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An atheist’s gift for the Lenten library: Isaac Watts’s ‘Psalms of David’, 19 years in the writing

Psalms

Rare books curator, Dr Karen Attar, turns her attention to a Senate House Library tome which concentrates on singing – Isaac Watts’s ‘The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament’.

Around this time in previous years, I have sometimes discussed books on items frequently renounced during Lent, such as alcohol and coffee. My Lenten item for 2021 is a book which concentrates on doing, namely singing: Isaac Watts’s The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, first published in 1719. The illustration (below) shows Watts’s versions of the messianic Psalm 22 (quoted by Jesus on the Cross), which Watts turns into an explicit description of Christ’s crucifixion and its consequences.

Psalms

Isaac Watts, one of the great English hymnographers, regarded The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament as his most important hymn book. In it he paraphrased 138 of the Bible’s 150 Psalms in the light of the New Testament, omitting three because he said that their sense was incorporated in other Psalms, and another nine for undisclosed reasons (quite possibly, as Harry Escott surmises in his 1962 monograph Isaac Watts, Hymnographer, because he was unable to Christianise them).

Watts paraphrased single Psalms anything between once and six times in different metres. Some of the resulting hymns are still sung: ‘Joy to the World’, based on Psalm 98 (intended by Watts for daily worship, not specifically as a Christmas carol), Jesus shall reign where’er the sun (from Psalm 72), ‘O God our help in ages past’ (from Psalm 90; in Watts’s words, ‘Our God our help in ages past’).

Although Watts’s endeavours found far more favour with Dissenters than with the established church, and although they had fierce detractors, the small book was extremely popular. By the time he died in 1748 it had reached its seventh edition, and ESTC lists 169 further editions published in London, in provincial centres in Britain, and in America between then and the end of the century.

It is a cheap production and being cheap, small and popular, was often read to pieces. Thus, copies of any given edition can be rare. Senate House Library is one of just six repositories worldwide noted in ESTC as having this particular edition, from 1777.

Several parallels struck me between Watts’s work on the Psalms and modern academic endeavour:

Public engagement

Just as we are concerned to demonstrate the relevance of the past for present concerns, so was Watts. He made the point that King David in the Old Testament wrote the Psalms to reflect his, royal David’s, personal situation, before the life of Christ and in a place and time far removed from the present day. A place and time with which Watts’s contemporaries could not readily identify. Watts aimed to make the spirit of the Psalms live for normal 18th-century Christians of average intelligence: ‘the savour of David’s poetry … the style and spirit of the gospel … and the sense and language … level to the lowest capacity’.

With this in mind, he made general spiritual adversaries of David’s personal enemies; altered David’s specific circumstances to general circumstances experienced by 18th-century worshippers; interpreted the Psalms in the light of the Gospel message of salvation through Christ; naturalised the Psalms, changing references to Israel to references to Britain. He further simplified the messages of the Psalms by having only one distinct idea, of singable length and metre, per poem, dividing Psalms where necessary to achieve this. The concept of transferring the ancients to one’s own age through imitations was not unique to Watts. What he did with the Psalms, Alexander Pope did with Horace and Samuel Johnson with Juvenal.

Spotting a gap and filling it

Psalms had been an important element of public Christian worship since Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins versified them during the Reformation. Watts began to write hymns because he was dissatisfied at the psalmody droned at the chapel in Southampton he attended with his parents. His father challenged him to write something better, so he did.

In the preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) Watts wrote that he hoped some ‘more capable genius’, would undertake the imitation of the Psalms. By 1709, realising that nobody else would, he took on the challenge. Watts addressed the pioneering aspect of his task in his introduction to The Psalms of David: ’Though there are many gone before me, who have taught the Hebrew psalmist to speak English, yet I think I may assume this pleasure of being the first who hath brought down the royal author into the common affairs of the Christian life …’

Willingness to toil over a protracted period

Watts spent some 19 years on The Psalms of David. He had written the imitations of some Psalms by 1700. Versions of four appeared in the first edition of his Horae Lyricae (1706; withdrawn from subsequent editions) and an extra ten in the first edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707); Watts amended all of these for the Psalms of David. He mentions the labour in the prefaces to the 1712 and 1720 editions of Hymns and Spiritual Songs and to the Divine Songs(1715), describing it in the publications of 1715 and 1720 as long promised.

Doing his research

Watts read more than 20 other English versifications of the Psalms when writing his version. He borrowed from predecessors, notably taking lines and even complete stanzas from John Patrick, who in his A Century of Select Palms and Portions of Psalms of David (1679) had adopted the language and ideas of Christianity. But he was no plagiarist, instead scrupulously acknowledging his creative debt.

Peer review

Watts sent the manuscript of some of his imitations to the New England Puritan divine Cotton Mather in 1717 for comment.

The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament is part of the bequest left by former vice-chancellor George Grote to the University of London in 1871. It may seem an odd item for Grote, a confirmed atheist, to have owned and was quite probably inherited from more pious forebears. Conceivably he identified at one level with Watts, a devout Christian, as a fellow groundbreaker. While Watts placed modern hymnody on a firm foundation, Grote’s opus magnum, History of Greece, filled a scholarly lacuna and was immediately recognised as the best Greek history in Europe. Or, maybe Grote appreciated the verse as English poetry, focusing on the language more than the devotional content. Who knows?

Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

Cover image: Isaac Watts, by unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons

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