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Songs and Hymns, in honour of their Gods, are found among all people who have either religion or verse. "There is scarcely any pagan poetry, ancient or modern, in which allusions to the national mythology are not so frequent as to constitute the most copious materials, as well as the most brilliant embellishments. The poets of Persia and Arabia, in like manner, have adorned their gorgeous strains with the fables and morals of the Koran. The relics of Jewish song which we possess, with few exceptions, are consecrated immediately to the glory of God, by whom, indeed, they were inspired. The first Christians were wont to edify themselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs; and though we have no specimens of these left, except the occasional doxologies ascribed to the redeemed in the Book of Revelation, it cannot be doubted that they used not only the psalms of the Old Testament, literally, or accommodated to the circumstances of a new and rising Church, but that they had original lays of their own, in which they celebrated the praises of Christ as the Saviour of the world. In the middle ages, the Roman Catholic and Greek churches statedly adopted singing as an essential part of public worship; but this, like the reading of the 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 congregations, 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 forerunners; 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 wish 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 : Righteousness 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, might 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 liere.
Without disparagement to the living or the dead, and to borrow the
idea of an Italian poet,* in reference to the lyre of Virgilit 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 obviouś. 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 of
* Angelo da Costanzo.