-side, in cottage and manor-house and palace through successive generations. The first of these passages are taken from “Biblical Versions of Divine Hymns,” collected by Wilmot Marsh, London, 1845.
And if I go in shades of ded
For thou with me art, me sal euels dred?
The Edgerton MS. dated 1270.
For win ghif I hadde goo in myddil of shadewe of deeth; I shall not dreede yuels for thou art with me. Thi gheerde and thy staf; thei have comforted me. The Hampole MS. in the British Museum.
For whi and if I goo in the myddel of the shadewe of deth I shal not drede euelis, for thou art with me. The Wyclif Bible, 1380.
Ye, if I shuld go thorow the myddes of deth, yet will I feare non yuel, for thou art with me, thy staffe and thy shepe hoke counfort me. A MS. of 1530, in the Cambridge University Library.
For albe it I shulde go unto the valye of the dedely shadewe, yet I fere none euyll, for thou art with me.
Yea, in deathes shadie black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me: and thy rod
To guide, my staff to bear.
Yea, though I walk in vale of death, yet will I fear none ill:
Thy rod and thy staff doth comfort me, and thou art with me still.
The version of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke leaves the common meters for more elaborate verse form:
He me revives: leads me the way
Which righteousnes doth take
For his name’s sake.
Yea, though I should through valleys stray
Of deathes darke shade, I will
No whitt feare ill.
It may be said that this version of the Psalm does not add to the poetic reputation of these two magnificent persons. Their desire to improve upon Sternhold was admirable; but they hardly attained 134 it. The same attempt later, by King James I, was for various reasons even less successful.
Sternhold’s metrical translation, published at Geneva in 1556, begins:
The lord is onlye my support,
And he that doth me feed;
How can I then lack anything,
Whereof I stand in need.
He doth me foulde in cottes most safe,
And tender grass fast by;
And after dryveth me to the streams
Which run most pleasantly.
The best known translations, excepting of course the two matchless unmetrical versions, that of the King James Bible and that of the English Prayer-Book, are the famous Scottish paraphrase beginning,
The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want,
and the one of Sir Henry Baker:
The king of love my shepherd is
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his,
And he is mine forever.
Where streams of living water flow,
My ransomed soul he leadeth,
And where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
And yet in love he sought me,135
And on his shoulders gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill,
With thee, dear Lord, beside me,
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.
And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
Within thy house forever.
The old version of the Psalms held its place till the end of the seventeenth century, never seriously disturbed. But at this point there appeared a new publication which indicated the improving popular taste and new freedom of thought, and at the same time the deep-set popular affection for the old literal versification of the Psalms. From the first there has been much individual dissatisfaction with the uncouthness of Sternhold and Hopkins. Queen Elizabeth had treated them with humorous toleration. Many attempts had been made to furnish the church with better renderings. Among the large numbers of metrical renderings of the Psalms, in part or entire, may be mentioned those of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Phineas Fletcher, George Herbert, Lord Bacon, King James I, George Sandys, George Wither, Francis Rous, and Henry Vaughan. Milton translated nineteen of the Psalms into meter.136
But none of these had seriously molested the reign of “Sternhold and Hopkins” until Nahum Tate, the poet laureate under William and Mary, in collaboration with Nicholas Brady, issued a complete new version; that was in 1696. The New Version, or Tate and Brady as it was thereafter known, was dedicated to the king and authorized by royal order.
It was greeted with bitter denunciation and with enthusiastic approval, and yet by a third party with measured approval as constituting a distinct advance over the Old Version, and looking forward to something better. The Supplement, issued separately in 1700, contained the Canticles, six hymns, and many new tunes. This book, added to gradually, went through many editions in the first decades of the new century, and became a prototype of the modern hymn-book. The New Version did not replace the Old; among the more urbane it did, but in the country districts “Sternhold and Hopkins” persisted till the hymn-book supplanted both versions.
Conservatives saw in Tate and Brady’s Psalter a dangerous tendency to depart from the biblical text, and to abandon solid virtue for doubtful refinement. The Bishop of St. Asaph wrote:
Whereas the Composers and Reviewers of the Old translations had nothing else in their Eye but to give us the true sense of each piece in as few words as could be in Verse and, therefore keep close to the text, without deviating from it on any account. In this New Translation there is so much regard had to the poetry, the Style of Running of the 137 Verse and such-like inconsiderable circumstances, that it is almost impossible to avoid going from the text and altering the true sense and Meaning of it. For, thence it comes to pass, that although the Authors doubtless designed a true Translation yet other things crowding into their Heads at the same time jostled that Design so that it could not always take effect.
In the established church as well as among the Non-Conformists the New Version aroused new and heated disputes whether it were lawful, after all, for the people, especially the women, to sing in church, and whether any sort of “human composure” were fit to be sung in public. Isaac Watts welcomed it, saying in the preface to his “Horæ Lyricæ”: “Some people persuade themselves and their children that the beauties of poetry are vain and dangerous. All that arises a degree above Mr. Sternhold is too airy for worship.”
The Old Version and the New Version served their time. So far as popular favor and influence are concerned “Sternhold and Hopkins” was one of the three great books of England for the two centuries. “Tate and Brady” in its turn exerted a tremendous influence. But the freer and more poetic hymn-book was in its time gradually to replace these and all other metrical versions such as Ainsworth in Scotland and New England, though nothing is likely ever to drive out the Psalms of the glorious King James Version.
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