1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Francis Rous the Elder

John Holland, in Psalmists of Britain. Records of upwards of One Hundred and Fifty Authors, who have rendered the Whole or Parts of The Book of Psalms, into English Verse (1843) 2:31-38.



Francis Rouse was born at Halton, in Cornwall, in 1579, and studied at Oxford. He was elected M.P. for Truro, shewed himself an active man for the Commonwealth, and became a Member of Cromwell's Council. He wrote a number of works of a political and theological character; and being highly Calvinistic in doctrine, and Presbyterian in his views of Church Government, he was held in considerable estimation by the then ruling powers. Parliament being desirous of superseding the Psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins, then used and popular in the Church, either employed Rouse, or he set himself to make a new Version more conformable to the Calvinistic worship; it is generally believed that this was published in 1641. In 1643, the Assembly of Divines then sitting at Westminster were desired to consider the subject of Psalmody: they accordingly read over Mr. Rouse's Version, and after several amendments, sent it up to the House of Commons, Nov. 14, 1645, with the following recommendation: "Whereas the Honourable House of Commons, by an order bearing date Nov. 20, 1643, have recommended the Psalms published by Mr. Rouse to the consideration of the Assembly of Divines, the Assembly has caused them to be carefully perused, and as they are now altered and amended do approve them, and humbly conceive they may be useful and profitable to the Church, if they be permitted to be publicly sung." The revised Version was accordingly reprinted in 1645, by authority of both Houses of Parliament, and recommended to general acceptance: it was, however, only very partially adopted in England, though its success in Scotland was, as might be expected, far different. In a pamphlet lately published advocating an improvement of our National Psalmody, the Northern Version is thus noticed: "The Version now in use by the Kirk of Scotland undoubtedly comes nearer than any other to the original. The rendering is somewhat rough and uncouth in certain passages; but as a whole it is most magnificent. The General Assembly for some years annually appointed a Committee to revise it, but their labours never came to any thing: and we believe it was on the suggestion of Sir Walter Scott that no further attempt was made to alter it. He considered it with all its acknowledged (occasional) harshness, so beautiful, that any alterations must eventually prove only so many blemishes; and most undoubtedly Sir Walter Scott was right. Now though we speak thus highly of the Scotch Psalms, we freely admit that they are not suited for general use in England; but this much we must add, that whoever may attempt a new rendering of the Songs of David into metre, or an adaptation of existing ones to the pressing necessities of the Church, ought to be fully imbued with the spirit of that prince of versions." This is, indeed, high praise, and not perhaps wholly unmerited; but surely less capable of being defended in its widest meaning, than the sentence of Dr. Drake, a judge possessing much taste undoubtedly, who speaks of the performance of Rouse, the parent of "that prince of versions," as "so thoroughly wretched in its execution, that nothing short of the most compulsory measures could have brought it into use." Such indeed appears to have been the opinion even of those of his contemporaries who were unbiassed by Presbyterian preferences. Butler even places him below the poorest Poet of the Old Version: for he tells that "when Rouse stood forth upon his trial, Robin Wisdom was found the better Poet." The writer of an article in Frazer's Magazine, (May, 1839,) contends that the Kirk Psalm Book ought to be the basis of an English one. "It is," says he, called the Scotch Version; but the fact is that it was executed by Francis Rouse, a person of notoriety in the days of Oliver Cromwell, and if we mistake not, a Member of the Long Parliament. It ought to be the basis of a national English Version. The suggestion of Sir Walter Scott, we may remark, however, ought not to be scrupulously adhered to in the Kirk. There are portions of the Scottish Version intolerable, which the merest tyro might infinitely polish."

It is somewhat remarkable that although every one who has given any account of our Metrical Psalmody, mentions Rouse and his Version, not one of them speaks as having ever seen a copy, or states where one is to be found. And still more curious is it that Rouse's book has hitherto been so far from ever being identified with its real author, that it is always either spoken of as anonymous, or is attributed to the Printer. The following is its title: — "The PSALMS of DAVID in English Meeter. (Psal. 47. v. 7. Words in Hebrew.) Sing ye Praises with Understanding. London, printed by Miles Flesher, for the Company of Stationers, 1646." Although I am not aware of the existence of any copy with the name of Rouse in the title page, a comparison of these Psalms with the received Scottish Version — altered as the latter have been, is sufficient to establish the identity of the original. But through the kindness of Mr. D. Laing, of the Signet Library, Edinburgh, I am enabled to inform the reader, that in the valuable collection just named, there is a copy of the work with the following Imprimatur facing the title: — "Die Veneris 4. Novemb. 1645. It is this day ordered by the Commons assembled in Parliament, That this Book of Psalms set forth by Mr. Rous, and perused by the Assembly of Divines, be forthwith printed: And that it be referred to Mr. Rous to take care for the printing thereof: and that none do presume to print it, but such as shall be authorised by him. H. Elsinge — Cler. Parl. Dom. Com." Each Psalm is accompanied with the Prose Version of King James, printed in the margin.

PSALM XCIX.
Jehovah he doth reign as King,
then let the people quake;
He sits between the Cherubims,
let the earth therefore shake.

The Lord's in Sion great and high
above all people is;
Let them thy great and dreadful Name extol,
for holy 'tis.

The King's strength also Judgment loves
thou settest equity;
For judgment thou didst execute
in Jacob righteously.

The Lord our God exalt on hy,
and reverently do ye
Before his footstool worship him,
the holy one is he.

Moses and Aaron with his Priests,
samuel with them that call
Upon his Name; these call'd on God,
and he them answer'd all.

Within the pillar of the cloud
he unto them did speak;
The testimonies they, and law
he gave them, did not break.

Thou answerdst them, O Lord our God,
thou wast their pardoning God;
Yet their inventions thou didst scourge,
with a revenging rod.

Exalt the Lord our God, and at
the holy hill of his,
him worship ye because the Lord
our God most holy is.

Rouse obtained the important situation of Provost of Eton College, his portrait being still preserved in the Master's Lodge. He was by one of his contemporaries styled the "old illiterate Jew of Eton;" why he was called a Jew does not appear: as for his learning, it may have been inferior to that of the "ever memorable" Hales, who was expelled from his fellowship of Eton for not swearing to the Engagement in 1649, but he certainly could not with propriety be said to be illiterate: old he might be, for his life was prolonged till 1658. He was buried in Eton College Church: "Mr. Oxenden," says Wood, "preaching his" funeral sermon." The same authority adds: — "Soon after were hanged up over his grave a standard, pennon, &c., and other ensigns relating to Barons, containing the arms of the several matches of his family. All which continuing there till 1661, were then pulled down with scorn by the loyal Provost and fellows, and thrown aside as tokens and badges of baseness and rebellion. Those of his party did declare openly to the world that he 'needed no monument besides his own printed Works and the memorials of his last will, to convey his name to posterity. And that the other Works of his life were Works of Charity, wherein he was most exemplary, as the poor in many parts would, after the loss of him, tell you.'"

The leading circumstances connected with the formation of the present authorised Scottish Version on the basis of the paraphrase of Rouse, have been mentioned in the Introduction, as well as the reluctance of the Kirk to yield to innovation in the matter of its Metrical Psalmody. When about 1779 the question of a new Metrical Version of the Psalms was talked about in Scotland, some letters on the subject passed between Sir W. Forbes and Dr. Beattie, the latter having composed two specimens in illustration, it would seem, of a venerable truism — for surely such must be the opinion, that, "if two Versions be in all other only equal, that which has the fewest words would be thought the better." The specimens do not exist to enable us to judge of their merit. In 1773, a New Version was offered by the Rev. James Maxwell, who, strangely enough, in such a Work has quashed the bearing of every phrase having reference to instrumental music! But even this singular expedient seems not to have influenced the Kirk. In 1811, again in 1814, and lastly, in 1820, attempts were made, not to supersede the Old Version, but to introduce, under the designation of "Additional Psalmody," metrical paraphrases of several of the Psalms, executed in a style conformable to the taste and skill of the age. Several eminent Poets were asked to contribute; some of them did so, and their Versions, along with those of persons more immediately concerned, were printed by order of the General Assembly, and sent to the different Presbyteries for their inspection. By the kindness of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Brunton, of Edinburgh, who took an active part in this business, I have before me, a copy of the proposed "Additional Psalmody;" it comprises Versions of upwards of thirty Psalms, or portions of Psalms, besides a number of Hymns, or other Scriptures: several of the former, possess considerable merit as poetical compositions, and I was anxious to identify them with the names of their Authors respectively, but Dr. Brunton assures me that he does not know them. I suspect, however, he could have furnished me with the name of the versifier of at least one of the specimens, which I should have been gratified to have recorded in that connection, in these pages. The whole project slumbers at present, as it has done for nearly twenty years.