Notes on metricizing the Psalms

I’m currently working on metricizing some of the Psalms.

I’m not doing it because I particularly like metrical Psalms. The fact is that I usually don’t. I don’t really understand why some churches insist on singing (only) metrical Psalms. If you want to sing the Psalms, why not sing them as written and translated into non-metrical but nevertheless very literal English? You’d have to dig out a few old chant tunes, of course. And I think that’s the rub: most of the folks who like to use metrical Psalms in worship are also of the kind to dislike chant in worship. Chant invokes for them too much of a high-church Papist smells-and-bells whats-it. Never mind the fact that the Hebrews didn’t exactly have common meter and harmonization themselves.

But metricizing the Psalms does present certain challenges. In the first place, there’s the challenge of getting basic suitable rhymes and rhythms down, as with all formal poetry. The Psalms make a hard job even harder, though, because you’ve got a set text with enough hermeneutical baggage to make too much fiddling undesirable. How much fiddling is allowable? That’s the second challenge.

Isaac Watts seemed to think much fiddling was allowable, if only the fiddling took the form of New Testament or otherwise Scriptural interpretations of the Psalms’ content. I think I agree. The problem with too strict an adherence to the actual texts is that you get either extremely awkward English poetry or else so little content that you would be further ahead digging out the aforementioned chant tunes and hauling out the incense.

So it’s the challenges that attract me. There’s a third challenge, too: it’s about striking the right style. Hymns are odd as pieces of poetry. Some people think they don’t rise to the level of poetry, and that’s probably right. Hymns aren’t supposed to be self-conscious pieces of art; they aren’t supposed to be artful at all, really, or too obviously contrived. Transparent and artless is the goal. And you would never guess how hard it is to make a contrived piece of verse sound uncontrived.

I don’t think I’m there yet. But I’ll be posting a few versions of metrical Psalms here and there along the way, and hopefully someone will be good enough to point out the things that don’t work yet, and the things that do.


About middlingpoet

From the Gawain poet to Rainer Maria Rilke: I love traditional poetry.
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