Anna Barbauld on the Psalms

Anna Barbauld, born in 1743 to Presbyterian parents, was a British poet and essayist who rejected detached, rationalistic interpretation of Scripture. From a young age she exhibited a love of learning and prodded her theologian and classicist father to teach her Greek and Latin. She published several works ranging from hymns, children’s literature, statements on women’s issues to objections against the use of Scripture to support slavery. Barbauld’s love of poetry gave her a particular appreciation for the Psalms. In Devotional Pieces Compiled from the Psalms and the Book of Job: To Which Are Prefixed Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, on Sects, and on Establishment she argues for the importance of emotion in the reading and study of Scripture. After presenting her thesis the book comprises a collection of select Psalms. Below are quotes from Devotional Pieces that give us a window into the mind of a Christian thinker squaring off against the rationalistic Enlightenment trends of her time:

“For though as a rule of life, the authority and salutary effects of religion are pretty universally acknowledged, and though its tenets have been defended with sufficient zeal; its affections languish, the spirit of Devotion is certainly at a very low ebb amongst us, and what is surprising, it has fallen, I know not how, into a certain contempt, and is treated with great indifference, amongst many of those who value themselves on the purity of their faith . . . It is the character of the present age to allow little to sentiment, and all the warm and generous emotions are treated as romantic by the supercilious brow of a cold-hearted philosophy. . . Yet there is a devotion generous, liberal, and humane, the child of more exalted feelings than base minds can enter into, which assimilates man to higher natures, and lifts him “above this visible diurnal sphere.”

“There is nothing more prejudicial to the feelings of a devout heart, than a habit of disputing on religious subjects. Free inquiry is undoubtedly necessary to establish a rational belief; but a disputatious spirit, and fondness for controversy, gives the mind a skeptical turn, with an aptness to call in question the most established truths. It is impossible to preserve that deep reverence for the Deity with which we ought to regard him, when all his attributes, and even his very existence become the subject of familiar debate. Candor demands that a man allow his opponent an unlimited freedom of speech, and it is not easy in the heat of discourse to avoid falling into an indecent or a careless expression; hence those who think seldomer of religious subjects, often treat them with more respect than those whose profession keeps them constantly in their view. A sober Officer would be shocked to hear questions of this nature treated with that ease and negligence with which they are generally discussed by the practiced Theologian, or the young lively Academic ready primed from the schools of logic and metaphysics. In general, I believe . . . that no man, who has a proper veneration for the primary truths of religion, will be fond of making them the subjects of common discourse; any more than a person who loved with ardour and delicacy would choose to introduce the name of his mistress amongst mixed companies in every light and trivial conversation.”

“Shall we mention Philosophy as an enemy to Religion? God forbid! ‘Philosophy, Daughter of Heaven, that flow ascending still, investigating sure the form of things with radiant finger points to heaven again.’ Yet . . . .Philosophy represents the Deity in too abstracted a manner to engage our affections . . . It is also a fault of which philosophers are often guilty, that they dwell too much in generals. Accustomed to reduce every thing to the operation of general laws, they turn our attention to larger views, attempt to grasp the whole order of the universe, and in the zeal of a systematic spirit seldom leave room for those particular and personal mercies which are the food of gratitude. They trace the great outline of nature, but neglect the coloring which gives warmth and beauty to the piece. As in poetry it is not vague and general description, but a few striking circumstances clearly related and strongly worked up. As in a landscape it is not such a vast extensive range of country as pains the eye to stretch to its limits, but a beautiful well-defined prospect, which gives the most pleasure.”

“It [is] impossible to treat of the devotional spirit, without calling to mind the most beautiful compositions which that spirit ever inspired, the Psalms of David. . . .The sublimest ideas are given of the Deity; he is spoken of with the deepest reverence, and yet with all the warmth and pathos of personal gratitude and affection. Such pieces are certainly proper not only to be read as compositions but to be used as acts of devotion, either in private, or in public and social worship. But unhappily, the very great mixture there is in these divine odes, renders them unfit for either of these purposes. We cannot enter into all the fixations, and it would not be safe to adopt all the sentiments of their author; for the royal Poet had strong passions, and was very sensible to resentment, as well as to gratitude. Nor is this inconvenience sufficiently obviated by using only chosen pieces for it is not easy, on the sudden, to make a selection: and besides, there are in the finest psalms exceptionable passages, and in the most improper ones some verses too beautiful to be lost. It was hoped, therefore, that it might be of service to the cause of religion, to make a collection of the kind now offered to the public. In this collection, all the Psalms which would bear it are given entire; others . . . only the exceptionable parts left out; and a third class is formed of separate passages scattered through several pieces, which are attempted to be formed into regular and distinct odes. With regard to their subjects, they may be divided into Moral, Devotional, and Occasional. Amongst the Occasional ones, but few have been admitted. The Devotional may be subdivided into Psalms of Praise, Penitence, and Prayer, Most of the Prophetic pieces are excluded, as not properly entering into the idea of worship.”

“Some persons may perhaps expect, that in a plan like this, every phrase should be struck out that bore an allusion to the customs and worship of the Jews, or which contained idioms that in their literal sense we can no longer use. But this has not been thought necessary. These phrases are familiarized to the ear, and well understood by all Christians, who easily adapt them to their own ideas. Scripture expressions, and allusions to the scriptures, produce the same pleasing effect in a devotional piece, which allusions to the Greek and Roman authors do in a common poem; they form indeed the true classical style of these writings. The courts of Zion, and the walls of Jerusalem, are not more foreign to an English reader, than the hill of Parnassus, or the fountain of Hippocrene; and it ought to be no more an objection to a religious ode, that we are called upon to praise God with the psaltery and timbrel, than it is to a pastoral writer that he sings with his pipe and his lyre, since both are equally disused.”

“Poetry cannot subsist without ornament; these are the appropriated ornaments of religious poetry, and contribute to give a picturesque air to compositions in which every other species of embellishment would be improper and unbecoming, After all, it is not reading alone these noble pieces that will give us their full force: they must be really used as acts of worship. It was not in so cold, so unaffecting a manner, that the Psalms of David were first exhibited. The living voice of the people, the animating accompaniments of music, the solemnity of public pomp, the reverent prostrations of deep humility, or the exulting movements of pious joy, all conspired to raise, to touch, to subdue the heart. Perhaps a time may come, when our worship amongst those at least who are happy enough to be at liberty to make alterations shall be new modeled by some free and enlarged genius. Perhaps the time may come, when the spirit of philosophy, and the spirit of devotion, shall join to conduct our public assemblies; when to all that is graceful in order and well-regulated pomp, we shall add whatever is affecting in the warmth of zeal and all that is delightful  in the beauty of holiness.”

For more on Anna Barbauld see: Taylor, Marion Ann, ed. Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.

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