10 Oct 2009

Metres: uniformity versus diversity

Our family are currently members of a church that sings the psalms some of the time, if less than I myself would like to see. Those psalms that we do sing come in large measure from the Scottish Psalter of 1650 or a related tradition. One of the principal characteristics of metrical psalmody in the British Isles is its regular metres.

The most common metre in use is called, unsurprisingly, common metre (CM) or ballad metre, whose structure is as follows: iambic. What this means is that it consists of four lines, one and three having eight syllables and two and four having six. Iambic means that each line begins on an unstressed or feminine syllable. When I first began writing metrical psalms some three decades ago, I did so, almost instinctively, in common metre, seemingly unaware of alternatives. So thoroughly is this metre bred in the bones of English-speaking Christians that it is nearly second nature to them.

Not quite as common, but still familiar to English-speaking Christians, are long metre (LM) and short metre (SM), which are structured respectively as follows: iambic and iambic. All three of these, of course, can be doubled to make for a longer stanza.

One of the reasons why these three metres are so popular in the English-speaking world is that they are well suited to the language, whose words have fewer feminine endings than some other languages, including French, Dutch and German. Due to the absence of noun cases, which dropped out of use centuries ago, English is not the easiest language in which to write poetry, primarily because word order is so inflexible — one reason why the versifications in the Scottish Psalter sound so awkward to our ears.

More than two decades ago I was given a copy of the 1929 edition of the Scottish Psalter by my late friend Stan Hall. As can be seen in the photograph (above right), it is a split-page edition in which texts and tunes can be easily mixed and matched. This very possibility is, of course, entirely due to the regular metres employed. Any common metre text can be paired with any common metre tune. In this there are parallels with Anglican chant, in which a small number of chants can be matched to virtually any text, although the reason in that case is precisely the opposite, namely, the lack of metre in the BCP psalter.

This regularity of metres is absent for the most part from the Genevan Psalter, which explains why it would be altogether impossible to publish a split-page edition. (See the old Dutch Gereformeerd psalter at left.) Some tunes do share the same metres, e.g., Psalms 12 and 110 ( and Psalms 100/131 and 134 (LM). Yet many more have unusual metres that appear to have been created specially for certain texts. Such include (Psalm 5), (Psalms 14 and 53) and the quirky (Psalms 33 and 67). Some have very long stanzas, such as Psalm 19 (, which would make them difficult to replicate elsewhere.

As those acquainted with my website know, I myself prefer the Genevan tunes, which strike a marvellous balance between simplicity and complexity, vividly conveying the unique message of each psalm and imprinting it in the heart of the believer. Indeed whenever I hear reference to a specific psalm or hear that psalm read, even in prose translation, the proper Genevan melody inevitably pops into my head. May God continue to be glorified in these sturdy tunes, nearly 450 years after they were first sung.


John Ross said...

To break out of the straight-jacket imposed by the dominance of Common, Short and Long metre tunes, in 2003 the Free Church of Scotland published 'Sing Psalms,' a new metrical translation of all 150 Psalms, employing a very wide diversity of metres and tunes.

The reason why the 1650 Psalter may sound quaint is not the limitations of English as a medium of poetry. That did not in any way inhibit Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Donne, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, etc., to say nothing of hymnwriters like Watts, Cowper, Wesley, Bonar, M'Cheyne.

The tortuous verse of the 1650 Psalter is due largely (a) to the creative limitations of the poets, (b) the speed with which the 1650 Psalter was complied, (c) the constraint of keeping within the bounds of metaphrase, rather than paraphrase.

For the best discussion of the story of the Scottish Psalter see Millar Patrick, 'Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody' (Oxford: OUP, 1949).

Ruairidh said...

John Ross wrote:
"The tortuous verse of the 1650 Psalter is due largely (a) to the creative limitations of the poets, (b) the speed with which the 1650 Psalter was complied, (c) the constraint of keeping within the bounds of metaphrase, rather than paraphrase."

Thomas Ridgley wrote:
"The versions which I think come nearest to the original are the New England and the Scots'; the latter of which I think much preferable to the former inasmuch as the sentences are not so transposed in this, as in the other, and the lines are much more smooth and pleasant to be read. I should be very glad to see a version more perfect that comes as near the sense of the original and excels it in the beauty or elegancy of style."

From 'A Body of Divinity' Vol. 4