Tuesday, April 28, 2009

King James Psalter

Besides the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible, commonly known as the King James Bible, two Psalters bear the name of King James I of England, VI of Scotland, published in 1631 and 1636, respectively. These Psalters reflect the poetic interest of King James in versifying the Psalms, as many noblemen of his day also desired to do. The interest of the king in this project, however, forced others to laid aside their intended goals. One such poet was William Drummond of Hawthornden, whose attempt merited this frank response from Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, Earl of Stirling:

Brother, I received your last letter, with the Psalm you sent, which I think very well done. I had done the same long before it came; but He [King James] prefers his own to all else; tho' perchance when you see it, you will think it the worst of of the Three. No man must meddle with that Subject, and therefore I advise you to take no more Pains therein. (Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody, p. 83)

King James continued his efforts to 'improve' upon the metrical Psalms already in use; when he died this was alluded to in his 1625 funeral sermon:

The King our Master, was in hand (when God called him to sing Psalmes with the Angels) with the translation of our Church Psalmes, which he intended to have finished, and dedicated withall to the onely saint of his devotion, the Church of Great Britain, and that of Ireland. The worke was staied in the one and thirty Psalme. (Ibid, p. 84)

After the king's death, King Charles I charged Sir William Alexander to ensure that the metrical Psalms of King James saw the light of day. And so, in 1631, a version bearing his name was published (it was called The Psalmes of David translated by King James and the title page showed King David holding a harp on one side and King James on the other with a sceptre, while both men also held books). In fact, the work of this version is mostly that of Alexander himself, and while he was a distinguished poet, this Psalter, despite or because of the royal backing behind it, inspired a negative reaction, and the publication (probably by David Calderwood) of Reasons against the Reception of King James' Metaphrase of the Psalmes (cf., The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, Vol. 3, p. 530), and so was commonly referred to as the 'Menstrie Psalms'. Alexander was disappointed in his expectation of profits from the royal patent he received from King Charles. It is said that "[i]t seems clear that Charles must have winked hard in permitting the licence, as he must have known that the proportion of James to Alexander was as Falstaff's bread to his sack."

Another edition was published in 1636 after considerable revision (without notice of the same), and it too received the same widespread opposition. Two years later, Charles attempted to force the Anglican liturgy upon the church of Scotland, and the violent response that ensued, notably exemplified in the stool-throwing of Jenny Geddes, was in part the fruit of frustration over a long pattern of such attempts to force the royal will upon the church's singing of Psalms.

The King James Psalters, not to be confused with the 1650 Scottish metrical Psalter found in the back of King James Bibles published today by the Trinitarian Bible Society, for example, are footnotes of history now, but they played a part, before and after the king's death, in the rising tide that would eventually result in stalwart Puritan resistance to Stuart attempts to meddle with the church's beloved Psalms against the will of God's people.

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