Biblical Paraphrase

The Protestant tradition had always encouraged the versification of scripture for a lay audience, and biblical paraphrase was popular as a way of echoing God's word while avoiding any blasphemous attempt to replicate it. Many poets in their early careers turned first to the Psalms, David being considered the greatest of all poets and, by Smart, the "scholar of the Lord." Rewriting the psalms both allowed poets to produce lyrical acts of worship and also trained them as skilled versifiers: Cowper's paraphrase of Psalm 147, for example, may seem little more than a perfunctory exercise, but it heralded the sensitive and benign contemplations of his later career. There was a considerable market for translations of the Psalms, with Sternold's and Hopkins's 1562 edition updated by Tate's and Brady's new version of 1696. In contrast, Smart's A Translation of the Psalms of David (1765) was largely overlooked, but warrants attention here because of its imaginative elaborations of some of the most familiar verses in the Bible. Let us take for an example Psalm 104. Here is the opening of the psalm as it appears in the King James Bible, beginning "Bless the Lord, O my soul":

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain: Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind: Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire.

Frequently cited as a paraphrase of this is Watts's "The Glory of God in Creation and Providence":

The heav'ns are for his curtains spread, The unfathomed deep he makes his bed. Clouds are his chariot when he flies On winged storms across the skies.

Angels, whom his own breath inspires, His ministers, are flaming fires; And swift as thought their armies move To bear his vengeance or his love.

Where Watts humanizes God, portraying "his own breath" as the force behind the blithe angels and sizzling ministers, Smart sets the whole poem on fire, arraying his God in a robe of woven from light and drenching him with the glow sparked by angels in motion:

With light, which thou hast purer made, As with a robe thou art array'd, Whose pow'r the world upholds; And hang'st the skies in beauteous blue, Wav'd like a curtain to the view, Down heav'n's high dome in folds.

His chamber-beams in floods he shrouds,

His chariots are the rolling clouds

Upon th' etherial arch;

And on the rapid winds their wings

Majestical, the king of kings

Walks in his awful march.

Smart is at once lyrical and sublime here, producing a blend of what Lowth called the "vehement passions" and "gentler affections" to produce the ideal poetic expres sion (Lowth 1969: vol. 2, xxxiv. 424). Nor was it only the Psalms that inspired such a model fusion of styles: Job was elevated to the highest place in Lowth's Lectures, inspiring compelling interpretations by Blackmore, Young, and Blake; and the Song of Solomon was regarded by Lowth as "expressive of the utmost fervour as well as the utmost delicacy of passion" (Lowth 1969: vol. 2, xxx. 298). Certainly Samuel Croxall's paraphrase of the Song as The Fair Circassian, a Dramatic Performance (1720) was impassioned, almost showy; and yet the pitch reached began to provoke dismay in some readers, who found his elucidation of the narrative overly sensuous and falling, as one critic put it, "into downright carnality" (De Maar 1924: 65). Clearly such passion had to be directed back to God, a maneuver enabled by the sublime's transcendent power lifting the reader up into the heavens while enveloping the natural world inside a spell of religious grandeur. Thomas Warton's "A Paraphrase on the xiiith Chapter of Isaiah" (1748), for example, thundered with piety and sublimity, while Aaron Hill encouraged his faithful readers into a fervency of feeling that would allow them to "pray, as David pray'd before" ("An Ode, on Occasion of Mr. Handel's great Te Deum").

Repelled by enthusiasm, Hill nevertheless worried that "Ne'er did religion's languid fire / Burn fainter" than in his own day, and sought to redress such inertia by reminding readers of the damning chaos that awaited sinners after death. Judgment-Day, A Poem (1721) was indeed strikingly extravagant and not a little strange when read aside other religious poetry of the period:

Worlds against Worlds, with clashing Horror driv'n, Dash their broad Ruins to the Throne of Heav'n! Thro' flaming Regions of the burning Air, Down rain distilling Suns, in liquid Rills, Mix'd with red Mountains of unmelted Fire! Hissing, perplex'd, with Show'rs of Icy Hills, And Cat'ract Seas, that roar, from Worlds still higher; Mingled, like driving Hail, they pour along, And, thund'ring, on our ruin'd System fall!

The terror induced by even the idea of the final day had long captured the poetical imagination: Watts was aghast by the "shrill Outcries of the guilty Wretches" who are gnawed from within by the "living Worm" ( Judgment-Day, ll. 17, 19). Yet this medieval vision of death shifts the reader's attention to the pain and dread felt by the individual subject, a far remove from Hill's prophetic spectacle in which the universe collapses in on itself, the air burning away amid melting suns and seas and heavens. The Revelation of St John was, with the Psalms and Job, the most paraphrased book of the Bible, the very thought of the heavens torn asunder to reveal God's fiery presence so powerful that poets feared the force of their expression. Writing of his own A Poem on the Last Day (1713), Young wrote:

There is no Subject more Exalted, and Affecting, than this which I have chose; it's [sic] very first Mention Snatches away the Soul to the Borders of Eternity, Surrounds it with Wonders, Opens to it on every hand the most Surprizing Scenes of Awe, and Astonishment, and Terminates its view with nothing less than the Fulness of Glory, and the Throne of God. (Young 1713: sig. A3v)

Such a proclamation locates Young as a Newtonian, his devotion closely linked to the awe felt when confronted with the vastness of the natural world and universe: all will be destroyed, to confirm humankind's position as spiritually wanting; yet the believer will be saved, conveying the self-sufficiency of those with faith. "A mighty, mighty ruin!" writes Young of the devastated universe, yet one from which the believer is redeemed: "one soul / Has more to boast, and far outweighs the whole" (A Poem on the Last Day, iii. 294-5).

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