Tag Archives: Isaac Watts

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. Continue reading

Dr. Watts

I’ve been reading through Isaac Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs. He uses clear, vigorous language to present vivid and compelling imagery. I often disagree with his theology, but I think his hymns have rarely been surpassed in the English language. And sometimes I do I agree with his theology. Take, for example, this hymn:

Hymn 1:24.
The rich sinner dying, Psalm 49:6-9. Eccl. 8:8. Job 3:14-15.

1 In vain the wealthy mortals toil,
And heap their shining dust in vain,
Look down and scorn the humble poor,
And boast their lofty hills of gain.

2 Their golden cordials cannot ease
Their pained hearts or aching heads,
Nor fright nor bribe approaching death
From glittering roofs and downy beds.

3 The lingering, the unwilling soul
The dismal summons must obey,
And bid a long a sad farewell
To the pale lump of lifeless clay.

4 Thence they are huddled to the grave,
Where kings and slaves have equal thrones;
Their bones without distinction lie
Amongst the heap of meaner bones.

Now that’s what I call vivid imagery. Wouldn’t you enjoy singing that hymn? Wouldn’t it help keep you focused on what’s really important in life?