The Prayers of the Psalter

by

Dom Henry Wansbrough

Excerpts from

'Metre of the Psalms'

The metre of Hebrew poetry is extremely difficult to judge. It is determined neither by number of syllables (like the classical Alexandrines or Hendekasyllabics) nor by length of syllable (like Greek or Latin metres), but by stressed syllables separated by varying numbers of unstressed syllables, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Binsey Poplars:

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

But there are further difficulties in the corrupt state of the Hebrew text, which in innumerable examples makes it impossible to be sure exactly what was the original wording. Still further difficulties spring from our ignorance:

  1. How was the poetry (and especially that of the psalms) performed?
  2. Was there a limit to the number of unstressed syllables between stresses,
    or did a subsidiary stress intrude when a certain number of unstressed syllables was exceeded?
    Hopkins here never has more than 3 at a time, and in the brutal third line there is only one unstressed syllable.
  3. Could a single word could ever bear two stresses?
  4. Did little particles (yk and l, meaning roughly ‘to’ and ‘as’) count?
  5. Was a regular number of stresses required? The Hopkins verse above has 5-5-5-4-2-2-3-5 stresses per line.

Despite such obscurities we can discern that the most common rhythms are

  1. lines of two-plus-two (an energetic rhythm, like the 4:4 of a modern march - Psalm 28)
  2. or three-plus-three (especially frequent in psalms of praise - Psalm 150),
  3. or less frequently four-plus-four (most of Psalm 45), stresses each.
  4. A frequent rhythm, normally associated with mourning, is the plaintive, qina-rhythm of 3 stresses followed by 2, in which the second line echoes and falls away from the first (so frequent in psalms of lament - Psalm 27).

[Addendum]

Psalm 28

Two Plus Two Rhythm

To you, O Lord, • I call,
my rock, • hear me.
If you do not heed • I shall become
like those • in the grave.

Hear the voice • of my pleading
as I call • for help,
as I lift up my hands • in prayer
to your • holy place ...

Psalm 150

Three Plus Three Rhythm

Praise God • in his • holy place,
praise him • in his • mighty heavens.
Praise him • for his • powerful deeds,
praise his • surpassing • greatness.

O praise him • with sound • of trumpet,
praise him • with lute • and harp.
Praise him • with timbrel • and dance,
praise him • with strings • and pipes.

Psalm 45

Four Plus Four Rhythm

My heart • overflows • with noble • words.
To the king • I must speak • the song • I have made,
my tongue • as nimble • as the pen • of a scribe.

You • are the fairest • of the children • of men
and • graciousness • is poured • upon your lips:
because • God• has blessed you • for evermore ...

Psalm 27

Three Plus Two Rhythm

The Lord • is my light • and my help; • whom shall • I fear?
The Lord • is the stronghold • of my life; • before whom • shall I shrink?

When • evil-doers • draw near • to devour • my flesh,
it is they, • my enemies • and foes, • who stumble • and fall ...

References