1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Keble

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) 2:373-76.



The most recent attempt to share whatever reputation might be maintained by any previous experiment of the introduction of unauthorised Psalmody into the Churches of this country, has been the publication of "The Psalter or Psalms of David; in English Verse; by a member of the University of Oxford," 1839. Although the work was thus announced by the publisher in conformity with the title, so as to excite curiosity towards the author, the booksellers by a series of contemporary advertisements, took care to forestal mistake by giving the name of Mr. Keble. The announcement of such a work from such a quarter excited considerable expectation. Mr. Keble was Professor of Poetry at Oxford; he had given to the public a little volume of charming verse, entitled the "Christian Year," of which more than thirty editions had been sold; and he was, moreover, well known as one of the University Confederacy in that singular attempt recently made to revive in the English Church certain obsolete opinions and ceremonials often akin to Romanism, and which has been called from the name of the learned Hebrew Professor, who took the lead in the zealous movement — PUSEYISM. With the particular doctrines promulgated in the "Tracts for the Times," the present notice has nothing to do, except in so far as this translation of the Psalms may have been affected by similar views. How far that is the case, will be somewhat apparent from the following extract from the Preface of this Oxford Psalter: the passage is long; but it is likewise of considerable importance, not only as explaining the author's views, but as embodying the substance of what may be said on the side of a reverential adherence to the literal meaning of the original, as contrasted with the arguments for a more interpretive or evangelical rendering.

"It will perhaps be felt by some a disappointment, that the mystical and evangelical meaning of the Psalms is not so much brought out as it might have been. It seemed the more dutiful and correct, and therefore in the end surely the more edifying, way, to represent, in this respect also as nearly as possible the tenor of the Hebrew Verity: to observe the rule, which he who spake by the prophets has, (if it may be so said,) appointed for Himself in all His communications to mankind; to disclose, rather than exhibit, His dealings and His will; to keep Himself, to the generality, under a veil of reserve, through which the eyes of men might see just so much and so clearly, as they were purged by Faith and Purity and Obedience. Considering the Psalms especially as Divine Poems, this surely is a quality which we should expect to find in them: a certain combination of reserve with openness being of the very essence of poetry: and the Psalms being apparently ordained to leaven the poetry of the whole world, as the history of the Old Testament to be 'the Sun of all other histories.' Not to dwell on the obvious result, that, by trying to bring out the spiritual meaning, we do to a certain degree limit it, in such a manner as would make a translation unfaithful, though it may be allowed perhaps in a commentary. For instance; it is a known ancient rule of interpretation, 'You shall hardly find a word in the Psalms, but it is spoken in the name of Christ and the Church, either both jointly, or one of the two singly; and if of the Church, then of each one amongst us.' It cannot then be right to translate a passage, which, for aught we know, may be capable of the double interpretation, so as to confine it to the single one; and yet this is what we should be often doing, were we to express more fully the prophetical allusions to our Lord, under the notion of spiritualising them. 'I laid me down and slept, and rose up again, for the Lord sustained me:' is doubtless an allusion to our Saviour's death and resurrection: but were a translator to express that allusion, he would exclude what is surely intended also; the hint that each Christian's daily lying down and rising up is a token, or, as the ancient Church would denominate it, 'a Sacrament,' of the same death and resurrection, and also of our own."

So much for the claims of a close interpretation of the Book of Psalms, even in a poetical rendering. It would redound to the credit of Mr. Keble's Version, if it could be said that the metrical execution of the work, at all came up to the degree of success with which every thing like deviation into the freedom of evangelical paraphrase has been avoided. The difficulty of combining with a literal interpretation of the Hebrew original, that free and melodious tone which characterises the most perfect species of rhymed English versification, which had been the stumbling-block of every previous translator, was distinctly perceived and acknowledged by Mr. Keble. But when all the difficulties inseparable from the task are taken into the account, and the merits of this new Version most generously appreciated, poetical justice compels the acknowledgment, that however abundant and undeniable the evidences of a scholarlike performance, we encounter in almost every Psalm instances, more or less obtrusive of that "harshness and constraint, both in sound and expression, which," the author admits, "might have been avoided by more skill in the translator." Were it not an invidious task, more examples of violent elision in the sense, inelegant expletives to bring about the rhyme, and quaint, or imperfectly developed turns of expression, might be adduced from this, than from perhaps any other modern Version: nor can these defects be said to be compensated by surpassing fidelity, though the latter merit, at least, is avouched by the patronage of the Bishop of Oxford, and the "most kind and thoughtful revision of the whole" by Dr. Pusey. The faults alluded to perpetually mar our enjoyment of beauties, which it were impossible not to recognise, and disingenuous not to acknowledge, as occurring in almost every page of this really interesting Psalter.