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Scriptures, was too frequently in an unknown tongue, by an affectation of wisdom, to excite the veneration of ignorance, when the learned, in their craftiness, taught that “ Ignorance is the mother of devotion;" and Ignorance was very willing to believe it. At the era of the Reformation, psalms and hymns, in the vernacular tongue, were revived in Germany, England, and elsewhere, among the other means of grace, of which Christendom had been for centuries defrauded.
The translation of the Psalms by Sternhold, Hopkins, and others, in the reign of Edward VI. with some slight improvements, keeps its place to this day in many churches of the English Establishment. The merit of faithful adherence to the original has been claimed for this version, and need not to be denied, but it is the resemblance which the dead bear to the living; and to hold such a version forth (which some learned men have lately done) as a model of standard psalmody for the use of Christian congregrtions in the nineteenth century, surely betrays an affectation of singularity, or a deplorable defect of taste. A few nervous or pathetic stanzas may be found here and there, for it was impossible, in so long an adventure, to escape falling into a better way now and then.
Nearly as inanimate, though a little more refined, are the Psalms of Tate and Brady, which, about a century ago, were honoured by the royal authority to be sung in those churches which chose to receive them. But they have only partially superseded their fore-runners ; many people preferring the rude simplicity of the one, to the neutral propriety of the other. There are, however, even among these, several passages of considerable worth, such as one would wisk
that all the rest had been. The 139th Psalm has been deservedly commended.
A third version, by the Rev. James Merrick, of Oxford, was published at a later period, for which the king's license to introduce it into the churches could not be obtained. It is only wonderful that the privilege should ever have been sought, on the recommendation of men of learning and taste, in behalf of a work of such immeasurable verbiage, as these paraphrases exhibit. Take a specimen from Psalm 85th : “ Rightemisness and Peace have kissed each other :"
“ With mutual step advancing there,
Seal'd by the kiss of sacred love." Here it must be evident, that the four words in italics, express the whole sense of the text, and that all the rest is garniture. Yet Merrick was an elegant scholar, and no mean poet. His version of Simeon's song, (page 107 in this collection,) and the hymn, “ Behold yon new-born infant grieved,” (page 286,) are creditable. There is a compactness and economy both of matter and words in some stanzas of the latter, which Pope himself never exceeded. An abridgment, or rather a series of extracts from Merrick's volume, wight be made a truly valuable help to public devotion, as may be seen by reference to the 39th Psalm, given in the present selection (page 69,) where five stanzas, culled from seventeen, form a most affecting funeral meditation.
Of modern imitations of the Psalms, it is not necessary to give an opinion here. Without disparagement to the living or the dead.—and to borrow the
idea of an Italian poet, * in reference to the lyre of Virgil,—it may be said, that the harp of David yet hangs upon the willow, disdaining the touch of any hand less skilful than his own.
But turning more directly to the subject of these remarks, in connection with the contents of this volume—though our elder poets, down even to the Revolution, often chose to exercise their vein on religious topics ; since that time there has been but one who bears a great name among them, who has condescended to compose hymns, in the commonly accepted sense of that word. Addison, who has left several which may be noticed hereafter, though he ranks in the first class of prose writers, must take a place many degrees lower in verse. Cowper, therefore, stands alone among “ the mighty masters” of the lyre, as having contributed a considerable number of approved and popular hymns, for the purposes of public or private devotion. Hymns, looking at the multitude and mass of them, appear to have been written by all kinds of persons, except poets; and why the latter have not delighted in this department of their own art, is obvious. Just in proportion as the religion of Christ is understood and taught in primitive purity, those who either believe not in its spirituality, or have not proved its converting influence, are careful to avoid meddling with it: so that, if its sacred mysteries have been less frequently and ostentatiously honoured by the homage of our poets within the last hundred and fifty years than formerly, they have been less disgraced and violated by absurd and impious associations. The offence of the cross
Angelo da Costanzo.
has not ceased; nay, it exists, perhaps, most inveterately, though less apparently, in those countries where the religion of the state has been refined from the gross superstitions of the dark ages; for there the humbling doctrines of the Gospel are, as of old, a stumbling-block to the self-righteous, and foolishness to the wise in their own esteem. Many of our eminent poets have belonged to one or the other of these classes ; it cannot be surprising, then, that they either knew not, or contemned “ the truth as it is in Jesus.”
There is an idle prejudice, founded upon the misapprehension of a passage in Dr. Johnson's life of Waller, and a hint of the like nature in his life of Watts—that sacred subjects are unfit for poetry, nay, incapable of being combined with it. That their na tive majesty and grace cannot be heightened by any human art of embellishment, is most freely admitted ; but that verse, as well as prose, may be advantageously associated with whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, in religion, we have the evidence of the Scriptures themselves, " in the law of Moses, and the Prophets, and in the Psalms,” where they testify concerning Christ and his sufferings, in strains the most exalted that poesy can boast. We have evidence to the same effect in many of the most perfect and exquisite compositions of uninspired poets, both in our own and in other countries. The Editor of " THE CHRISTIAN PSALMIST” hopes to have an early opportunity of showing that Dr Johnson's assertion respecting the incompatibility of poetry with devotion, is not nearly so comprehensive as it has been ignorantly assumed to be; and that what he has actually asserted on this head, is invalidated by
matter of fact, the only satisfactory test of the truth of such positions. At present it will be sufficient to affirm, in despite of this oracle of criticism,—which, when examined closely, will be found as ambiguous, and as capable of being explained to nothing, as other oracles were wont to be,-that, had our greatest poets possessed the religious knowledge of our humblest writers of hymns, they might have been the authors of similar compositions, not less superior to the ordinary run of these, than their own best poems are above the incorrigible mediocrity of their contemporaries. But, in their default, we are not without abundant proof, that hymns may be as splendid in poetry as they are fervent in devotion; and in this volume will be found many popular pieces, the untaught, workmanship of men who had no names in literature, but whose piety inspired them to write in verse, and sometimes with a felicity which the most practised masters of song might envy, but, unless the “ Spirit gave them utterance,” could not compass with their utmost art.
Let us give an example from each of three favourite poets of the last generation, who, had they consecrated their talents to the service of the sanctuary, would have been of all others the most likely to have originated hymns, uniting the charms of poesy with the beauties of holiness :
" See the wretch, that long has tost