1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

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) 2:39-43.



Few persons of taste, it may be presumed, could read "Paradise Lost," or any other of the original poems of its immortal author for the first time, and then be told, that there existed Versions of a score Psalms by the same hand, without having their expectations very greatly raised as to the merit of the latter — nor, on the other hand, would they, it is probable, on a perusal of these translations, fail to be impressed with their immense inferiority to almost every other production bearing the name of Milton. But although so decidedly inferior, in almost every respect to those works which have placed their author at the head of English Poets of the highest order of genius, and while also they are far from being comparable with achievements in the same line, by men otherwise boasting no very elevated rank in our "British choir," the Versions of Milton have been somewhat unduly disparaged by their being compared with the leading productions of the same mind, rather than with those of other versifiers of the Psalms. But whatever may be the merit or the demerit of the compositions in question, the assertion that they afford an illustration of the measure of success to be looked for in others, is singularly gratuitous; and yet something very like this is ventured in Mason's "Essays on English Church Music," the Author of which was not only himself an elegant Poet, but an "improver" of Psalms from the Old Version. His words are: — "A literal Version of the Psalms may boldly be asserted to be impracticable; for, if it were not, a Poet so great as Milton would not, even in his earliest youth, have proved himself so very little of a formidable rival, as he has done, to Thomas Sternhold." Milton not only lived in an age when Metrical Psalmody was much cultivated, but he was brought under its immediate influence, and evidently loved "the pealing organ," and "the full-voiced quire;", his father was skilled in music, having, it is said, composed some of the tunes in Ravenscroft's Psalms. Be this as it may, the earliest known efforts of the muse of "Paradise Lost," are Versions of two Psalms, the 114th and 136th, "done by the Author at fifteen years old," both of which contain, if not indications of the future Poet, at least no traces of juvenile imperfection. In 1648, the year in which Charles I. was beheaded, Milton, then 40 years of age, resumed the experiment which had amused his boyhood; the result is extant, under the title of "Nine of the Psalms done into metre, wherein, all but what is in a different character, are the very words of the text, translated from the original." These Psalms are the 80th to the 88th, both inclusive; and from the comparatively small number of words in italics, as indicative of poetical expletives, they prove how very near — how all but literal, even an English Metrical Version of the Psalms might have been made by Milton — how much nearer to perfection, the experiment of a "literal" rendering could be carried; or what would be the value of complete success, were that attainable, are different questions. In 1653, after he had lost his sight, and when he must have commenced "Paradise Lost," Milton once more returned to the Psalms. Whether or not he contemplated a Version of the whole does not appear, though it might be supposed he did, from the fact of his beginning with the first Psalm, and rendering that, and the seven following in succession. So heartily, indeed, does he appear to have addressed himself to this "labour of love," that the eight Psalms are all dated within six days, i.e., between the 8th and the 14th of August. In these translations Milton has dropped the scheme of distinguishing between the original and superadded matter by means of italics: they are, however, for the most part, not only very close Versions, but they contain, as Warton has remarked, "some very poetical expressions." The following will illustrate the peculiarity above referred to, as characterising Milton's earlier Versions:—

PSALM LXXXI.
To God our strength sing loud and clear,
Sing loud to God our King;
To Jacob's God, that all may hear,
Loud acclamations ring.

Prepare a hymn, prepare a song,
The timbrel hither bring;
The cheerful psaltery bring along,
And harp with pleasant string.

Blow, as is wont, in the new moon,
With trumpets' lofty sound,
The appointed time, the day whereon
Our solemn feast comes round.

This was a statute given of old
For Israel to observe;
A law of Jacob's God, to hold,
From whence they might not swerve.

This he a testimony ordained
In Joseph, not to change,
When as he pass'd through Egypt land;
The tongue I heard was strange.

From burden, and from slavish toil,
I set his shoulder free:
His hands from pots, and miry soil,
Deliver'd were by me.

When trouble did thee sore assail,
On me then didst thou call;
And I to free thee did not fail,
And led thee out of thrall.

I answer'd thee in thunder deep,
With clouds encompass'd round;
I tried thee at the water steep
Of Meriba renown'd.

Hear, O my people, hearken well;
I testify to thee,
Thou ancient stock of Israel,
If thou wilt list to me:

Throughout the land of thy abode
No alien God shall be;
Nor shalt thou to a foreign god
In honour bend thy knee.

I am the Lord thy God which brought
Thee out of Egypt land;
Ask large enough, and I, besought,
Will grant thy full demand.

And yet my people would not hear,
Nor hearken to my voice;
And Israel, whom I loved so dear,
Misliked me for his choice.

Then did I leave them to their will,
And to their wandering mind
Their own conceits they followed still,
Their own devices blind.

O, that my people would be wise,
To serve me all their days!
And O, that Israel would advise
To walk my righteous ways!

Then would I soon bring down their foes,
That now so proudly rise;
And turn my hand against all those,
That are their enemies.

Who hate the Lord should then be fain
To bow to him and bend;
But they, his people, should remain;
Their time should have no end:

And he would feed them from the shock
With flour of finest wheat,
And satisfy them from the rock
With honey for their meat.