Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 9. The position of the Bible in 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

§ 9. The position of the Bible in English Literature

It must not be overlooked that the Authorised Version profited by all the controversy regarding previous translations. Practically every word that could be challenged had been challenged. The fate of a doctrine, even the fate of a party, had, at times, seemed to depend upon a phrase. The whole ground had been fought over so long that great intimacy with the Bible had resulted. Not only did the mind take cognisance of it, but the emotions seized upon it; much of it was literally learned by heart by great numbers of the English people. Thus, it grew to be a national possession; and literature which is a national possession, and by its very nature appeals to the poor and lowly, is, in truth, a national classic. No other book has so penetrated and permeated the hearts and speech of the English race as has the Bible. What Homer was to the Greeks, and the Koran to the Arabs, that, or something not unlike it, the Bible has become to the English. Huxley writes:

  • Consider the great historical fact that, for three centuries, this book has been woven into the life of all that is best and noblest in English history; that it has become the national epic of Britain, and is as familiar to noble and simple, from John-o’-Groat’s House to Land’s End, as Dante and Tasso once were to the Italians; that it is written in the noblest and purest English, and abounds in exquisite beauties of pure literary form; and finally, that it forbids the veriest hind who never left his village to be ignorant of the existence of other countries and other civilisations, and of a great past stretching back to the furthest limits of the oldest civilisations of the world.
  • The classical, yet popular, character of the Bible has been already insisted on. Two or three comparisons will further illustrate this. Chateaubriand, rendering the pathetic address of Ruth to Naomi in the Homeric manner, shows how prolix and comparatively languid Homer can be. It might be objected that Chateaubriand has travestied Homer, but it cannot be said that Thucydides, the consummate Greek historian, travesties himself. Compare the close of a Thucydidean speech, being about one-sixth of the harangue of Brasidas to his soldiers before their engagement with the Illyrians (Thuc. IV, 126), with the whole of Gideon’s address to his men before their encounter with the Midianites (Judges vii, 17, 18):

  • If you repel their tumultuous onset, and, when opportunity offers, withdraw again in good order, keeping your ranks, you will sooner arrive at a place of safety, and will also learn the lesson that mobs like these, if an adversary withstand their first attack, do but threaten at a distance and make a flourish of valour, although if he yields to them they are quick enough to show their courage in following at his heels when there is no danger.
  • Look on me, and do likewise; and behold, when I come to the outside of the camp, it shall be that, as I do, so shall ye do. When I blow with a trumpet, I and all that are with me, then blow ye the trumpets also on every side of all the camp, and say, The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon.
  • The speech of Jahaziel (2 Chron. XX, 15–17) seems real. It is thus that an energetic man would speak. It runs (with modernised punctuation):

  • Hearken ye, all Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem, and thou king Jehoshaphat. Thus saith the Lord unto you: Be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s. To-morrow go ye down against them. Behold, they come up by the cliff of Ziz, and ye shall find them at the end of the brook, before the wilderness of Jeruel. Ye shall not need to fight in this battle. Set yourselves, stand ye still, and see the salvation of the Lord with you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Fear not, nor be dismayed. To-morrow go out against them, for the Lord will be with you.
  • Coleridge was so impressed with the vigour of Biblical style as to affirm:

  • After reading Isaiah, or St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, Homer and Virgil are disgustingly tame to me, and Milton himself barely tolerable.
  • Shakespeare, by common consent, is the first name in English literature. Of Shakespeare’s prose, Churton Collins makes five classes, the last being what he calls highly wrought poetical prose. “This,” he says, “is the style where Shakespeare has raised prose to the sublimest pitch of verse.” As the first illustration of it he chooses Hamlet, act II, sc. 2, 310–321:

  • This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.
  • This, indeed, is fine rhetoric, but how apostrophic it is, and how repetitious! “Canopy”—“firmament”—“roof”—thus it is amplified. Again, even if we can distinguish between “noble in reason,” “infinite in faculty,” and “in apprehension … like a god,” how shall we make clear to ourselves the difference between “moving” and “action”? And what an anticlimax—“the paragon of animals”!

    This is Shakespeare, though, to be sure, Shakespeare putting words into the mouth of a dramatic character. And now, merely as a composition, compare Psalm viii, 3–8:

  • When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.
  • Does “moon and stars” appeal less forcibly and pictorially to the imagination than “golden fire”? Shakespeare’s “majestical roof” is unrelated to man; the “heavens” of the Biblical passage are knit up into the same fabric with him. In the psalm there is no exaggeration. Man is not, as a matter of fact, “infinite in faculty,” nor may we assume a universal consensus that he is, above everything else, “the beauty of the world.” In the psalm he is subordinated to the heavens, only to be exalted over the creatures, and, when he is said to be “a little lower than the angels,” the moderation of tone is more permanently effective than Shakespeare’s “in action how like an angel!” which seems merely a piece of somewhat hysterical exaggeration—though, perhaps, dramatically in keeping—to one who has formed his conception of angels from the Bible, Dante, or Milton, from the Hermes of the ancient poets, or even from Shakespeare’s own line in this same play,

  • And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
  • Milton does not scruple to affirm: “There are no songs to be compared with the songs of Zion, no orations equal to those of the prophets.” As Sir Walter Scott drew near his beautiful and affecting end, he requested Lockhart to read to him. When asked from what book, he replied: “Need you ask? There is but one.” To Wordsworth, “the grand storehouses of enthusiastic and meditative imagination … are the prophetic and lyrical parts of the Holy Scriptures.”

    Ruskin ascribed the best part of his taste in literature to his having been required by his mother to learn by heart certain chapters of the Bible, adding: “I count [it] very confidently the most precious, and, on the whole, the one essential part of all my education.” Carlyle said: “In the poorest cottage … is one Book, wherein for several thousands of years the spirit of man has found light, and nourishment, and an interpreting response to whatever is deepest in him.” Newman speaks of the Scriptures as “compositions which, even humanly considered, are among the most sublime and beautiful ever written.” Macaulay regarded the Bible as “a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power”; and elsewhere, he says of Bunyan: “He had studied no great model of composition, with the exception—an important exception undoubtedly—of our noble translation of the Bible.” Froude speaks of its “mingled tenderness and majesty, the Saxon simplicity, the preternatural grandeur.” Swift writes, almost exactly a hundred years after the date of the Authorised Version: “The translators of our Bible were masters of an English style much fitter for that work than any which we see in our present writings, which I take to be owing to the simplicity that runs through the whole”; and again, of the changes which had been introduced into the language: “They have taken off a great deal from that simplicity which is one of the greatest perfections in any language.”