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The Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891

by Alice Morse Earle, Seventh Edition, To the Memory of my Mother Mother

Chapter 13.

Sternhold and Hopkins' Version of the Psalms.

The metrical translation of the Psalms known as Sternhold and Hopkins' Version was doubtless used in the public worship of God in many of the early New England settlements, especially those of the Connecticut River Valley, though the old register of the town of Ipswich is the only local record that gives positive proof of its use in the Puritan church. In 1693 an edition of Sternhold and Hopkins was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was not a day nor a land where a whole edition of such a book would be printed for reference or comparison only; and to thus publish the work of the English psalmists in the very teeth of the popularity of "The Bay Psalm Book" is to me a proof that Sternhold and Hopkins' Version was employed far more extensively in the colonial churches and homes than we now have records of, and than many of our church historians now fancy. Certainly the familiar English psalm-books must have been brought across the ocean and used temporarily until the newly landed colonists could acquire the version of Ainsworth or of the New England divines.

An everlasting interest attaches to this metrical arrangement of the Psalms, to Americans as well as to Englishmen, because it was the earliest to be adopted in public worship in England. According to Strype, in his Memorial, the singing of psalms was allowed in England as early as 1548, but it was not until 1562 that the versified psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins were appended to the Book of Common Prayer. Sternhold and Hopkins' Version was also the first to give all the psalms of David in English verse to the English public.

Very little is known of the authors of this version. Sternhold was educated at Oxford; was Groom of the Robes to Henry VIII. and Edward VI., was a "bold and busy Calvinist," and died in 1549. The little of interest told of John Hopkins is that he was a minister and schoolmaster, and that he assisted the work of Sternhold.

The full reason for Sternhold's pious work is thus given by an old English author, Wood: "Being a most zealous reformer and a very strict liver he became so scandalyzed at the loose amorous songs used in the court that he forsooth turned into English metre fifty-one of Davids Psalms, and caused musical notes to be set to them, thinking thereby that the courtiers would sing them instead of their sonnets; but they did not, only some few excepted." The preface printed in the book stated Sternhold's wish and intention that the verses should be sung by Englishmen, not only in church, but "moreover in private houses for their godly solace and comfort; laying apart all ungodly Songs & Ballads which tend only to the nourishment of vice & corrupting of youth."

The first edition contained nineteen psalms only, which were all versified by Sternhold. It was published in 1548 or 1549, under this title, "Certayn Psalmes chosen out of the Psalter of Daid and drawen into English Metre by Thomas Sternhold Groom of ye Kynges Maiesties Roobes." I believe no copy of this edition is now known to exist.

The praise which Sternhold received for his pious rhymes had the same effect upon him as did similar encomiums upon his predecessor, the French psalm-writer Marot,--it encouraged him to write more psalm-verses.

The second edition was printed in 1549, and contained thirty-seven psalms by Sternhold and seven by Hopkins. It bore this title, "Al such Psalmes of David as Thomas Sternehold late grome of his maiesties robes did in his lyfe tyme drawe into English metre." It was a well-printed book and copies are still preserved in the British Museum and the Public Library of Cambridge, England. This second and enlarged edition was dedicated, in a four-page preface, to King Edward VI., and a pretty story is told of the young king's interest in the verses. The delicate and gentle boy of twelve heard Sternhold when "singing them to his organ" as Strype says, and wandered in to hear the music and listen to the words. So great was his awakened interest in the sacred songs that Sternhold resolved to write in verse for him still further of the psalms. The dedication reads: "Seeing that your tender and godly zeale dooth more delight in the holye songs of veritie than in any fayncd rymes of vanytie, I am encouraged to travayle further in the said booke of Psalmes." This young king restored to the English people the free reading of the Bible, which his wicked father, Henry VIII., had forbidden them, and he was of a sincerely religious nature. He also was a music-lover, and encouraged the art as much as his short life and troubled reign permitted.

Hopkins also wrote a preface for his share of the work, in which he spoke with much modesty of himself and much praise of Sternhold. He said his own verses were not "in any parte to bee compared with his [Sternhold's] most exquisite dooynges." He thinks, however, that his owne are "fruitfull though they bee not fyne."

The third edition, in 1556, contained fifty-one psalms; the fourth, in 1560, had sixty-seven psalms; the fifth, in 1561, increased the number to eighty-seven; and in 1562 or 1563 the whole book of psalms appeared. Other authors had some share in this work: Norton, Whyttyngham (a Puritan divine who married Calvin's sister), Kethe, who wrote the 100th Psalm, "All people that on earth do dwell," which is still seen in some of our hymn-books. Of all these men, sly old Thomas Fuller truthfully and quaintly said, "They were men whose piety was better than their poetry, and they had drunk more of Jordan than of Helicon."

For over one hundred years from the first publication there was a steady outpour of editions of these Psalms. Before the year 1600 there were seventy-four editions,--a most astonishing number for the times; and from 1600 to 1700 two hundred and thirty-five editions. In 1868 six hundred and one editions were known, including twenty-one in this nineteenth century and doubtless there were still others uncatalogued and forgotten. Among other editions this version had in the time of Charles II. two in shorthand, one printed by "Thos. Cockerill at the Three Legs and Bible in the Poultry." Two copies of these editions are in the British Museum. They are tiny little 64mos, of which half a dozen could be laid side by side on the palm of the hand. Sternhold and Hopkins' Version had also in 1694 the honor of having arranged for it a Concordance.

Upon no production of the religious Muse in the English tongue has greater diversity of criticism been displayed or more extraordinary or varied judgment been rendered than upon Sternhold and Hopkins' Psalms. A world of testimony could be adduced to fortify any view which one chose to take of them. At the time of their early publication they induced a swarm of stinging lampoons and sneering comments, that often evince most plainly that a difference in religious belief or scorn for an opposing sect brought them forth. The poetry of that and the succeeding century abounds in allusions to them. Phillips wrote:--

"Singing with woful noise
  Like a crack'd saints bell jarring in the steeple,
  Tom Sternhold's wretched prick-song for the people."

Another poet, a courtier, wrote:--

"Sternhold and Hopkins had great qualms
When they translated David's psalms."

But I see no signs of qualmishness; they show to me rather a healthy sturdiness as one of their strongest characteristics.

Pope at a later day wrote:--

  "Not but there are who merit other palms
    Hopkins and Sternhold glad the heart with psalms.
  The boys and girls whom charity maintains
    Implore your help in these pathetic strains.
  How could devotion touch the country pews
    Unless the gods bestowed a proper muse."

Wesley sneered at this version, saying, "When it is seasonable to sing praises to God we do it, not in the scandalous doggrel of Hopkins and Sternhold, but in psalms and hymns which are both sense and poetry, such as would provoke a critic to turn Christian rather than a Christian to turn critic."

The edition of 1562 was printed with the notes of melodies that were then called Church Tunes. They formed the basis of all future collections of psalm-music for over a century. They soon were published in harmony in four parts, "which may be sung to all musical instrumentes set forth for the encrease of vertue and abolyshing of other vayne and tryfling ballads." In 1592 a very important collection of psalm-tunes was published to use with Sternhold and Hopkins' words. It is called "The Whole Booke of Psalmes: with their wonted tunes as they are sung in Churches composed into four parts." This book is noteworthy because in it the tunes are for the first time named after places, as is still the custom. The music contained square or oblong notes and also lozenge-shaped notes. The square note was a "semy-brave," the lozenge-shaped note was a "prycke" or a "mynymme," and "when there is a prycke by the square note, that prycke is half as much as the note that goeth before."

Music at that time was said to be pricked, not printed,--the word being derived from the prick or dot which formed the head of the note. Any song which was printed in various parts was called a prick-song, to distinguish it from one sung extemporaneously or by ear. The word prick-song occurs not only in all the musical books, but in the literature of the time, and in Shakespeare. "Tom Sternhold's" songs were entitled to be called prick-songs because they had notes of music printed with them. Many of the tunes in this collection were taken from the Genevan Psalter and Luther's Psalm-Book, or from Marot and Beza's French Book of Psalms. Hence they were irreverently called "Genevan Jiggs," and "Beza's Ballets."

There is much difference shown in the wording of these various editions of Sternhold and Hopkins' Psalms. The earlier ones were printed as Sternhold wrote them; but with the Genevan editions began great and astonishing alterations. Warton, who was no lover of Sternhold and Hopkins' verses, calling them "the disgrace of sacred poetry," said of these attempted improvements, with vehemence, that "many stanzas already too naked and weak like a plain old Gothic edifice stripped of its signatures of antiquity, have lost that little and almost only strength and support which they derived from ancient phrases." Other old critics thought that Sternhold, could he return to life, would hardly know his own verses.

This is Sternhold's rendering of the Psalm in the edition of 1549:--

  1. The heavens & the fyrmamente
        do wondersly declare
      The glory of God omnipotent
        his workes and what they are.

  2. Ech daye declareth by his course
        an other daye to come
      And By the night we know lykwise
        a nightly course to run.

  3. There is no laguage tong or speche
        where theyr sound is not heard,
      In al the earth and coastes thereof
        theyr knowledge is conferd.

  4. In them the lord made royally
        a settle for the sunne
      Where lyke a Gyant joyfully
        he myght his iourney runne.

  5. And all the skye from ende to ende
        he compast round about
      No man can hyde hym from his heate
        but he wll fynd hym out

In order to show the liberties taken with the text we can compare with it the Genevan edition printed in 1556. The second verse of that presumptuous rendering reads,--

  "The wonderous works of God appears
    by every days success
  The nyghts which likewise their race runne
    the selfe same thinges expresse."

The fourth,--

  "In them the lorde made for the sunne
    a place of great renoune
  Who like a bridegrome rady-trimed
    doth from his chamber come."

The expression "rady-trimed," meaning close-shaven, is often instanced as one of the inelegancies of Sternhold, but he surely ought not to be held responsible for the "improvements" of the Genevan edition published after his death.

The Genevan editors also invented and inserted an extra verse:--

  "And as a valiant champion
    who for to get a prize
  With joye doth hast to take in hande
    some noble enterprise."

The fifth verse is thus altered:--

  "And al the skye from ende to ende
    he compasseth about,
  Nothing can hyde it from his heate
    but he wil finde it out."

I cannot express the indignation with which I read these belittling and weakening alterations and interpolations; they are so unjust and so degrading to the reputation of Sternhold. It seems worse than forgery--worse than piracy; for instead of stealing from the defenceless dead poet, it foists upon him a spurious and degrading progeny; there is no word to express this tinkering libellous literary crime.

Cromwell had a prime favorite among these psalms; it was the one hundred and ninth and is known as the "cursing psalm." Here are a few lines from it:--

"As he did cursing love, it shall
    betide unto him so,
  And as he did not blessing love
    it shall be farre him fro,
  As he with cursing clad himselfe
    so it like water shall
  Into his bowels and like oyl
    Into his bones befall.
  As garments let it be to him
    to cover him for aye
  And as a girdle wherewith he
    may girded be alway."

Another authority gives the "cursing psalm" as the nineteenth of King James's version; but there is nothing in "The heavens declare the glory of God," &c. to justify the nickname of "cursing."

It is said when the tyrannical ruler Andros visited New Haven and attended church there that (Sternhold and Hopkins' Version being used) the fearless minister very inhospitably gave out the fifty-second psalm to be sung. The angry governor, who took it as a direct insult, had to listen to the lining and singing of these words, and I have no doubt they were roared out with a lusty will:--

  1. Why dost thou tyrant boast thyself
        thy wicked deeds to praise
      Dost thou not know there is a God
        whose mercies last alwaies?

  2. Why doth thy mind yet still deuise
        such wisked wiles to warp?
      Thy tongue untrue, in forging lies
        is like a razer sharp.


  4. Thou dost delight in fraude & guilt
        in mischief bloude and wrong:
      Thy lips have learned the flattering stile
        O false deceitful tongue.

  5. Therefore shall God for eye confounde
        and pluck thee from thy place.
      Thy seed and root from out the grounde
        and so shall thee deface;

  6. The just when they behold thy fall
        with feare will praise the Lord:
      And in reproach of thee withall
        cry out with one accord.

When the unhappy King Charles fled from Oxford to a camp of troops he also was insulted by having the same psalm given out in his presence by the boorish chaplain of the troops. After the cruel words were ended the heartsick king rose and asked the soldiers to sing the fifty-sixth psalm. Whenever I read the beautiful and pathetic words, as peculiarly appropriate as if they had been written for that occasion only, I can see it all before me,--the great camp, the angry minister, the wretched but truly royal king; and I can hear the simple and noble song as it pours from the lips of hundreds of rude soldiers:

  1. Have mercy Lord on mee I pray
        for man would mee devour.
      He fighteth with me day by day
        and troubleth me each hour.

  2. Mine enemies daily enterprise
        to swallow mee outright
      To fight against me many rise
        O thou most high of might


  5. What things I either did or spake
        they wrest them at thier wil:
      And all the councel that they take
        is how to work me il.

  6. They all consent themselves to hide
        close watch for me to lay:
      They spie my pathes, and snares have layd
        to take my life away.

  7. Shall they thus scape on mischief set,
        thou God on them wilt frowne:
      For in his wrath he will not let
        to throw whole kingdomes downe.

It would perhaps be neither just nor conducive to proper judgment to gather only a florilege of noble verses from Sternhold and Hopkins' Version and point out none of the "weedy-trophies," the quaint and even uncouth lines which disfigure the work. We must, however, in considering and judging them, remember that many words and even phrases which at present seem rather ludicrous or undignified had, in the sixteenth century, significations which have now become obsolete, and which were then neither vulgar nor unpoetical. I also have been forced to take my selections from a copy of Sternhold and Hopkins printed in 1599, and bound up with a "Breeches Bible;" for I have access to no earlier edition. Sternhold and Hopkins themselves may not be in truth responsible for many of the crudities. Hopkins, in his rendition of the 12th verse of the seventy-fourth Psalm, thus addresses the Deity:--

  "Why doost withdraw thy hand abacke
    and hide it in thy lappe?
  O pluck it out and bee not slacke
    to give thy foes a rap."

"Rap" may have meant a heavier, a mightier blow then than it does now-a-days.

Here is another curious verse from the seventieth psalm,--

  "Confounde them that apply
    and seeke to make my shame
  And at my harme doe laugh & crye
    So So there goeth the game."

The sixth verse of the fifty-eighth psalm is rendered thus:--

  "O God breake thou thier teeth at once
    within thier mouthes throughout;
  The tuskes that in thier great jawbones
    like Lions whelpes hang out."

Another verse reads thus:--

  "The earth did quake, the raine pourde down
    Heard men great claps of thunder
  And Mount Sinai shooke in such state
    As it would cleeve in sunder."

One verse of the thirty-fifth psalm reads thus:--

  "The belly-gods and flattering traine
    that all good things deride
  At me doe grin with greate disdaine
    and pluck thier mouths aside.
  Lord when wilt thou amend this geare
    why dost thou stay & pause?
  O rid my soul, my onely deare,
    out of these Lions clawes."

The word tush occurs frequently and quaintly: "Tush I an sure to fail;" "Tush God forgetteth this."

  "And with a blast doth puff against
  such as would him correct
  Tush Tush saith he I have no dread."

Here are some of the curious expressions used:--

  "Though gripes of grief and pangs full sore
    shall lodge with us all night."

  "For why their hearts were nothing lent
    to Him nor to His trade."

  "Our soul in God hath joy and game."

  "They are so fed that even for fat
    thier eyes oft-times out start."

  "They grin they mow they nod thier heads."

  "While they have war within thier hearts."
    as butter are thier words."

  "Divide them Lord & from them pul
    thier devilish double-tongue."

  "My silly soul uptake."

  "And rained down Manna for them to eat
    a food of mickle-wonder."

  "For joy I have both gaped & breathed."

But it is useless to multiply these selections, which, viewed individually, are certainly absurd and inelegant. They often indicate, however, the exact thought of the Psalmist, and are as well expressed as the desire to be literal as well as poetic will permit them to be. Sternhold's verses compare quite favorably, when looked at either as a whole or with regard to individual lines, with those of other poets of his day, for Chaucer was the only great poet who preceded him.

I must acknowledge quite frankly in the face of critics of both this and the past century that I always read Sternhold and Hopkins' Psalms with a delight, a satisfaction that I can hardly give reasons for. Many of the renderings, though unmelodious and uneven, have a rough vigor and a sweeping swing that is to me wonderfully impressive, far more so than many of the elegant and polished methods of modern versifiers. And they are so thoroughly antique, so devoid of any resemblance to modern poems, that I love them for their penetrating savor of the olden times; and they seem no more to be compared and contrasted with modern verses than should an old castle tower be compared with a fine new city house. We prefer the latter for a habitation, it is infinitely better in every way, but we can admire also the rough grandeur of the old ruin.

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