Rev. Isaac Watts

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) 2:146-53.

The progress of this work has now brought us to the period of the publication of a Version, which, while it cannot be said to have produced any revolution in the character of National Psalmody, gave, nevertheless, such a degree of impression, popularity, and permanency to one species of it, that the sweetly versified workings of a single pious mind at the beginning of the eighteenth century, are not only largely adopted at this day, as the public devotional expression of thousands of others, but they appear likely to continue in estimation as long, and to influence as widely, as the English language is heard in singing the praises of God in the Christian Sanctuary. These remarks have, of course, reference to the appearance, in 1719, of "The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian State and Worship: by Isaac Watts, D.D." This truly eminent and exemplary Dissenting Divine was born in 1674, and died in 1748, leaving behind him a reputation for piety, unsullied by a single stain, and the character of a theologian, a dialectician, and a poet, which celebrated men of the most conflicting sentiments in other respects, have concurred in honouring. It can hardly be necessary to do more than remind the reader of these pages, that Watts was by no means the originator of the questionable practice of rendering the Psalms not literally but interpretively — in other words, of imitating them in "the language of the New Testament." Many persons had more or less previously, but hesitatingly entered upon a path, which the venerable Doctor was the first to tread with sufficient firmness to render his success permanently influential: it is in connexion, therefore, with the record of his signal experiment that we may properly notice, somewhat in detail, the "vexed question" of evangelizing the Psalms for the purposes of Congregational Singing.

1 — That the Psalms do contain prophecies relative to Christ, has never been denied — the testimony of our Saviour himself on this point being most explicit. (Luke xx. 12. xxiv. 44.)

2 — Nor, with reference to the applicability to the Messiah, of certain passages themselves, has there ever existed any difference of opinion among Orthodox Divines, however they may have been divided as to the extent to which this principle of interpretation should be carried.

3 — The admission or non-admission, therefore, of the propriety of rendering the Psalms by an accommodated use of the phraseology of the New Testament, has nothing at all to do with doctrinal questions.

4 — Neither has it any thing to do with the practice of literally versifying portions of Psalms, except this be done for the purpose of bringing such extracts within the scope of any particular system of interpretation.

The main question, then, appears to me to divide itself into these three branches. 1. Is it proper in conversation, preaching, and prayer, to adopt in speaking of, setting forth, or addressing Jesus Christ, any of those passages of the Old Testament, which indisputably refer to him? 2. Does the conversion of such sentiments, into the form and expression of Hymns, at all alter the propriety of their use among Christians? And 3. Do the Psalms form any exception to this rule, whether admitted or denied?

As to the first position, the universal practice of Christians, demands that the answer be in the affirmative.

The second query can hardly be said to involve any difficulty as to the principle, whatever may be said of precedent or authority; for, to say nothing of the prose Canticles and other Scriptures which are chaunted in the daily service of our Cathedrals and Colleges, — the "Songs, to be sung before Morning and Evening Prayer," which are sometimes still printed at the end of our Old Version of the Psalms, appear to have been "allowed" to be sung in the Church as well as the Metrical Psalter itself. Nor does there appear any conceivable reason, on merely religious grounds, I mean, why these Scripture Hymns might not have been more or fewer. There are at the end of the authorised Scotch Version of the Psalms, upwards of sixty "translations and paraphrases in Verse, of several passages of Sacred Scripture," which were prepared by a Committee of the General Assembly, in order to be sung in Churches. We have thus the practice of the established Episcopal and Presbyterian communities, as well as of Independent congregations, in this country, in favour of Scriptural Hymns; it needs scarcely be added, that the custom of the Romish Church is the same.

It remains that we enquire whether or not the Psalms form any exception to the foregoing conclusions? Strictly speaking, they do not. For, as the only reason why they have been so long and so generally adopted in Christian worship, in preference to other portions of Scripture, is their devotional character, so there appears no valid objection why the phraseology of the sacred text in this as in other cases, may not be compressed, expanded, or transposed, and at the same time intermixed with New Testament matter, so long as the result, whatever its form, shall be in accordance with the "analogy of faith," and suited to the purposes of edification. The privilege of the Sacred Poet to combine the phraseology of the Psalms and the language of the New Testament, in the formation of Christian Hymns, rests exactly on the same grounds as those upon which a preacher is justified in doing the same, in the structure of his discourse — namely, the exercise of good taste, and the inculcation of sound doctrine.

Such compositions, however admirable as they may be in other respects, can rarely have any claim to the title of Versions of the Psalms, much less to any merit on comparison with the latter, however executed: for it will be obvious to every person in the slightest degree acquainted with the difference between even a clever Hymn, and an equally satisfactory Version of an ordinary Psalm, that the difficulties which have been overcome in the translation commonly far outweigh those of the independent composition — how much more, when the task comprehends if, indeed, such achievement be possible — a literal Version of the whole Psalter! In closing these observations, I venture to assert, that while in the charms of poetical execution, and for the purposes of congregational Singing, Hymns, whether partially derived from the psalms, or wholly original, will always have obvious advantages over the most successful attempts at exact imitation, the "experimentum crucis" of the metrist who would measure his skill with that of some of the leading authors named in these pages, must ever be the degree in which he equals or surpasses the success of those who have rendered the whole Book of Psalms into verse.

Doctor Watts has explained at length in his Preface to the work above named, the principles upon which his Psalms were composed. His judgment on the whole, is that which appears irrefragable on the general question: "I believe," says he, "that any Divine sentence, or Christian verse, agreeable to Scripture, may be sung, though it be composed by men uninspired." He then adds, in reference to his own performance: — "I have not been so curious and exact in striving every where to express the ancient meaning of David; but have rather expressed myself, as I may suppose David would have done, had he lived in the days of Christianity." Notwithstanding, however, this latitude of adaptation he has "entirely omitted some whole Psalms, and large portions of many others: and has chosen out of all of them, such parts only as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of a Christian life." According to the almost universal testimony of his Christian countrymen of all denominations, Watts has accomplished this glorious service to the Church, as well in his Psalms as in his Hymns, with a measure of success unequalled by any of his predecessors, while he has rarely been surpassed by any of those sweet singers who have in such numbers, since his time, emulated his glorious renown in this sanctified use of the harp of David. It must, however, be conceded, that the piety of his strains has diverted attention from the defects of his versification: the sweet fluency of the former is at once acknowledged by every heart rightly warmed with devotional feeling: the latter only obtrude themselves on the practised eye and the sensitive ear of a Poet. These "faults," says Montgomery — the most distinguished panegyrist of the Hymns of Watts — "are principally prosaic phraseology, rhymes worse than none, and none where good ones are absolutely wanted to raise the verse upon its feet, and make it go, according to the saying, 'on all fours;' though, to do the Doctor justice, the metre is generally free and natural, when his lines want every other qualification of poetry."

The praise of originality, which the high authority just quoted claims for Doctor Watts, who, he says, "may almost be called the inventor of Hymns in our language," must not be extended to his celebrated Version of the Psalms. For Dr. Tattershall, in the Preface to his Edition of Merrick, says, "I pretend not to assert that Dr. Watts, the most celebrated Divine and Poet among the Dissenters, took Dr. Patrick's Version in general for his pattern; but upon a careful view of the works of both these authors, there appears so strong a resemblance, particularly in the latter part, that I cannot help thinking Dr. Watts, either purposely imitated and borrowed from the latter, or from a diligent and frequent perusal of him, fell unawares into his style and manner of expression." Psalms 6, 63, 96, 107, 127, and 142, are pointed out as exemplifying the resemblance alluded to. It is impossible to account for this unexplained circumstance on the ground of coincidence, numerous lines being in both Versions exactly similar: in some cases there are slight, in others more considerable alterations; but instances might be adduced in which whole verses occur word for word alike in Patrick and Watts.

It is creditable to the piety of Dr. Johnson — a piety, the reality of which has too often exposed this great man to the blatant charge of being superstitious — that he has done solid justice to the literary as well as to the moral character of Watts, whose name, we are told, but for the good offices of Richardson, the novelist, would have had a place in the "Dunciad" with that of "one Johnston," whose offence was that of having made a translation of the Psalms into Latin, which was patronised by Benson, Surveyor of Buildings to George the First. It may be mentioned as a remarkable circumstance, and not unconnected with the history of Metrical Psalmody, that this couplet of the Dunciad, reflecting on the admirers of Johnston's translation, led to one of the most impudent literary forgeries on record — "Lauders' Essay on Milton's use and imitation of the Moderns in his Paradise Lost." On the detection of the fraud, this unprincipled author published a sort of confession, in which he assigns the motive which led him to attempt to subvert the reputation of Milton, by convicting him of plagiarism. "About ten years ago," says Lauder, "I published an edition of Dr. Johnston's Translation of the Psalms, and having procured from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a recommendation of its use to the lower classes of Grammar-Schools, into which I had begun to introduce it, though not without much controversy and opposition, I thought it likely that I should, by annual publications, improve my little fortune, and be enabled to support myself in freedom from the miseries of indigence. But Mr. Pope, in his malevolence to Mr. Benson, who had distinguished himself by his fondness for the same Version, destroyed all my hopes by a distich, in which he places Johnston in a contemptuous comparison with the author of Paradise Lost." Nor was the expression of slight of the Doctor's Metrical labours confined to the wits, some of the popular preachers of the day joined in it: even the amiable and pious Romaine in the first edition of his Treatise on Psalmody, spoke contemptuously of "Watts's Whims," a sneer which at the instance of Lady Huntingdon, was afterwards expunged from the work.