Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli


The history of Psalm-singing is a portion of the history of the Reformation — of that great religious revolution which separated for ever, into two unequal divisions, the establishment of Christianity. It has not, perhaps, been remarked that psalm-singing, or metrical psalms, degenerated into those scandalous compositions which, under the abused title of hymns, are now used by some sects.1 These are evidently the last disorders of that system of psalm-singing which made some religious persons early oppose its practice. Even Sternhold and Hopkins, our first psalm-inditers, says honest Fuller, “found their work afterwards met with some frowns in the faces of great clergymen.” To this day these opinions are not adjusted. Archbishop Secker observes, that though the first Christians (from this passage in James v. 13, “Is any merry? let him sing psalms!") made singing a constant part of their worship, and the whole congregation joined in it; yet afterwards the singers by profession, who had been prudently appointed to lead and direct them, by degrees USURPED the whole performance. But at the Reformation the people were restored to their RIGHTS! This revolutionary style is singular: one might infer by the expression of the people being restored to their rights, that a mixed assembly roaring out confused tunes, nasal, guttural, and sibilant, was a more orderly government of psalmody than when the executive power was consigned to the voices of those whom the archbishop had justly described as having been first prudently appointed to lead and direct them; and who, by their subsequent proceedings, evidently discovered, what they might have safely conjectured, that such an universal suffrage, where every man was to have a voice, must necessarily end in clatter and chaos.2

Thomas Warton, however, regards the metrical psalms of Sternhold as a puritanic invention, and asserts, that notwithstanding it is said in their title-page that they are “set forth and allowed to be sung in all churches,” they were never admitted by lawful authority. They were first introduced by the Puritans, from the Calvinists of Geneva, and afterwards continued by connivance. As a true poetical antiquary, Thomas Warton condemns any modernisation of the venerable text of the old Sternhold and Hopkins, which, by changing obsolete for familiar words, destroys the texture of the original style; and many stanzas, already too naked and weak, like a plain old Gothic edifice stripped of its few signatures of antiquity, have lost that little and almost only strength and support which they derived from ancient phrases. “Such alterations, even if executed with prudence and judgment, only corrupt what they endeavour to explain; and exhibit a motley performance, belonging to no character of writing, and which contains more improprieties than those which it professes to remove.” This forcible criticism is worthy of our poetical antiquary; the same feeling was experienced by Pasquier, when Marot, in his Rifacciamento of the Roman de la Rose, left some of the obsolete phrases, while he got rid of others; cette bigarrure de langage vieux et moderne, was with him writing no language at all. The same circumstance occurred abroad, when they resolved to retouch and modernise the old French metrical version of the Psalms, which we are about to notice. It produced the same controversy and the same dissatisfaction. The church of Geneva adopted an improved version, but the charm of the old one was wanting.

To trace the history of modern metrical psalmody, we must have recourse to Bayle, who, as a mere literary historian, has accidentally preserved it. The inventor was a celebrated French poet; and the invention, though perhaps in its very origin inclining towards the abuse to which it was afterwards carried, was unexpectedly adopted by the austere Calvin, and introduced into the Geneva discipline. It is indeed strange, that while he was stripping religion not merely of its pageantry, but even of its decent ceremonies, this levelling reformer should have introduced this taste for singing psalms in opposition to reading psalms. “On a parallel principle,” says Thomas Warton, “and if any artificial aids to devotion were to be allowed, he might at least have retained the use of pictures in the church.” But it was decreed that statues should be mutilated of “their fair proportions,” and painted glass be dashed into pieces, while the congregation were to sing! Calvin sought for proselytes among “the rabble of a republic, who can have no relish for the more elegant externals.” But to have made men sing in concert, in the streets, or at their work, and, merry or sad, on all occasions to tickle the ear with rhymes and touch the heart with emotion, was betraying no deficient knowledge of human nature.

It seems, however, that this project was adopted accidentally, and was certainly promoted by the fine natural genius of Clement Marot, the favoured bard of Francis the First, that “prince of poets and that poet of princes,” as he was quaintly but expressively dignified by his contemporaries. Marot is still an inimitable and true poet, for he has written in a manner of his own with such marked felicity, that he has left his name to a style of poetry called Marotique. The original La Fontaine is his imitator. Marot delighted in the very forms of poetry, as well as its subjects and its manner. His life, indeed, took more shapes, and indulged in more poetical licences, than even his poetry. Licentious in morals — often in prison, or at court, or in the army, or a fugitive, he has left in his numerous little poems many a curious record of his variegated existence. He was indeed very far from being devout, when his friend, the learned Vatable, the Hebrew professor, probably to reclaim a perpetual sinner from profane rhymes, as Marot was suspected of heresy (confession and meagre days being his abhorrence), suggested the new project of translating the Psalms into French verse, and no doubt assisted the bard; for they are said to be “traduitz en rithme Français selon la verité Hébraique.” The famous Theodore Beza was also his friend and prompter, and afterwards his continuator. Marot published fifty-two Psalms, written in a variety of measures, with the same style he had done his ballads and rondeaux. He dedicated his work to the King of France, comparing him with the royal Hebrew, and with a French compliment!

Dieu le donna aux peuples Hébraïques;

Dieu te devoit, ce pensé-je, aux Galliques.

He insinuates that in his version he had received assistance

—— par les divins esprits

Qui ont sous toy Hebrieu langage apris,

Nous sont jettés les Pseaumes en lumière

Clairs, et au sens de la forme première.

This royal dedication is more solemn than usual; yet Marot, who was never grave but in prison, soon recovered from this dedication to the king, for on turning the leaf we find another, “Aux Dames de France!” Warton says of Marot, that “He seems anxious to deprecate the raillery which the new tone of his versification was likely to incur, and is embarrassed to find an apology for turning saint.” His embarrassments, however, terminate in a highly poetical fancy. When will the golden age be restored? exclaims this lady’s psalmist,

Quand n’aurons plus de cours ni lieu

Les chansons de ce petit Dieu

A qui les peintres font des aisles?

O vous dames et demoiselles

Que Dieu fait pour estre son temple

Et faites, sous mauvais exemple

Retentir et chambres et sales,

De chansons mondaines ou salles, &c.

Knowing, continues the poet, that songs that are silent about love can never please you, here are some composed by love itself; all here is love, but more than mortal! Sing these at all times.

Et les convertir et muer

Faisant vos lèvres rémuer,

Et vos doigts sur les espinettes

Pour dire saintes chansonettes.

Marot then breaks forth with that enthusiasm, which perhaps at first conveyed to the sullen fancy of the austere Calvin the project he so successfully adopted, and whose influence we are still witnessing.

O bien heureux qui voir pourra

Fleurir le temps, que l’on orra

Le laboureur à sa charrue

Le charretier parmy la rue,

Et l’artisan en sa boutique

Avecques un PSEAUME ou cantique,

En son labeur se soulager;

Heureux qui orra le berger

Et la bergère en bois estans

Faire que rochers et estangs

Après eux chantent la hauteur

Du saint nom de leurs Createur.

Commencez, dames, commencez

Le siecle doré! avancez!

En chantant d’un cueur debonnaire,

Dedans ce saint cancionnaire.

Thrice happy they, who shall behold,

And listen in that age of gold!

As by the plough the labourer strays,

And carman mid the public ways,

And tradesman in his shop shall swell

Their voice in Psalm or Canticle,

Sing to solace toil; again,

From woods shall come a sweeter strain

Shepherd and shepherdess shall vie

In many a tender Psalmody;

And the Creator’s name prolong

As rock and stream return their song!

Begin then, ladies fair! begin

The age renew’d that knows no sin!

And with light heart, that wants no wing,

Sing! from this holy song-book, sing!3

This “holy song-book” for the harpsichord or the voice, was a gay novelty, and no book was ever more eagerly received by all classes than Marot’s “Psalms.” In the fervour of that day, they sold faster than the printers could take them off their presses; but as they were understood to be songs, and yet were not accompanied by music, every one set them to favourite tunes, commonly those of popular ballads. Each of the royal family, and every nobleman, chose a psalm or a song which expressed his own personal feelings, adapted to his own tune. The Dauphin, afterwards Henry the Second, a great hunter, when he went to the chase, was singing Ainsi qu’on vit le cerf bruyre. “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks.” There is a curious portrait of the mistress of Henry, the famous Diane de Poictiers, recently published, on which is inscribed this verse of the Psalm. On a portrait which exhibits Diane in an attitude rather unsuitable to so solemn an application, no reason could be found to account for this discordance; perhaps the painter, or the lady herself, chose to adopt the favourite psalm of her royal lover, proudly to designate the object of her love, besides its double allusion to her name. Diane, however, in the first stage of their mutual attachment, took Du fond de ma pensée, or, “From the depth of my heart.” The queen’s favourite was

Ne veuilles pas, o sire,

Me reprendre en ton ire;

that is, “Rebuke me not in thy indignation,” which she sung to a fashionable jig. Antony, king of Navarre, sung Revenge moy prens la querelle, or “Stand up, O Lord, to revenge my quarrel,” to the air of a dance of Poitou. We may conceive the ardour with which this novelty was received, for Francis sent to Charles the Fifth Marot’s collection, who both by promises and presents encouraged the French bard to proceed with his version, and entreating Marot to send him as soon as possible Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus, because it was his favourite psalm. And the Spanish as well as French composers hastened to set the Psalms of Marot to music. The fashion lasted, for Henry the Second set one to an air of his own composing. Catharine de’ Medici had her psalm, and it seems that every one at court adopted some particular psalm for themselves, which they often played on lutes and guitars, &c. Singing psalms in verse was then one of the chief ingredients in the happiness of social life.

The universal reception of Marot’s Psalms induced Theodore Beza to conclude the collection, and ten thousand copies were immediately dispersed. But these had the advantage of being set to music, for we are told they were “admirably fitted to the violin and other musical instruments.” And who was the man who had thus adroitly taken hold of the public feeling to give it this strong direction? It was the solitary Thaumaturgus, the ascetic Calvin, who from the depths of his closet at Geneva had engaged the finest musical composers, who were, no doubt, warmed by the zeal of propagating his faith to form these simple and beautiful airs to assist the psalm-singers. At first this was not discovered, and Catholics as well as Huguenots were solacing themselves on all occasions with this new music. But when Calvin appointed these psalms, as set to music, to be sung at his meetings, and Marot’s formed an appendix to the Catechism of Geneva, this put an end to all psalm-singing for the poor Catholics! Marot himself was forced to fly to Geneva from the fulminations of the Sorbonne, and psalm-singing became an open declaration of what the French called “Lutheranisme,” when it became with the reformed a regular part of their religious discipline. The Cardinal of Lorraine succeeded in persuading the lovely patroness of the “holy song-book,” Diane de Poictiers, who at first was a psalm-singer and an heretical reader of the Bible, to discountenance this new fashion. He began by finding fault with the Psalms of David, and revived the amatory elegances of Horace: at that moment even the reading of the Bible was symptomatic of Lutheranism; Diane, who had given way to these novelties, would have a French Bible, because the queen, Catharine de’ Medici, had one, and the Cardinal finding a Bible on her table, immediately crossed himself, beat his breast, and otherwise so well acted his part, that “having thrown the Bible down and condemned it, he remonstrated with the fair penitent, that it was a kind of reading not adapted for her sex, containing dangerous matters: if she was uneasy in her mind she should hear two masses instead of one, and rest contented with her Paternosters and her Primer, which were not only devotional but ornamented with a variety of elegant forms, from the most exquisite pencils of France.” Such is the story drawn from a curious letter, written by a Huguenot, and a former friend of Catharine de’ Medici, and by which we may infer that the reformed religion was making considerable progress in the French Court — had the Cardinal of Lorraine not interfered by persuading the mistress, and she the king, and the king his queen, at once to give up psalm-singing and reading the Bible!

“This infectious frenzy of psalm-singing,” as Warton describes it, “under the Calvinistic preachers, had rapidly propagated itself through Germany as well as France. It was admirably calculated to kindle the flame of fanaticism, and frequently served as the trumpet to rebellion. These energetic hymns of Geneva excited and supported a variety of popular insurrections in the most flourishing cities of the Low Countries, and what our poetical antiquary could never forgive, “fomented the fury which defaced many of the most beautiful and venerable churches of Flanders.”

At length it reached our island at that critical moment when it had first embraced the Reformation; and here its domestic history was parallel with its foreign, except, perhaps, in the splendour of its success. Sternhold, an enthusiast for the Reformation, was much offended, says Warton, at the lascivious ballads which prevailed among the courtiers, and, with a laudable design to check these indecencies, he undertook to be our Marot — without his genius: “thinking thereby,” says our cynical literary historian, Antony Wood, “that the courtiers would sing them instead of their sonnets, but did not, only some few excepted.” They were practised by the Puritans in the reign of Elizabeth; for Shakspeare notices the Puritan of his day “singing psalms to hornpipes,”4 and more particularly during the protectorate of Cromwell, on the same plan of accommodating them to popular tunes and jigs, which one of them said “were too good for the devil.” Psalms were now sang at Lord Mayors’ dinners and city feasts; soldiers sung them on their march and at parade; and few houses, which had windows fronting the streets, but had their evening psalms; for a story has come down to us, to record that the hypocritical brotherhood did not always care to sing unless they were heard!5

1 It would be polluting these pages with ribaldry, obscenity, and blasphemy, were I to give specimens of some hymns of the Moravians and the Methodists, and some of the still lower sects.

2 There is a rare tract, entitled “Singing of Psalmes, vindicated from the charge of Novelty,” in answer to Dr. Russell, Mr. Marlow, &c., 1698. It furnishes numerous authorities to show that it was practised by the primitive Christians on almost every occasion. I shall directly quote a remarkable passage.

3 In the curious tract already referred to, the following quotation is remarkable; the scene the fancy of MAROT pictured to him, had anciently occurred. St. Jerome, in his seventeenth Epistle to Marcellus, thus describes it: “In Christian villages little else is to be heard but Psalms; for which way soever you turn yourself, either you have the ploughman at his plough singing Hallelujahs, the weary brewer refreshing himself with a psalm, or the vine-dresser chanting forth somewhat of David’s .

4 Mr. Douce imagined that this alludes to a common practice at that time among the Puritans of burlesquing the plain chant of the Papists, by adapting vulgar and ludicrous music to psalms and pious compositions. — Illust. of Shakspeare, i. 355. Mr. Douce does not recollect his authority. My idea differs. May we not conjecture that the intention was the same which induced Sternhold to versify the Psalms, to be sung instead of lascivious ballads; and the most popular tunes came afterwards to be adopted, that the singer might practise his favourite one, as we find it occurred in France?

5 Ed. Philips in his “Satyr against Hypocrites,” 1689, alludes to this custom of the pious citizens —

—— Singing with woful noise,

Like a cracked saint’s bell jarring in the steeple,

Tom Sternhold’s wretched prick-song to the people.

Now they’re at home and have their suppers eat,

When “Thomas,” cryes the master, “come, repeat.”

And if the windows gaze upon the street,

To sing a Psalm they hold it very meet.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53