Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms and The Revised Psalter by C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot

Until the time I was forced to hammer out the details for my chronological reading of C.S. Lewis’ works, I thought that he wrote Reflections on the Psalms out of his work with an Anglican committee to update the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) psalter. It turns out, I had it all backwards. Here are some of the hopskotch links that lad Lewis to writing his only book-length book on Scripture and his important relationship with the 20th century’s great poet, T.S. Eliot.

From the time that he began to believe in God, C.S. Lewis attended chapel daily and went to church each Sunday–places where the recitation of the Psalms was a continual event. Students have testified that he read the Psalms himself, soaking in the poetry and the images over a lifetime of practice.

This reading became a habit in WWII, though we don’t know how well he kept the habit (see the 12 Jul 1940 letter to his brother). Where Christian discipline might fail some, a desire for poetry might have fueled his reading even when the spiritual connection was lagging. He loved Coverdale’s 16th-century translation of the Psalms that occupied the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and reflected the work of Tyndale. While Lewis knew that the resources for accurate translation were far greater in his day than Coverdale’s, of the BCP Psalms Lewis said that “in beauty, in poetry, he, and St. Jerome, the great Latin translator, are beyond all whom I know.”

Narrowing in from liturgy to particular interest, if we were to judge by Lewis’ letters, it may have been a spiritual confidant, Sr. Penelope, who first drew Lewis’ attention to the literary potentials in the Psalms.  Sr. Penelope, writing as an anonymous nun, sent Lewis her Scenes from the Psalms, arranged for use in Schools (1939). Though we don’t have her side of the discussion, he does provide a bit of feedback to her work.

Yet, Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms seemed to come from nowhere. Suddenly in autumn of 1957, without having completed a lecture series that we know of, Lewis had completed the book and sent it to the publisher to be published a year later. In the end, we don’t know what triggered his turn to Christian commentary. My own hunch–and it is only that–is that he was inspired by Joy Davidman’s unique perspective on Scripture as a Jewish-American convert. Before they were married, he wrote an introduction to her meditation on the 10 Commandments, Smoke on the Mountain (free online here). What he left us, in any case, is a very human, literary look at the Psalms, including some of Lewis’ clearest teaching about how to read with Bible.

This volume also opened up other kinds of conversations for Lewis. It may be because of Reflections on the Psalms, as well as the Pittenger Debate, that Dr. Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College queried Lewis about his understanding of Scripture. You can see Lewis’ response in his letter to Dr. Kilby in his letter of 7 May 1959, and the discussion of his views in Michael Christenson’s C.S. Lewis on Scripture. In sketching his view, Lewis offers a subtly different understanding of Scripture than Kilby and Wheaton College, but it was Dr. Kilby that began Lewis’ American archive on that very campus.

In an intriguing twist, this book led to Lewis’ involvement with the Committee to Revise the Psalter, which in turn lead to a friendship with T.S. Eliot (who was kind of Lewis’ literary arch-nemesis in the 1920s). A month following the publication of Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis received a letter from Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury in the post-WWII years through 1961. I have not seen the Archbishop’s letter, but here is the job that was set before the Committee:

To produce for the consideration of the Convocations a revision of the text of the Psalter designed to remove obscurities and serious errors of translation yet such as to retain, as far as possible, the general character in style and rhythm of Coverdale’s version and its suitability for congregational use” (The Revised Psalter, v).

Lewis’ letter in response is brief and respectful:

Magdalene College,
Cambridge.
Nov. 14th 1958

My dear Lord Archbishop
I have thought over your Grace’s letter and come to the conclusion that I cannot refuse to serve on this Commission if I am wanted. I wish I were better qualified, but there is no use in multiplying words about that.
Yours sincerely
C. S. Lewis

Lewis did indeed serve on the committee, beginning with his first meeting at Lambeth Palace in January 1959. The committee of scholars, theologians, pastors, and poets worked fastidiously towards a publication in 1963, including several day-long and even three-day conferences. Eliot and Lewis, despite their differing perspectives and a failed connection through mutual friend Charles Williams during WWII, became friends in the process of translation/adaptation of the Psalter. Indeed, it was T.S. Eliot who first knew that A Grief Observed–Lewis’ pseudonymous memoir of grief following the death of Joy (note the author’s name, N.W. Clerk)–was really from the Narnian author and literary scholar, C.S. Lewis. Eliot played a role in the publication of the book that is one of his most problematic and important pieces.

Lewis worked on the Psalter through the death of Joy and his own faltering health. On Aug 7th, 1963, Lewis finally wrote to officially resign from the Commission to Revise the Psalter, just three weeks after he had a near-fatal heart attack and fifteen weeks before he finally passed away. I don’t think Lewis ever saw the final printed copy of the Psalter, as approved, but he did read the preface and probably saw most of the adapted translation.

I am afraid that I don’t know the final impact of the Revised Psalter. Although officially approved, it never became the popular replacement of the Coverdale translation in the Book of Common Prayer that it was envisioned to be. I don’t know the spiritual or political reasons for this–perhaps you do–but having read through the entire Revised Psalter, it is not a striking literary work. Others who have read it delighted in it, but I felt like it kept the awkwardness of an older translation while losing the beauty of Coverdale. Like the New King James psalter, it could not raise to the height of the original and did not throw itself into the language of contemporary culture.

I suspect that this awkwardness–if I am correct–came because of the competing tensions of the committee. It has to work for choral singing, to keep to the original Coverdale theme, to be updated in Hebrew (with reference to Latin and Greek), and to meet the poetic and religious sentiments of folk like Lewis and Eliot. I think it pulled at too many edges and the sheet, if it did not tear, was stretched past what was good for it.

Still, if you want a different reading experience of the Psalms, I would recommend it. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find! Contact me through facebook if you need help from a research perspective, but I borrowed it through Interlibrary Loan. I’d love your thoughts–and a rebuke against my reading–if you have the time.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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7 Responses to Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms and The Revised Psalter by C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot

  1. Chris Bennie says:

    I do not know, but I wonder whether Lewis’s familiarity with the psalms may have been partly, being a commited Anglican layman as well as being a literary scholar, he may have prayed the Anglican offices of Morning and Evening Prayer each day, where the psalter is used extensively, and, depending on which lectionary is used, can take you through the whole psalter in just a few weeks.
    Chris Bennie

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  2. I once spent a weekend with an Anglican religious community that used the Revised Psalter in its daily offices. I remember being both surprised and delighted to see the names of both Lewis and Eliot there. I did not know until I read your piece that the work brought them together in friendship. If it had achieved nothing else that would have been enough. Sadly that was my one and only encounter with this psalter and so I cannot really reflect on its quality. I can see your point about the problems associated with committees. The Authorised Version of the Bible was translated by committee but it was directed by the wonderful Lancelot Andrewes and bears the marks of his scholarship, literary ability and holiness all over it.
    In recent years I have come to the conviction that the best of Anglican theology has come from imaginative writers, ie poets, novelists, literary critics etc. Actually, I would not limit this to those who are confessionally Anglican but would argue that the best theology of the English language comes from this source. Increasingly I believe that there is an Ecclesia Anglicana that is far bigger than the Anglican church (or Roman Catholicism for that matter). I think that the Inklings recognised this in each other and knew when they had found it in other writers.
    A few years ago a niece of mine took a Masters degree at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon near where I live (Birmingham University) where the director of studies is also an Anglican priest. We had a fascinating conversation about Shakespeare as a theologian. And once you start on a list of such poet/theologians the list is endless right up to the present day and Rowan Williams or Malcolm Guite. But I can imagine the clerics on the committee both admiring Lewis and Eliot and also wanting to put them in their place as being “amateur theologians”. I say this because I have met so many clerics like this over the years.
    Thank you so much for this excellent post. I look forward to reading other responses.

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    • Thanks for the notes Stephen. I think the Revised Psalter works well as an alternative reading, but I just wasn’t captivated by it. Perhaps if I spent more time in the Coverdale….
      I’m reading Harold Bloom and he suspects that Shakespeare was a skeptic, while others draw out the theological. I don’t know how to decide that sort of thing, but it is hard to read the KJV and not see a bit of Shakespeare.

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks, indeed – what a rich, interesting post!

    Some scattered thoughts and remarks:

    Perhaps hammering out his splendid discussion of Bible translations in his OHEL volume also fed his thinking to write about the Psalms. Somewhere in his Latin letters to St. Giovanni Calabria (maybe more than once?), I remember he says something about translating a Bible quotation himself as he does not have his Vulgate to hand where he’s writing the letter – letters (including those to Don Luigi Pedrollo) spanning much of this period (1947-61). This somehow gets me thinking how much use he may regularly have made of that in teaching Mediaeval literature, as so many quotations – not least in English works – would have been from the Vulgate (or it would have informed the writers’ thoughts, imagery, and so on, even when writing in Old or Middle English). And, similarly with the BCP Coverdale Psalms (and other Scripture lessons) – as well as other English Bible translations – where later writers were concerned.

    Popping up in the midst of things are the two Psalm adaptations in The Great Divorce – which (it only struck me recently) may, among other things, reflect Dante’s use of Psalms in the Purgatorio!

    Something that somehow never struck me before until I was reading this fine post with all its chronological details, is the parallel with Tolkien working on the English Jerusalem Bible, about which he was approached early in 1957, with him submitting the final text of his version of Jonah in April 1961. (See the Journal of Inkling Studies, Vol. 4 No. 2 (Oct. 2014), for details.)

    I haven’t read enough St. Augustine, but the approach of the Reflections seems very Augustinian, the unpretentious invitation to read and think along with him. I have the impression that Lewis is a lover of Augustine, but don’t know how much and widely in his works he read.

    If word-searching the Project Gutenberg transcription has served me well, I note that only one of MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons is on a Psalm text.

    Alas, my copy of the Revised Psalter is very much out of reach in storage, and I’ve never used it a lot in the past, nor made detailed comparisons between it and the BCP Coverdale. It would be fascinating to learn of people or places who have made regular use of it.

    Do you happen to know if anyone has done audiobooks of either Smoke on the Mountain or Reflections?

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  4. A little late! Sorry.
    Well, Lewis knew Tyndale’s version well enough, and probably Wycliffe. Was he attune to biblical echoes in the allegorical literature of the middle ages? I suspect, given that he echoes both the bible and the middle ages himself.
    I have a Reflections on the Psalms in audio, but don’t remember where I found it. Send me an email and I’ll take a look. But I haven’t heard of Smoke on the Mountain in audio. Librivox, when it gets there (in a generation!).
    Has anyone done an Augustinian reading of Lewis?
    Does anyone make rogue audio recordings? That would be fun.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thanks!

      Reading that younger Inkling, J.A.W. Bennett’s contribution to the OHEL (completed by Douglas Gray), gets me thinking Lewis and Tolkien probably had similar awarenesses of Mediaeval Biblical echoes (but I haven’t gone combing their literary critical works for evidence to confirm this expectation).

      I’ve encountered assorted bits of attention to Lewis and Augustine in various places (e.g., in Metropolitan Kallistos Wares’s paper, “God of the Fathers”, in David Mills’s The Pilgrim’s Guide (Eerdmans, 1998) ), but don’t know if anyone has done a thorough, sustained Augustinian reading. (One would think it not unlikely, but it would be quite an undertaking…)

      I reckon there are probably various people who read books aloud to each other (in family circle, and so on) who have thought to turn on an audio (or even video?) recorder while doing so – but I suppose it would only get ‘rogue’ if they tried to present them to the general public. We once had a public Narnia read-a-thon in the Oxford Lewis Society on the steps of the Sheldonian (or whatever those steps in the Broad are called), but am confident that there was a special arrangement with the Estate to enable that to happen (though I don’t remember its details) – it was not recorded, in any case.

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