The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (190721).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
IX. The Beginnings of Verse, 16101808.
§ 6. The Bay Psalm Book.
|It is rather remarkable that so little purely religious verse was produced in early New England. Quarles, himself a Puritan, was prolific in hymns, divine songs, and paraphrases from the Bible. New England boasted a distinct literary class, not unfamiliar with great religious poetry; but its one biblical paraphrase and its one effort at writing religious song was The Bay Psalm Book. To meet the need for divine songs to sing in the churches, Richard Mather, Thomas Welde, and John Eliot supervised the preparation of a new metrical version of the Psalms. The Bay Psalm Book, as it came to be called, was the first book published on American soil, and passed through twenty-seven editions between 1640 and 1752, when it was superseded by John Barnards New Version of the Psalms of David. It surpasses even Sternhold and Hopkins in uncouthness, and as a monument of bad taste has furnished an easy target for the ridicule of subsequent and less devout generations. It is unfair, however, to take The Bay Psalm Book as an index to the poetic taste of its period, or its subsequent popularity as indicating anything more than its usefulness. It was a makeshift, and they knew it was a poor one; an edition revised and refined by John Dunster and Richard Lyon followed in 1647. If these were refined, then, as Timothy Dwight remarks, a modern reader would almost instinctively ask, What were they before?