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bly assume: penitential and precatory hymns offer a no less easy and natural medium of expression for the deep sorrows of the contrite, and the affectionate yearnings of the sad and forsaken soul. Nor was the highest authority wanting for the use of such lyric effusions, whether in the assemblies of the faithful, or in the solitary exercises of devotion. Our blessed Lord himself sanctioned the custom, by singing the usual hymn of the Jews, in celebrating the Passover. It was continued and extended by the apostles; who earnestly enjoined the practice upon their converts. At a very early period, the use of music and verse in their religious meetings attracted the notice of the heathen, as particularly characteristic of the Christians.' Not only did it become an important part of both public and private worship, but the sacred compositions, either of the early Christian bards, or of the Jewish canonical writers in Latin and Greek metrical versions, became so numerous and so popular, as wholly to banish those wanton songs, which are commonly the delight of the people, from the field, the workshop, and the festive circle. Nothing can be more interesting than the account given by one of the fathers, of the general employment of pious verse, as the medium of every joyful emotion : “So that,” says he, "you could not go into the country, but you might hear the ploughman at his
" See the well-known epistle of Pliny to Trajan.
hallelujahs, the mower at his hymns, and the vinedresser singing David's Psalms." By degrees these emotions would be wrought into a higher strain. Skill would come to the aid of piety; and the bold, yet trembling hand of genius, too long accustomed to Apollo's lyre, would reverently take down the harp of the true Urania, suspended by the altar. The Christian poets, previous to the revival of learning, do not indeed appear to have been aware of the greatness and interest of the subjects which the religion of the gospel had laid open to them; they lived in times and under circumstances little favourable to the development and discipline of their peculiar faculty. Yet there is much, in their remains, which taste as well as piety might suggest the wish to have better known. A sacred anthology collected and translated from the works of Gregory, Ambrose, Prudentius, Prosper, Sedulius, Fortunatus, Cosmos, and many others, some of whose names are unknown, but whose fragments are preserved in the collections, would be no unworthy or undesirable addition to the poetic wreath of English literature.
Rich in almost every department of poetry, the literature of England may be considered particularly distinguished by the number and excellence of its volumes of sacred verse ;-more especially, if weinclude under this character a great part of many works, which, though not expressly upon Christian subjects, are more or less entitled to it by their occasional solemn views of the most important subjects of human reflection and enquiry. The general thoughtfulness of the national character may, perhaps, sufficiently account for this fact; to which, however, other concurrent circumstances should be added. Among these we may regard as the most influential the early publication of our vernacular Scriptures. It is impossible to reflect upon the incalculable influence which the free use of this noble version, by a great nation, in an affectionate and thankful spirit, for centuries, must have had upon the character of both people and literature; and, further, upon
' Jerome, cited in Cave's Primitive Christianity, part i. ch. ix. ? Paradise Lost, book vii. Invocation.
3 Poetæ Christiani Veteres, 4to. Ven. 1501-4. Poetarum Veterum Ecclesiasticorum Opera, fol. Basle, 1564. Bibliotheca Patrum, Par. 1624, &c.
what would have been the diminished value of the boon, even for those who might have enjoyed it, had it been delayed to a much later period; without acknowledging a providence in the choice of the time when, and the instruments by whose means, this benefit was conferred.
As yet, the language was in a gradual process of formation. Ductile, various, and manly-confined within no acknowledged rules, and checked by no fear of criticism-it was in a state admirably fitted to become the faithful mirror of the national character, which the publication of that great work was calculated so deeply to affect. The English Bible long supplied the chief intellectual as well
it was A more
as spiritual food of Englishmen. The sublime thoughts and majestic style of the Hebrew prophets and historians sank deep into the popular mind; the language of the Scriptures became the basis of both poetry and
many, the familiar vehicle of common discourse. admirable school could not be, for training the poetic energies of a people; and though all the benefits which might have resulted, did not follow, yet the distinctive character of English poetry, down to the present day, sufficiently evinces that they were not lost. During the century and half which followed the translation of the Scriptures, the effect is obvious. In spite of the frivolity of courts, (in those times the only patrons of literature,) of the increasing study of pagan authors, and of the fashions derived from Italy and Spain, the muse of England still haunted “ Zion's Hill,” still loved the murmur of
Nearly all the best poets of that period were sacred poets. Not that they all chose exclusively religious or moral subjects. Many indeed did so: Spenser, Gascoigne, Drayton, Davies, the Fletchers, Quarles, and others, had established the reputation of English literature, in this department, before the publication of the Paradise Lost indelibly stamped the religious upon it, as its leading characteristic. But in spite of the indulgence of puerile fancy, of occasional coarse painting, and frequent licentiousness of language, we meet, in the works of nearly all the true poets of the seventeenth century, with more than implied and indirect acknowledgments of the serious, the responsible nature of their gifts and calling. We meet, not merely with moral reflections and references to subjects of imperishable interest, such as abound in the works of the pagan poets, and necessarily force
themselves at times upon every thoughtful mind; * but with an unaffected admission of the Christian
doctrines, and the peculiar hopes and prospects founded upon them. That such topics sometimes only take their turn with others, with which they have nothing in common, and even their juxta-position with which is sufficiently harsh and unbecoming, favours the view now taken. The careless and incongruous mixture of the sacred and the secular -the former, however, mostly appearing as the real substratum of the character-indicates at least the sincerity and honest faith of the writer, whatever opinion it may oblige us to form of his taste. One of the most remarkable and decisive proofs of the tendency of the poetical genius of this century, and of the public taste, whether regarded as leading it, or led by it, is the extraordinary number of metrical versions of the Psalms, and lyrical compositions scattered throughout the Scriptures, which appeared between the Reformation and the close