Study of the King James Bible Part 6

"Then Judah came near unto him, and said, O my lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord's ears, and let not thine anger burn against thy servant: for thou art even as Pharoah. My lord asked his servants, saying, Have ye a father, or a brother? And we said unto my lord, We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loveth him. And thou saidst unto thy servants, Bring him down unto me, that I may set mine eyes upon him. And we said unto my lord, The lad cannot leave his father: for if he should leave his father, his father would die. And thou saidst unto thy servant, Except your youngest brother come down with you, ye shall see my face no more. And it came to pass when we came up unto thy servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. And our father said, Go again and buy us a little food. And we said, We cannot go down; if our youngest brother be with us, then we will go down: for we may not see the man's face, except our youngest brother be with us. And thy servant my father said unto us, Ye know that my wife bare me two sons: and the one went out from me, and I said, Surely he is torn in pieces; and I saw him not since: and if ye take this also from me, and mischief befall him, ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. Now therefore when I come to thy servant my father, and the lad be not with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad's life; it shall come to pass, when he seeth that the lad is not with us, that he will die: and thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave. For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying, If I bring him not unto thee, then I shall bear the blame to my father for ever. Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me? lest peradventure I see the evil that shall come on my father."

That is pure oratory, and it is greatly helped by the English expression of it. Here our King James version is finer than either of the other later versions, as indeed it is in almost all these sections where the phraseology is important for the ear.

We need not go farther. Part of these outstanding characteristics come to our version from the original, and might appear in any version of the Bible. Yet nowhere do even these original characteristics come to such prominence as in the King James translation; and it adds to them those that are peculiar to itself.



THE Bible is a book-making book. It is literature which provokes literature.

It would be a pleasure to survey the whole field of literature in the broadest sense and to note the creative power of the King James version; but that is manifestly impossible here.

Certain limitations must be frankly made.

Leave on one side, therefore; the immense body of purely religious literature, sermons, expositions, commentaries, which, of course, are the direct product of the Bible. No book ever caused so much discussion about itself and its teaching. That is because it deals with the fundamental human interest, religion. It still remains true that the largest single department of substantial books from our English presses is in the realm of religion, and after the purely recreative literature they are probably most widely read. Yet, they are not what we mean at this time by the literary result of the English Bible.

Leave on one side also the very large body of political and historical writing. Much of it shows Bible influence. In the nature of the case, any historian of the past three hundred years must often refer to and quote from the English Bible, and must note its influence. An entire study could be devoted to the influence of the English Bible on Green or Bancroft or Freeman or Prescott--its influence on their matter and their manner. Another could be given to its influence on political writing and speaking. No great orator of the day would fail us of material, and the great political papers and orations of the past would only widen the field. Yet while some of this political and historical writing is recognized as literature, most of it can be left out of our thought just now.

It may aid in the limiting of the field to accept what Dean Stanley said in another connection: "By literature, I mean those great works that rise above professional or commonplace uses and take possession of the mind of a whole nation or a whole age."[1] This is one of the matters which we all understand until we begin to define it; we know what we mean until some one asks us.

[1] Thoughts that Breathe.

The literature of which we are thinking in this narrower sense is in the sphere of art rather than in the sphere of distinct achievement. De Quincey's division is familiar: the literature of knowledge, and the literature of power. The function of the first is to teach; the function of the second is to move. Professor Dowden points out that between the two lies a third field, the literature of criticism. It seeks both to teach and to move. Our concern is chiefly with De Quincey's second field--the literature of power. In the first field, the literature of knowledge, must lie all history, with Hume and Gibbon; all science, with Darwin and Fiske; all philosophy, with Spencer and William James; all political writing, with Voltaire and Webster.

Near that same field must lie many of those essays in criticism of which Professor Dowden speaks. This which we omit, this literature of knowledge, is powerful literature, though its main purpose is not to move, but to teach.

We are only reducing our field so that we can survey it. For our uses just now we shall find pure literature taking the three standard forms: the poem, the essay, and the story. It is the influence of the English Bible on this large field of literature which we are to observe.

Just for safety's sake, accept another narrowing of the field. The effect of the Bible and its religious teaching, on the writer himself is a separate study, and is for the most part left out of consideration. It sounds correct when Milton says: "He who would not be frustrate of his Power to write well ought himself to be a true poem." But there is Milton himself to deal with; irreproachable in morals, there are yet the unhappy years of his young wife to trouble us, and there were his daughters, who were not at peace with him, and whom after their service in his blindness he yet stigmatizes in his will as "undutiful children." Then, if you think of Shelley or Byron, you are troubled by their lives; or even Carlyle, the very master of the Victorian era--one would not like to scan his life according to the laws of true poetry.

Then there is Coleridge, falling a prey to opium until, as years came, conscience and will seemed to go. Only a very ardent Scot will feel that he can defend Robert Burns at all points, and we would be strange Americans if we felt that Edgar Allen Poe was a model of propriety. That is a large and interesting field, but the Bible seems even to gain power as a book-making book when it lays hold on the book-making proclivities of men who are not prepared to yield to its personal power. They may get away from it as religion; they do not get away from it as literature.

The first and most notable fact regarding the influence of the Bible on English literature is the remarkable extent of that influence. It is literally everywhere. If every Bible in any considerable city were destroyed, the Book could be restored in all its essential parts from the quotations on the shelves of the city public library. There are works, covering almost all the great literary writers, devoted especially to showing how much the Bible has influenced them.

The literary effect of the King James version at first was less than its social effect; but in that very fact lies a striking literary influence.

For a long time it formed virtually the whole literature which was readily accessible to ordinary Englishmen. We get our phrases from a thousand books. The common talk of an intelligent man shows the effect of many authors upon his thinking. Our fathers got their phrases from one great book. Their writing and their speaking show the effect of that book.

It is a study by itself, and yet it is true that world literature is, as Professor Moulton puts it, the autobiography of civilization. "A national literature is a reflection of the national history."

Books as books reflect their authors. As literature they reflect the public opinion which gives them indorsement. When, therefore, public opinion: keeps alive a certain group of books, there is testimony not simply to those books, but to the public opinion which has preserved them. The history of popular estimates of literature is itself most interesting. On the other hand, some writers have been amusingly overestimated.

No doubt Edward Fitzgerald, who gave us the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" did some other desirable work; but Professor Moulton quotes this paragraph from a popular life of Fitzgerald, published in Dublin: "Not Greece of old in her palmiest days--the Greece of Homer and Demosthenes, of Eschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, of Pericles, Leonidas, and Alcibiades, of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, of Solon and Lycurgus, of Apelles and Praxiteles--not even this Greece, prolific as she was in sages and heroes, can boast such a lengthy bead-roll as Ireland can of names immortal in history!"

But "this was for Irish consumption." And popular opinion and even critical opinion has sometimes gone far astray in its destructive tendency. There were authoritative critics who declared that Wordsworth, Shelley, and Coleridge wrote "unintelligible nonsense." George Meredith's style, especially in his poetry, was counted so bad that it--was not worth reading.

We are all near enough the Browning epoch to recall how the obscurity of his style impressed some and oppressed others. Alfred Austin, in 1869, said that "Mr. Tennyson has no sound pretensions to be called a great poet."

Contemporary public opinion is seldom a final gauge of strength for a piece of literature. It takes the test of time. How many books we have seen come on the stage and then pass off again! Yet the books that have stayed on the stage have been kept there by public opinion expressing itself in the long run. The social influence of the King James version, creating a public taste for certain types of literature, tended to produce them at once.

English literature in these three hundred years has found in the Bible three influential elements: style, language, and material.

First, the style of the King James version has influenced English literature markedly. Professor Gardiner opens one of his essays with the dictum that "in all study of English literature, if there be any one axiom which may be accepted without question, it is that the ultimate standard of English prose style is set by the King James version of the Bible."[1] You almost measure the strength of writing by its agreement with the predominant traits of this version.

Carlyle's weakest works are those that lose the honest simplicity of its style in a forced turgidity and affected roughness. His Heroes and Hero Worship or his French Revolution shows his distinctive style, and yet shows the influence of this simpler style, while his Frederick the Great is almost impossible because he has given full play to his broken and disconnected sentences. On the other hand, Macaulay fails us most in his striving for effect, making nice balance of sentences, straining his "either-or,"

or his "while-one-was-doing-this-the-other-was- doing-that." Then his sentences grow involved, and his paragraphs lengthen, and he swings away from the style of the King James version.

"One can say that if any writing departs very far from the characteristics of the English Bible it is not good English writing."

[1] Atlantic Monthly, May, 1900, p. 684.

The second element which English literature finds in the Bible is its LANGUAGE. The words of the Bible are the familiar ones of the English tongue, and have been kept familiar by the use of the Bible. The result is that "the path of literature lies parallel to that of religion. They are old and dear companions, brethren indeed of one blood; not always agreeing, to be sure; squabbling rather in true brotherly fashion now and then; occasionally falling out very seriously and bitterly; but still interdependent and necessary to each other."[1] Years ago a writer remarked that every student of English literature, or of English speech, finds three works or subjects referred to, or quoted from, more frequently than others. These are the Bible, tales of Greek and Roman mythology, and Aesop's Fables. Of these three, certainly the Bible furnishes the largest number of references. There is reason for that. A writer wants an audience. Very few men can claim to be independent of the public for which they write. There is nothing the public will be more apt to understand and appreciate quickly than a passing reference to the English Bible. So it comes about that when Dickens is describing the injustice of the Murdstones to little David Copperfield, he can put the whole matter before us in a parenthesis: "Though there was One once who set a child in the midst of the disciples." Dickens knew that his readers would at once catch the meaning of that reference, and would feel the contrast between the scene he was describing and that simple scene. Take any of the great books of literature and black out the phrases which manifestly come directly from the English Bible, and you would mark them beyond recovery.

[1] Chapman, English Literature in Account with Religion.

But English literature has found more of its material in the Bible than anything else. It has looked there for its characters, its illustrations, its subject-matter. We shall see, as we consider individual writers, how many of their titles and complete works are suggested by the Bible.

It is interesting to see how one idea of the Scripture will appear and reappear among many writers. Take one illustration. The Faust story is an effort to make concrete one verse of Scripture: "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

Professor Moulton reminds us that the Faust legend appeared first in the Middle Ages. In early English, Marlowe has it, Calderon put it into Spanish, the most familiar form of it is Goethe's, while Philip Bailey has called his account of it Festus. In each of those forms the same idea occurs. A man sells his soul to the devil for the gaining of what is to him the world. That is one of a good many ideas which the Bible has given to literature. The prodigal son has been another prolific source of literary writing. The guiding star is another. Others will readily come to mind.

With that simple background let our minds move down the course of literary history. Style, language, material--we will easily think how much of each the Bible has given to all our great writers if their names are only mentioned. There are four groups of these writers.

1. The Jacobean, who wrote when and just after our version was made.

2. The Georgian, who graced the reigns of the kings whose name the period bears.

3. The Victorian.

4. The American.

There is an attractive fifth group comprising our present-day workers in the realm of pure literature, but we must omit them and give our attention to names that are starred.

It is familiar that in the time of Elizabeth, "England became a nest of singing birds." In the fifty years after the first English theater was erected, the middle of Elizabeth's reign, fifty dramatic poets appeared, many of the first order. Some were distinctly irreligious, as were many of the people whose lives they touched.

Such men as Ford, Marlowe, Massinger, Webster, Beaumont, and Fletcher stand like a chorus around Shakespeare and Ben Jonson as leaders.

As Taine puts it: "They sing the same piece together, and at times the chorus is equal to the solo; but only at times."[1] Cultured people to-day know the names of most of these writers, but not much else, and it does not heavily serve our argument to say that they felt the Puritan influence; but they all did feel it either directly or by reaction.

[1] History of English Literature, chap. iii.

Edmund Spenser and his friend, Sir Philip Sidney, had closed their work before the King James version appeared, yet the Faerie Queene in its religious theory is Puritan to the core, and Sidney is best remembered by his paraphrases of Scripture. The influence of both was even greater in the Jacobean than in their own period.

It is hardly fair even to note the Elizabethan Shakespeare as under the influence of the King James version. The Bible influenced him markedly, but it was the Genevan version prepared during the exile of the scholars under Bloody Mary, or the Bishops' Bible prepared under Elizabeth. Those versions were familiar as household facts to him. "No writer has assimilated the thoughts and reproduced the words of Holy Scripture more copiously than Shakespeare." Dr. Furnivall says that "he is saturated with the Bible story," and a century ago Capel Lloft said quaintly that Shakespeare "had deeply imbibed the Scriptures." But the King James version appeared only five years before his death, and it is in some sense fairer to say that Shakespeare and the King James version are formed by the same influence as to their English style. The Bishop of St.

Andrews even devotes the first part of his book on Shakespeare and the Bible to a study of parallels between the two in peculiar forms of speech, and thinks it "probable that our translators of 1611 owed as much to Shakespeare as, or rather far more than, he owed to them."[1]

It is generally agreed that only two of his works were written after our version appeared. Several other writers have devoted separate volumes to noting the frequent use by Shakespeare of Biblical phrases and allusions and characters taken from early versions. It is a very tempting field, and we pass it by only because it is hardly in the range of the study we are now making.

[1] Wordsworth, Shakespeare's Knowledge and Use of the Bible, p.


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