Nahum Tate

Nahum Tate

Born: 1652, Dub­lin, Ire­land
Died: Au­gust 12, 1715, South­wark, Lon­don, Eng­land
Buried: St. George the Mar­tyr South­wark, Lon­don, Eng­land

The Unexpected Legacy of Nahum Tate, Ireland’s Poet Laureate

When we flip through the dusty pages of literary history, some names shine brighter than others. William Shakespeare, John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer – these are the titans who stand the test of time. But what about the lesser-known luminaries, those who made their mark in their day but have since faded into obscurity? One such figure is Nahum Tate, the Anglo-Irish poet, hymnist and lyricist who rose to become Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1692.

From Puritan Roots to the World of Theater

Born in Dublin in 1652, young Nahum came from a family steeped in Puritan tradition. His father Faithful Teate was a clergyman who narrowly escaped with his life during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Perhaps sensing that his son was destined for a different path, Faithful encouraged Nahum’s education, first at Trinity College Dublin, and later in London, where the aspiring writer moved in 1676 to pursue his literary ambitions.

Tate Takes on the Bard

It didn’t take long for Nahum Tate to make his mark on the London scene. By 1678, his original plays and poems were gracing the stage and page. But it was his audacious adaptations of Elizabethan works, especially those of Shakespeare, that truly set Tate apart.

His reworking of King Lear in 1681 proved especially controversial. Tate deftly massaged the text “full of respect to Majesty and the dignity of courts” while axing the Fool and adding a romance between Cordelia and Edgar for good measure. The revised version became a hit, much to the chagrin of bardolators. Even Samuel Johnson wryly praised “the poetic justice of Tate’s adaptation.”

Librettos and Lyrics for the Ages

Not content to rest on his Shakespearean laurels, Tate flexed his versatility as the librettist for Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas. He also penned texts for the composer’s acclaimed odes and birthday songs.

But Tate’s most enduring contribution was undoubtedly his 1696 New Version of the Psalms of David, a collaboration with Nicholas Brady which added several beloved hymns to the church canon. The Christmas carol “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” stands as Tate’s most famous legacy, still cherished by congregations the world over.

Accolades, Critiques, and an Inglorious End

Nahum Tate’s prodigious output and literary panache did not go unnoticed by the crown. In 1692, he succeeded Thomas Shadwell as Britain’s Poet Laureate, an honor he would hold for over two decades.

But not everyone was a fan of Tate’s sometimes saccharine style. Acerbic wits like Alexander Pope savaged his works in satirical screeds. Tate’s Shakespearean “improvements” also became a fashionable target of ridicule over time.

Sadly, the Poet Laureate’s final chapter was not a happy one. Hounded by creditors, Nahum Tate was forced to seek shelter in London’s Mint district, where he died in penury in 1715 at age 63.

Yet for all the slings and arrows Tate endured, no one can deny the indelible mark this son of Dublin left on the world of English letters. His works, once ubiquitous, may have lost some luster in the harsh light of modernity. But as long as festive voices sing out “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” Nahum Tate’s name will never be wholly forgotten. And that is a legacy any poet could envy.

Don Chapman

Don Chapman

Composer/arranger Don Chapman has created HYMNDEX as a labor of love to help new generations learn about the lives, legacies and lyrics of historic hymn writers.