The 150 mostly short poems constituting the psalter (the body of psalms) have engendered admiration, emulation, and enduring precedent for a long line of English and American poets. Like so many of those poets before and after him, W. H. Auden regarded the psalms as a special body of memorable poetry. Indeed, during the last years of his life, he was engaged, as a member of the drafting committee, in the retranslation of the psalms, as contained in The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the famous book that serves as the liturgical guide for The Episcopal Church (USA), which had, at the time, authorized a complete overhaul of the entire book.
While the form for the psalms evolved through our language into different applications, their original construction influenced the direction of our verse. For example, though the ancient Hebrew ear apparently enjoyed more truncated lines and fewer cadences, the English-American ear, as a general matter, extrapolated verse structure into longer lines and more cadences. Notwithstanding many other adaptations, including major adjustments to subject matter and tone, the model of the psalms has persisted to effect a stylistic reference point among English and American writers of verse – in innumerable cases, no doubt, without the literary practitioner’s conscious knowledge of the association.
Modern scholarship has advised that the first psalms began to be written around 1,000 BCE, soon after David, the legendary warrior-leader-poet, forged Israel into a formidable theocracy,. Scholars generally agree that the composition of the psalms occurred continued through the period that followed the rebuilding of the second temple in Jerusalem and ended around 500 BCE. When the Hebrews returned from the Babylonian exile around 535 BCE, they renewed a commitment to the faith of their ancestors by taking a series of redemptive steps, including the codification of a worship book of psalms. So we poets today reach back through almost three millennia to establish a connection with some early architects and engineers of our craft.
Even though Auden viewed his participation in the overall revision of the BCP ambivalently, the project, including especially his more direct role in the retranslation of the psalms, nevertheless, occupied a good deal of his attention and seemed to be central to him during this period, as evidenced by the number and intensity of letters and other writings he wrote at the time.. For instance, Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor and principal biographer, closes his most recent book, Later Auden, by discussing W. H. Auden’s role in and reactions to the project.
Auden’s views on the revision of the psalms for the BCP were protective of the verse, illustrated in a letter to me while we served as the two poets, on the drafting committee: “All I can do is to try to persuade the scholars not to alter Coverdale unless there is a definite mistranslation.” To him, if there were to be a revision to the original 16th century Anglican translation by Miles Coverdale, then Auden’s mission was to make sure the surgery on his beloved psalms happened tenderly.
His attitude toward certain other elements of change to the BCP was not so well-mannered and disciplined. A rather humorous moment occurred during this time that dramatically describes his irritation – no, his vitriolic anger – over aspects of the prayer book’s revision. In a letter to me during the summer of 1971, W. H. Auden shared his outrage over other adjustments then being considered for possible inclusion in the BCP, which dates back to 1549. Auden wrote:
“My own parish (St. Mark’s in the Bowery) has gone so crazy that I have to go to the Russian Orthodox Church where, thank God, though I know what is going on, I don’t understand a single word. The odd thing about the liturgical reform movement is that it is not asked for by the laity – they dislike it. It is a fad of a few crazy priests. If they imagine that their high jinks will bring youth into the churches, they are very much mistaken.”
Taking into account Auden’s strong, opposing views about certain facets (away from the psalm retranslation) of the changes to the BCP, it is a curious irony that the thirtieth anniversary of the 1979 publication of the BCP revision came on the heels of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the passing of W. H. Auden, the revision’s most celebrated participant.
The psalms on which he and I worked have now become part of the official BCP and have been adopted for worship books and services by Lutherans in Canada and the United States and by the Anglican Church of Canada. Auden’s part in the retranslation was quite consequential – one can point to specific and outstanding contributions he made to a number of individual psalms.
English and American poets have often employed their talents in adapting the psalms by having them become metrical and rhythmic for the English language, by using them for launching related or derived insights, by imposing on them personal and stylistic characteristics and devices, or by retranslating them so the poems comport with up-to-date Hebrew scholarship. George Herbert’s translation of the 23rd psalm, John Donne’s poem upon the translation of the psalms by Philip and Mary Sidney, and the Sidneys’ own psalm adaptations stand as outstanding examples. Robert Burns, John Milton, Samuel Coleridge and Francis Bacon also occasionally found ways to draw on the psalms.
More recently, American poets who have reached back to those ancient poems for their own particular purposes include Daniel Berrigan, Robert Pinsky, Kathleen Norris, William Stafford, and Anthony Hecht.
The psalms have also helped allay literary feuds. For instance, in the 1950s, both T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, titans in the world of letters who disagreed on a great variety of subjects, were asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to serve on the drafting committee for a retranslation of the psalms by the Church of England. Prior to joining the committee, the two had, more than once, traded cutting insults and excoriations. When Eliot first met Lewis, he is said to have derisively remarked: “Mr. Lewis, you’re much older than I thought you would be.” Lewis had previously referred to Eliot as a promoter of irresponsibility, and, at one point, apparently offered: “T. S. Eliot is the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against.”
However, once they began to work on the psalms, the previously held antagonisms started to evaporate. For example, letter salutations from Lewis to Eliot are said to have changed from “Dear Sir” to “My Dear Eliot.” The ancient poems had broken through the borders of two well organized and well fortified states.
Why do the psalms fascinate poets of every age? It may be as simple as the words of one poet, who said a few years ago, meaning to be only half-facetious: “Poetry hasn’t improved much since the psalms.”
Professor Tolkien of The Hobbit once suggested that the worst thing that ever happened to poetry was the printing press; one can infer from the comment that poetry in the oral tradition, in which the psalms were fashioned, had to be immediate, attractive, intense, emotional and very personal. This view would also partially accord with the words of Auden, who wrote to me at one point: “I don’t believe there is such an animal as Twentieth Century Man.”