Metrical paraphrases of religious texts

I’ve been comparing two metrical paraphrases of Psalm 19.1-4, one by the poet and writer Joseph Addison, and one by the poet and hymnodist Isaac Watts. It’s instructive to see how two different hymnodists handle the exact same subject.

First, they use two different meters: Addison’s version is in Long Meter Doubled (L.M.D.) which is somewhat easier to find a tune for, while Watts’ version is in Second, both take liberties with the original text, adding imagery, emphasizing and de-emphasizing what appeals to them. Third, they reflect different theological stances: Watts begins with the straightforward phrase “Great God,” while Addison prefers to use more oblique references like the “great Original”, “Hand” and “Creator”, and Addison also refers to “Reason” which since it is capitalized is personified. Fourth, Watts’ hymn directly addresses God, while Addison’s hymn speaks about God and God’s works. Fifth, while both are enjoyable hymns to sing (considered in terms of the rhymes, rhythms which aren’t too herky-kerky, “mouth-feel”, etc.) Watts’ verse is sturdy, bold, and tends towards the ecstatic; Addison’s verse is more nuanced, lower-key, and feels more subtle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both hymns are worthy of being called poetry — I don’t cringe when I sing them, and they’re worth singing more than once.

This kind of comparison is helpful for those of us who want to think about how to evaluate new hymns written by religious liberals hymnodists — and/or for those who may want to take a stab at writing new liberal religious hymns. Not that we should imitate Addison or Watts (although that may be a good idea), but we should start thinking about articulating criteria about what makes a good or poor hymn text.

I’ll include the full text of both hymns, plus the text from the King James Bible from which the hymns were drawn, after the jump. Update: I’ve added the Scottish Psalter’s metrical paraphrase of this same text at the very end of this post.

Joseph Addison’s paraphrase may be found in both the 1993 Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition and in (#283, with alterations noted in brackets) Oxford Book of English Verse ed. by Arthur Quiller-Crouch:


The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
Th’ unwearied Sun from day to day
Does his* Creator’s power display; [“its” in SLT]
And publishes to every land
The work of an Almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
The Moon takes up the wondrous tale;
And nightly to the listening Earth
Repeats the story of her* birth: [“its” in SLT]
Whilst all the stars that round her* burn, [“it” in SLT]
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball;
What though nor real voice nor sound
Amidst their radiant orbs be found?
In Reason’s* ear they all rejoice, [not capitalized in SLT]
And utter forth a glorious voice;
For ever singing as they shine,
“The Hand that made us is divine.”

Here, by contrast, is Isaac Watts’ metrical paraphrase of the same passage from Psalm 19:

Psalm 19:4.
The book of nature and scripture.

1 Great God, the heaven’s well-order’d frame
Declares the glories of thy name;
There thy rich works of wonder shine:
A thousand starry beauties there,
A thousand radiant marks appear
Of boundless power and skill divine.

2 From night to day, from day to night,
The dawning and the dying light
Lectures of heavenly wisdom read;
With silent eloquence they raise
Our thoughts to our Creator’s praise,
And neither sound nor language need.

3 Yet their divine instructions run
Far as the journies of the sun,
And every nation knows their voice;
The sun, like some young bridegroom drest,
Breaks from the chambers of the east,
Rolls round, and makes the earth rejoice.

4 Where’er he spreads his beams abroad,
He smiles and speaks his maker God;
All nature joins to shew thy praise:
Thus God, in every creature shines;
Fair is the book of nature’s lines,
But fairer is thy book of grace.

And here is how the opening of Psalm 19 reads in the King James Version of the Bible:

To the leader. A Psalm of David.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
   and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
   and its circuit to the end of them;
   and nothing is hidden from its heat.

Update: Here’s the metrical paraphrase from the Scottish Psalter for the sake of comparison.

1 The heav’ns God’s glory do declare,
the skies his hand-works preach :
2 Day utters speech to day, and night
to night doth knowledge teach.
3 There is no speech nor tongue to which
their voice doth not extend:
4 Their line is gone through all the earth,
their words to the world’s end.

4 thoughts on “Metrical paraphrases of religious texts

  1. Scott Wells

    You don’t know how much I appreciate posts like this. What I’d love to see — I bet there’s a setting out there — is Communion service music (Lutheran, Epsicopalian, perhaps Reformed or “liturgical Congregationalist”) in meter.

  2. Dan

    Scott — Me, I’m working on metrical hymns that paraphrase the Bible’s story of Palm Sunday. I want memorable hymns that tell the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Unfortunately, I don’t do rhymed verse, so what I’m coming up with is blank metrical verse — not so memorable, though fairly close to the KJV. The reason behind this is that so few people know the actual story of Palm Sunday any more, it would be great to have such a hymn partly as a teaching tool.

    Since I’m very low church, and don’t respond to outward forms of religion, I’m not too motivated to do hymns for the Lord’s Supper. But here again, wouldn’t it be great to do a paraphrase of the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ last meal with his followers?

  3. Scott Wells

    Hmm, I think I’ll look for metrical service music first, but I’d be amazed if there weren’t something as you describe in the Scottish Paraphrases. (I’ll not call you out on that “outward forms” comment while we’re in a discussion about religious music. There might be Quakers listening who’d get a good laugh.)

  4. Dan

    Scott @ 3 — Ah yes, religious music as an outward form — I have to admit a tiny bit of ambivalence about music in the service. Even though I stopped attending silent meeting for worship because they didn’t sing. You will notice, however, that the above hymns are from the Psalms!

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