Just catching up with the news of this book's record-breaking sale. Clearly the first-American-book-ever thing is the key selling point, which is fair enough. The fact that the book is intrinsically the most valuable printed work ever is a little incongruous. The shoddy quality of the printing has attracted some comment.
I confess I have some affection for this book, though I think not enough to shell out quite so many millions for a copy. English and New-English puritans of that period were much exercised about the singing of the Psalms: they generally denied that anything else could be sung in worship. The Psalms, being part of Scripture, are inspired, and so why should anyone sing mere human ditties in their place? (The obvious answer being that human-composed prose is regularly used in worship - prayers and sermons - so why not poetry too? The Bay book's editors fulminate against that argument without ever really managing to refute it, which I think betrays how emotionally fraught an issue this was for them.)
The more serious problem was on the other side: was it legitimate even to sing the Psalms? After all, that entailed translating them into verse, and verse necessarily entails paraphrasing or rearrangement to fit to a metrical scheme. The early Protestant versions, indeed, presented themselves as free paraphrases, not translations. But that means they're not Scripture, and if you have scruples about singing anything that's not Scripture ... what are you to do?
Well, obviously, produce a new metrical version which is entirely accurate. Enter the Bay Psalm Book, published in Massachusetts in 1640. The translators deny any 'liberty or poeticall licence to depart from the true and proper sence of Davids words in the hebrew verses'. Indeed, they make an elaborate show of how precise they have been, fulsomely apologising for occasionally omitting the Hebrew word usually translated as ‘and’, adding the occasional synonym, or even (contentious, this one) expanding a phrase to make it fit the metre.
‘If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings. ... Wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry.’
They're not joking. Here are a couple of stanzas of Psalm 23:
The Lord to mee a shepheard is
want therefore shall not I.
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads
Restore my soule doth hee:
he doth in paths of righteousness
for his names sake leade mee.
Or my favourite, the incomprehensible verses 6-7 of Psalm 2:
But I annoynted have my King
upon my holy hill
of Zion: The established
counsel declare I will.
That is, they square the circle of accuracy and metre by discarding anything like standard English word order.
It is hard not to find a chink of amusement in this tortuous verse. But there is something more serious here, too, I think: a deliberate anti-aesthetic, the Puritan plain style taken to its extreme, an attempt to prove that beauty lies always and only within. The book dares you to laugh at it. And clearly, four centuries on, it is still managing to be taken seriously.