1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Samuel Woodford

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) 2:69-72.



Woodford was born in London, in 1636: though of his parentage I have met with no particulars. He became a commoner of Wadham College, oxford, where he seems to have been fond of music, for Anthony a Wood names him among sixteen of his friends, who used to play and sing together in his younger days. It does not appear what profession he followed early in life, or whether any, nor why he was first led to think of versifying the Psalms, except that he "did it to please some particular friends." After mentioning in a Preface what he considered to be requisite in a successful paraphrase, and his own "zeal for Poesie," as exemplified in the undertaking, he adds: — "But I know not how, on a suddain, all my heat was laid; and the greatness of the labour, together with my own insufficiency, deterred me at that time, from proceeding any further. Hereupon for about three years the design slept with me, till reading over with a little more than ordinary attention, the cxiv. Psalm of Mr. Cowley's, I was again warmed, and in imitation of him I was resolved once more to try how well or ill I could write after so excellent a copy." Perhaps the only advantage of aspiring after such a model, was the variety which our author has displayed in the construction of his stanzas; for the heaviest verbosity becomes less tedious, when the strain is diversified. In 1667 was published in 4to. "A Paraphrase, in English Verse, upon the Books of the Psalms, by Sam. Woodforde, S.R.S." The Manuscript is in the British Museum, (Harl. MS. No. 1768:) it is the Author's Autograph, and contains, besides the Psalms — 1. A letter from Dr. Woodford to his kinsman Mr. Beale, dated 16 Dec. 1667, making him a present of the Book. 2. The Author's Dedication of the Work to George Morley, Bishop of Winchester. 3. The Preface. 4. Another letter to Mr. Beale. 5. The Author's acknowledgment to God (in three Stanzas) who first put this design into his heart, and gave him abilities to finish it. At the end of the Psalms is this note: — "This copy of the Psalms was transcribed at Albrook, about Sep. 1665. Mr. Stillingfleet carried it to the Bishop of Winton, and thence to Oxon, whence it was again returned to me about the end of December, the same yeare. By this copy at Albrook, about January, 1665-6, I transcribed another for the press, in which I altered some things, as will appear by the Printed Books." The author confesses his desire that his work might be kindly received, that "so," he adds, I might be encouraged to prosecute another design (in this way) which at present lies before me — the History of the first great week of the World, wherein new discoveries of that and nature, make the subject more large and comprehensive for verse than ever it has been; and in the performance of which I promise myself great assistance by the unwearied and most successful labours of the Royal Society." This work, whatever its drift, and whether written or not, was never published. Woodford appears, in the issue, to have been willing to leave the celebration of the "First Week of the World" to Du Bartas, Sir Richard Blackmore, and others, while he addressed himself to a subject, as much more attractive as it was less philosophical — "The Song of Solomon." This highly allegorical portion of Holy Scripture, abounding, as it does, in metaphors and imagery of so purely an oriental cast, that sober English theologians have found no little difficulty in explaining its meaning satisfactorily, was not only the frequent theme of Poets, but of Preachers, in the Seventeenth Century. So far as the former confined themselves merely to versifying the Canticles in whole or in part, their labours may be said to have been less offensive to good taste and sound judgment, than those of the latter: but when rhyming effusions in this style of fervid and luscious phraseology, such as the pious Dr. Watts regrets himself to have composed while young, found their way into religious Congregations, their tendency to produce spiritual emasculation, may well have been deplored. It may be added, that however little surprising it will appear that, in an age when such paraphrases were on many accounts popular, several Poets should have tried their hands at so easy a task as turning the "Song of Songs" into rhyme, it is a curious fact, that not only is there no one of these Versions at present generally read — or scarcely known, but, on the whole, they may be said to be even less redolent of the exquisite perfection of the common prose translation in our Bible, than on the average are our Metrical Versions of the Psalms. Having obtained the patronage of the Bishop of Winchester above named, Woodford entered into Holy Orders, took the degree of B.D., became Rector of Hartley Malduith, Hants, and Prebendary of Winchester, after which he republished in 1678, a revised Edition, in 8vo. of his "Paraphrase upon the Psalms," with a grateful Dedication to his diocesan. This Version, as already intimated, possesses but little poetical merit, although it is often mentioned, and Flatman has a "Pindarique Ode" in its praise: nor does it appear ever to have aided "the service of the Altar:" it is a diffusive explication of the text; the author having adopted the method, as he cites the authority, of Bishop Godeau in the French translation. Woodford died in 1700. The reality of his affection for the Book of Psalms, was shewn not only by his own metrical labours thereon, but by transcribing "for Sir Philip Sidney's sake, and to preserve such a remaine of him," that copy of the translation of the Psalms by this honoured individual, and his illustrious sister, the Countess of Pembroke, which is now in the Bodleian Library. Woodford's Version of the Psalms, is not of very rare occurrence in old Libraries.