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 hopscotch 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 the 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:
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.
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 rise 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.