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  • William Barnes' Rhythmical Versions of the Psalms
  • Stuart Gillespie

William Barnes' place in literary history comes partly from his dialect verse, but his metrical experimentation is also recognized as an influence on poets such as Hardy and Hopkins. It is much less well known that one of the forms this experimentation took was a complete version of the psalms which Barnes carried out in the years 1864 to 1874, was typeset (at least in part) but never published, and now exists as a substantial collection of manuscript and printed papers in the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester.1 The material, organized psalm by psalm, consists of three main interwoven elements:

  1. a. Autograph fair copies of Barnes' translations of, and notes on, individual psalms, occasionally accompanied by prior drafts. From the fair copies have been set:

  2. b. Printed texts, in a variety of layouts and fonts, and for a few psalms in more than one form. The mss, a, have usually been ticked or scored through in blue pencil as superseded once these printed texts have been checked against them (some are additionally annotated as 'printed'). Such printed texts accompany the autograph copies for thirty-two of the 150 psalms by my count.2 [End Page 70]

  3. c. Barnes' ms corrections to the printed texts, most often in the form of marginalia but sometimes more extensively, using pasted-over slips or other expedients.

A short preface to the whole – present only in form a – outlines Barnes' intentions.

My transcription of this preface is accompanied below by selections from the translated texts illustrating the results Barnes achieves.3 My commentary interspersed with these documents draws on Barnes' own writings, including excerpts from the interpretative, philological, and other scholarly notes he prepared for his translation, where bearing on metrical and formal matters. Specimen pages of both autograph and printed documents in the archive are reproduced here in order to indicate the kinds of texts being transcribed. First there follows Barnes' preface to what he himself calls (in an autograph title page) 'Rhythmical Versions of the Psalms'.

One of the great laws of Hebrew Poetry, was that of Parallelism, of 'Twin thoughtedness', a twofold telling of a thought in different words as

'Sing aloud

                                      unto the God of our strength

Make a joyful noise

                                      unto the God of Jacob'

And this last wherever it holds in Hebrew verse can hold also in an English version of it.

But there are some other rules of Bible poetry – those of word-tale, or word-metres, or a matching of words by number – the charm of which may, it would seem, be kept in an English version, more fully than we yet have it. We may not, it is true, have it in a matching of the Hebrew word-tale by a like number of English words, but it may be yet that the rhythm of the Hebrew metres may be more closely [End Page 71]

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Figure 1.

Barnes' autograph. Ps. 39: 9–16. © Dorset County Museum.

[End Page 72]

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Figure 2.

Typeset text of Ps. 9. © Dorset County Museum.

[End Page 73]

matched than they are, by the r[h]ythm (not rhyme) of English accent and quantity. Hebrew verse has sundry metres of word-tale, as Binary verse, of Two-worded thoughts, Ternary verse of three worded thoughts, Quaternary verse of Four worded thoughts, and mixed verse of the sundry kinds.

It must be allowed that if a rhythmical version of a psalm cannot, as such, give, as we think it can give, the thought of the psalmist, as well and truly worded as it is worded in our unrhythmical versions, it could not fairly be put into competition with it, as truth is higher than form. The following specimens of rhythmical versions, if they are not a full attainment of a desirable end, may show at least that it may not be unattainable.

Experimentation may then be said to be the motive, and it is a kind of experimentation capable of generating new metrical structures in English. It is useful to supplement this preface from Barnes' earlier treatise, A Philological Grammar...


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pp. 70-84
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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