I’ve been working on metricizing a few more psalms lately. I’ve already said a few things about the peculiar status of metrical psalms as pieces of poetry. I think that part of the problem is that, however much the psalms may be poetry in Hebrew, they come across in English as plain prose. And the more doggedly a metrical psalm tries to follow the English psalm, the less poetic it is.
Of course, there are myriads of metrical psalms that don’t actually try to follow the English all that doggedly. Most of them hail from the 1800’s, and some of them are so commonly sung now that most people don’t realize they’re metrical psalms. Take Henry Lyte’s “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” It’s a metricization of Psalm 103, and not only that, but probably the one that covers the most ground without turning into doggerel.
It seems to me that much of what goes on when versifying a psalm is the hard choice of which parts to repeat intact, and which parts to leave out. You can see how Lyte’s choice of what to leave out, or compress, is interesting against more standard versions of 103 — say, Isaac Watts‘s or James Montgomery’s. Notice how Watts and Montgomery write their versions just focusing on the famous opening verses of 103, leaving out everything that follows. But Lyte compresses the famous opening of 103 into just one stanza, and he uses his three remaining stanzas to cover ground in the middle of the psalm and at the end.
I have to confess that I like Lyte’s version best. In terms of fidelity, he’s as faithful as the others, preserving the psalm’s classic wording when he can — “slow to chide,” “[feeble] frame,” the appeal to the angels, etc. (Watts and Montgomery preserve language about our “infirmities” and our being healed, youth like the eagle’s, and so on.) But Lyte’s is more beautiful. I think it’s because he includes the artistic repetition of alleluia and the additional fifth rhyming line at the end of each stanza. In short, Lyte does more poetic work.
For ease of comparison, here’s a chart showing all three metrical psalms, with the relative positioning of the verses vis-a-vis Psalm 103 itself: