Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.
Vol. I. The Transplanting of Culture: 16071650
The Bay Psalm Book
THE Bay Psalm Book has the distinction of being the first book published in British America. It was the joint product of Richard Mather, founder of that distinguished family of New England divines, Thomas Welde and John Eliot, the missionary to the Indians. It was printed by Stephen Daye at Cambridge in 1640, was amended in 1650, and remained in general use for many years among the New England clergy. The question as to whether it was right to sing to the Lord with a cheerful voice or any other continued to be a subject of bitter controversy, in which John Cotton took the more liberal side. Although modern hymnbooks contain verses hardly less painful to the cultivated ear, it is hard to realize how such a crude performance could have ministered to edification, for it outdid Sternhold and Hopkins in harsh crudity of style, metre and rhythm. Yet it was the product of university men. Mather had been a student at Oxford; John Eliot was a graduate of Cambridge. They must have served their apprenticeship at Latin verse-making, and it is incredible that they should not have been able to write better English verse had they so desired. But they were determined that the Lords praises should be sung according to his own will, and with their ideas of literal Biblical inspiration, they were willing to sacrifice every element of poetry to what they imagined was faithfulness to Hebrew originals. They tell us in their preface that they attempted conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry. That they thought these qualities contradictory illustrates the fatal flaw in Puritan æsthetics. How numbing this moral discipline had been to the harmonies and amenities of life may be judged from the fact that few congregations knew more than five tunes, and but ten are known to have been used for the first half-century of the Bay Psalm Books existence.
IF therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our polishings: Ex. 20. for we have respected rather a plain translation, than to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and so have attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language, and Davids poetry into English metre; that so we
may sing in Sion the Lords songs of praise ac- cording to his own will; until he take us from hence, and wipe away all our tears, and bid us enter into our masters joy to sing eternal Halleluiahs.