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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 14.

Other Old Psalm-Books.

There are occasionally found in New England on the shelves of old libraries, in the collections of antiquaries, or in the attics of old farm-houses, hidden in ancient hair-trunks or painted sea-chests or among a pile of dusty books in a barrel,--there are found dingy, mouldy, tattered psalm-books of other versions than the ones which we know were commonly used in the New England churches. Perhaps these books were never employed in public worship in the new land; they may have been brought over by some colonist, in affectionate remembrance of the church of his youth, and sung from only with tender reminiscent longing in his own home. But when groups of settlers who were neighbors and friends in their old homes came to America and formed little segregated communities by themselves, there is no doubt that they sung for a time from the psalm-books that they brought with them.

A rare copy is sometimes seen of Marot and Beza's French Psalm-book, brought to America doubtless by French Huguenot settlers, and used by them until (and perhaps after) the owners had learned the new tongue. Some of the Huguenots became members of the Puritan churches in America, others were Episcopalians. In Boston the Fancuils, Baudoins, Boutineaus, Sigourneys, and Johannots were all Huguenots, and attended the little brick church built on School Street in 1704, which was afterwards occupied by the Twelfth Congregational Society of Boston, and in 1788 became a Roman Catholic church.

The pocket psalm-book of Gabriel Bernon, the builder of the old French Fort at Oxford, is one of Marot and Beza's Version, and is still preserved and owned by one of his descendants; other New England families of French lineage cherish as precious relics the French psalm-books of their Huguenot ancestors. There has been in France no such incessant production of new metrical versions of the psalms as in England. From the time of the publication of the first versified psalms in 1540, through nearly three centuries the psalm-book of all French Protestants has been that of Marot and Beza. This French version of the psalms is of special interest to all thoughtful students of the history of Protestantism, because it was the first metrical translation of the psalms ever sung and used by the people; and it was without doubt one of the most powerful influences that assisted in the religious awakening of the Reformation.

Clement Marot was the "Valet of the Bed-chamber to King Francis I.," and was one of the greatest French poets of his time; in fact, he gave his name to a new school of poetry,--"Marotique." He had tried his hand at an immense variety of profane verse, he had written ballades, chansons, pastourelles, vers équivoques, eclogues, laments, complaints, epitaphs, chants-royals, blasons, contreblasons, dizains, huitains, envois; he had been, Warton says, "the inventor of the rondeau and the restorer of the madrigal;" and yet, in spite of his well-known ingenuity and versatility, it occasioned much surprise and even amusement when it was known that the gay poet had written psalm-songs and proposed to substitute them for the love-songs of the French court. I doubt if Marot thought very deeply of the religious influence of his new songs, in spite of Mr. Morley's belief in the versifier's serious intent. He was doubtless interested and perhaps somewhat infected by "Lutheranisme," though perhaps he was more of a free-thinker than a Protestant. He himself said of his faith:--

              "I am not a Lutherist
Nor Zuinglian and less Anabaptist,
I am of God through his son Jesus Christ.
I am one who has many works devised
From which none could extract a single line
Opposing itself to the law divine."

And again:--

"Luther did not come down from heaven for me
Luther was not nailed to the cross to be
My Saviour; for my sins to suffer shame,
And I was not baptized in Luther's name.
The name I was baptized in sounds so sweet
That at the sound of it, what we entreat
The Eternal Father gives."

In the year 1540, at the instigation of King Francis, Marot presented a manuscript copy of his thirty new psalm-songs to Charles V., king of Spain, receiving therefor two hundred gold doubloons. Francis encouraged him by further gifts, and so praised his work that the author soon published the thirty in a book which he dedicated to the king; and to which he also prefixed a metrical address to the ladies of France, bidding these fair dames to place their

  "doigts sur les espinettes
Pour dire sainctes chansonnettes."

These "sainctes chansonnettes" became at once the rage; courtiers and princes, lords and ladies, ever ready for some new excitement, seized at once upon the novel psalm-songs, and having no special or serious music for them, cheerfully sang the sacred words to the ballad-tunes of the times, and to their gailliards and measures, without apparently any very deep thought of their religious meaning. Disraeli says that each of the royal family and each nobleman chose for his favorite song a psalm expressive of his own feeling or sentiments. The Dauphin, as became a brave huntsman, chose

"Ainsi qu'on vit le cerf bruyre,"

"As the hart panteth after the water-brook,"

and he gayly and noisily sang it when he went to the chase. The Queen chose

"Ne vueilles pas, ô sire,
Me reprendre en ton ire."

"Rebuke me not in thine indignation."

Antony, king of Navarre, sung

"Revenge moy prens la querelle,"

"Stand up, O Lord! to revenge my quarrel,"

to the air of a dance of Poitou. Diane de Poictiers chose

"Du fond de ma pensée."

"From the depth of my heart."

But when from interest in her psalm-song she wished to further read and study the Bible, she was warned from the danger with horror by the Cardinal of Lorraine. This religious awakening and inquiry was of course deprecated and dreaded by the Romish Church; to the Sorbonne all this rage for psalm-singing was alarming enough. What right had the people to sing God's word, "I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall be continually in my mouth"? The new psalm-songs were soon added to the list of "Heretical Books" forbidden by the Church, and Marot fled to Geneva in 1543. He had ere this been under ban of the Church, even under condemnation of death; had been proclaimed a heretic at all the cross-ways throughout the kingdom, and had been imprisoned. But he had been too good a poet and courtier to be lost, and the king had then interested himself and obtained the release of the versatile song writer. The fickle king abandoned for a second time the psalm versifier, who never again returned to France.

The austere and far-seeing Calvin at once adopted Marot's version of the Psalms, now enlarged to the number of fifty, and added them to the Genevan Confession of Faith,--recommending however that they be sung with the grave and suitable strains written, for them by Guillaume Frane.

The collection was completed with the assistance of Theodore Beza, the great theologian, and the demand for the books was so great that the printers could not supply them quickly enough. Ten thousand copies were sold at once,--a vast number for the times.

But Marot was not happy in Geneva with Calvin and the Calvinists, as we can well understand. Beza, in his "History of the French Reformed Churches" said, "He (Marot) had always been bred up in a very bad school, and could not live in subjection to the reformation of the Gospel, and therefore went and spent the rest of his days in Piedmont, which was then in the possession of the king, where he lived in some security under the favor of the governor." He lived less than a year, however, dying in 1544.

These psalms of Marot's passed through a great number and variety of editions. In addition to the Genevan publications, an immense number were printed in England. Nearly all the early editions were elegant books; carefully printed on rich paper, beautifully bound in rich moroccos and leathers, often emblazoned with gold on the covers, and with corners and clasps of precious metals,--they show the wealth and fashion of the owners. When, however, it came to be held an infallible sign of "Lutheranisme" to be a singer of psalms, simpler and cheaper bindings appear; hence the dress of the French Psalm-Book found in New England is often dull enough, but invariably firm and substantial.

These psalms of Marot's are written in a great variety of song-measures, which seem scarcely as solemn and religious as the more dignified and even metres used by the early English writers. Some are graceful and smooth, however, and are canorous though never sonorous. They are pleasing to read with their quaint old spelling and lettering.

In the old Sigourney psalm-book the nineteenth psalm was thus rendered:--

"Les cieux en chaque lieu
La puissance de Dieu
  Racourent aux humains
Ce grand entour espars
Publie en toutes parts
  L'ouvrage de ses mains.

"Iour apres iour coulant
Du Saigneur va parlant
  Par longue experience.
La nuict suivant la nuict,
Nous presche et nous instruicst
  De sa grád sapience"

Another much-employed metre was this, of the hundred and thirty-third psalm:--

"Asais aux bors do ce superbe fleuve
Que de Babel les campagnes abreuve,
Nos tristes coeurs ne pensoient qu' à Sion.
Chacun, helas, dans cette affliction
Les yeux en pleurs la morte peinte au visage
Pendit sa harpe aux saules du rivage."

A third and favorite metre was this:--

"Mais sa montagne est un sainct lieu:
Qui viendra done au mont de Dieu?
  Qui est-ce qui là tiendra place?
Le homine de mains et coeur lavé,
En vanité non éslevé
  Et qui n'a juré en fallace."

Marot wrote in his preface to the psalms:--

"Thrice happy they who shall behold
And listen in that age of gold
As by the plough the laborer strays
And carman 'mid the public ways
And tradesman in his shop shall swell
The voice in psalm and canticle,
Sing to solace toil; again
From woods shall come a sweeter strain,
Shepherd and shepherdess shall vie
In many a tender Psalmody,
And the Creator's name prolong
As rock and stream return their song."

Though these words seem prophetic, the gay and volatile Marot could never have foreseen what has proved one of the most curious facts in religious history,--that from the airy and unsubstantial seed sown by the French courtier in such a careless, thoughtless manner, would spring the great-spreading and deep-rooted tree of sacred song.

Little volumes of the metrical rendering of the Psalms, known as "Tate and Brady's Version," are frequently found in New England. It was the first English collection of psalms containing any smoothly flowing verses. Many of the descendants of the Puritans clung with affection to the more literal renderings of the "New England Psalm-Book," and thought the new verses were "tasteless, bombastic, and irreverent." The authors of the new book were certainly not great poets, though Nahum Tate was an English Poet-Laureate. It is said of him that he was so extremely modest that he was never able to make his fortune or to raise himself above necessity. He was not too modest, however, to dare to make a metrical version of the Psalms, to write an improvement of King Lear, and a continuation of Absalom and Achitophel. Brady--equally modest--translated the Aeneid in rivalry of Dryden. "This translation," says Johnson, "when dragged into the world did not live long enough to cry."

Such commonplace authors could hardly compose a version that would have a stable foundation or promise of long existence. But few of Tate and Brady's hymns are now seen in our church-collections of Hymns and Psalms. To them we owe, however, these noble lines, which were written thus:--

"Be thou, O God, exalted High,
And as thy glory fills the Skie
So let it be on Earth displaid
Till thou art here as There obeyed."

The hymn commencing,--

"My soul for help on God relies,
  From him alone my safety flows,"

is also of their composition.

The first edition of these psalms was printed in 1696, and bore this title, "The Book of Psalms, a new version in metre fitted to the tunes used in Churches. By N. Tate and N. Brady." It was dedicated to King William, and though its use was permitted in English churches, it never supplanted Sternhold and Hopkins' Version. In New England Tate and Brady's Psalms became more universally popular,--not, however, without fierce opposing struggles from the older church-members at giving up the venerated "Bay Psalm-Book."

Another version of Psalms which is occasionally found in New England is known as "Patrick's Version." The title is "The Psalms of David in Metre Fitted to the Tunes used in Parish Churches by John Patrick, D.D. Precentor to the Charter House London." A curious feature of this octavo edition of 1701, which I have, is, "An Explication of Some Words of less Common Use For the Benefit of the Common People." Here are a few of the "explications:"--

"Celebrate--Make renown'd.
Climes--Countries differing in length of days.
Detracting--Lessening one's credit.
Fluid--Yielding.
Infest--Annoy.
Theam--Matter of Discourse.
Uncessant--Never ceasing.
Stupemlious--Astonishing."

Baxter said of Patrick, "His holy affection and harmony hath so far reconciled the Nonconformists that diverse of them use his Psalms in their congregation." I doubt if the version were used in New England Nonconformist congregations. Some of his verses read thus:--

"Lord hear the pray'rs and mournfull cries
  Of mine afflicted estate,
And with thy Comforts chear my soul,
  Before it is too late.

"My days consume away like Smoak
  Mine anguish is so great,
My bones are not unlike a hearth
  Parched & dry with heat.

"Such is my grief I little else
  Can do but sigh and groan.
So wasted is my flesh I'm left
  Nothing but skin and bone.

"Like th' Owl and Pelican that dwell
  In desarts out of sight,
I sadly do bemoan myself,
  In solitude delight.

"The wakeful bird that on Housetops
  Sits without company
And spends the night in mournful cries
  Leads such a life as I.

"The Ashes I rowl in when I eat
  Are tasted with my bread,
And with my Drink are mixed the tears
  I plentifully shed."

A version of the Psalms which seems to have demanded and deserved more attention than it received was written by Cotton Mather. He was doomed to disappointment in seeing his version adopted by the New England churches just as his ambitions and hopes were disappointed in many other ways. This book was published in 1718. It was called "Psalterium Americanum. A Book of Psalms in a translation exactly conformed unto the Original; but all in blank verse. Fitted unto the tunes commonly used in the Church." By a curious arrangement of brackets and the use of two kinds of print these psalms could be divided into two separate metres and could be sung to tunes of either long or short metre. After each psalm were introduced explanations written in Mather's characteristic manner,--a manner both scholarly and bombastic. I have read the "Psalterium Americanum" with care, and am impressed with its elegance, finish, and dignity. It is so popular, however, even now-a-days, to jibe at poor Cotton Mather, that his Psalter does not escape the thrusts of laughing critics. Mr. Glass, the English critic, holds up these lines as "one of the rich things:"--

"As the Hart makes a panting cry
  For cooling streams of water,
So my soul makes a panting cry
  For thee--O Mighty God."

I have read these lines over and over again, and fail to see anything very ludicrous in them, though they might be slightly altered to advantage. Still they may be very absurd and laughable from an English point of view.

So superior was Cotton Mather's version to the miserable verses given in "The Bay Psalm-Book" that one wonders it was not eagerly accepted by the New England churches. Doubtless they preferred rhyme--even the atrocious rhyme of "The Bay Psalm Book." And the fact that the "Psalterium Americanum" contained no musical notes or directions also militated against its use.

Other American clergymen prepared metrical versions of the psalms that were much loved and loudly sung by the respective congregations of the writers. The work of those worthy, painstaking saints we will neither quote nor criticise,--saying only of each reverend versifier, "Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical." Rev. John Barnard, who preached for fifty-four years in Marblehead, published at the age of seventy years a psalm-book for his people. Though it appeared in 1752, a time when "The Bay Psalm Book" was being shoved out of the New England churches, Barnard's Version of the Psalms was never used outside of Marblehead. Rev. Abijah Davis published another book of psalms in which he copied whole pages from Watts without a word of thanks or of due credit, which was apparently neither Christian, clerical nor manly behavior.

Watts's monosyllabic Hymns, which were not universally used in America until after the Revolution, are too well known and are still too frequently seen to need more than mention. Within the last century a flood of new books of psalms of varying merit and existence has poured out upon the New England churches, and filled the church libraries and church, pews, the second-hand book shops, the missionary boxes, and the paper-mills.

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