Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 11. The Influence of the Authorised Version upon English Literature

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. The “Authorised Version” and its Influence

§ 11. The Influence of the Authorised Version upon English Literature

This brings us to the question of the influence of the Authorised Version upon subsequent English literature—an influence which cannot always be precisely distinguished from that of the Bible in some earlier form. When Spenser or Shakespeare, for instance, uses the Bible, it is, of course, not the Jacobean version, and now and then the same thing will be true at a later period, as in some of Milton’s writing. The more important modes in which the Bible has affected English literature are these:

(a) The themes are Scriptural, and the language partly, at times even largely, Scriptural. Such is the case in sermons, versified psalms, paraphrases of Scriptural narrative, devotional essays, and the like. An excellent example is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This book apart, however, there are few, if any, examples of a work which has been accepted as pure literature employing Biblical diction to anything like such a degree. Other attempts, such as the Book of Mormon, tend to the grotesque or ludicrous, because of the disparity between the language and the ideas suggested. A diction resembling that of the Bible in its concreteness and simplicity, and in its slightly archaic character, has, however, of late been employed with good effect in prose versions from authors like Homer.

(b) Quotations from the Bible are introduced, sometimes slightly changed, into secular writings. The object is to substantiate a statement, or to awaken a train of associations favourable to the author’s purpose. These can be found in almost any author, but they are more common in the nineteenth century than earlier, being especially used by writers who have at heart the reform or elevation of society or individuals.

(c) Allusions, or considerably modified quotations, are introduced freely, and may be found on the editorial page of many a newspaper. Thus, one reads: “The full measure of justice is not meted out to them”; “They sold their birthright for a mess of pottage”; “They have fallen among thieves.” In the last three books which the present writer has read for amusement, he has been interested to note quotations and allusions of this nature. In one of them, a recent book on life in an Italian province, 63 references were found; in the second, a recent work on the life of wild animals, 12; in the third, a novel by Thomas Hardy, 18.

(d) Many phrases have grown so common that they have become part of the web of current English speech, and are hardly thought of as Biblical at all, except on deliberate reflection. For instance: “highways and hedges”; “clear as crystal”; “still small voice”; “hip and thigh”; “arose as one man”; “lick the dust”; “a thorn in the flesh”; “broken reed”; “root of all evil”; “the nether millstone”; “sweat of his brow”; “heap coals of fire”; “a law unto themselves”; “the fat of the land”; “dark sayings”; “a soft answer”; “a word in season”; “moth and rust”; “weighed in the balance and found wanting”; even such colloquialisms as, “we are the people” (cf. Job xii, 2). Many more of these might readily be quoted.

(e) Other influences, less definitely measurable, but more important, remain to be mentioned.

Of the Bible in its relations to religion, individual conduct, and ideals political and social, this is not the place to speak; yet these affect literature to an incalculable extent, if they do not even provide its very substance. Of such matters as fall within the scope of this chapter—matters of vocabulary, grammar, idiom, and style—something may briefly be said.

In the first place, the literary influence of the Bible, like that of any classic, is distinctly conservative. The reading of it tends to keep alive a familiarity with the words and constructions which were current when the English Bible grew up, or, rather, of such of these words and constructions as proved most conformable to the genius of the Hebrew and Greek employed in the sacred writings. As hinted above, this influence, in conjunction with that of the Bible in the sphere of thought and emotion, seems to have culminated, if its culmination be not rather a matter of the future, in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The result is that many terms formerly regarded as awkward, or alien to the genius of the language, are now understood and accepted. Soon after the Authorised Version was issued, Selden thus criticised the rendering:

  • The Bible is rather translated into English words than into English phrases. The Hebraisms are kept, and the phrase of that language is kept.
  • A typical Hebraism is the use of of in such phrases as “oil of gladness,” “man of sin,” “King of kings”; but who has any difficulty with them now? In the first half of the nineteenth century, Hallam could say:
  • It abounds, … especially in the Old Testament, with obsolete phraseology, and with single words long since abandoned, or retained only in provincial use.
  • At present this is no truer of the Bible than of Shakespeare, if as true. Our earlier English has been so revived, and rendered so familiar, that much which needed elaborate explanation in the eighteenth century is now intelligible to every one. As Lightfoot said of other objectors:
  • The very words which these critics would have ejected from our English Bibles as barbarous, or uncouth, or obsolete, have again taken their places in our highest poetry, and even in our popular language.
  • Like the course of a planet round the sun, the movement of English diction, which, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was, on the whole, away from that of the Bible, now returns with ever accelerating speed toward it. That the movement really began at a much earlier date, though inconspicuously, is shown by the counsels and practice of Swift, and by the circumstance that Challoner’s Roman Catholic version of 1763–4 abandoned many of the Latinisms of the Rheims and Douay translations in favour of the simpler language of the Authorised Version.

    The use of concrete words has grown in favour. The colourlessness, vagueness and obscurity of abstract terms, and of conventional phraseology whether abstract or not, have been discredited. Vividness, the sense of reality, have more and more prevailed in literature—that is, in non-technical writings.

    Simplicity has always been recommended by the example of the Authorised Version, and, especially since the age of Wordsworth, is more and more gaining upon bombast and meretricious ornament. The concreteness and simplicity of the Authorised Version, and its use of the homely vernacular, have steadily appealed to plain people, as distinguished from those who have had more abundant opportunities of education. But the love of the humble for the Bible is largely due to its message of cheer and hope. Huxley has even gone so far as to call the Bible “the Magna Charta of the poor and the oppressed.” Two men, Bunyan and Lincoln, who educated themselves largely by means of the Bible, may serve as examples of many who have become known to posterity for their inestimable services to their race. Both are famous as writers, and the best writing of both is alive with the spirit of the Bible. Bunyan has already been mentioned. Of Lincoln it has been said that he

  • built up his entire reading upon his early study of the Bible. He had mastered it absolutely; mastered it as later he mastered only one or two other books, notably Shakespeare; mastered it so that he became almost “a man of one book”; … and he left his life as part of the crowning work of the century that has just closed.
  • Of Walt Whitman, the American who wished to be known as the poet of democracy, it has been authoritatively said:
  • His own essential model, after all is said, was the rhythmical patterns of the English Bible. Here was precisely that natural stylistic variation between the “terrific,” the “gentle,” and the “inferior” parts, so desired by William Blake. Here were lyric fragments, of consummate beauty, imbedded in narrative or argumentative passages.… In this strong, rolling music, this intense feeling, these concrete words expressing primal emotion in daring terms of bodily sensation. Whitman found the charter for the book he wished to write.
  • The elevation and nobility of Biblical diction, assisted by its slightly archaic tinge, have a tendency to keep all English style above meanness and triviality. In the words of Coleridge “intense study of the Bible will keep any writer from being vulgar in point of style.”

    The Bible teaches that emotion should not habitually be divorced from thought, nor thought from emotion; certainly not in literature. Wherever simple language is charged with noble feeling, stirs the imagination, is directed by steady and comprehensive thought, is adapted to actuate the will in the direction of social and individual good, and is concise and pregnant, Biblical style is approximated, and, very probably, Biblical influence is dominant.

    Finally, the English Bible is the chief bond which holds united, in a common loyalty and a common endeavour, the various branches of the English race. The influence of the Bible can be traced through the whole course of English literature and English civilisation, and, more than anything else, it tends to give unity and perpetuity to both.