Robert Burns the Psalmist

David M Smith, a former member of the Church of Scotland Music Panel, draws attention to two unexpected works.

David M SmithIt is perhaps not widely appreciated that Robert Burns's poetic output contains two Metrical Psalms. It was a BBC Songs of Praise broadcast some years ago from my home town of Paisley which brought them to my attention, they are reproduced here alongside the 'official' metrical versions from the Scottish Psalter of 1929.

Psalm 1
(Burns)
The man, in life wherever placed,
Hath happiness in store,
Who walks not in the wicked's way,
Nor learns their guilty lore!

Nor from the seat of scornful pride
Casts forth his eyes abroad,
But with humility and awe
Still walks before his God.

That man shall flourish like the trees
Which by the streamlets grow;
The fruitful top is spread on high,
And firm the root below.

But he whose blossom buds in guilt
Shall to the ground be cast;
And, like the rootless stubble, tossed
Before the sweeping blast.

For why? That God the good adore,
Hath given them peace and rest,
But hath decreed that wicked men
Shall ne'er be truly blest.

(Scottish Psalter)
That man hath perfect blessedness
Who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men,
Nor stands in sinners' way.
Nor sitteth in the scorner's chair,
But placeth his delight
Upon God's law, and meditates
On his law day and night.

He shall be like a tree that grows
Near planted by a river,
Which in his season yields his fruit,
And his leaf fadeth never:
And all he doth shall prosper well.
The wicked are not so;
But like they are unto the chaff,
Which wind drives to and fro.

In judgment therefore shall not stand
Those that ungodly are:
Nor in th'assembly of the just
Shall wicked men appear.
For why? the way of godly men
Unto the Lord is known:
Whereas the way of wicked men
Shall quite be overthrown.

Psalm 90, 1-6 
(Burns)
O Thou, the first, the greatest friend
Of all the human race!
Whose strong right hand has ever been
Their stay and dwelling-place!

Before the mountains heaved their heads
Beneath Thy forming hand,
Before this ponderous globe itself
Arose at Thy command:

That power which raised and still upholds
This universal frame,
From countless, unbeginning time
Was ever still the same.

Those mighty periods of years
Which seem to us so vast,
Appear no more before Thy sight
Than yesterday that's past.

Thou giv'st the word: Thy creature, man,
Is to existence brought;
Again, Thou say'st, "Ye sons of men,
Return ye into nought!"

Thou layest them, with all their cares,
In everlasting sleep;
As with a flood Thou tak'st them off
With overwhelming sweep.

They flourish like the morning flower,
In beauty's pride arrayed;
But long ere night cut down it lies
All withered and decayed.

(Scottish Psalter)
Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place
In generations all.
Before thou ever hadst brought forth
The mountains great and small;
Ere ever thou hadst formed the earth,
And all the world abroad;
Even thou from everlasting art
To everlasting God.

Thou dost unto destruction
Man that is mortal turn;
And unto them thou sayest, Again,
Ye sons of men, return.
Because a thousand years appear
No more before thy sight
Than yesterday, when it is past,
Or than a watch by night.

As with an overflowing flood
Thou carryest them away:
They like a sleep are, like the grass
That grows at morn, are they.
At morn it flourishes and grows,
Cut down at even doth fade.
For by thine anger we're consumed,
thy wrath makes us afraid.

At present, the most familiar metrication (deservedly so!) of this psalm is, of course, that by Isaac Watts ("O God, our help in ages past"), although the compilers of CH4 have produced a long-metre version (no 54 in the Hymnary) which deserves to become better known with the passage of time. However the Burns version still compares favourably with that of the 'official' Scottish Psalter!

In our consortium of rural churches in Angus (Fowlis, Liff, Lundie and Muirhead), our singers used part of the Burns version of this psalm as an introit for the service of installation of our Lay Reader, Mrs Isobel Brown, To us this seemed appropriate, since Isobel is well-known locally as an authority on Burns. It also seemed appropriate to use the tune ‘Dundee’*, not only since the service was a Dundee Presbytery occasion, but because of a second link with Burns. In The Cotter’s Saturday Night ‘Dundee’ is described in terms of ‘wild-warbling measures’, although this may well be an allusion to an ornamented version such as a local precentor might have improvised. Without such adornment, ‘Dundee’ is a noble minor-key tune which provides a perfect match for the solemn words of the psalm.

*No. 51 in the 1929 Psalter – not to be confused with ’French’!)

Dr David Smith is a retired lecturer at the University of St Andrews.