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

IX. On Reading the Bible (II)

Wednesday, April 24, 1918


WE left off last term, Gentlemen, upon a note of protest. We wondered why it should be that our English Version of the Bible lies under the ban of schoolmasters, Boards of Studies, and all who devise courses of reading and examinations in English Literature: that among our ‘prescribed books’ we find Chaucer’s Prologue, we find Hamlet, we find Paradise Lost, we find Pope’s Essay on Man, again and again, but The Book of Job never; The Vicar of Wakefield and Gray’s Elegy often, but Ruth or Isaiah, Ecclesiasticus or Wisdom never.

I propose this morning:

(1) to enquire into the reasons for this, so far as I can guess and interpret them;

(2) to deal with such reasons as we can discover or surmise;

(3) to suggest to-day, some simple first aid: and in another lecture, taking for experiment a single book from the Authorised Version, some practical ways of including it in the ambit of our new English Tripos. This will compel me to be definite: and as definite proposals invite definite objections, by this method we are likeliest to know where we are, and if the reform we seek be realisable or illusory.


I shall ask you then, first, to assent with me, that the Authorised Version of the Holy Bible is, as a literary achievement, one of the greatest in our language; nay, with the possible exception of the complete works of Shakespeare, the very greatest. You will certainly not deny this.

As little, or less, will you deny that more deeply than any other book—more deeply even than all the writings of Shakespeare—far more deeply—it has influenced our literature. Here let me repeat a short passage from a former lecture of mine (May 15, 1913, five years ago). I had quoted some few glorious sentences such as:

  • Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.
  • And a man shall be as an hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.…
  • So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality…
  • and having quoted these I went on:
  • When a nation has achieved this manner of diction, these rhythms for its dearest beliefs, a literature is surely established.… Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale and others before the forty-seven had wrought. The Authorised Version, setting a seal on all, set a seal on our national style.… It has cadences homely and sublime, yet so harmonises them that the voice is always one Simple men—holy and humble men of heart like Isaak Walton and Bunyan—have their lips touched and speak to the homelier tune. Proud men, scholars—Milton, Sir Thomas Browne—practise the rolling Latin sentence; but upon the rhythms of our Bible they, too, fall back—‘The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designs.’ ‘Acquaint thyself with the Choragium of the stars.’ ‘There is nothing immortal but immortality.’ The precise man Addison cannot excel one parable in brevity or in heavenly clarity: the two parts of Johnson’s antithesis come to no more than this ‘Our Lord has gone up to the sound of a trump; with the sound of a trump our Lord has gone up.’ The Bible controls its enemy Gibbon as surely as it haunts the curious music of a light sentence of Thackeray’s. It is in everything we see, hear, feel, because it is in us, in our blood.
  • If that be true, or less than gravely overstated: if the English Bible hold this unique place in our literature; if it be at once a monument, an example and (best of all) a well of English undefiled, no stagnant water, but quick, running, curative, refreshing, vivifying; may we not agree, Gentlemen, to require the weightiest reason why our instructors should continue to hedge in the temple and pipe the fountain off in professional conduits, forbidding it to irrigate freely our ground of study?

    It is done so complacently that I do not remember to have met one single argument put up in defence of it; and so I am reduced to guess-work. What can be the justifying reason for an embargo on the face of it so silly and arbitrary, if not senseless?


    Does it reside perchance in some primitive instinct of taboo; of a superstition of fetish-worship fencing off sacred things as unmentionable, and reinforced by the bad Puritan notion that holy things are by no means to be enjoyed?

    If so, I begin by referring you to the Greeks and their attitude towards the Homeric poems. We, of course, hold the Old Testament more sacred than Homer. But I very much doubt if it be more sacred to us than the Iliad and the Odyssey were to an old Athenian, in his day. To the Greeks—and to forget this is the fruitfullest source of error in dealing with the Tragedians or even with Aristophanes—to the Greeks, their religion, such as it was, mattered enormously. They built their Theatre upon it, as we most certainly do not; which means that it had sunk into their daily life and permeated their enjoyment of it, as our religion certainly does not affect our life to enhance it as amusing or pleasurable. We go to Church on Sunday, and write it off as an observance; but if eager to be happy with a free heart, we close early and steal a few hours from the working-day. We antagonise religion and enjoyment, worship and holiday. Nature being too strong for any convention of ours, courtship has asserted itself as permissible on the Sabbath, if not as a Sabbatical institution.

    Now the Greeks were just as much slaves to the letter of their Homer as any Auld Licht Elder to the letter of St Paul. No one will accuse Plato of being overfriendly to poetry. Yet I believe you will find in Plato some 150 direct citations from Homer, not to speak of allusions scattered broadcast through the dialogues, often as texts for long argument. Of these citations and allusions an inordinate number seem to us laboriously trivial—that is to say, unless we put ourselves into the Hellenic mind. On the other hand Plato uses others to enforce or illustrate his profoundest doctrines. For an instance, in Phaedo (Section 96) Socrates is arguing that the soul cannot be one with the harmony of the bodily affections, being herself the master-player who commands the strings:

  • ‘—almost always’ [he says] ‘opposing and coercing them in all sorts of ways throughout life, sometimes more violently with the pains of medicine and gymnastic; then again more gently;—threatening, and also reprimanding the desires, passions, fears, as if talking to a thing which is not herself; as Homer in the Odyssey represents Odysseus doing in the words
  • [Greek11]
  • He beat his breast, and thus reproached his heart:
  • Endure, my heart; far worse hast thou endured.
  • Do you think [asks Socrates] that Homer wrote this under the idea that the soul is a harmony capable of being led by the affections of the body, and not rather of a nature which should lead and master them—herself a far diviner thing than any harmony?
  • A Greek, then, will use Homer—his Bible—minutely on niceties of conduct or broadly on first principles of philosophy or religion. But equally, since it is poetry all the time to him, he will take—or to instance particular writers, Aristotle and the late Greek, Longinus will take—a single hexameter to illustrate a minute trick of style or turn of phrase, as equally he will choose a long passage or the whole Iliad, the whole Odyssey, to illustrate a grand rule of poetic construction, a first principle of aesthetics. For an example—‘Herein,’ says Aristotle, starting to show that an Epic poem must have Unity of Subject—‘Herein, to repeat what we have said before, we have a further proof of Homer’s superiority to the rest. He did not attempt to deal even with the Trojan War in its entirety, though it was a whole story with a definite beginning, middle and end—feeling apparently that it was too long a story to be taken in at one view or else over-complicated by variety of incidents.’ And as Aristotle takes the Iliad—his Bible—to illustrate a grand rule of poetical construction, so the late writer of his tradition—Longinus—will use it to exhibit the core and essence of poetical sublimity; as in his famous ninth chapter, of which Gibbon wrote:

  • The ninth chapter … [of the [Greek12] or De Sublimitate of Longinus] is one of the finest monuments of antiquity. Till now, I was acquainted only with two ways of criticising a beautiful passage: the one, to show, by an exact anatomy of it, the distinct beauties of it, and whence they sprung; the other, an idle exclamation, or a general encomium, which leaves nothing behind it. Longinus has shown me that there is a third. He tells me his own feelings upon reading it; and tells them with so much energy, that he communicates them. I almost doubt which is more sublime, Homer’s Battle of the Gods, or Longinus’s Apostrophe to Terentianus upon it.
  • Well, let me quote you, in translation, a sentence or two from this chapter, which produced upon Gibbon such an effect as almost to anticipate Walter Pater’s famous definition, ‘To feel the virtue of the poet, of the painter, to disengage it, to set it forth—these are the three stages of the critic’s duty.’

  • ‘Elsewhere,’ says Longinus, ‘I have written as follows: Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.’
  • ‘Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.’—It was worth repeating too—was it not?
  • For it is not possible that men with mean and servile ideas and aims prevailing throughout their lives should produce anything that is admirable and worthy of immortality. Great accents we expect to fall from the lips of those whose thoughts are deep and grave.… Hear how magnificently Homer speaks of the higher powers: ‘As far as a man seeth with his eyes into the haze of distance as he sitteth upon a cliff of outlook and gazeth over the wine-dark sea, even so far at a bound leap the neighing horses of the Gods.’
  • ‘He makes’ [says Longinus] ‘the vastness of the world the measure of their leap.’ Then, after a criticism of the Battle of the Gods (too long to be quoted here) he goes on:

  • Much superior to the passages respecting the Battle of the Gods are those which represent the divine nature as it really is—pure and great and undefiled; for example, what is said of Poseidon.
  • Her far-stretching ridges, her forest-trees, quaked in dismay,
  • And her peaks, and the Trojans’ town, and the ships of Achaia’s array,
  • Beneath his immortal feet, as onward Poseidon strode.
  • Then over the surges he drave: leapt, sporting before the God,
  • Sea-beasts that uprose all round from the depths, for their king they knew,
  • And for rapture the sea was disparted, and onward the car-steeds flew.
  • Then how does Longinus conclude? Why, very strangely—very strangely indeed, whether you take the treatise to be by that Longinus, the Rhetorician and Zenobia’s adviser, whom the Emperor Aurelian put to death, or prefer to believe it the work of an unknown hand in the first century. The treatise goes on:

  • Similarly, the legislator of the Jews [Moses], no ordinary man, having formed and expressed a worthy conception of the might of the Godhead, writes at the very beginning of his Laws, ‘God said’—What? ‘Let there be light, and there was light.’
  • IV

    So here, Gentlemen, you have Plato, Aristotle, Longinus—all Greeks of separate states—men of eminence all three, and two of surpassing eminence, all three and each in his time and turn treating Homer reverently as Holy Writ and yet enjoying it liberally as poetry. For indeed the true Greek mind had no thought to separate poetry from religion, as to the true Greek mind reverence and liberty to enjoy, with the liberty of mind that helps to enjoy, were all tributes to the same divine thing. They had no professionals, no puritans, to hedge it off with a taboo: and so when the last and least of the three, Longinus, comes to our Holy Writ—the sublime poetry in which Christendom reads its God, his open mind at once recognises it as poetry and as sublime. ‘God said, Let there be light; and there was light.’ If Longinus could treat this as sublime poetry, why cannot we, who have translated and made it ours?


    Are we forbidden on the ground that our Bible is directly inspired? Well, inspiration, as Sir William Davenant observed and rather wittily proved, in his Preface to Gorboduc, ‘is a dangerous term.’ It is dangerous mainly because it is a relative term, a term of degrees. You may say definitely of some things that the writer was inspired, as you may certify a certain man to be mad—that is, so thoroughly and convincingly mad that you can order him under restraint. But quite a number of us are (as they say in my part of the world) ‘not exactly,’ and one or two of us here and there at moments may have a touch even of inspiration. So of the Bible itself: I suppose that few nowadays would contend it to be all inspired equally. ‘No’ you may say, ‘not all equally: but all of it directly, as no other book is.’

    To that I might answer, ‘How do you know that direct inspiration ceased with the Revelation of St John the Divine, and closed the book. It may be: but how do you know, and what authority have you to say that Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, for example, or Browning’s great Invocation of Love was not directly inspired? Certainly the men who wrote them were rapt above themselves: and, if not directly, Why indirectly, and how?

    But I pause on the edge of a morass, and spring back to firmer ground. Our Bible, as we have it, is a translation, made by forty-seven men and published in the year 1611. The original—and I am still on firm ground because I am quoting now from The Cambridge History of English Literature—‘either proceeds from divine inspiration, as some will have it, or, according to others, is the fruit of the religious genius of the Hebrew race. From either point of view the authors are highly gifted individuals’ [!]—

  • highly gifted individuals, who, notwithstanding their diversities, and the progressiveness observable in their representations of the nature of God, are wonderfully consistent in the main tenor of their writings, and serve, in general, for mutual confirmation and illustration. In some cases, this may be due to the revision of earlier productions by later writers, which has thus brought more primitive conceptions into a degree of conformity with maturer and profounder views; but, even in such cases, the earlier conception often lends itself, without wrenching, to the deeper interpretation and the completer exposition. The Bible is not distinctively an intellectual achievement.
  • In all earnest I protest that to write about the Bible in such a fashion is to demonstrate inferentially that it has never quickened you with its glow; that, whatever your learning, you have missed what the unlearned Bunyan, for example, so admirably caught—the true wit of the book. The writer, to be sure, is dealing with the originals. Let us more humbly sit at the feet of the translators. ‘Highly gifted individuals,’ or no, the sort of thing the translators wrote was ‘And God said, Let there be light,’ ‘A sower went forth to sow,’ ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took,’ ‘The wages of sin is death,’ ‘The trumpet shall blow,’ ‘Jesus wept,’ ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’

    Let me quote you for better encouragement, as well as for relief, a passage from Matthew Arnold on the Authorised Version:

  • The effect of Hebrew poetry can be preserved and transferred in a foreign language as the effect of other great poetry cannot. The effect of Homer, the effect of Dante, is and must be in great measure lost in a translation, because their poetry is a poetry of metre, or of rhyme, or both; and the effect of these is not really transferable. A man may make a good English poem with the matter and thoughts of Homer and Dante, may even try to reproduce their metre, or rhyme: but the metre and rhyme will be in truth his own, and the effect will be his, not the effect of Homer or Dante. Isaiah’s, on the other hand, is a poetry, as is well known, of parallelism; it depends not on metre and rhyme, but on a balance of thought, conveyed by a corresponding balance of sentence; and the effect of this can be transferred to another language.… Hebrew poetry has in addition the effect of assonance and other effects which cannot perhaps be transferred; but its main effect, its effect of parallelism of thought and sentence, can.
  • I take this from the preface to his little volume in which Arnold confesses that his ‘paramount object is to get Isaiah enjoyed.’


    Sundry men of letters besides Matthew Arnold have pleaded for a literary study of the Bible, and specially of our English Version, that we may thereby enhance our enjoyment of the work itself and, through this, enjoyment and understanding of the rest of English Literature, from 1611 down. Specially among these pleaders let me mention Mr F. B. Money-Coutts (now Lord Latymer) and a Cambridge man, Dr R. G. Moulton, now Professor of Literary Theory and Interpretation in the University of Chicago. Of both these writers I shall have something to say. But first and generally, if you ask me why all their pleas have not yet prevailed, I will give you my own answer—the fault as usual lies in ourselves—in our own tameness and incuriosity.

    There is no real trouble with the taboo set up by professionals and puritans, if we have the courage to walk past it as Christian walked between the lions; no real tyranny we could not overthrow, if it were worth while, with a push; no need at all for us to ‘wreathe our sword in myrtle boughs.’ What tyranny exists has grown up through the quite well-meaning labours of quite well-meaning men: and, as I started this lecture by saying, I have never heard any serious reason given why we should not include portions of the English Bible in our English Tripos, if we choose.

  • Nos te,
  • Nos facimus, Scriptura, deam.
  • Then why don’t we choose?

    To answer this, we must (I suggest) seek somewhat further back. The Bible—that is to say the body of the old Hebrew Literature clothed for us in English—comes to us in our childhood. But how does it come?

    Let me, amplifying a hint from Dr Moulton, ask you to imagine a volume including the great books of our own literature all bound together in some such order as this: Paradise Lost, Darwin’s Descent of Man, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Walter Map, Mill On Liberty, Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, The Annual Register, Froissart, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Domesday Book, Le Morte d’Arthur, Campbell’s Lives of the Lord Chancellors, Boswell’s Johnson, Barbour’s The Bruce, Hakluyt’s Voyages, Clarendon, Macaulay, the plays of Shakespeare, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, The Faerie Queene, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Bacon’s Essays, Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyàm, Wordsworth, Browning, Sartor Resartus, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace, Ossian, Piers Plowman, Burke’s Thoughts on the Present Discontents, Quarles, Newman’s Apologia, Donne’s Sermons, Ruskin, Blake, The Deserted Village, Manfred, Blair’s Grave, The Complaint of Deor, Bailey’s Festus, Thompson’s Hound of Heaven.

    Will you next imagine that in this volume most of the author’s names are lost; that, of the few that survive, a number have found their way into wrong places; that Ruskin for example is credited with Sartor Resartus; that Laus Veneris and Dolores are ascribed to Queen Elizabeth, The Anatomy of Melancholy to Charles II; and that, as for the titles, these were never invented by the authors, but by a Committee?

    Will you still go on to imagine that all the poetry is printed as prose; while all the long paragraphs of prose are broken up into short verses, so that they resemble the little passages set out for parsing or analysis in an examination paper?

    This device, as you know, was first invented by the exiled translators who published the Geneva Bible (as it is called) in 1557; and for pulpit use, for handiness of reference, for ‘waling a portion,’ it has its obvious advantages: but it is, after all and at the best, a very primitive device: and, for my part, I consider it the deadliest invention of all for robbing the book of outward resemblance to literature and converting it to the aspect of a gazetteer—a biblion a-biblion, as Charles Lamb puts it.

    Have we done? By no means. Having effected all this, let us pepper the result over with italics and numerals, print it in double columns, with a marginal gutter on either side, each gutter pouring down an inky flow of references and cross references. Then, and not till then, is the outward disguise complete—so far as you are concerned. It remains only then to appoint it to be read in Churches, and oblige the child to get selected portions of it by heart on Sundays. But you are yet to imagine that the authors themselves have taken a hand in the game: that the later ones suppose all the earlier ones to have been predicting all the time in a nebulous fashion what they themselves have to tell, and indeed to have written mainly with that object: so that Macaulay and Adam Smith, for example constantly interrupt the thread of their discourse to affirm that what they tell us must be right because Walter Map or the author of Piers Plowman foretold it ages before.

    Now a grown man—that is to say, a comparatively unimpressionable man—that is again to say, a man past the age when to enjoy the Bible is priceless—has probably found out somehow that the word prophet does not (in spite of vulgar usage) mean ‘a man who predicts.’ He has experienced too many prophets of that kind—especially since 1914—and he respects Isaiah too much to rank Isaiah among them. He has been in love, belike; he has read the Song of Solomon: he very much doubts if, on the evidence, Solomon was the kind of lover to have written that Song, and he is quite certain that when the lover sings to his beloved:

  • Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins. Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
  • —he knows, I say, that this is not a description of the Church and her graces, as the chapter-heading audaciously asserts. But he is lazy; too lazy even to commend the Revised Version for striking Solomon out of the Bible, calling the poem The Song of Songs, omitting the absurd chapter-headings, and printing the poetry as poetry ought to be printed. The old-fashioned arrangement was good enough for him. Or he goes to church on Christmas Day and listens to a first lesson, of which the old translators made nonsense, and, in two passages at least, stark nonsense. But, again, the old nonsense is good enough for him; soothing in fact. He is not even quite sure that the Bible, looking like any other book, ought to be put in the hands of the young.

    In all this I think he is wrong. I am sure he is wrong if our contention be right, that the English Bible should be studied by us all for its poetry and its wonderful language as well as for its religion—the religion and the poetry being in fact inseparable. For then, in Euripides’ phrase, we should clothe the Bible in a dress through which its beauty might best shine.


    If you ask me How? I answer—first begging you to bear in mind that we are planning the form of the book for our purpose, and that other forms will be used for other purposes—that we should start with the simplest alterations, such as these:

    (1) The books should be re-arranged in their right order, so far as this can be ascertained (and much of it has been ascertained). I am told, and I can well believe, that this would at a stroke clear away a mass of confusion in strictly Biblical criticism. But that is not my business. I know that it would immensely help our literary study.

    (2) I should print the prose continuously, as prose is ordinarily and properly printed: and the poetry in verse lines, as poetry is ordinarily and properly printed. And I should print each on a page of one column, with none but the necessary notes and references, and these so arranged that they did not tease and distract the eye.

    (3) This arrangement should be kept, whether for the Tripos we prescribe a book in the Authorised text or in the Revised. As a rule, perhaps—or as a rule for some years to come—we shall probably rely on the Authorised Version: but for some books (and I instance Job) we should undoubtedly prefer the Revised.

    (4) With the verse we should, I hold, go farther even than the Revisers. As you know, much of the poetry in the Bible, especially of such as was meant for music, is composed in stanzaic form, or in strophe and antistrophe, with prelude and conclusion, sometimes with a choral refrain. We should print these, I contend, in their proper form, just as we should print an English poem in its proper form.

    I shall conclude to-day with a striking instance of this, with four strophes from the 107th Psalm, taking leave to use at will the Authorised, the Revised and the Coverdale Versions. Each strophe you will note, has a double refrain. As Dr Moulton points out, the one puts up a cry for help, the other an ejaculation of praise after the help has come. Each refrain has a sequel verse, which appropriately changes the motive and sets that of the next stanza:

  • (i)
  • They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way;
  • They found no city to dwell in.
  • Hungry and thirsty,
  • Their soul fainted in them.
  • Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble,
  • And he delivered them out of their distresses.
  • He led them forth by a straight way,
  • That they might go to a city of habitation.
  • Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness,
  • And for his wonderful works to the children of men!
  • For he satisfieth the longing soul,
  • And filleth the hungry soul with goodness.
  • (ii)
  • Such as sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death
  • Being bound in affliction and iron;
  • Because they rebelled against the words of God,
  • And contemned the counsel of the most High:
  • Therefore he brought down their heart with labour;
  • They fell down, and there was none to help.
  • Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble,
  • And he saved them out of their distresses.
  • He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
  • And brake their bands in sunder.
  • Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness,
  • And for his wonderful works to the children of men!
  • For he hath broken the gates of brass,
  • And cut the bars of iron in sunder.
  • (iii)
  • Fools because of their transgression,
  • And because of their iniquities, are afflicted,
  • Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat;
  • And they draw near unto death’s door.
  • Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble,
  • And he saveth them out of their distresses.
  • He sendeth his word and healeth them,
  • And delivereth them from their destructions.
  • Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness,
  • And for his wonderful works to the children of men!
  • And let them offer the sacrifices of thanksgiving,
  • And declare his works with singing!
  • (iv)
  • They that go down to the sea in ships,
  • That do business in great waters;
  • These see the works of the Lord,
  • And his wonders in the deep.
  • For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind,
  • Which lifteth up the waves thereof.
  • They mount up to the heaven,
  • They go down again to the depths;
  • Their soul melteth away because of trouble.
  • They reel to and fro,
  • And stagger like a drunken man,
  • And are at their wits’ end.
  • Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble,
  • And he bringeth them out of their distresses.
  • He maketh the storm a calm,
  • So that the waves thereof are still.
  • Then are they glad because they be quiet;
  • So he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.
  • Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness,
  • And for his wonderful works to the children of men!
  • Let them exalt him also in the assembly of the people,
  • And praise him in the seat of the elders!