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

VIII. On Reading the Bible (I)

Wednesday, March 6, 1918


‘READ not to Contradict and Confute,’ says Bacon of Studies in general: and you may be the better disposed, Gentlemen, to forgive my choice of subject to-day if in my first sentence I rule that way of reading the Bible completely out of court. You may say at once that, the Bible being so full of doctrine as it is, and such a storehouse for exegesis as it has been, this is more easily said than profitably done. You may grant me that, the Scriptures in our Authorised Version are part and parcel of English Literature (and more than part and parcel); you may grant that a Professor of English Literature has therefore a claim, if not an obligation, to speak of them in that Version; you may—having granted my incessant refusal to disconnect our national literature from our national life, or to view them as disconnected—accept the conclusion which plainly flows from it; that no teacher of English can pardonably neglect what is at once the most majestic thing in our literature and by all odds the most spiritually living thing we inherit; in our courts at once superb monument and superabundant fountain of life; and yet you may discount beforehand what he must attempt.

For (say you) if he attempt the doctrine, he goes straight down to buffeted waters so broad that only stout theologians can win to shore; if; on the other hand, he ignore doctrine, the play is Hamlet with the Prince of Denmark left out. He reduces our Bible to ‘mere literature,’ to something ‘belletristic,’ pretty, an artifice, a flimsy, a gutted thing.


Now of all ways of dealing with literature that happens to be the way we should least admire. By that way we disassociate literature from life; ‘what they said’ from the men who said it and meant it, not seldom at the risk of their lives. My pupils will bear witness in the memories that when we talk together concerning poetry, for example, by ‘poetry’ we mean ‘that which the poets wrote,’ or (if you like) ‘the stuff the poets wrote’; and their intelligence tells them, of course, that anyone who in the simple proposition ‘Poets wrote Poetry’ connects an object with a subject by a verb does not, at any rate, intend to sunder what he has just been at pains, however slight, to join together: he may at least have the credit, whether he be right or wrong, of asserting his subject and his object to be interdependent. Take a particular proposition—John Milton wrote a poem called Paradise Lost. You will hardly contest the truth of that: but what does it mean? Milton wrote the story of the Fall of Man: he told it in some thousands of lines of decasyllabic verse unrhymed; he measured these lines out with exquisite cadences. The object of our simple sentence includes all these, and this much beside: that he wrote the total poem and made it what it is. Nor can that object be fully understood—literature being, ever and always, so personal a thing—until we understand the subject, John Milton—what manner of man he was, and how on earth, being such a man, he contrived to do it. We shall never quite know that: but it is important we should get as near as we can.

Of the Bible this is yet more evident, it being a translation. Isaiah did not write the cadences of his prophecies, as we ordinary men of this country know them: Christ did not speak the cadences of the Parables or of the Sermon on the Mount, as we know them. These have been supplied by the translators. By all means let us study them and learn to delight in them; but Christ did not suffer for his cadences, still less for the cadences invented by Englishmen almost 1600 years later; and Englishmen who went to the stake did not die for these cadences. They were Lollards and Reformers who lived too soon to have heard them; they were Catholics of the ‘old profession’ who had either never heard or, having heard, abhorred them. These men were cheerful to die for the meaning of the Word and for its authorship—because it was spoken by Christ.


There is in fact, Gentlemen, no such thing as ‘mere literature.’ Pedants have coined that contemptuous term to express a figmentary concept of their own imagination or—to be more accurate, an hallucination of wrath—having about as much likeness to a vera causa as had the doll which (if you remember) Maggie Tulliver used to beat in the garret whenever, poor child, the world went wrong with her somehow. The thoughts, actions and passions of men became literature by the simple but difficult process of being recorded in memorable speech; but in that process neither the real thing recorded nor the author is evacuated. Belles lettres, Fine Art are odious terms, for which no clean-thinking man has any use. There is no such thing in the world as belles lettres; if there were, it would deserve the name. As for Fine Art, the late Professor Butcher bequeathed to us a translation of Aristotle’s Poetics with some admirable appendixes—the whole entitled Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. Aristotle never in his life had a theory of Fine Art as distinct from other art: nor (I wager) can you find in his discovered works a word for any such thing. Now if Aristotle had a concept of ‘fine’ art as distinguished from other art, he was man enough to find a name for it. His omission to do anything of the sort speaks for itself.

So you should beware of any teacher who would treat the Bible or any part of it as ‘fine writing,’ mere literature.


Let me, having said this, at once enter a caveat, a qualification. Although men do not go to the stake for the cadences, the phrases of our Authorised Version, it remains true that these cadences, these phrases, have for three hundred years exercised a most powerful effect upon their emotions. They do so by association of ideas, by the accreted memories of our race enwrapping connotation around a word, a name—say the name Jerusalem, or the name Sion:
  • And they that wasted us, required of us mirth, saying,—
  • Sing to us one of the songs of Sion.
  • How shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning!
  • It must be known to you, Gentlemen, that these words can affect men to tears who never connect them in thought with the actual geographical Jerusalem; who connect it in thought merely with a quite different native home from which they are exiles. Here and there some one man may feel a similar emotion over Landor’s

  • Tanagra, think not I forget…
  • But the word Jerusalem will strike twenty men twentyfold more poignantly: for to each it names the city familiar in spirit to his parents when they knelt, and to their fathers before them: not only the city which was his nursery and yet lay just beyond the landscape seen from its window; its connotation includes not only what the word ‘Rome’ has meant, and ever must mean, to thousands on thousands setting eyes for the first time on The City: but it holds, too, some hint of the New Jerusalem, the city of twelve gates before the vision of which St John fell prone:
  • Ah, my sweet home, Hierusalem,
  • Would God I were in thee!
  • Thy Gardens and thy gallant walks
  • Continually are green:
  • There grows such sweet and pleasant flowers
  • As nowhere else are seen.
  • Quite through the streets with pleasant sound
  • The flood of Life doth flow;
  • Upon whose banks on every side
  • The wood of Life doth grow…
  • Our Lady sings Magnificat
  • With tones surpassing sweet:
  • And all the virgins bear their part,
  • Sitting about her feet.
  • Hierusalem, my happy home,
  • Would God I were in thee!
  • Would God my woes were at an end,
  • Thy joys that I might see!
  • You cannot (I say) get away from these connotations accreted through your own memories and your fathers’; as neither can you be sure of getting free of any great literature in any tongue, once it has been written. Let me quote you a passage from Cardinal Newman [he is addressing the undergraduates of the Catholic University of Dublin]:

  • How real a creation, how sui generis, is the style of Shakespeare, or of the Protestant Bible and Prayer Book, or of Swift, or of Pope, or of Gibbon, or of Johnson!
  • [I pause to mark how just this man can be to his great enemies. Pope was a Roman Catholic, you will remember; Gibbon an infidel.]
  • Even were the subject-matter without meaning, though in truth the style cannot really be abstracted from the sense, still the style would, on that supposition, remain as perfect and original a work as Euclid’s Elements or a symphony of Beethoven.
  • And, like music, it has seized upon the public mind: and the literature of England is no longer a mere letter, printed in books and shut up in libraries, but it is a living voice, which has gone forth in its expressions and its sentiments into the world of men, which daily thrills upon our ears and syllables our thoughts, which speaks to us through our correspondents and dictates when we put pen to paper. Whether we will or no, the phraseology of Shakespeare, of the Protestant formularies, of Milton, of Pope, of Johnson’s Table-talk, and of Walter Scott, have become a portion of the vernacular tongue, the household words, of which perhaps we little guess the origin, and the very idioms of our familiar conversation.… So tyrannous is the literature of a nation; it is too much for us. We cannot destroy or reverse it.… We cannot make it over again. It is a great work of man, when it is no work of God’s.… We cannot undo the past. English Literature will ever have been Protestant.
  • V

    I am speaking, then, to hearers who would read not to contradict and confute; who have an inherited sense of the English Bible; and who have, even as I, a store of associated ideas, to be evoked by any chance phrase from it; beyond this, nothing that can be called scholarship by any stretch of the term.

    Very well, then: my first piece of advice on reading the Bible is that you do it.

    I have, of course, no reason at all to suppose or suggest that any member of this present audience omits to do it. But some general observations are permitted to an occupant of this Chair: and, speaking generally, and as one not constitutionally disposed to lamentation [in the book we are discussing, for example, I find Jeremiah the contributor least to my mind], I do believe that the young read the Bible less, and enjoy it less—probably read it less, because they enjoy it less—than their fathers did.

    The Education Act of 1870, often in these days too sweepingly denounced, did a vast deal of good along with no small amount of definite harm. At the head of the harmful effects must (I think) be set its discouragement of Bible reading; and this chiefly through its encouraging parents to believe that they could henceforth hand over the training of their children to the State, lock, stock and barrel. You all remember the picture in Burns of The Cotter’s Saturday Night:

  • The chearfu’ supper done, wi’ serious face,
  • They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
  • The sire turns o’er, wi’ patriarchal grace,
  • The big ha’-Bible, ance his father’s pride.
  • His bonnet rev’rently is laid aside,
  • His lyart haffets wearing thin and bare;
  • Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
  • He wales a portion with judicious care,
  • And ‘Let us worship God!’ he says, with solemn air.
  • But you know that the sire bred on the tradition of 1870 and now growing grey, does nothing of that sort on a Saturday night: that, Saturday being tub-night, he inclines rather to order them into the back-kitchen to get washed; that on Sunday morning, having seen them off to a place of worship, he inclines to sit down and read, in place of the Bible, his Sunday newspaper: that in the afternoon he again shunts them off to Sunday-school. Now—to speak first of the children—it is good for them to be tubbed on Saturday night; good for them also, I dare say, to attend Sunday-school on the following afternoon; but not good in so far as they miss to hear the Bible read by their parents and
  • Pure religion breathing household laws.
  • ‘Pure religion’?—Well perhaps that begs the question: and I dare say Burns’ cotter when he waled ‘a portion with judicious care,’ waled it as often as not—perhaps oftener than not—to contradict and confute; that often he contradicted and confuted very crudely, very ignorantly. But we may call it simple religion anyhow, sincere religion, parental religion, household religion: and for a certainty no ‘lessons’ in day-school or Sunday-school have, for tingeing a child’s mind, an effect comparable with that of a religion pervading the child’s home, present at bedside and board:—
  • Here a little child I stand,
  • Heaving up my either hand;
  • Cold as paddocks tho’ they be,
  • Here I lift them up to Thee;
  • For a benison to fall
  • On our meat and on us all. Amen.
  • —permeating the house, subtly instilled by the very accent of his father’s and his mother’s speech. For the grown man … I happen to come from a part of England where men, in all my days, have been curiously concerned with religion and are yet so concerned; so much that you can scarce take up a local paper and turn to the correspondence column but you will find some heated controversy raging over Free Will and Predestination, the Validity of Holy Orders, Original Sin, Redemption of the many or the few:
  • Go it Justice, go it Mercy!
  • Go it Douglas, go it Percy!
  • But the contestants do not write in the language their fathers used. They seem to have lost the vocabulary, and to have picked up, in place of it, the jargon of the Yellow Press, which does not tend to clear definition on points of theology. The mass of all this controversial stuff is no more absurd, no more frantic, than it used to be: but in language it has lost its dignity with its homeliness. It has lost the colouring of the Scriptures, the intonation of the Scriptures, the Scriptural habit.

    If I turn from it to a passage in Bunyan, I am conversing with a man who, though he has read few other books, has imbibed and soaked the Authorised Version into his fibres so that he cannot speak but Biblically. Listen to this:

  • As to the situation of this town, it lieth just between the two worlds, and the first founder, and builder of it, so far as by the best, and most authentic records I can gather, was one Shaddai; and he built it for his own delight. He made it the mirror, and glory of all that he made, even the Top-piece beyond anything else that he did in that country: yea, so goodly a town was Mansoul, when first built, that it is said by some, the Gods at the setting up thereof, came down to see it, and sang for joy.…
  • The wall of the town was well built, yea so fast and firm was it knit and compact together, that had it not been for the townsmen themselves, they could not have been shaken, or broken for ever.
  • Or take this:
  • Now as they were going along and talking, they espied a Boy feeding his Father’s Sheep. The Boy was in very mean Cloaths, but of a very fresh and well-favoured Countenance, and as he sate by himself he Sung.… Then said their Guide, Do you hear him? I will dare to say, that this Boy lives a merrier Life, and wears more of that Herb called Heart’s-ease in his Bosom, than he that is clad in Silk and Velvet.
  • I choose ordinary passages, not solemn ones in which Bunyan is consciously scriptural. But you cannot miss the accent.

    That is Bunyan, of course; and I am far from saying that the labouring men among whom I grew up, at the fishery or in the hayfield, talked with Bunyan’s magic. But I do assert that they had something of the accent; enough to be like, in a child’s mind, the fishermen and labourers among whom Christ found his first disciples. They had the large simplicity of speech, the cadence, the accent. But let me turn to Ireland, where, though not directly derived from our English Bible a similar scriptural accent survives among the peasantry and is, I hope, ineradicable. I choose two sentences from a book of ‘Memories’ recently written by the survivor of the two ladies who together wrote the incomparable ‘Irish R.M.’ The first was uttered by a small cultivator who was asked why his potato-crop had failed:

  • ‘I couldn’t hardly say’ was the answer. ‘Whatever it was, God spurned them in a boggy place.’
  • Is that not the accent of Isaiah?

  • He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a ball into a large country.
  • The other is the benediction bestowed upon the late Miss Violet Martin by a beggar-woman in Skibbereen:

  • Sure ye’re always laughing! That ye may laugh in the sight of the Glory of Heaven!
  • VI

    But one now sees, or seems to see, that we children did, in our time, read the Bible a great deal, if perforce we were taught to read it in sundry bad ways: of which perhaps the worst was that our elders hammered in all the books, all the parts of it as equally inspired and therefore equivalent. Of course this meant among other things that they hammered it all in literally: but let us not sentimentalise over that. It really did no child any harm to believe that the universe was created in a working week of six days, and that God sat down and looked at it on Sunday, and behold it was very good. A week is quite a long while to a child, yet a definite division rounding off a square job. The bath-taps at home usually, for some unexplained reason, went wrong during the week-end: the plumber came in on Monday and carried out his tools on Saturday at midday. These little analogies really do (I believe) help the infant mind, and not at all to its later detriment. Nor shall I ask you to sentimentalise overmuch upon the harm done to a child by teaching him that the bloodthirsty jealous Jehovah of the Book of Joshua is as venerable (being one and the same unalterably, ‘with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning’) as the Father ‘the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy,’ revealed to us in the Gospel, invoked for us at the Eucharist. I do most seriously hold it to be fatal if we grow up and are fossilised in any such belief. (Where have we better proof than in the invocations which the family of the Hohenzollerns have been putting up, any time since August 1914—and for years before—to this bloody identification of the Christian man’s God with Joshua’s?) My simple advice is that you not only read the Bible early but read it again and again: and if on the third or fifth reading it leave you just where the first left you—if you still get from it no historical sense of a race developing its concept of God—well then, the point of the advice is lost, and there is no more to be said. But over this business of teaching the Book of Joshua to children I am in some doubt. A few years ago an Education Committee, of which I happened to be Chairman, sent ministers of religion about, two by two, to test the religious instruction given in Elementary Schools. Of the two who worked around my immediate neighbourhood, one was a young priest of the Church of England, a medievalist with an ardent passion for ritual; the other a gentle Congregational minister, a mere holy and humble man of heart. They became great friends in the course of these expeditions, and they brought back this report—‘It is positively wicked to let these children grow up being taught that there is no difference in value between Joshua and St Matthew: that the God of the Lord’s Prayer is the same who commanded the massacre of Ai.’ Well, perhaps it is. Seeing how bloodthirsty old men can be in these days, one is tempted to think that they can hardly be caught too young and taught decency, if not mansuetude. But I do not remember, as a child, feeling any horror about it, or any difficulty in reconciling the two concepts. Children are a bit bloodthirsty, and I observe that two volumes of the late Captain Mayne Reid—The Rifle Rangers, and The Scalp Hunters—have just found their way into The World’s Classics and are advertised alongside of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies and the De Imitatione Christi, I leave you to think this out; adding but this for a suggestion: that as the Hebrew outgrew his primitive tribal beliefs, so the bettering mind of man casts off the old clouts of primitive doctrine, he being in fact better than his religion. You have all heard preachers trying to show that Jacob was a better fellow than Esau somehow. You have all, I hope, rejected every such explanation. Esau was a gentleman: Jacob was not. The mind of a young man meets that wall, and there is no passing it. Later, the mind of the youth perceives that the writer of Jacob’s history has a tribal mind and supposes throughout that for the advancement of his tribe many things are permissible and even admirable which a later and urbaner mind rejects as detestably sharp practice. And the story of Jacob becomes the more valuable to us historically as we realise what a hero he is to the bland chronicler.


    But of another thing, Gentlemen, I am certain: that we were badly taught in that these books, while preached to us as equivalent, were kept in separate compartments. We were taught the books of Kings and Chronicles as history. The prophets were the Prophets, inspired men predicting the future—which they only did by chance, as every inspired man does. Isaiah was never put into relation with his time at all; which means everything to our understanding of Isaiah, whether of Jerusalem or of Babylon. We ploughed through Kings and Chronicles, and made out lists of rulers, with dates and capital events. Isaiah was all fine writing about nothing at all, and historically we were concerned with him only to verify some far-fetched reference to the Messiah in this or that Evangelist. But there is not, never has been, really fine literature—like Isaiah—composed about nothing at all: and in the mere matter of prognostication I doubt if such experts as Zadkiel and Old Moore have anything to fear from any School of Writing we can build up in Cambridge. But if we had only been taught to read Isaiah concurrently with the Books of the Kings, what a fire it would have kindled among the dry bones of our studies!
  • Then said the Lord unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shear-jashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field.
  • Scholars, of course, know the political significance of that famous meeting. But if we had only known it; if we had only been taught what Assyria was—with its successive monarchs Tiglath-pileser, Shalmaneser, Sargon, Sennacherib; and why Syria and Israel and Egypt were trying to cajole or force Judah into alliance; what a difference (I say) this passage would have meant to us!


    I daresay, after all, that the best way is not to bother a boy too early and overmuch with history; that the best way is to let him ramp at first through the Scriptures even as he might through The Arabian Nights: to let him take the books as they come, merely indicating, for instance, that Job is a great poem, the Psalms great lyrics, the story of Ruth a lovely idyll, the Song of Songs the perfection of an Eastern love-poem. Well and what then? He will certainly get less of The Cotter’s Saturday Night into it, and certainly more of the truth of the East. There he will feel the whole splendid barbaric story for himself: the flocks of Abraham and Laban: the trek of Jacob’s sons to Egypt for corn: the figures of Rebekah at the well, Ruth at the gleaning, and Rispah beneath the gibbet: Sisera bowing in weariness: Saul—great Saul—by the tent-prop with the jewels in his turban:
  • All its lordly male-sapphires, and rubies courageous at heart.
  • Or consider—to choose one or two pictures out of the tremendous procession—consider Michal, Saul’s royal daughter: how first she is given in marriage to David to be a snare for him; how loving him she saves his life, letting him down from the window and dressing up an image on the bed in his place: how, later, she is handed over to another husband Phaltiel, how David demands her back, and she goes:
  • And her husband (Phaltiel) went with her along weeping behind her to Bahurim. Then said Abner unto him, Go, return. And he returned.
  • Or, still later, how the revulsion takes her, Saul’s daughter, as she sees David capering home before the ark, and how her affection had done with this emotional man of the ruddy countenance, so prone to weep in his bed:
  • And as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal Saul’s daughter—
  • Mark the three words—
  • Michal Saul’s daughter looked through a window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
  • The whole story goes into about ten lines. Your psychological novelist nowadays, given the wit to invent it, would make it cover 500 pages at least.

    Or take the end of David in the first two chapters of the First Book of Kings, with its tale of Oriental intrigues, plots, treacheries, murderings in the depths of the horrible palace wherein the old man is dying. Or read of Solomon and his ships and his builders, and see his Temple growing (as Heber put it) like a tall palm, with no sound of hammers. Or read again the end of Queen Athaliah:

  • And when Athaliah heard the noise of the guard and of the people, she came to the people into the temple of the Lord.—And when she looked, behold, the king stood by a pillar, as the manner was, and the princes and the trumpeters by the king, and all the people of the land rejoiced, and blew with trumpets: And Athaliah rent her clothes, and cried Treason, Treason.—But Jehoiada the priest commanded the captains of the hundreds, the officers of the host, and said unto them, Have her forth without the ranges.…
  • —And they laid hands on her; and she went by the way by the which the horses came into the king’s house: and there was she slain.
  • Let a youngster read this, I say, just as it is written; and how the true East—sound, scent, form, colour—pours into the narrative!—cymbals and trumpets, leagues of sand, caravans trailing through the heat, priest and soldiery and kings going up between them to the altar; blood at the foot of the steps, blood everywhere, smell of blood mingled with spices, sandal-wood, dung of camels!

    Yes, but how—if you will permit the word—how the enjoyment of it as magnificent literature might be enhanced by a scholar who would condescend to whisper, of his knowledge, the magical word here or there, to the child as he reads! For an instance.—

    No child—no grown man with any sense of poetry—can deny his ear to the Forty-fifth Psalm; the one that begins ‘My heart is inditing a good matter,’ and plunges into a hymn of royal nuptials. First (you remember) the singing-men, the sons of Korah, lift their chant to the bridegroom, the King:

  • Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty … And in thy majesty ride prosperously.
  • Or as we hear it in the Book of Common Prayer:
  • Good luck have thou with thine honour…
  • —because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things.…
  • All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.
  • Anon they turn to the Bride:
  • Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house.…
  • The King’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold.
  • She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins that be her fellows shall bear her company. And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift. Instead of thy fathers shall be thy children, whom thou mayest make princes in all the earth.
  • For whom (wonders the young reader, spell-bound by this) for what happy bride and bridegroom was this glorious chant raised? Now suppose that, just here, he has a scholar ready to tell him what is likeliest true—that the bridegroom was Ahab—that the bride, the daughter of Sidon, was no other than Jezebel, and became what Jezebel now is—with what an awe of surmise would two other passages of the history, toll on his ear?

  • And one washed the chariot in the pool of Samaria; and the dogs licked up his blood.…
  • And when he (Jehu) was come in, he did eat and drink, and said, Go, see now this cursed woman, and bury her: for she is a king’s daughter.
  • And they went to bury her: but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands.
  • Wherefore they came again, and told him. And he said, This is the word of the Lord, which he spake by his servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, In the portion of Jezreel shall dogs eat the flesh of Jezebel.… so that (men) shall not say, This is Jezebel.
  • In another lecture, Gentlemen, I propose to take up the argument and attempt to bring it to this point. ‘How can we, having this incomparable work, necessary for study by all who would write English, bring it within the ambit of the English Tripos and yet avoid offending the experts?’