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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Reading. 1920.

X. On Reading the Bible (III)

Monday, May 6, 1918


MY task to-day, Gentlemen, is mainly practical: to choose a particular book of Scripture and show (if I can) not only that it deserves to be enjoyed, in its English rendering, as a literary masterpiece, because it abides in that dress, an indisputable classic for us, as surely as if it had first been composed in English; but that it can, for purposes of study, serve the purpose of any true literary school of English as readily, and as usefully, as the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales or Hamlet or Paradise Lost. I shall choose The Book of Job for several reasons, presently to be given; but beg you to understand that, while taking it for a striking illustration, I use it but to illustrate; that what may be done with Job may, in degree, be done with Ruth, with Esther, with the Psalms, The Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes; with Isaiah of Jerusalem, Ezekiel, sundry of the prophets; even with St Luke’s Gospel or St Paul’s letters to the Churches.

My first reason, then, for choosing Job has already been given. It is the most striking illustration to be found. Many of the Psalms touch perfection as lyrical strains: of the ecstacy of passion in love I suppose The Song of Songs to express the very last word. There are chapters of Isaiah that snatch the very soul and ravish it aloft. In no literature known to me are short stories told with such sweet austerity of art as in the Gospel parables—I can even imagine a high and learned artist in words, after rejecting them as divine on many grounds, surrendering in the end to their divine artistry. But for high seriousness combined with architectonic treatment on a great scale; for sublimity of conception, working malleably within a structure which is simple, severe, complete, having a beginning, a middle and an end; for diction never less than adequate, constantly right and therefore not seldom superb, as theme, thought and utterance soar up together and make one miracle, I can name no single book of the Bible to compare with Job.

My second reason is that the poem, being brief, compendious and quite simple in structure, can be handily expounded; Job is what Milton precisely called it, ‘a brief model.’ And my third reason (which I must not hide) is that two writers whom I mentioned in my last lecture—Lord Latymer and Professor R. G. Moulton—have already done this for me. A man who drives at practise must use the tools other men have made, so he use them with due acknowledgment; and this acknowledgment I pay by referring you to Book II of Lord Latymer’s The Poet’s Charter, and to the analysis of Job with which Professor Moulton introduces his Literary Study of the Bible.


But I have a fourth reason, out of which I might make an apparent fifth by presenting it to you in two different ways. Those elders of you who have followed certain earlier lectures ‘On the Art of Writing’ may remember that they set very little store upon metre as a dividing line between poetry and prose, and no store at all upon rhyme. I am tempted to-day to go farther, and to maintain that, the larger, the sublimer, your subject is, the more impertinent rhyme becomes to it: and that this impertinence increases in a sort of geometrical progression as you advance from monosyllabic to dissyllabic and on to trisyllabic rhyme. Let me put this by a series of examples.

We start with no rhyme at all:

  • Hail, holy Light, offspring of Heaven first born!
  • Or of the Eternal coeternal beam
  • May I express thee unblamed? since God is light,
  • And never but in unapproached light
  • Dwelt from eternity.
  • We feel of this, as we feel of a great passage in Hamlet or Lear, that here is verse at once capable of the highest sublimity and capable of sustaining its theme, of lifting and lowering it at will, with endless resource in the slide and pause of the caesura, to carry it on and on. We feel it to be adequate, too, for quite plain straightforward narrative, as in this passage from Balder Dead:

  • But from the hill of Lidskialf Odin rose,
  • The throne, from which his eye surveys the world;
  • And mounted Sleipner, and in darkness rode
  • To Asgard. And the stars came out in heaven,
  • High over Asgard, to light home the King.
  • But fiercely Odin gallop’d, moved in heart;
  • And swift to Asgard, to the gate, he came.
  • And terribly the hoofs of Sleipner rang
  • Along the flinty floor of Asgard streets,
  • And the Gods trembled on their golden beds—
  • Hearing the wrathful Father coming home—
  • For dread, for like a whirlwind, Odin came.
  • And to Valhalla’s gate he rode, and left
  • Sleipner; and Sleipner went to his own stall:
  • And in Valhalla Odin laid him down.
  • Now of rhyme he were a fool who, with Lycidas, or Gray’s Elegy, or certain choruses of Prometheus Unbound, or page after page of Victor Hugo in his mind, should assert it to be in itself inimical, or a hindrance, or even less than a help, to sublimity; or who, with Dante in his mind, should assert it to be, in itself, any bar to continuous and sustained sublimity. But languages differ vastly in their wealth of rhyme, and differ out of any proportion to their wealth in words: English for instance being infinitely richer than Italian in vocabulary, yet almost ridiculously poorer in dissyllabic, or feminine rhymes. Speaking generally, I should say that in proportion to its wonderful vocabulary, English is poor even in single rhymes; that the words ‘love,’ ‘truth,’ ‘God,’ for example have lists of possible congeners so limited that the mind, hearing the word ‘love,’ runs forward to match it with ‘dove’ or ‘above’ or even with ‘move’: and this gives it a sense of arrest, of listening, of check, of waiting, which alike impedes the flow of Pope in imitating Homer, and of Spenser in essaying a sublime and continuous story of his own. It does well enough to carry Chaucer over any gap with a ‘forsooth as I you say’ or ‘forsooth as I you tell’: but it does so at a total cost of the sublime. And this (I think) was really at the back of Milton’s mind when in the preface to Paradise Lost he championed blank verse against ‘the jingling sound of like endings.’

    But when we pass from single rhymes to double, of which Dante had an inexhaustible store, we find the English poet almost a pauper; so nearly a pauper that he has to achieve each new rhyme by a trick—which tricking is fatal to rapture, alike in the poet and the hearer. Let me instance a poem which, planned for sublimity, keeps tumbling flat upon earth through the inherent fault of the machine—I mean Myers’s St Paul—a poem which, finely conceived, pondered, worked and re-worked upon in edition after edition, was from the first condemned (to my mind) by the technical bar of dissyllabic rhyme which the poet unhappily chose. I take one of its most deeply felt passages—that of St Paul protesting against his conversion being taken for instantaneous, wholly accounted for by the miraculous vision related in the Acts of the Apostles:

  • Let no man think that sudden in a minute
  • All is accomplished and the work is done;—
  • Though with thine earliest dawn thou shouldst begin it
  • Scarce were it ended in thy setting sun.
  • Oh the regret, the struggle and the failing!
  • Oh the days desolate and useless years!
  • Vows in the night, so fierce and unavailing!
  • Stings of my shame and passion of my tears!
  • How have I seen in Araby Orion,
  • Seen without seeing, till he set again,
  • Known the night-noise and thunder of the lion,
  • Silence and sounds of the prodigious plain!
  • How have I knelt with arms of my aspiring
  • Lifted all night in irresponsive air,
  • Dazed and amazed with overmuch desiring,
  • Blank with the utter agony of prayer!
  • ‘What,’ ye will say, ‘and thou who at Damascus
  • Sawest the splendour, answeredst the Voice;
  • So hast thou suffered and canst dare to ask us,
  • Paul of the Romans, bidding us rejoice?’
  • You cannot say I have instanced a passage anything short of fine. But do you not feel that a man who is searching for a rhyme to Damascus has not really the time to cry ‘Abba, father’? Is not your own rapture interrupted by some wonder ‘How will he bring it off’? And when he has searched and contrived to ‘ask us,’ are we responsive to the ecstacy? Has he not—if I may employ an Oriental trope for once—let in the chill breath of cleverness upon the garden of beatitude? No man can be clever and ecstatic at the same moment.

    As for triple rhymes—rhymes of the comedian who had a lot o’ news with many curious facts about the square on the hypotenuse, or the cassiowary who ate the missionary on the plains of Timbuctoo, with Bible, prayer-book, hymn-book too—they are for the facetious, and removed, as far as geometrical progression can remove them, from any Paradise Lost or Regained.

    It may sound a genuine note, now and then:

  • Alas! for the rarity
  • Of Christian charity
  • Under the sun!
  • Oh, it was pitiful!
  • Near a whole city full,
  • Home she had none!
  • But not often: and, I think, never but in lyric.


    So much, then, for rhyme. We will approach the question of metre, helped or unhelped by rhyme, in another way; and a way yet more practical.

    When Milton (determined to write a grand epic) was casting about for his subject, he had a mind for some while, to attempt the story of Job. You may find evidence for this in a MS. preserved here in Trinity College Library. You will find printed evidence in a passage of his Reason of Church Government:

  • ‘Time serves not now,’ he writes, ‘and perhaps I might seem too profuse to give any certain account of what the mind at home, in the spacious circuits of her musing, hath liberty to propose to herself, though of highest hope and hardest attempting; whether that epic form whereof the two poems of Homer, and those other two of Virgil and Tasso, are a diffuse, and the book of Job a brief model…’
  • Again, we know Job to have been one of the three stories meditated by Shelley as themes for great lyrical dramas, the other two being the madness of Tasso and Prometheus Unbound. Shelley never abandoned this idea of a lyrical drama on Job; and if Milton abandoned the idea of an epic, there are passages in Paradise Lost as there are passages in Prometheus Unbound that might well have been written for this other story. Take the lines

  • Why am I mock’d with death, and lengthen’d out
  • To deathless pain? How gladly would I meet
  • Mortality my sentence, and be earth
  • Insensible! how glad would lay me down
  • As in my mother’s lap! There I should rest
  • And sleep secure;…
  • What is this, as Lord Latymer asks, but an echo of Job’s words?—
  • For now should I have lien down and been quiet;
  • I should have slept; then had I been at rest:
  • With kings and counsellers of the earth,
  • Which built desolate places for themselves…
  • There the wicked cease from troubling;
  • And there the weary be at rest.
  • There is no need for me to point out how exactly, though from two nearly opposite angles, the story of Job would hit the philosophy of Milton and the philosophy of Shelley to the very heart. What is the story of the afflicted patriarch but a direct challenge to a protestant like Milton (I use the word in its strict sense) to justify the ways of God to man? It is the very purpose, in sum, of the Book of Job, as it is the very purpose, in sum, of Paradise Lost: and since both poems can only work out the justification by long argumentative speeches, both poems lamentably fail as real solutions of the difficulty. To this I shall recur, and here merely observe that qui s’ excuse s’ accuse: a God who can only explain himself by the help of long-winded scolding, or of long-winded advocacy, though he employ an archangel for advocate, has given away the half of his case by the implicit admission that there are two sides to the question. And when we have put aside the poetical ineptitude of a Creator driven to apology, it remains that to Shelley the Jehovah who, for a sort of wager, allowed Satan to torture Job merely for the game of testing him, would be no better than any other tyrant; would be a miscreant Creator, abominable as the Zeus of the Prometheus Unbound.

    Now you may urge that Milton and Shelley dropped Job for hero because both felt him to be a merely static figure: and that the one chose Satan, the rebel angel, the other chose Prometheus the rebel Titan, because both are active rebels, and as epic and drama require action, each of these heroes makes the thing move; that Satan and Prometheus are not passive sufferers like Job but souls as quick and fiery as Byron’s Lucifer:

  • Souls who dare use their immortality—
  • Souls who dare look the Omnipotent tyrant in
  • His everlasting face, and tell him that
  • His evil is not good.
  • Very well, urge this: urge it with all your might. All the while you will be doing just what I desire you to do, using Job alongside Prometheus Unbound and Paradise Lost as a comparative work of literature.

    But, if you ask me for my own opinion why Milton and Shelley dropped their intention to make poems on the Book of Job, it is that they no sooner tackled it than they found it to be a magnificent poem already, and a poem on which, with all their genius, they found themselves unable to improve.

    I want you to realise a thing most simple, demonstrable by five minutes of practice, yet so confused by conventional notions of what poetry is that I dare say it to be equally demonstrable that Milton and Shelley discovered it only by experiment. Does this appear to you a bold thing to say of so tremendous an artist as Milton? Well, of course it would be cruel to quote in proof his paraphrases of Psalms cxiv and cxxxvi: to set against the Authorised Version’s

  • When Israel went out of Egypt,
  • The house of Jacob from a people of strange language
  • such pomposity as
  • When the blest seed of Terah’s faithful son
  • After long toil their liberty had won—
  • or against
  • give thanks…
  • To him that stretched out the earth above the waters:
  • for his mercy endureth for ever.
  • To him that made great lights:
  • for his mercy endureth for ever
  • such stuff as
  • Who did the solid earth ordain
  • To rise above the watery plain;
  • For his mercies aye endure,
  • Ever faithful, ever sure.
  • Who, by his all-commanding might,
  • Did fill the new-made world with light;
  • For his mercies aye endure,
  • Ever faithful ever sure.
  • verses yet farther weakened by the late Sir William Baker for Hymns Ancient and Modern.

    It were cruel, I say, to condemn these attempts as little above those of Sternhold and Hopkins, or even of those of Tate and Brady: for Milton made them at fifteen years old, and he who afterwards consecrated his youth to poetry soon learned to know better. And yet, bearing in mind the passages in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained which paraphrase the Scriptural narrative, I cannot forbear the suspicion that, though as an artist he had the instinct to feel it, he never quite won to knowing the simple fact that the thing had already been done and surpassingly well done: he, who did so much to liberate poetry from rhyme—he—even he who in the grand choruses of Samson Agonistes did so much to liberate it from strict metre—never quite realised, being hag-ridden by the fetish that rides between two panniers, the sacred and the profane, that this translation of Job already belongs to the category of poetry, is poetry, already above metre, and in rhythm far on its way to the insurpassable. If rhyme be allowed to that greatest of arts, if metre, is not rhythm above both for her service? Hear in a sentence how this poem uplifts the rhythm of the Vulgate:

  • Ecce, Deus magnus vincens sapientiam; numeros annorum ejus inestimabiles!
  • But hear, in a longer passage, how our English rhythm swings and sways to the Hebrew parallels:
  • Surely there is a mine for silver,
  • And a place for gold which they refine.
  • Iron is taken out of the earth,
  • And brass is molten out of the stone.
  • Man setteth an end to darkness,
  • And searcheth out to the furthest bound
  • The stones of thick darkness and of the shadow of death.
  • He breaketh open a shaft away from where men sojourn;
  • They are forgotten of the foot that passeth by;
  • They hang afar from men, they swing to and fro.
  • As for the earth, out of it cometh bread:
  • And underneath it is turned up as it were by fire.
  • The stones thereof are the place of sapphires,
  • And it hath dust of gold.
  • That path no bird of prey knoweth,
  • Neither hath the falcon’s eye seen it:
  • The proud beasts have not trodden it,
  • Nor hath the fierce lion passed thereby.
  • He putteth forth his hand upon the flinty rock;
  • He overturneth the mountains by the roots.
  • He cutteth out channels among the rocks;
  • And his eye seeth every precious thing.
  • He bindeth the streams that they trickle not;
  • And the thing that is hid bringeth he forth to light.
  • But where shall wisdom be found?
  • And where is the place of understanding?
  • Man knoweth not the price thereof;
  • Neither is it found in the land of the living
  • The deep saith, It is not in me:
  • And the sea saith, It is not with me.
  • It cannot be gotten for gold,
  • Neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof.
  • It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir,
  • With the precious onyx, or the sapphire.
  • Gold and glass cannot equal it:
  • Neither shall the exchange thereof be jewels of fine gold.
  • No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal:
  • Yea, the price of wisdom is above rubies.
  • The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it,
  • Neither shall it be valued with pure gold.
  • Whence then cometh wisdom?
  • And where is the place of understanding?
  • Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living,
  • And kept close from the fowls of the air.
  • Destruction and Death say,
  • We have heard a rumour thereof with our ears.
  • God understandeth the way thereof,
  • And he knoweth the place thereof.
  • For he looketh to the ends of the earth,
  • And seeth under the whole heaven;
  • To make a weight for the wind;
  • Yea, he meteth out the waters by measure.
  • When he made a decree for the rain,
  • And a way for the lightning of the thunder:
  • Then did he see it, and declare it;
  • He established it, yea, and searched it out.
  • And unto man he said,
  • Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
  • And to depart from evil is understanding.
  • Is that poetry? Surely it is poetry. Can you improve it with the embellishments of rhyme and strict scansion? Well, sundry bold men have tried, and I will choose, for your judgment, the rendering of a part of the above passage by one who is by no means the worst of them—a hardy anonymous Scotsman. His version was published at Falkirk in 1869:
  • His hand on the rock the adventurer puts,
  • And mountains entire overturns by the roots;
  • New rivers in rocks are enchased by his might,
  • And everything precious revealed to his sight;
  • The floods from o’er-flowing he bindeth at will,
  • And the thing that is hid bringeth forth by his skill.
  • But where real wisdom is found can he shew?
  • Or the place understanding inhabiteth? No!
  • Men know not the value, the price of this gem;
  • ’Tis not found in the land of the living with them.
  • It is not in me, saith the depth; and the sea
  • With the voice of an echo, repeats, Not in me.
  • (I have a suspicion somehow that what the sea really answered, in its northern vernacular, was ‘Me either.’)
  • Whence then cometh wisdom? And where is the place
  • Understanding hath chosen, since this is the case?…
  • Enough! This not only shows how that other rendering can be spoilt even to the point of burlesque by an attempt, on preconceived notions, to embellish it with metre and rhyme, but it also hints that parallel verse will actually resent and abhor such embellishment even by the most skilled hand. Yet, I repeat, our version of Job is poetry undeniable. What follows?

    Why, it follows that in the course of studying it as literature we have found experimentally settled for us—and on the side of freedom—a dispute in which scores of eminent critics have taken sides: a dispute revived but yesterday (if we omit the blank and devastated days of this War) by the writers and apostles of vers libres. ‘Can there be poetry without metre?’ ‘Is free verse a true poetic form?’ Why, our Book of Job being poetry, unmistakable poetry, of course there can, to be sure it is. These apostles are butting at an open door. Nothing remains for them but to go and write vers libres as fine as those of Job in our English translation. Or suppose even that they write as well as M. Paul Fort, they will yet be writing ancestrally, not as innovators but as renewers. Nothing is done in literature by arguing whether or not this or that be possible or permissible. The only way to prove it possible or permissible is to go and do it: and then you are lucky indeed if some ancient writers have not forestalled you.


    Now for another question (much argued, you will remember, a few years ago) ‘Is there—can there be—such a thing as a Static Theatre, a Static Drama?’

    Most of you (I daresay) remember M. Maeterlinck’s definition of this and his demand for it. To summarise him roughly, he contends that the old drama—the traditional, the conventional drama—lives by action; that, in Aristotle’s phrase, it represents men doing [Greek13] and resolves itself into a struggle of human wills—whether against the gods, as in ancient tragedy, or against one another, as in modern. M. Maeterlinck tells us—

  • There is a tragic element in the life of every day that is far more real, far more penetrating, far more akin to the true self that is in us, than is the tragedy that lies in great adventure.… It goes beyond the determined struggle of man against man, and desire against desire; it goes beyond the eternal conflict of duty and passion. Its province is rather to reveal to us how truly wonderful is the mere act of living, and to throw light upon the existence of the soul, self-contained in the midst of ever-restless immensities; to hush the discourse of reason and sentiment, so that above the tumult may be heard the solemn uninterrupted whisperings of man and his destiny.
  • To the tragic author [he goes on, later], as to the mediocre painter who still lingers over historical pictures, it is only the violence of the anecdote that appeals, and in his representation thereof does the entire interest of his work consist.… Indeed when I go to a theatre, I feel as though I were spending a few hours with my ancestors, who conceived life as though it were something that was primitive, arid and brutal.… I am shown a deceived husband killing his wife, a woman poisoning her lover, a son avenging his father, a father slaughtering his children, murdered kings, ravished virgins, imprisoned citizens—in a word all the sublimity of tradition, but alas how superficial and material! Blood, surface-tears and death! What can I learn from creatures who have but one fixed idea, who have no time to live, for that there is a rival, a mistress, whom it behoves them to put to death?
  • M. Maeterlinck does not (he says) know if the Static Drama of his craving be impossible. He inclines to think—instancing some Greek tragedies such as Prometheus and Choephori—that it already exists. But may we not, out of the East—the slow, the stationary East—fetch an instance more convincing?


    The Drama of Job opens with a Prologue in the mouth of a Narrator.

    There was a man in the land of Uz, named Job; upright, God-fearing, of great substance in sheep, cattle and oxen; blest also with seven sons and three daughters. After telling of their family life, how wholesome it is, and pious, and happy—

    The Prologue passes to a Council held in Heaven. The Lord sits there, and the sons of God present themselves each from his province. Enters Satan (whom we had better call the Adversary) from his sphere of inspection, the Earth, and reports. The Lord specially questions him concerning Job, pattern of men. The Adversary demurs. ‘Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast thou not set a hedge about his prosperity? But put forth thy hand and touch all that he hath, and he will renounce thee to thy face.’ The Lord gives leave for this trial to be made (you will recall the opening of Everyman):

    So, in the midst of his wealth, a messenger came to Job and says—

  • The oxen were plowing,
  • and the asses feeding beside them:
  • and the Sabeans fell upon them,
  • and took them away;
  • yea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword;
  • and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
  • While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said,
  • The fire of God is fallen from heaven,
  • and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants,
  • and consumed them;
  • and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
  • While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said,
  • The Chaldeans made three bands,
  • and fell upon the camels,
  • and have taken them away,
  • yea, and slain the servants with the edge of the sword;
  • and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
  • While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said,
  • Thy sons and thy daughters
  • were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house:
  • and, behold,
  • there came a great wind from the wilderness,
  • and smote the four corners of the house,
  • and it fell upon the young men,
  • and they are dead;
  • and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
  • Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped; and he said,
  • Naked came I out of my mother’s womb,
  • And naked shall I return thither:
  • The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away;
  • blessed be the name of the Lord.
  • So the Adversary is foiled, and Job has not renounced God.

    A second Council is held in Heaven; and the Adversary, being questioned, has to admit Job’s integrity, but proposes a severer test:

  • Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will renounce thee to thy face.
  • Again leave is given: and the Adversary smites Job with the most hideous and loathsome form of leprosy. His kinsfolk (as we learn later) have already begun to desert and hold aloof from him as a man marked out by God’s displeasure. But now he passes out from their midst, as one unclean from head to foot, and seats himself on the ash-mound—that is, upon the Mezbele or heap of refuse which accumulates outside Arab villages.

  • ‘The dung,’ says Professor Moulton, ‘which is heaped upon the Mezbele of the Hauran villages is not mixed with straw, which in that warm and dry land is not needed for litter, and it comes mostly from solid-hoofed animals, as the flocks and oxen are left over-night in the grazing places. It is carried in baskets in a dry state to this place … and usually burnt once a month.… The ashes remain.… If the village has been inhabited for centuries the Mezbele reaches a height far overtopping it. The winter rains reduce it into a compact mass, and it becomes by and by a solid hill of earth.… The Mezbele serves the inhabitants for a watchtower, and in the sultry evenings for a place of concourse, because there is a current of air on the height. There all day long the children play about it; and there the outcast, who has been stricken with some loathsome malady, and is not allowed to enter the dwellings of men, lays himself down, begging an alms of the passers-by by day, and by night sheltering himself among the ashes which the heat of the sun has warmed.’
  • Here, then, sits in his misery ‘the forsaken grandee’; and here yet another temptation comes to him—this time not expressly allowed by the Lord. Much foolish condemnation (and, I may add, some foolish facetiousness) has been heaped on Job’s wife. As a matter of fact she is not a wicked woman—she has borne her part in the pious and happy family life, now taken away: she has uttered no word of complaint though all the substance be swallowed up and her children with it. But now the sight of her innocent husband thus helpless, thus incurably smitten, wrings, through love and anguish and indignation, this cry from her:

  • Dost thou still hold fast thine integrity? renounce God, and die.
  • But Job answered, soothing her:

  • Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?
  • So the second trial ends, and Job has sinned not with his lips.

    But now comes the third trial, which needs no Council in Heaven to decree it. Travellers by the mound saw this figure seated there, patient, uncomplaining, an object of awe even to the children who at first mocked him; asked this man’s history; and hearing of it, smote on their breasts, and made a token of it and carried the news into far countries: until it reached the ears of Job’s three friends, all great tribesmen like himself—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. These three made an appointment together to travel and visit Job. ‘And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice and wept.’ Then they went up and sat down opposite him on the ground. But the majesty of suffering is silent:

  • Here I and sorrows sit;
  • Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it.…
  • No, not a word.… And, with the grave courtesy of Eastern men, they too are silent:

  • So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.
  • The Prologue ends. The scene is set. After seven days of silence the real drama opens.


    Of the drama itself I shall attempt no analysis, referring you for this to the two books from which I have already quoted. My purpose being merely to persuade you that this surpassing poem can be studied, and ought to be studied, as literature, I shall content myself with turning it (so to speak) once or twice in my hand and glancing one or two facets at you.

    To begin with, then, you will not have failed to notice, in the setting out of the drama, a curious resemblance between Job and the Prometheus of Aeschylus. The curtain in each play lifts on a figure solitary, tortured (for no reason that seems good to us) by a higher will which, we are told, is God’s. The chorus of Sea-nymphs in the opening of the Greek play bears no small resemblance in attitude of mind to Job’s three friends. When Job at length breaks the intolerable silence with

  • Let the day perish wherein I was born,
  • And the night which said, There is a man child conceived.
  • he uses just such an outburst as Prometheus: and, as he is answered by his friends, so the Nymphs at once exclaim to Prometheus
  • Seest thou not that thou hast sinned?
  • But at once, for anyone with a sense of comparative literature, is set up a comparison between the persistent West and the persistent East; between the fiery energising rebel and the patient victim. Of these two, both good, one will dare everything to release mankind from thrall; the other will submit, and justify himself—mankind too, if it may hap—by submission.

    At once this difference is seen to give a difference of form to the drama. Our poem is purely static. Some critics can detect little individuality in Job’s three friends, to distinguish them. For my part I find Eliphaz more of a personage than the other two; grander in the volume of his mind, securer in wisdom; as I find Zophar rather noticeably a mean-minded greybeard, and Bildad a man of the stand-no-nonsense kind. But, to tell the truth, I prefer not to search for individuality in these men: I prefer to see them as three figures with eyes of stone almost expressionless. For in truth they are the conventions, all through,—the orthodox men—addressing Job, the reality; and their words come to this:

  • Thou sufferest, therefore must have sinned.
  • All suffering is, must be a judgment upon sin.
  • Else God is not righteous.
  • They are statuesque, as the drama is static. The speeches follow one another, rising and falling, in rise and fall magnificently and deliberately eloquent. Not a limb is seen to move, unless it be when Job half rises from the dust in sudden scorn of their conventions:
  • No doubt but ye are the people,
  • And wisdom shall die with you!
  • or again
  • Will ye speak unrighteously for God,
  • And talk deceitfully for him?
  • Will ye respect his person?
  • Will ye contend for God?
  • Yet—so great is this man, who has not renounced and will not renounce God, that still and ever he clamours for more knowledge of Him. Still getting no answer, he lifts up his hands and calls the great Oath of Clearance; in effect ‘If I have loved gold overmuch, hated mine enemy, refused the stranger my tent, truckled to public opinion:
  • If my land cry out against me,
  • And the furrows thereof weep together;
  • If I have eaten the fruits thereof without money,
  • Or have caused the owners thereof to lose their life:
  • Let thistles grow instead of wheat,
  • And cockle instead of barley.
  • With a slow gesture he covers his face:
  • The words of Job are ended.
  • VII

    They are ended: even though at this point (when the debate seems to be closed) a young Aramaean Arab, Elihu, who has been loitering around and listening to the controversy, bursts in and delivers his young red-hot opinions. They are violent, and at the same time quite raw and priggish. Job troubles not to answer: the others keep a chilling silence. But while this young man rants, pointing skyward now and again, we see, we feel—it is most wonderfully conveyed—as clearly as if indicated by successive stage-directions, a terrific thunder-storm gathering; a thunder-storm with a whirlwind. It gathers; it is upon them; it darkens them with dread until even the words of Elihu dry on his lips:
  • If a man speak, surely he shall be swallowed up.
  • It breaks and blasts and confounds them; and out of it the Lord speaks.

    Now of that famous and marvellous speech, put by the poet into the mouth of God, we may say what may be said of all speeches put by man into the mouth of God. We may say, as of the speeches of the Archangel in Paradise Lost that it is argument, and argument, by its very nature, admits of being answered. But, if to make God talk at all be anthropomorphism, here is anthropomorphism at its very best in its effort to reach to God.

  • There is a hush. The storm clears away; and in this hush the voice of the Narrator is heard again, pronouncing the Epilogue. Job has looked in the face of God and reproached him as a friend reproaches a friend. Therefore his captivity was turned, and his wealth returned to him, and he begat sons and daughters, and saw his son’s sons unto the fourth generation. So Job died, being old and full of years.
  • VIII

    Structurally a great poem; historically a great poem; philosophically a great poem; so rendered for us in noble English diction as to be worthy in any comparison of diction, structure, ancestry, thought! Why should we not study it in our English School, if only for purpose of comparison? I conclude with these words of Lord Latymer:
  • There is nothing comparable with it except the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus. It is eternal, illimitable.… its scope is the relation between God and Man. It is a vast liberation, a great gaol-delivery of the spirit of Man; nay, rather a great Acquittal.