1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Byron

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) 2:285-87.



The introduction of the name of Byron among those of men, chiefly remarkable for the success with which they have echoed the strains of David's Harp in English verse, may to some seem almost like a violence done to propriety. And yet, when it is recollected that his Lordship has given the title of "Hebrew Melodies" to one portion of his multifarious works, he would seem to challenge consideration, even as a writer of sacred Song. The only composition, however, of the noble bard, which at all identifies his muse with the object of these pages, is a partial Version of the 137th Psalm — a theme upon which so great a number of Poets have tried their skill, that a volume of specimens might easily be collected. The Psalm even in its old English prose garb is so poetical and touching, that few are the attempts to give it a metrical form, in which the authors have not succeeded, at least, in the average ratio of their other compositions. It can, however, hardly be denied that the stanzas quoted below form something like an exception to this general success. Dr. Drake has, indeed, called them "a most lovely copy of the Hebrew bard;" but surely we look in vain in his Lordship's Version for any merit beyond the common place neatness of almost any adroit versifier — how much more for striking indications of affinity with the flashing brilliance of the "Bride of Abydos," the graphic grandeur of "Childe Harold," or even with the melodious flow of "Sennachrib" — the only poem among the so called "Hebrew Melodies," in which the genius of the illustrious Poet really shines out.

PSALM CXXXVII.
We sate down and wept by the waters
Of Babel, and thought of the day
When our foe, in the hue of his slaughters,
Made Salem's high places his prey;
And ye, oh, her desolate daughters!
Were scattered all weeping away.

While sadly we gazed on the river
Which roll'd on in freedom below,
They demanded the song; but, oh never
That triumph the stranger shall know!
May this right hand be wither'd for ever,
Ere it string our high harp for the foe!

On the willow that harp is suspended;
Oh! Salem, its sound should be free;
And the hour when thy glories were ended
But left me that token of thee;
And ne'er shall its soft tones be blended
With the voice of its spoiler by me!

It will be seen, that Byron has omitted the clause containing the prayer for Jerusalem's retribution, at the end of the Psalm — several others have done the same; while some, especially among the old Poets, have developed it more expressively than fidelity required.