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Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature.

Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature. By Hannibal Hamlin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-83270-5 (cloth). Pp. xi + 289. $90.00.

Although metrical psalmody might command a minor place in English literary history, the past half century has witnessed a steady stream of scholarly studies on the subject. One could be excused for wondering what remains to be said. Yet for poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the psalms loomed large in their heritage, both spiritual and literary. Professor Hamlin convincingly shows how much we have yet to learn about these poets and the ambience in which they worked and how much we can learn by focusing on what the psalms meant to them.

He accomplishes this by reaching beyond the metrical psalms per se to their larger context. This includes prose versions of the psalms, commentaries on them, and--of special interest--substantial echoes of the psalter in such larger works as Shakespeare's Richard II and Hamlet, Spenser's The Ruins of Time, and Milton's Paradise Lost. It also includes other matters of concern to poets of the early modern period: how to do justice to both their classical and Christian heritages, where to stand amid the competing religious and political allegiances of the day, and how to secure their own place in society or, especially, in the volatile world of the court.

The first of the book's two parts treats selected aspects of metrical psalmody. Two chapters study paraphrases used, or intended for use, in worship. First, of course, is "Sternhold and Hopkins," which, as Hamlin points out, originated in the time of Edward VI as courtly poetry and only later, influenced by continental examples and drawing on the work of several other psalmodists to make up the "whole booke," became the standard version in Anglican church worship. Its extensive use in private and household devotions as well, according to Hamlin, made it even more pervasive in both popular and learned culture. Several composers created musical settings for it as alternatives to those found in the standard editions, but the singability of the latter, probably more than its literary merit, assured its continued dominance until nearly the end of the seventeenth century. Dozens of rival psalters were issued, but they failed to replace it. Chapter 2 examines a selection of these, ranging from the plain style of George Wither, whose bid to supplant "Sternhold and Hopkins" ran afoul of the Stationers' monopoly, and the even more prosaic Bay Psalm Book (1640), whose principal concern was word-for-word faithfulness to the Hebrew text, to the more literary work of George Sandys, who wrote for private devotion rather than congregational singing and for whom Henry Lawes provided tunes of appropriate sophistication.

The next two chapters study the place of metrical psalms in the development of English poetry. Psalmodists experimented with quantitative versification and classical stanzaic forms, either strictly imitated or adapted to the accentual nature of English. They explored the metrical potentialities of English to render, often with subtle sensitivity, the varied moods of the psalter. They used psalms as a vehicle for reflection on their personal circumstances, with a "focus on inwardness and the exploration of the self" (123). In keeping with Elizabethan translation theory, they sometimes amplified their originals through allusion to other texts, both biblical-Christian as well as Hebrew--and contemporary, as in the Countess of Pembroke's sacred parody of the conventions of love poetry (126-27). Poets such as Francis Davison as early as 1602 and Richard Crashaw later introduced striking baroque imagery. In these two chapters, Hamlin offers extensive discussion of the work of Wyatt, Surrey, Gascoigne, both the Sidneys, Davison, Phineas Fletcher, Vaughan, and Milton.

In part 2, Hamlin examines in detail, as "case studies" how poets handled three quite different psalms. He accords renderings of Psalm 23 their rightful place in the English pastoral tradition, from idyll in the opening verses to apotheosis in the last, and traces the allegory of the dark journey all the way to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Psalm 51, the preeminent psalm of penitence and a locus classicus for theological discussions of sin and redemption, is linked to the many seventeenth-century heart emblems and to the Royalist canonization of Charles I, who was cast, iconographically as well as verbally, in the role of David. Hamlin shows how poets found a special applicability in verse 15, taking it as a prayer for inspiration, and how this reading was adapted, outside the metrical psalm tradition, by Donne and Herbert. Psalm 137 is shown to be especially rich in poetic possibilities, with its imagery of exile (not only geographically but culturally and politically--Royalists identified with it during the Interregnum), flowing tears, and silenced harps. The poets struggled with the final verse, some of them following Augustine in allegorizing the call to kill Babylon's children. Surely this psalm is in the background (though Hamlin fails to make the point) of the sonnet "Avenge O Lord" where Milton speaks of the "Babylonian woe" but offers an altered concept of vengeance. To demand perfection is always foolhardy; thus the following notes are offered not as criticism but as an aid to serious readers of Hamlin's masterful study. In the lines quoted from Sidney on p. 134, for "loath" read "cloath"; the stanza quoted from Pembroke (139) substitutes question marks for her exclamation points; and the last line of the quotation from Crashaw (164) should read "And make darknesse selfe afraid" (not "... self-afraid"; modern punctuation would supply an apostrophe after "darknesse"). The close of Pembroke's Psalm 73 is not "her own addition" (128) but paraphrases verse 28. To the biblical source given for Bunyan's "River" (166n88) might be added Psalm 46:4. The figure of a broken heart in a secular sense probably does not derive from its use in the English Bible (212-13), since it is cited in the OED as early as Chaucer. The iconography in an engraving by William Marshall is cogently linked to Psalm 51 (194), but Marshall's obvious verbal echo of the psalm is not mentioned. Hamlin oddly finds Archbishop Parker's idea of original sin "peculiar" (185), apparently not recognizing its Pauline source; and Romans 7 may be a more likely source than the Prayer Book for Hunnis's stanza, quoted next. The bibliography omits the work by Isabella Whitney cited on 211n19, and Hamlin seems unaware of the 1980 Frontain-Wojcik collection The David Myth in Western Literature, which might have been useful to his argument at several points. Thomas Brampton's fifteenth-century paraphrase of the penitential Psalms is cited from a secondary source that contains only one of the seven (173n2), but the Percy Society published the entire set (ed. W. H. Black, 1842); and Brampton's is probably not quite the "earliest" (see Mabel Day, ed., The Wheatley Manuscript, EETS o.s. 155 [1921], xvi).

But the excellence of Hamlin's study outweighs such trivia. It should inspire further work by other scholars. Indeed, he closes with a five-page catalog of suggestions for future study in the metrical psalms.

Charles A. Huttar

Hope College
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Author:Huttar, Charles A.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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