But artists, though, are human; and for man To be a scivvy is not nice at all: So everyone will do the best he can To get a patch of ground which he can call His own. He doesn't really care how small, So long as he can style himself the master: Unluckily for art, it's a disaster.
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.
(Ed note: A few months ago, David Lehman met Chester Johnson at an event that featured a discussion about W . H. Auden. During the post-event dinner, he and David got to talking about Auden, with whom Chester had worked on the retranslation of the Psalms for THE
BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER (book of liturgy for The Episcopal Church). David asked Chester to write about the experience for our readers. We're thrilled to bring you this exclusive.Thank you J. Chester Johnson -- sdh)
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.”
Tolkien of TheHobbit 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.”
Random thoughts . . . Tom Clark maintains his blog with rare dedication. Check out today's, devoted to a Joe Brainard prose piece and the drawings of Hans Holbein. . . We were talking about religion-substitutes recently. I nominated "art" and "politics." My friends volunteered "pornography" and "drugs." They won. . . I've been reading Auden writing in the Byronic manner:
<<< I hate pompositas and all authority; Its air of injured rightness also sends Me shuddering from the cultured smug minority. 'Perpetual revolution,' left-wing friends Tell me, 'in counter-revolution ends. Your fate will be to linger on outcast A selfish pink old Liberal to the last.' >>>
Hey there. Daniel Nester here. I've guest-blogged before in this space, so I'll cut to the quick and start posting things. If you want to know more about me and whatnot, check out where I live online as well as my usual blogging space, the group blog We Who Are About To Die.
I'll start off with a scan of W.H. Auden's "daydream College for Bards," from his essay "The Poet and The City" collected in The Dyer's Hand. I love bringing this up when, as the seasons seem to dictate, people start talking about the utility of graduate, and even undergraduate, writing classes.
I think I first encountered the Auden quote reading Clayton Eshelman's piece in the collection of poetry/prosody, Conversant Essays, in a class given by Mark Rudman. David Lehman mentions the Auden Daydream College in his introduction to the 2008 edition of Best American Poetry.
Writing in 1991, Erica Riggs addresses Auden's Item #5, the bit about cultivating a garden plot. Good ole Wystan stipulates this, Riggs writes, "perhaps to teach them how a crop is brought to "'ripeness.'"
Riggs continues to say that "a gardener can do much, using experience and judgment to produce asuccessful crop, just as a poet may bring critical judgment to bear on the composition of poetry. But the crucial processes of germination and fructification draw energy from earth and sun in their seasonal cycle--vast powers that he can only hope to engage by being humbly responsive to them."
I'll leave this this kicker-quote, also found in the Riggs. "I am always interested," Auden writes, "in hearing what a poet has to say about the nature of poetry, though I do not take it too seriously. As objective statements his definitions are never accurate, never complete, and always one-sided. Not one would stand up under a rigorous analysis."
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can Unearth the whole offence From Luther until now That has driven a culture mad, Find what occurred at Linz, What huge imago made A psychopathic god: I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew All that a speech can say About Democracy, And what dictators do, The elderly rubbish they talk To an apathetic grave; Analysed all in his book, The enlightenment driven away, The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air Where blind skyscrapers use Their full height to proclaim The strength of Collective Man, Each language pours its vain Competitive excuse: But who can live for long In an euphoric dream; Out of the mirror they stare, Imperialism's face And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar Cling to their average day: The lights must never go out, The music must always play, All the conventions conspire To make this fort assume The furniture of home; Lest we should see where we are, Lost in a haunted wood, Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash Important Persons shout Is not so crude as our wish: What mad Nijinsky wrote About Diaghilev Is true of the normal heart; For the error bred in the bone Of each woman and each man Craves what it cannot have, Not universal love But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark Into the ethical life The dense commuters come, Repeating their morning vow; 'I will be true to the wife, I'll concentrate more on my work,' And helpless governors wake To resume their compulsory game: Who can release them now, Who can reach the dead, Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
Defenseless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; He knew human folly like the back of his hand, And was greatly interested in armies and fleets; When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, And when he cried the little children died in the streets.