Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Early Auden and the Scottish Psalter

For those who, for whatever reason, don’t like to sing the actual words of the Psalms, metrical psalmody can be a good substitute.1

But it can also have its difficulties. Probably the best known metrical Psalter in English is the Scottish Metrical Psalter. Anyone who has ever used it knows how torturous and opaque the syntax can be, regularly rendering it substantially more difficult to understand than what it purports to paraphrase. (Indeed, word-order is treated with a license that would make an inflected language like Latin blush.) Take, for instance, this verse from Psalm 2:

Then shall he speak to them in wrath,
in rage he vex them shall.

Or from Psalm 24:

Ye gates, lift up your heads on high;
ye doors that last for aye,
Be lifted up, that so the King
of glory enter may.
But who of glory is the King?
The mighty Lord is this;
Ev’n that same Lord, that great in might
and strong in battle is.

Or from Psalm 45 (1st version):

Thy name remember’d I will make
through ages all to be…

W.H. Auden spent time in Scotland as a schoolmaster in the early 1930s, and presumably had some familiarity with the Scottish Psalter. Thus it is perhaps not surprising to find an imitation of its sometime obscurity in the sixth Ode of The Orators, which he wrote during this period. The poem runs as follows:

Not, Father, further do prolong

Our necessary defeat;

Spare us the numbing zero-hour,

The desert-long retreat.

Against your direct light, displayed,

Regardant, absolute,

In person stubborn and oblique

Our maddened set we foot.

These nissen huts if hiding could

Your eye inseeing from

Firm fenders were, but look! to us

Your loosened angers come.

Against your accusations

Though ready wit devise,

Nor magic countersigns prevail

Nor airy sacrifice.

Weaker we are, and strict within

Your organised blockade,

And from our desperate shore the last

Few pallid youngsters fade.

Be not another than our hope;

Expect we routed shall

Upon your peace; with ray disarm,

Illumine, and not kill.2The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Edward Mendelson, 109-10)

I’ve bolded the lines that most closely resemble the Scottish Psalter’s more difficult bits of syntax, but that is not all that calls it to mind. In addition, the poem is written in one of the most common meters of the Psalter (8,6,8,6), and Auden treats a word like “accusations” as pentasyllabic, as is frequent in the Psalter.

The resemblance is not accidental to the meaning of the poem. Auden takes for granted that it often needs a witty scribe to puzzle out the meaning of the metrical Psalms, and his use of their diction is similarly intended to express obliquity, ambiguity, the difficulty of puzzling out meaning. And not only that, it is meant to present an aura of prayer, even if, in this poem, an unreal one. Edward Mendelson, in Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography, comments:

As the “Sir” of “Sir, no man’s enemy” was in part a construction made from the syntax of Hopkins, so the “Father” addressed in the sixth Ode is the one auditor who can unravel the syntax of the Scottish Metrical Psalms….The Ode begins with the appeal “Not, Father, further do prolong / Our necessary defeat.” This is the defeat of both sides in our inner conflict, a defeat that will be followed by their reconciliation. The fiction that this is “necessary,” not merely in the sense that it is a precondition of our cure, but also in the sense that it is inevitable–and can be postponed but not prevented–will become more serious in Auden’s political poems a few years later. For the moment he is only miming an act of prayer, with little hope that his imitation will result in change, or that the necessary defeat can ever occur. (113)

It is startling to discover the evocative power that even a cadence or a piece of syntax can have for pulling out (or, rather, forward) influences and traditions hidden deep in another world and making them speak anew. On the other hand, that is what a good poem always does.

  1. Make chanting great again! Relax, ye staunch defenders of metrical Psalms, I’m having a laugh. And metrical psalmody is several orders of magnitude better than no Psalms at all.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.