1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

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) 2:254-56.



However repugnant to religious propriety, and even to good manners, a large proportion of the published verse of "Scotia's Plowman Poet," must unhappily be considered, there are, nevertheless, not wanting evidences of a better taste — a purer feeling; the effect, no doubt, of those devout family exercises so touchingly alluded to in "The Cottar's Saturday Night." Who does not wish that compositions of this character had occupied the places of others — alas! too many — of a far different description? The quality of the Poet's fame might, indeed, have been greatly modified in consequence — his admirers would have been found in a different class, to that from which they have been mostly derived. Among the traces of an occasional visitation of religious feeling, which mark the pages of Robert Burns, may be mentioned Versions of the First and part of the Ninetieth Psalms. The latter — in the Scottish Version — is said to have been a favourite in the household of the Poet's father: the former is thus noticed by Allan Cunningham, in his interesting Life of the Scottish Bard: — "I am not one of those who think Burns so happy in his sacred as in his ordinary poetry. Any one who compares his 'First Psalm' with the common Version of Scotland will feel that in simplicity the sacred minstrel of the days of the Stuarts surpasses the Poet of Kyle. The latter is cold and tame in comparison. The verse describing the good man and the wicked man dwells on many northern memories:—

He shall be like a tree that grows
Near planted by a river,
Which in his season yields his fruit,
And his leaf fadeth never:

And all he doth shall prosper well;
The wicked are not so,
But like they are unto the chaff,
Which wind drives to and fro.

A New Version of the Psalms has long been talked of in Scotland; but the General Assembly must proceed warily in this matter. Some of the Psalms are exquisite compositions. I shall instance but the Eighth Psalm: it is Thomson's Seasons in little. The want of elegance which I have heard complained of is but a poor reason for throwing into oblivion a vast body of verse which abounds with such simplicity of language, such sincerity of expression, and wears such an old-world air, as no living bards with all their harmony and polish can equal. Besides they carry upon them the stamp of pure days and holy hands, and have the advantage of being venerable."

PSALM I.
The man, in life wherever placed,
Hath happiness in store,
Who walks not in the wicked's way,
Nor learns their guilty lore!

Nor from the seat of scornful pride
Casts forth, his eyes. abroad,
But with humility and awe
Still walks before his GOD.

That man shall flourish like the trees
Which by the streamlets grow;
The fruitful top is spread on high,
And firm the root below.

But he whose blossoms bud in guilt.
Shall to the ground be cast,
And, like the rootless stubble, tost
Before the sweeping blast.

For why? that GOD the good adore
Hath given them peace and rest,
But hath decreed that wicked men,
Shall ne'er be truly blest.