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story.lead_photo.caption J. Chester Johnson

Poet, essayist and translator J. Chester Johnson knows his way around a psalm.

The Arkansas native was in his mid-20s in 1971 when he was drafted to replace renowned poet W.H. Auden on a committee in charge of revising the Book of Common Prayer, the text which serves as a standard for millions of Christians in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church -- and a book that hadn't been formally revised since 1662.

Auden and Johnson would correspond for a time as work on the text continued, and their communication and work to revise the Book of Common Prayer are what he chronicles in Auden, the Psalms and Me. It's a book that, along with his other 2017 release, Now and Then: Selected Longer Poems, he will read from as he makes several appearances throughout Arkansas beginning Sunday.

Raised in Monticello, Johnson, 73, developed an early interest in poetry, influenced by an aunt and caretaker who loved the works of Shelley, Byron, Keats and Browning.

"I think I've always loved the way in which words work together," Johnson said. "There's something magic about put[ting] phrases together; they're much greater than the sum of their parts."

Johnson shared some of his poetry with his teachers even though "poetry didn't fit the [athlete] image to some extent" before leaving to attend Harvard University and returning to Arkansas, where he graduated from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

After living awhile in New York and returning to Monticello after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson taught English and history in the all-black Drew School in Monticello and worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington before returning to New York, where he and his wife, Freda, created a public-finance firm that assisted state and local governments with debt management for several decades.


The first Book of Common Prayer was compiled by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in 1549, who was appointed to the task by King Henry VIII of England after breaking away from the Catholic Church, which occurred as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

The psalms it included came from the Great Bible, the first Bible translated into English by Miles Coverdale in 1539. The Great Bible was the first text that included the words for morning and evening prayers, Communion and the Eucharist, among other liturgies, in English. It was also the first official collection of psalms that would be consolidated in the first official edition of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662.

The psalms remained virtually unchanged until 1967, when the Episcopal Church decided to have the book updated and appointed a committee to make changes.

After hearing about the project through a colleague while in New York and sending a letter of interest to learn more about the project, Johnson was surprised to receive a reply that said Auden, the only poet on the committee when it was established in 1968, was leaving the committee and planned to return to his native England.

"[Auden] was old and he was sick, [and] when you get that way I guess people start hearing homing pigeons and they want to go home," Johnson said.

It also contained an offer to Johnson to join the committee in Auden's place.

"I remember I was scared to death," Johnson said.

In addition to being the only poet on the committee, Johnson was 25 years younger than the next-youngest member when he joined the project in 1971.


Auden, whose ideas about the Psalter differed in places from the committee and custodian Charles Guilbert, left the project in 1971 but did not return to England until 1972. In letters to Guilbert and the committee, he expressed frustration with mistranslations in the psalms from the original Hebrew in which they were written, but conceded that some were "intentional elaborations" that didn't contradict a verse's underlying meaning.

"As for the Psalms, they are poems, and to 'get' poetry, it should, of course, be read in the language in which it was written," Auden wrote in a July 6, 1971, letter to Johnson which turned out to be their last piece of correspondence. "I myself, alas, know no Hebrew. All I know is that Coverdale reads like poetry, and the modern versions don't."

After discussing psalm verses found in the Common Book of Prayer with committee members, Johnson came to a realization that Auden had not: the committee of Old Testament scholars was not trained in the nuances of language.

Delving into the work, Johnson produced what he said would be today's spreadsheets, laying out a verse of a psalm and providing eight of the church's most respected and relatively recent versions to demonstrate the nuances of language between the different psalm translations.

"It doesn't take much," Johnson said of noticing the differences between the psalm versions as he presented them. "When you read various lines of verse you can see the difference in professionalism, the proficiency, the musicality, the grammar. You get a sense of the [differences] by comparing them."

Decisions were to be made with regard to issues such as obsolete language and outdated usage of the English language between the two "Crucibles" Johnson refers to in Auden, the Psalms and Me: the two Psalter versions by Cranmer and Coverdale.

Among the many changes the committee made are examples such as a verse from Psalm 68, which read in the Great Bible and in a 1928 version as "But letteth the runagates continue in scarceness" were retranslated as "but the rebels shall live in dry places." Changing how the second-person pronoun was used throughout the Psalter meant that changes such as "thee, O Lord" to "you, O Lord," would be seen throughout the book -- all the while keeping in mind to stay true to the "determinative message inherent in each psalm studied," according to Johnson.

His work paid off. The committee became "not only astute but very interested in trying and understanding the poetics that went into what Coverdale did," said Johnson, who said it was easy once the committee realized the quality of Coverdale's writing, and the group could proceed with the retranslation with a new dimension to their understanding of the psalms.

"There's no question," Johnson said of the quality of Coverdale's psalms. "[The psalms] were beautifully written stuff, and so [the committee] began to appreciate what Miles Coverdale meant."


Work on the retranslation was completed and the new version put forth in 1979.

The book, which had remained virtually unchanged since 1662, would also become the standard for the Church of England until it developed its own retranslation in 2000 -- although the committee's version of the Psalter would be preferred in some places in England, as Johnson found when attending a 2014 Sunday service at an Anglican church in London. Psalm 68 appeared in a bulletin translated exactly as it appears in the Episcopal Psalter that Johnson and the scholars on the committee worked to retranslate.

It was recognition by the Episcopal Church's liturgical commission in the form of a citation that remains one of Johnson's most cherished gifts, part of which he read aloud last week from where he has it displayed.

"... his marked poetic gifts for words and sounds and rhythms, his diligent labors in comparing other modern versions of the Psalms, and his quiet and sensitive spiritual insights have enriched the lives of his colleagues and helped to shape the final text of the Psalter as it now appears in the Book of Common Prayer for 1979."

Johnson will speak about Auden, The Psalms and Me at 10 a.m. on Sunday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 310 W. 17th St. in Little Rock; at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Saint John's Episcopal Church, 625 Pecan St., Helena; and from 6-8:15 p.m. Jan. 27 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 224 N. East Ave. in Fayetteville. On Jan. 28 at 8:45 a.m. and 11 a.m. he will give the sermon "Why the Psalms Are Poems," and at 10 a.m. will give the the talk "The Elaine Race Massacre, The Racial Conflagration That Changed America" also at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

Johnson will also meet with students and faculty of the graduate creative writing program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, on Jan. 29.

Religion on 01/20/2018

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