2. The three solutions to the Problem

There have been three solutions.

The first option

is to translate them as prose and read them, either singly or together. Often the clergy and congregation read alternate verses.

For centuries the ‘reading psalms’ in the 1662 prayer book have been used this way as can, and are, the modern versions in CW. Extracts appear in various CW services set out with the leader’s part and the congregation’s part in a different type face so they can be used like this.

Hebrew metre and poesy do not survive translation. This method does, though, reproduce in English a striking feature of Hebrew poetry, the practice of splitting lines into two halves, very often with a repetition or a contrast in the second half; thus Psalm 119:105

Thy word is a lantern unto my feet : and a light unto my paths.

That is how it appears in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but it is set out in a similar way in most Bibles and is known as parallelism. However, it falls short in one basic and fundamental way. The psalms were originally written to be sung. Furthermore, throughout Christian history, Christians have preferred to sing them if they could.

The second option

is to chant them as prose. Anyone familiar with the Church of England Morning and Evening Prayer as it was from the middle of the nineteenth century until about 40 years ago will know this is excellent if it works. It can be peculiarly satisfying to do it successfully. To misquote St Paul, ‘I would that you all could’. But it is difficult for congregations and can be horrible.

There are other ways of doing this, that associated with Gelineau, for example, but they all give rise to the same problem.

Curiously, there has recently been a trend in some charismatic circles towards a more formless, unstructured, wafty way of singing, often with lines of irregular length and pattern. It has to be said, though, that many congregations find it very difficult to sing to music played in this style. It often seems to be played on the assumption that a praise band with a soloist does the actual work and the congregation just listens or moves vaguely in time to it.

Music versions of the 1662 psalter have ‘pointing’, vertical lines and other markings, to try and make this easier but even then, most churchgoers’ knowledge of this was sketchy. Furthermore, musical geeks disagreed as to the best way to do it. The Alternative Service Book contained a pointed version of the psalter, but the one issued with CW is not pointed – which at least makes it easier to read.

What most people do not realise is that chanting prose badly is not the way of singing psalms that has the best claim to be Anglican tradition. Away from cathedrals, it was a mid nineteenth century innovation. From the Reformation until about 1860, if people sang psalms, rather than read them aloud, the normal way of doing so was to sing metrical versions of them, to what we now regard as hymn tunes.  Something that English churchgoers now associate with the Church of Scotland, the Scots largely acquired from England. They may have got the idea from Geneva, but what they sing comes originally from Eton. This leads us naturally to …

The third option

which is to render the psalms into a form of metre that fits singing in English – in practice this means some sort of regular scansion pattern and rhymes.

For three centuries (four in Scotland) congregations were accustomed to, and expected to, sing a metrical version of the psalter. A number of people tried to produce metrical versions of all or some psalms. This includes Milton.  Only four versions are important. Some phrases from these versions would have been as familiar to our ancestors as the cadences of the Authorised Version or the Book of Common Prayer then, or Hymns Ancient and Modern to us now. Sung every week, they would have been part of every poet’s childhood memories. They are unfamiliar to people now. One wonders what residue they have left, unrecognised, in our literary heritage.