A third-rate Sussex psalmodist – The Rev. Benjamin Thomas Halcott Cole

WGMA researchers have quite rightly concentrated on the best psalmodists. But for every Thomas Clarke or William Knapp there must have been several third-rate composers whose output was hardly worth the paper it was written upon. But that doesn't mean to say that their lives are not worth recording nor that we can't have a giggle at some of their imaginative metric verses. Try this version of the Rev. Coles’ version of Psalm CIV  for size:

      Thou makest darkness, night bears sway

      The forest beasts move warily,

      Young lions roaring for their prey,

      Seek it from God with dawning day,

      They press their lair reposingly.

The corresponding words in the King James Bible are: Thou makest darkness, and it is night; wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey and seek their meat from God. The sun riseth, they gather themselves together, and lay themselves down in their dens.

The Rev. Cole’s metric Psalms of David were published in 1847. In the preface he justified his versification by saying that up until then no such version of the psalms had “hitherto met with general acceptance and many persons consider such a version to be highly desired.” Regrettably the reviewer in the December 1847 issue of The Spectator thought otherwise. He did not feel they were any better than the 1696 version by Nicholas Brady and the Poet Laureate Nahum Tate. You have only got to look at the words of “As pants the hart” or “Through all the changing scenes of life” that you have some sympathy with the Spectator reviewer.

The Rev. Cole was the rector of Warbleton, Sussex between 1813 and 1850. Situated in the High Weald which had been the centre of the country's iron making industry until the previous century, by 1815 it was pretty impoverished following a sharp fall in corn prices. Three wet seasons ruining the crops and the depletion of the sheep flocks due to foot rot was bad enough without the scandal surrounding his curate, the unordained, convicted murderer and fraudster Laurence Halloran.  Uncovered as a bigamist by his wife and mother of his first six children whom he had abandoned in Devon, Halloran - now going under the name Lewis with his new” wife” and another six children - made a swift exit from Sussex. He was eventually transported to Australia for committing fraud where he again bigamously married a 16-year-old convict after the death in her 12th confinement of “wife” number two.

Our psalmodist the Rev. Cole was a more orthodox cleric. Born about 1762, he had obtained a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. This was followed by further studies at Magdalen College, Oxford. In those days, Fellows of Oxford and Cambridge were expected to be celibate. This was the case until the late 19th century. But in 1838 he beat the gun by marrying at the tender age of seventy-six, the widow Maria Grantham. Maria had been a member of The Society for the Relief of Distressed Widows who provided “discreet relief” to deserving cases.

Maybe he was suffering from unrequited love for Maria when his book of poems “The Renegade” was published in 1833. This received one of the most excoriating reviews I have ever read. It ran along these lines – an elderly country vicar is better employed looking after his flock than spending time writing second rate love poems and “acquainting the world with his particular propensities.” It went on to say that it was an insult to the parish farmer who gave one tenth of his income to finance the pursuit of a man whose lovesick odes and broken-hearted madrigals were, “as inferior as steel to silver.”

I suppose you could say that his Psalms of David received a somewhat better review. But being published as late as 1847 when Psalmody would shortly die out and he was in his mid-eighties, I can only think that he wanted to see this work of a lifetime in print before he died.

I can do no better than leave you with this imaginative rhyming couplet for the final two lines of his version of Psalm XXIII

    • For evermore my fixed abode
    • Shall be the temple of my God.

1 The Psalms of David: A New Metrical Version- Seeley, Burnside snd Seeley 1847

 The Kent and Sussex Weald – Peter Brandon

 Scholarly scoundrel – Jan Worthington

Paula Nicholson