1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Addison

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) 2:157-61.



The distinguished place among the prime wits of England's Augustan age, which by universal consent has been assigned to the name of Addison, as a charming Essayist and a classical Poet, has not sufficed for his admirers, who have claimed for him an almost equally elevated rank among the authors of our sacred lyrics. The quantity of verse upon which this latter distinction rests, may almost be said to be the smallest, which in this country is known to support so high and unequivocal a reputation — consisting only of four compositions in the form of Hymns, two of them founded on Psalms 19 and 23. Addison's essays in the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, are too well known to require to be more than mentioned in this place while of his miscellaneous poems, it may be remarked, that, however little read at present, they are, for the most part, as exquisitely finished and graceful as they were once generally admired. Addison was intended for Holy Orders; but owing either to that singular diffidence which never forsook him, to the persuasion of his political friends, or to some other cause, he never entered the Church — though his talents and his integrity raised him to a station of dignity, much more at variance with his habitual modesty — that of Secretary of State to Queen Anne. It was immediately on his retirement from this elevated post that he executed the few sacred compositions before referred to, and which have deservedly found a place in almost every general collection of sacred poetry, and, indeed, in most Hymn books. It is said to have been the author's intention to have rendered the whole of the Psalms into metre; but before he could accomplish more of his design than sufficient to shew how well he was qualified for the task, he died in June, 1719, at the comparatively early age of 47. What might have been the merit or the success of a Version in which Addison, a Churchman, would have challenged comparison with Watts, a Dissenter, it were surely vain to conjecture on so slight evidence, as the elegant imitation of two or three Psalms by the former. The interfusion of evangelical sentiment and feeling, which has made the Psalmody of Watts so precious in every Christian community, would not, so far as we may judge from the existing specimens, have characterised the compositions of Addison: on the other hand, it may be contended that the absence of that genius which goes to constitute an original Poet of the highest order, as well as of those deep spiritual emotions, in which have originated the real inspiration of some of the most popular hymnologists, would leave an accomplished mind like Addison's, only by so much the more entirely under the influence of the author whose work he might be engaged in translating. The following, which is perhaps with most persons, the favourite Hymn of the four by our author, is, as will be seen, not a complete Version of, although founded upon

PSALM XIX.
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue etherial sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied Sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator's power display;
And publishes, to every land,
The work of an Almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth,
Repeats the story of her birth:
While all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings, as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though, in solemn silence, all
Move round this dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice, or sound,
Amidst their radiant orbs be found?
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing as they shine,
"The hand that made us is divine."

"The following Version is intended," says the late Sir Robert Grant, as a sequel or counterpart to Addison's Hymn, The Spacious Firmament. It corresponds to the latter portion of the 19th Psalm, as Addison's does to the former." The comparison inevitably suggested by this note, between one of the most exquisite Scripture paraphrases in the English language, and the stanzas annexed, will, if candidly instituted, be found much less to the disparagement of the latter, than commonly happens, even in imitations of much less perfect models of composition than the Hymn in question.

The starry firmament on high,
And all the glories of the sky,
Yet shine not to thy praise, O Lord,
So brightly as thy written word:
The hopes that holy word supplies
Its truths divine and precepts wise—
In each a heavenly beam I see,
And every beam conducts to thee.

When taught by painful proof to know
That all is vanity below,
The sinner roams from comfort far,
And looks in vain for sun or star,
Soft gleaming then those lights divine
Through all the cheerless darkness shine,
And sweetly to his ravished eye
Disclose the day-spring from on high.

The heart in sensual fetters bound,
And barren as the wintry ground,
Confesses, Lord, thy quick'ning ray;—
Thy word can charm the spell away,
With genial influence can beguile
The frozen wilderness to smile;
Bid living waters o'er it flow,
And all be paradise below.

Almighty Lord! the sun shall fail,
The moon forget her nightly tale,
And deepest silence hush on high
The radiant chorus of the sky;
But, fixed for everlasting years,
Unmov'd amid the wreck of spheres,
Thy word shall shine in cloudless day,
When heaven and earth have pass'd away.