When the article, “On Working with W. H. Auden on The Psalms,” appeared here, I received a number of questions and requests for more information. So, I’m taking this opportunity to respond – at least, in part.
I’ve noticed it came as a complete surprise to many persons that W. H. Auden was so fully engaged, intellectually and emotionally, in the Episcopal Church’s revision of THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, begun in earnest in the late 1960s. While a portion of his views on the subject was included in the article, associated material by and about Auden on the revision project is also contained in the final pages of Later Auden, the most recent biography by Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor and principal biographer. To receive a little more flavor of the intensity of Auden’s perspective toward the subject, add the following excerpt from one of his letters:
“What has happened over the last few years has made me realize that those who rioted when Cranmer introduced a vernacular liturgy were right. When this reform nonsense started, what we should have done is the exact opposite of the Roman Catholics: we should have said ‘Henceforth, we will have the Book of Common Prayer in Latin.’ (There happens to be an excellent translation.)”
These views were further clarified and emphasized in the considerable communication that exists on various aspects of the revision process between Auden and Canon Charles Guilbert, who was, at the time, the Custodian of THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER of the Episcopal Church. The basis for Auden’s fundamental aversion to the revision can be summed up, I believe, in this thoughtful and quite eloquent excerpt from a letter, dated March 19th, 1968, to Guilbert:
“We had the Providential good-fortune, a blessing denied to the Roman Catholics, that our Prayer Book was compiled at the ideal historical moment, that is to say, when the English Language was already in all essentials the language we use now – nobody has any difficulty understanding Shakespeare’s or Cranmer’s English, as they have difficulty with Beowulf or Chaucer – at the same time, men in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries still possessed what our own has almost totally lost, a sense for the ceremonial and ritual both in life and in language.”
Although Auden’s ideas were decidedly contrary to much of the revision project, they were not as vehement regarding the psalm retranslation for which he served on the drafting committee before returning to Europe to live. In this respect, since the two of us held the position of poets on the committee, I’ve been asked from time to time if I could identify specific Auden contributions to the retranslated psalms, now contained in THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. As a consequence of my joining the committee sometime after Auden had become a member, combined with his heavy schedule – mainly, Auden’s frequent trips to Europe and his eventual move from New York City – we never attended the same meetings of the drafting committee.Therefore, I cannot be an original source for Auden’s textual offerings to the finally adopted psalm retranslations. Nonetheless, I was, of course, very interested in the specific recommendations Auden would have made to the committee, and I inquired during my participation on the committee about those contributions. It should be obvious and noted that a true rendering of the translated meaning of the considered text, as a matter of principle, preceded, for obvious reasons, any contribution by either poet. Before the poets’ assistance was invoked, the scholars on the drafting committee traced, to determine if mistranslations surfaced at points along the trail, received text from the original Hebrew through the Greek (Septuagint), through Old Latin, and through St. Jerome’s Latin revision to Miles Coverdale’s 16thcentury translation, which also relied, in part, on Luther’s German Bible and which constituted, with little adjustment, the psalms contained in THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER for virtually the book’s entire life. One final step for the committee also involved a review of the 1928 version of THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, which had accomplished a few modest adjustments to Coverdale.
According to comments of the chairman of the drafting committee, with whom I worked closely on the retranslation for more than five years to completion of the project, Auden provided three memorable contributions to the adopted retranslation: In psalm 27, he replaced “secret place” in both Coverdale and the 1928 version with “secrecy”; for psalm 42, he replaced “water pipes” in Coverdale and “water floods” in the 1928 version with “cataracts”; and for psalm 95, he replaced “prepared” in both Coverdale and the 1928 version with “molded.” I also believe Auden made an additional and fourth contribution: He presented forceful pleas for the committee to retain a variety of inherited language; for example, I know he argued for the preservation of this line from psalm 122: “Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself,” and that is what one finds today in THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. I’d not be surprised at all if a few more traditional lines were also saved through his erudition and zeal.
Notwithstanding the deep reservations he held about the general revision, Auden still felt compelled to offer help, reflecting, among other things, his ties to both the institution and the qualities of the traditional liturgy. At one point in the correspondence, Auden writes to Guilbert, “I should be honored and delighted to serve in any capacity on the Standing Liturgical Commission.” I also believe the offer to assist illustrated a genuine generosity and good will, which unfortunately do not comport with the judgment, among many people, that Auden regularly exhibited a honed curmudgeon attitude. My interchange with W. H. Auden can not confirm this latter view; a person of strong ideas he was – with polymathic knowledge and precise proportion at his fingertips to enhance and justify those views, but he was mostly accessible and transparent and not rude, arrogant, or routinely short – not from my experience.
I distinctly remember my first encounter with him. In my early 20s, I decided to try out New York City as a place to live – during the late 1960s. Early on in the settling process, I found myself thumbing through the mammoth Manhattan phone book, and either accidentally or by intense curiosity, I unearthed the name, W. H. Auden. Now, surely, the poet would not be so open as to list himself in the phone book for everyone to know the number – I assumed it was just a duplicate name in the gargantuan city. Yet, to confirm my conclusion, I decided to call – the hubris of the young at play. Someone picked up the phone, and I began to inquire: “Is this W. H. Auden?” “Yes.” “Is this the poet, W. H. Auden?” “Yes.” It couldn’t be, could it? So, I started to stumble and stutter into some comment about how much I admired and enjoyed his verse. He immediately made me feel at ease, and we talked for awhile – I didn’t feel rushed to jump off the phone. Little did I know that, in four years, I’d be communicating with him over the retranslation of the psalms for THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER.
There is also a story involving Edward Mendelson that corresponds with my own, both of which could possibly help shed some of Auden’s adhering reputation among some people for brief tolerance and quick severity. Mendelson, an assistant professor at Yale at the time, had been given the job of serving as Auden’s chaperon and guide on a visit the poet made to the campus to talk with students and to record his poems. During the stay, Auden mentioned to Mendelson that he wanted to put together a new collection of his essays, to be titled FOREWORDS AND AFTERWORDS; however, Auden didn’t remember what he had written, to which Mendelson replied that he had copied all of Auden’s essays, which were then in Mendelson’s apartment. Auden, obviously pleased, spent a few hours with the copies but then said he would need to return at a later date in order to read all of the essays. Following the trip to Yale, after Auden had announced his departure for England, he wrote to Mendelson asking that he, Mendelson, make the selections for him, and sent a check for $150 to cover the costs of copying. In turn, Mendelson put together a preliminary list of contents, which Auden reviewed and amended; Mendelson, a few days later, sent a sheaf of copies to Auden. Sometime after these exchanges, Auden asked Mendelson to be his literary executor. And still later, Mendelson remitted a check to Auden for $40, the sum remaining after the costs of copying and mailing were paid. When Auden received the check, it apparently became a celebratory moment for him and Chester Kallman, with much waving of the check, for, as then exclaimed, they had, at last, found an honest man.
Mendelson chose to end his biography, LATER AUDEN, with attention to the poet’s fervid concentration on liturgy and the conduct of worship. Considering the remarkable focus and energy Auden placed on these issues during the last years of his life, there could be no more fitting way to close the final chapter on the poet’s life.
J. Chester Johnson has written verse for over forty years. His work received praise from writers and poets spanning several decades – from, among others, Allen Tate and Nobel Laureate I. B. Singer to current, well-known poets, such as Molly Peacock and Major Jackson, who commented, regarding Johnson’s most recent volume, St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems: “Undoubtedly, this is a work headed for literary permanence in our collective ear.” In his 20s, Johnson served with W. H. Auden as the two poets for the retranslation of the Psalms, as now contained in The Book of Common Prayer. For the last ten years, “St. Paul’s Chapel,” the signature poem for his recent book of verse, has been the memento card for the approximately 30,000 weekly visitors to the Chapel at Ground Zero.