While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
DESCRIPTION: "While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground, The angel of the Lord came down" to announce the birth of Jesus. They are directed to find the child in the manger in Bethlehem
AUTHOR: Words: Nahum Tate (1652-1715)
EARLIEST DATE: 1702 (Tate and Brady)
KEYWORDS: Bible Jesus religious
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (5 citations):
OBC 33, "While Shepherds Watched" (1 text, 1 tune)
BrownIII 611, "Mary Bowed" (1 short text, with a verse "I wonder where Sister Mary's gone... She's gone to some new buryin' ground For to lay her feeble body down" and a second verse from "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks")
ADDITIONAL: Kathleen Hoagland, editor, One Thousand Years of Irish Poetry (New York, 1947), p. 322, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" (1 text)
Donagh MacDonagh and Lennox Robinson, _The Oxford Book of Irish Verse_ (Oxford, 1958, 1979), pp. 1-2, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" (1 text)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #99, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night" (1 text)
Bodleian, Harding B 7(4), "While Shepherds Watch'd", J. Catnach (London), 1813-1838; also Harding B 7(38), Harding B 7(17), Harding B 7(35), "While Shepherds Watched"; Harding B 45(3) View 3 of 3, "While Shepherds Watch'd Their Flocks by Night"; Harding B 7(37), "Watched Their Flocks"; Douce adds. 137(51), "Christmas Hymn" ("While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night"); Douce adds. 137(45), "While Shepherds"; Firth b.26(538), [None] ("While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night"); Harding B 7(79), "While Shepherds Watch"
LOCSheet, sm1843 390300, "While Shepherds Watch'd Their Flocks by Night", A. Fiot (Philadelphia), 1843; also sm1880 18274, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night!"; sm1879 16295, sm1883 22668, "While Shepherds Watched" (tune)
cf. "On Ilkla Moor Bah T'at" (tune "Cranbrook")
While Shepherds Washed Their Socks (Pankake-PHCFSB, pp. 38, 158)
NOTES: An unusual nativity hymn, in that every word of it comes from Luke, without reference to the conflicting account in Matthew. The song is essentially a paraphrase of Luke 2:8-14. It successfully nuances its way around a major variant in the text in 2:14 (the original text, as found in the five earliest copies of Luke, reads "and on earth peace among those whom [God] favors; almost all later copies read "and on earth peace, goodwill among men/people" -- a difference of just one letter in the Greek); the avoidance of the issue is probably luck, as the inaccuracy of the Received Text and the King James Bible in this passage would not have been known in the seventeenth century.
Reynolds, p. 246, says, "In the early eighteenth century, besides the canticles and psalms, only six hymns, of which this was one, were permitted to be used in the Church of England."
According to Julian, p. 919, Tate and Brady's "New Version" of the psalter (which included some material not from the psalms) was published in 1696 (with a partial sample having been offered in 1695) and dedicated to King William III. A revised edition came out in 1698. A supplement came out in 1703. All of these had royal approval. This didn't force churches to use it, but it certainly gave the rendering a boost. For the most part it is not known what is by Tate and what is by Brady. Julian characterizes the work as marked by "1. Psalms of an ornate character, with occasional vigour of rhythm, written mostly in L.M. and P.M. The best is 139th, 'Thou, Lord, by strictest search has known.' 2. A large quantity of very spiritless C.M., as poor in language as the literal versions. 3. A few examples of sweet and simple verse, such as the 34th, 'Through all the changing senes of life'; 42nd, 'As pants the hart'; 51st, 'Have mercy, Lord, on me'; and 84th, 'Oh, God of hosts, the mighty Lord....' The artificial style of that period is applied to the psalms.... And yet one condemned to tread the waste of metrical Psalters will consider it an advance on its predecessors." Julian also regards Tate and Brady as having established the principle (even if they fell short of meeting it) that metrical psalters should be good poetry, even if this requires some change in meaning.
In the Sacred Harp, this is set to the tune "Sherburne," credited to Daniel Read; the Missouri Harmony also uses this tune, though without credit.
According to Julian, p. 1275, this first appeared in the Supplement to the so-called New Version of the Psalms by Tate and Brady, "in 1702, in 6 st[anzas] of 4 l[ines], and in all later versions the same." Julian goes on to note a 1745 Scottish revision beginning "While humble Shepherds watched their flocks, In Bethleh'ms plains by night, An angel sent from Heav'n appear'd And filled the plains with light"; there were no other changes. There was also a revision "On Judah's plains as shepherds kept"; this is rare.
It is amusing to note no fewer than four translations of this piece into Latin, even though there are Latin versions of the original Latin texts.
I must admit to finding Hoagland's claim that this song is Irish rather funny. Yes, Nahum Tate was born in Dublin (NewCentury, p. 1055) -- but he spent his entire working career in England, and became Poet Laureate in 1692 (Benet, p. 1102). Apart from this song, he was most noteworthy for abusing Shakespeare, primarily by grafting happy endings onto the Tragedies.
Kunitz/Haycraft, pp. 508-509, offer a capsule biography, noting that he was "dramatist, poet, poet laureate." Born in Dublin, the son of one Faithful Teate (the spelling Tait himself used until he went to England), he studied in Dublin and earned his B.A. in 1672.
Almost all of his plays were revisions; Kunitz/Haycraft credit him with only one or two original dramas. They declare that "his best poem is 'Panacea, a Poem on Tea' (1700), and that is none too good." Dryden did solicit his help on "Absalom and Achitophel," but the final form is Dryden's. Kunitz/Haycraft declare that the general level of Tate's and Nicolas Brady's New Version of the Psalms "very low, and it is unbearably dull, but the less intolerable portions in it are believed to be Tate's."
They also add that he was "not an engaging personality; he was taciturn, grumpy, and given to heavy drinking." Similarly, Julian, p. 920, records that "He was said to be a man of intemperate and improvident life." He was also an "active adherent" of William III, which no doubt helped his career.
So little do Kunitz/Haycraft think of him that "There has been some question whether he was the worst or only nearly the worst of the poets laureate."
Brady and Tate's "New Version" of the Psalter did eventually become popular in the United States (Fisher, p, 8), but a large part of the reason is that its main competition was the rather stiff version found in the Bay Psalm Book.
The bottom line is, this is his only piece to have survived with any popularity at all. It is perhaps unfair to blame him for being a poor poet (although he could have avoided afflicting it on the world). But what does one say about a man who cuts the Fool out of King Lear and gives that play a happy ending? I'd have to say his place in Pope's Dunciad was deserved.
Various tunes have been used for this particular piece; one, "Cranbrook," is best known as the melody for "On Ilkla Moor Bah T'at." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Benet: William Rose Benet, editor, The Reader's Encyclopdedia, first edition, 1948 (I use the four-volume Crowell edition but usually check it against the single volume fourth edition edited by Bruce Murphy and published 1996 by Harper-Collins)
- Fisher: William Arms Fisher, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Music Publishing in the United States: 1783-1933, Oliver Ditson Company, 1933
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- Kunitz/Haycraft: Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, Editors, British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary, H. W. Wilson, 1952 (I use the fourth printing of 1965)
- NewCentury: Clarence L. Barnhart with William D. Haley, editors, The New Century Handbook of English Literature, revised edition, Meredith Publishing, 1967
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.