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Melanchthon on Poetry (1): “Great Is the Power of Music”

On August 1, 1537, Philip Melanchthon wrote a letter to the Lutheran poet Eobanus Hessus intended to serve as prefatory material for his versification of the Psalter, the Psalterium Davidis carmine redditum (David’s Psalter Rendered in Verse), in which Hessus put all 150 Psalms into Latin elegiac couplets.1 (Martin Luther wrote a letter to Hessus on the same day for the same purpose.)

Melanchthon’s letter is instructive for his views on poetry in general. (Spoiler: Protestants in the Reformation loved poetry and the emotional pleasure it could yield.) In this series, we shall look at what Melanchthon has to say. The letter opens as follows:

Davidis Psalmos redditos abs te Latino carmine, non vidi tantum, sed quotidie in manibus habeo, non solum oblectationis causa, verum etiam ut inde in acerbissimis curis remedium ac levationem miseriarum petam. Nam cum ipsae Psalmorum sententiae, quas video concinne et proprie redditas esse, animum meum recreant, tum vero numeris versuum, quasi cantu, vehementius etiam moveor. Magna enim vis est Musices ad affectus in animis excitandos, aut sedandos.

I have not only seen the Psalms of David that you have rendered in Latin verse, but I daily hold them in my hands–not only for the sake of pleasure, but also so that I may seek from them a remedy and  relief in the midst of most bitter anxieties. For it is both the case that the very substance of the Psalms, which I see to have been rendered elegantly and properly, refreshes my mind, and that I am also the more ardently moved by the meter of the verses, as if by a song. For great is the power of music for rousing or calming affections in our minds.2

Melanchthon begins by praising Hessus’ particular effort on this project and claims to read Hessus’ Psalms “every day”; and that for a couple of reasons. First, for sheer delight (oblectationis causa); and, second, for the peculiar consolation the Psalms can bring. In Hessus’ Psalms, Melanchthon seeks relief in the midst of anxieties.

I say “Hessus’ Psalms” intentionally. For the effect they produce on Melanchthon is due to the combination of (1) the substance or content of the Psalter itself and (2) the way in which that substance is rendered in Latin meter, or put to music (quasi cantu).

This point leads Melanchthon to a more general statement about music; and here we can see something important about the Reformers’ psychology, which gives a great deal of significance to the affections. Anyone who has read Luther knows this is true of him. But it is true as well of Melanchthon, and also of the Reformed wing of the Reformation, despite caricatures (alas, sometimes accurate ones in the 21st century) that it is rationalistic and has no meaninful place for the emotions or affections. (In fact, one of the best places in which to see this is in the writings of Calvin, though that is frequently denied by people who have apparently never bothered to read anything he wrote.) Thus Melanchthon acknowledges the affectivity of music in general. And it is in part because of that general affectivity that Hessus’ Psalms in particular have had such a powerful influence on Melanchthon’s emotional state.

Melanchthon, then, was no stranger to the Muses and their attractions. We will pick it up there next time.  

  1. The letter can be found in Corpus Reformatorum 3.393-5.
  2. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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