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This article is taken from PN Review 74, Volume 16 Number 6, July - August 1990.

The Poetry of the Metrical Psalm Donald Davie

The metrical psalm is one of the principal genres of English renaissance poetry. This cannot be denied, given what we know of the volume and frequency of the printings of, pre-eminently, the so-called Old Version by Sternhold and Hopkins (originally 1551). Yet, even as we acknowledge this, it disconcerts us and we huddle it away as fast as we can; for the plain fact is that, by the standards not just of our own day but of virtually every generation since the Old Version first appeared, the versifications of Sternhold and Hopkins seem to be, and have been acknowledged to be, wretched. In fact the virtual unanimity on this score is something valuable; for it vindicates the conviction, now continually assailed, that there is in the judging of poetry a standard simply technical and stylistic, unaffected by ideology, by class- or gender-warfare, by considerations of socio-political history. The versions of the psalms by Sternhold and Hopkins were - there is no doubt of it - cherished by thousands of English people who lived through the lifetimes of Sidney and Herbert, of Vaughan and Milton and Dryden, who preferred to these masters, insofar as they knew of them, the far from masterly compositions that they droned, Sunday by Sunday, in their parish-churches. I remark, only to set aside, the damage this does to the argument, so precious to so many, that the good sense and good taste of 'the masses' were perverted only when those masses were subject to the ...


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