Auden, the Psalms, and Me
J. Chester Johnson
Choosing a new hymnal is controversial enough for many congregations, so consider the emotions that surround revising a centuries-old Psalter. In the late 1960s the Episcopal Church (the U.S. member of the Anglican Communion) undertook a revision of their Psalter in parallel with revising their Book of Common Prayer. Work on the Psalter, which had been used with minor tweaks since the 1500s, began around 1968 and was completed in 1971, and work on the BCP concluded in 1979.
One of the original members of the committee charged with revising the Psalter was the English poet W. H. Auden (1907–1973), whose winter home was New York City in the late 1960s. Auden was intimately familiar with the Psalms from his childhood in the north of England, but as importantly (and not noted in the book reviewed here), he had written librettos, with his partner Chester Kallman, to be set to music for composers including Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, and Hans Werner Henze.
Auden decided to move back to England in 1971, and the young poet J. Chester Johnson was asked to replace him on the committee as its “resident poet,” mainly on the basis of a letter Johnson dashed off to various members, including Auden, offering his services. Johnson was then a committee member through to the conclusion of the project. He had previously made Auden’s acquaintance when he picked up the phone book, saw his name, and called him (and, to Auden’s credit, had a nice little chat). It’s not said explicitly in the book, but apparently Johnson and Auden never met face to face.
The Psalter is arguably the most important book of poetry in the English language. Myles Coverdale’s (ca. 1488–1569) translation of the Psalms was published separately before he finished his “Great Bible” (so called because of its size) in 1539/1540. His translation was not incorporated into the BCP until 1662 (notably not the King James version of the Psalms), the version of the BCP still used by the Church of England. Handel used Coverdale’s translation (again not the KJV translation) in The Messiah.
By the late 1960s when the retranslation project started, it was well known that mistranslations abounded in Coverdale’s version. He didn’t know Hebrew until his later exile in Geneva, so he had used the Vulgate and German translations. Another problem was that twentieth-century church goers stumbled over some of his turns of phrase. The committee never intended to make a wholesale retranslation; their goal was simply to correct errors and update passages in Tudor era English.
Auden in his later years had a curmudgeonly streak (partly real, partly an act), and he was opposed to making almost any changes at all. He was appalled by the revisions to the BCP and wrote a scathing letter to his local vicar about the trial version and the changes made to Cranmer’s language. Auden, in fact, thought it would be better to translate the Psalter and the BCP back into Latin. In his view, expressed in a letter to Johnson reproduced in facsimile, “In my view, the Rite [the mass] … is the link between the dead and the unborn. This calls for a timeless language which, in practice, means a dead language.” Auden ended this letter “Lastly, I don’t believe there is such an animal as Twentieth Century Man”—by which he meant that the liturgy and Psalter don’t require updating for modern sensibilities.
In the end the committee stayed close to Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms. They fixed mistranslations and tinkered with wording to bring passages in line with modern turns of phrase. Johnson compares several passages from Coverdale and from the revision to demonstrate how the committee didn’t wander too far afield in its work. For example, here is Coverdale’s and the committee’s versions of verses from Psalm 137:
O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery;
yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee
as thou hast served us.
Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children,
And throweth them against the stones.
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!
In his appendixes Johnson gives examples of literary devices used by Cranmer and Coverdale. Knowing what chiasmus is isn’t indispensable for enjoying the book, but it’s an interesting list.
Johnson makes the important point that faith is often overlooked by a writer’s fans or scholars and critics dissecting their work. Some scholars were not aware of Auden’s involvement in the Psalter revision until Johnson published his first article about his own involvement. Auden’s own faith—he was a pretty steady church goer most of his life—lies in plain sight in his poetry, librettos, and essays throughout his career, and provides a pretty solid theological underpinning to much of it. Johnson discusses the influence of the Christian author, and friend of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams (1886–1945) on Auden, who in the earlier 1950s wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’ Descent of the Dove, which he claimed he reread every year.
This book should prove interesting to Auden fans, to all those who love and revere the Psalms, and to readers interested in the 1970s revision process in the Episcopal church. Johnson, known as a poet and translator and for his poem “St Paul’s Chapel” which memorializes the New York church’s role in 9/11 and its aftermath, writes engagingly for a general, nonspecialist (either literary or theological) audience.