Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

More than a century ago, Englishman Henry Alexander Glass happened upon an old copy of the Tate and Brady metrical psalter dated 1771 in an old book stall. By the 1880s metrical psalters, while still in use in Scotland, had long ceased to be used liturgically in England, so Glass, curious about the volume he had discovered and unable to locate a general history of metrical psalters, decided to write one himself. The result is the highly readable The story of the psalters: a history of the metrical versions of Great Britain and America from 1549 to 1885, published in 1888 and well worth reading even today.

Glass, about whom I have found next to nothing via a google search, had a good ear for the witty turn of phrase, as evidenced throughout the first two chapters. On p. 8 we read that “George Buchanan rhymed the Psalms in Latin,” followed by a parenthetical bit of dry humour: “for whose convenience perhaps scholars can tell” (8). We read also of George Wither, whose psalter appears not to have been highly esteemed, especially by his peers, and who found himself imprisoned during the English Civil War. He was not alone: “When he was afterwards taken prisoner during the Civil Wars by the Cavaliers, Sir John Denham, himself afterwards to be enrolled in the list of versifiers, desired his Majesty not to hang [Wither], ‘because that, as long as Wither lives, I shall not be accounted the worst poet in England’” (33). As for the authors of the Sternhold & Hopkins psalter, their “piety was better than their poetry,” and with respect to the Bay Psalm Book of the New England Puritans, “[q]uotations from it have afforded amusement to almost all writers on metrical psalmody” (34).

Not surprisingly, the Sternhold & Hopkins collection occupies a large place in Glass’s account. Indeed for centuries the three great influences on the English language and Anglican spirituality were the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Sternhold & Hopkins Psalter. By the time Glass wrote his account, the last collection had been all but forgotten in the Church of England. Indeed only a very few metrical psalters would attain official position within the church.

Nevertheless, Glass surveys a total of 123 metrical psalters in chapter III, the vast majority of which were created by private individuals for their own use or for the use of their immediate communities. Indeed the bulk of this book consists of this survey, each example of which includes introductory material, the initial stanzas of Psalms 1 and 23 for purposes of comparison, and supplementary information on the author or the psalter. In this respect, Glass provides a valuable reference book. The reader will be amazed at how many ways there are to express the same thought poetically, although many of these psalters simply undertook to improve an existing collection, for example, the durable Scottish Psalter of 1650.

There are a few delightful surprises here. I had not known that Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, the Marquess of Lorne, completed a metrical psalter in 1877, the very year before he became Her Majesty’s representative in the decade-old Dominion of Canada. (To this day, “Lorne” is still a popular male first name in that country.)

There is also a possible genealogical connection with yours truly. In 1636 George Sandys’ psalter obtained coveted official status, cum privilegio Regiae Majestatis, which eluded all but a few such efforts. George was younger brother to Sir Edwin Sandys, one of the founders of the Virginia Company, and son to the elder Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York during Elizabeth I’s reign and one of the translators of the Bishops’ Bible. According to one theory (in doubt, admittedly), Archbishop Sandys was my 13th great grandfather through his daughter Anne (1570-1629). That would make her brother George a collateral ancestor of mine.

One issue raised by Glass’s survey of metrical psalters is translation philosophy. Every avid reader of the Bible in English knows that some bibles are fairly literal, closely replicating the syntax and vocabulary of the original languages, while others employ something called dynamic equivalence, namely, conveying the meaning of the original text sentence-by-sentence rather than word-for-word. A generation ago the most widely-used English-language Bible, the New International Version, was translated largely according to the principles of dynamic equivalence. However, in recent years there has been a certain retrenchment and a move towards formal equivalence, as seen, for example, in the English Standard Version and even in the most recent NIV update.

Some think this is a new issue, but it is not. It has been around since at least the 16th century and probably earlier. Many, if not most, of the versifiers of the Psalms saw themselves very much as “translators” of God’s word into singable form. Yet, due to the constraints of metre and rhyme, they could hardly be word-for-word or literal translators. In general, of course, the more closely a rhymed versification adheres to the original text, the more convoluted it will sound to ordinary English-speakers. If, on the other hand, a rhymed versification carries only the general thought of the original, the more freedom the poet has to render it in more comprehensible form in our own language. Isaac Watts’ Psalms fall into the latter category, but largely at the price of fidelity to the Hebrew.

What is the answer? One obvious possibility is to chant a prose translation of the Psalms. Glass writes:

In England the old metrical Psalter is a thing of the past. It lingers in the Presbyterian Churches; but even among them there are signs that before long the common-metre rhymes of the oft-revised 1650 version of [Francis] Rous [whose metrical psalms formed the basis of the Scottish Psalter of that year] will give way to the chant of the literal paraphrases (p. 8).

Sadly, Glass’s prediction was not borne out. Instead of chant replacing metrical psalms, psalm-singing went into seemingly terminal decline, as the admittedly excellent hymns of Watts, Wesley and many others very nearly replaced sung psalmody in the church’s liturgy. Nevertheless, there are a number of smaller Reformed denominations that have clung faithfully to psalm-singing in the face of the predominant trends that would erode this practice. Moreover, in the past generation some of the larger protestant denominations have been moving decisively to reincorporate sung psalmody into their own worship of the triune God. Now that Glass’s informative book has been made available through google, they have access to a valuable resource serviceable to this long overdue effort.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles