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Auden, the Psalms, and Me, by J. Chester Johnson 

16 August 2019

Cally Hammond on the poet’s career as liturgist

I ENJOYED reading this book despite having some reservations. It tells of the part that the English poet W. H. Auden played in revising the Psalter of the Episcopal Church of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. It was to be a revision of the Psalter from the English 1662 Prayer Book — a version that was the work of a 16th-century priest, Miles Coverdale. As Johnson’s title suggests, his book describes his own participation in that revision, and also his interactions with Auden.

The subject-matter is important. The author’s perspective is valuable. The insight into Christian attitudes and convictions of Auden is unique. But it all comes at a price. The book’s structure is incoherent: why leave it to chapter eight to tackle the question what psalms are? The author’s striving after linguistic effect is irritating: “pullulating” (an archaism for sprouting or growing) was used where, I think, he must have meant “vacillating”; “credentialled” was, thankfully, new to me as a participle; “bishopric” and “cleric” appeared for “episcopal” and “clerical.” His “crucibles” turned out to be a selection of his personal psalter-highlights (many of which would feature in my highlights list, too) without any methodical analysis.

Listing verbal irritants may seem pedantic, but, in a book that (on one level) is about language, such matters are not peripheral; readers may need encouragement to persist with the book, to reach its insights into the development of the Episcopalian 1979 Psalter.

Through letters of Auden, Johnson opens a window on to the poet’s feelings about the business of retranslation and liturgical reform. Auden’s formation in the language of 1662 reinforced in him the natural conservatism of all lovers of liturgical language. But he was also a wordsmith; so it is not surprising that the task of fashioning phrases attracted him into accepting an invitation to join the committee revising the Psalter. It was not long before these two principles proved incompatible, and he withdrew from the project.

His first encounter with the Grail Psalter in the 1960s led to a characteristically frank dismissal of that fresh look at the Hebrew: “All I can say about its makers is that they may know their Hebrew very well, but, when it comes to their mother-tongue, they don’t know their arse from a hole in the ground.”

Auden’s dilemma is that of all re-workers of ancient texts: whether to prioritise understanding, or authenticity? It is in no danger of being resolved any time soon.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.


Auden, the Psalms, and Me
J. Chester Johnson
Church Publishing Inc £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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