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Study of the King James Bible Part 7

When, however, we come to John Milton (1608-1674), we remember he was only three years old when our version was issued; that when at fifteen, an undergraduate in Cambridge, he made his first paraphrases, casting two of the Psalms into meter, the version he used was this familiar one. A biographer says he began the day always with the reading of Scripture and kept his memory deeply charged with its phrases.

In later life the morning chapter was generally from the Hebrew, and was followed by an hour of silence for meditation, an exercise whose influence no man's style could escape. As a writer he moved steadily toward the Scripture and the religious teaching which it brought his age. His earlier writing is a group of poems largely secular, which yet show in phrases and expressions much of the influence of his boyhood study of the Bible, as well as the familiar use of mythology. The memorial poem "Lycidas,"

for example, contains the much-quoted reference to Peter and his two keys--

"Last came and last did go The pilot of the Galilean lake; Two massy keys he bore of metals twain, (The golden opes, the iron shuts amain)."

But after these poems came the period of his prose, the work which he supposed was the abiding work of his life. George William Curtis told a friend that our civil war changed his own literary style: "That roused me to see that I had no right to spend my life in literary leisure.

I felt that I must throw myself into the struggle for freedom and the Union. I began to lecture and to write. The style took care of itself.

But I fancy it is more solid than it was thirty years ago." That is what happened to Milton when the protectorate came.[1] It made his style more solid. He did not mean to live as a poet.

He felt that his best energies were being put into his essays in defense of liberty, on the freedom of the press and on the justice of the beheading of Charles, in which service he sacrificed his sight. All of it is shot through with Scripture quotations and arguments, and some of it, at least, is in the very spirit of Scripture. The plea for larger freedom of divorce issued plainly from his own bitter experience; but his main argument roots in a few Bible texts taken out of their connection and urged with no shadow of question of their authority. Indeed, when he comes to his more religious essays, his heavy argument is that there should be no religion permitted in England which is not drawn directly from the Bible; which, therefore, he urges must be common property for all the people.

There is a curious bit of evidence that the men of his own time did not realize his power as a poet. In Pierre Bayle's critical survey of the literature of the time, he calls Milton "the famous apologist for the execution of Charles I.," who "meddled in poetry and several of whose poems saw the light during his life or after his death!" For all that, Milton was only working on toward his real power, and his power was to be shown in his service to religion. His three great poems, in the order of their value, are, of course, "Paradise Lost," "Samson Agonistes,"

and "Paradise Regained." Whoever knows anything of Milton knows these three and knows they are Scriptural from first to last in phrase, in allusion, and, in part at least, in idea. There is not time for extended illustration. One instance may stand for all, which shall illustrate how Milton's mind was like a garden where the seeds of Scripture came to flower and fruit. He will take one phrase from the Bible and let it grow to a page in "Paradise Lost." Here is an illustration which comes readily to hand. In the Genesis it is said that "the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters." The verb suggests the idea of brooding. There is only one other possible reference (Psalm xxiv: 9.) which is included in this statement which Milton makes out of that brief word in the Genesis:

"On the watery calm His broadening wings the Spirit of God outspread, And vital virtue infused, and vital warmth Throughout the fluid mass, but downward purged The black tartareous cold infernal dregs, Adverse to life; then formed, then con-globed, Like things to like; the rest to several place Disparted, and between spun out the air-- And earth self-balanced on her center swung."

[1] Strong, The Theology of the Poets.

Any one familiar with Milton will recognize that as a typical instance of the way in which a seed idea from the Scripture comes to flower and fruit in him. The result is that more people have their ideas about heaven and hell from Milton than from the Bible, though they do not know it.

It seems hardly fair to use John Bunyan (1628-1688) as an illustration of the influence of the English Bible on literature, because his chief work is composed so largely in the language of Scripture. Pilgrim's Progress is the most widely read book in the English language after the Bible. Its phrases, its names, its matter are either directly or indirectly taken from the Bible. It has given us a long list of phrases which are part of our literary and religious capital. Thackeray took the motto of one of his best-known books from the Bible; but the title, Vanity Fair, comes from Pilgrim's Progress.

When a discouraged man says he is "in the slough of despond," he quotes Bunyan; and when a popular evangelist tells the people that the burden of sin will roll away if they look at the cross, "according to the Bible," he ought to say according to Bunyan. But all this was only the outcome of the familiarity of Bunyan with the Scripture. It was almost all he did know in a literary way. Macaulay says that "he knew no language but the English as it was spoken by the common people; he had studied no great model of composition, with the exception of our noble translation of the Bible.

But of that his knowledge was such that he might have been called a living concordance."[1]

[1] History of England, vol. III., p. 220.

After these three--Shakespeare, Milton, and Bunyan--there appeared another three, very much their inferiors and having much less influence on literary history. I mean Dryden, Addison, and Pope. It is not necessary to credit the Scripture with much of Dryden's spirit, nor with much of his style, and certainly not with his attitude toward his fellows; but it is a constant surprise in reading Dryden to discover how familiar he was with the King James version.

Walter Scott insists that Dryden was at heart serious, that "his indelicacy was like the forced impudence of a bashful man." That is generous judgment. But there is this to be said: as he grows more serious he falls more into Bible words. If he writes a political pamphlet he calls it "Absalom and Ahithophel."

In it he holds the men of the day up to scorn under Bible names. They are Zimri and Shimei, and the like. When he is falling into bitterest satire, his writing abounds in these Biblical allusions which could be made only by one who was very familiar with the Book. Quotations cannot be abundant, of course, but there is a great deal of this sort of thing:

"Sinking, he left his drugget robe behind, Borne upward by a subterranean wind, The mantle fell to the young prophet's part, With double portion of his father's art."

In his Epistles there is much of the same sort.

When he writes to Congreve he speaks of the fathers, and says:

"Their's was the giant race before the flood."

Farther on he says:

"Our builders were with want of genius curst, The second temple was not like the first."

Now Dryden may have been, as Macaulay said, an "illustrious renegade," but all his writing shows the influence of the language and the ideas of the King James version. Whenever we sing the "Veni Creator" we sing John Dryden.

So we sing Addison in the paraphrase of Scripture, which Haydn's music has made familiar:

"The spacious firmament on high, With all the blue ethereal sky."

While Dryden yielded to his times, Addison did not, and the Spectator became not only a literary but a moral power. In the effort to make it so he was thrown back on the largest moral influence of the day, the Bible, and throughout the Spectator and through all of Addison's writing you find on all proper occasions the Bible pressed to the front. Here again Taine puts it strikingly: "It is no small thing to make morality fashionable; Addison did it, and it remains fashionable."

If we speak of singing, we may remember that we sing the hymn of even poor little dwarfed invalid Alexander Pope. He was born the year Bunyan died, born at cross-purposes with the world. He could write a bitter satire, like the "Dunciad"; he could give the world The Iliad and The Odyssey in such English that we know them far better than in the Greek of Homer; but in those rare moments when he was at his better self he would write his greater poem, "The Messiah", in which the movement of Scripture is outlined as it could be only by one who knew the English Bible. And when we sing--

"Rise, crowned with light, imperial Salem, rise"--

it is worth while to realize that the voice that first sung it was that of the irritable little poet who found some of his scant comfort in the grand words and phrases and ideas of our English Bible.

With these six--Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Dryden, Addison, and Pope--the course of the Jacobean literature is sufficiently measured.

There are many lesser names, but these are the ones which made it an epoch in literature, and these are at their best under the power of the Bible.

In the Georgian group we need to call only five great names which have had creative influence in literature. Ordinary culture in literature will include some acquaintance with each of them. In the order of their death they are Shelley (1829.), Byron (1824), Coleridge (1831), Walter Scott (1832), and Wordsworth (1850).

The last long outlived the others; but he belongs with them, because he was born earlier than any other in the group and did his chief work in their time and before the later group appeared. Except Wordsworth, all these were gone before Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. Three other names could be called: Keats, Robert Burns, and Charles Lamb. All would illustrate what we are studying. Keats least of all and Burns most. They are omitted here not because they did not feel the influence of the English Bible, not because they do not constantly show its influence, but because they are not so creative as the others; they have not so influenced the current of literature. At any rate, the five named will represent worthily and with sufficient completeness the Georgian period of English literature.

Nothing could reveal more clearly than this list how we are distinguishing the Bible as literature from the Bible as an authoritative book in morals. One would much dislike to credit the Bible with any part of the personal life of Shelley or Byron. They were friends; they, were geniuses; but they were both badly afflicted with common moral leprosy. It is playing with morals to excuse either of them because he was a genius. Nothing in the genius of either demanded or was served by the course of cheap immorality which both practised. It was not because Shelley was a genius that he married Harriet Westbrook, then ran away with Mary Godwin, then tried to get the two to become friends and neighbors until his own wife committed suicide; it was not his genius that made him yield to the influence of Emilia Viviani and write her the poem "Epipsychidion," telling her and the world that he "was never attached to that great sect who believed that each one should select out of the crowd a mistress or a friend" and let the rest go. That was not genius, that was just common passion; and our divorce courts are full of Shelleys of that type.

So Byron's personal immorality is not to be explained nor excused on the ground of his genius. It was not genius that led him so astray in England that his wife had to divorce him, and that public opinion drove him out of the land. It was not his genius that sent him to visit Shelley and his mistress at Lake Geneva and seduce their guest, so that she bore him a daughter, though she was never his wife. It was not genius that made him pick up still another companion out of several in Italy and live with her in immoral relation. In the name of common decency let no one stand up for Shelley and Byron in their personal characters! There are not two moral laws, one for geniuses and one for common people. Byron, at any rate, was never deceived about himself, never blamed his genius nor his conscience for his wrong. These are striking lines in "Childe Harold," in which he disclaims all right to sympathy, because,

"The thorns which I have reaped are of the tree I planted,--they have torn me and I bleed.

I should have known what fruit would spring from such a tree."

Shelley's wife would not say that for him.

"In all Shelley did," she says, "he at the time of doing it believed himself justified to his own conscience." Well, so much the worse for Shelley! Geniuses are not the only men who can find good reason for doing what they want to do. One of Shelley's critics suggests that the trouble was his introduction into personal conduct of the imagination which he ought to have saved for his writing. Perhaps we might explain Byron's misconduct by reminding ourselves of his club-foot, and applying one code of morals to men with club-feet and another to men with normal feet.

If we speak of the influence of the Bible on these men, it must be on their literary work; and when we find it there, it becomes peculiar mark of its power. They had little sense of it as moral law. Their consciences approved it and condemned themselves, or else their delicate literary taste sensed it as a book of power.

This is notably true of Shelley. When he was still a student in Oxford he committed himself to the opinion of another writer, that "the mind cannot believe in the existence of God." He tries to work that out fully in his notes on "Queen Mab." When he was hardly yet of age he himself wrote that "The genius of human happiness must tear every leaf from the accursed Book of God, ere man can read the inscription on its heart." He once said that his highest desire was that there should be a monument to himself somewhere in the Alps which should be only a great stone with its face smoothed and this short inscription cut in it, "Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist."

It would seem that whatever Shelley drew of strength or inspiration from the Bible would be by way of reaction; but it is not so. However he may have hated the "accursed Book of God,"

his wife tells in her note on "The Revolt of Islam"

that Shelley "debated whether he should devote himself to poetry or metaphysics," and, resolving on the former, he "educated himself for it, engaging himself in the study of the poets of Greece, England, and Italy. To these, may be added," she goes on, "a constant perusal of portions of the Old Testament, the Book of Psalms, Job, Isaiah, and others, the sublime poetry of which filled him with delight." Not only did he catch the spirit of that poetry, but its phrases haunted his memory. In his best prose work, which he called A Defense of Poetry, there is an interesting revelation of the influence of his Bible reading upon him. Toward the end of the essay these two sentences occur: "It is inconsistent with this division of our subject to cite living poets, but posterity has done ample justice to the great names now referred to. Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins are as scarlet, they are now white as snow; they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, Time." There is no more eloquent passage in the essay than the one of which this is part, and yet it is full of allusion to this Book from which all pages must be torn! Even in "Queen Mab" he makes Ahasuerus, the wandering Jew, recount the Bible story in such broad outlines as could be given only by a man who was familiar with it. When Shelley was in Italy and the word came to him of the massacre at Manchester, he wrote his "Masque of Anarchy."

There are few more melodious lines of his writing than those which occur in this long poem in the section regarding freedom. Four of those lines are often quoted. They are at the very heart of Shelley's best work. Addressing freedom, he says:

"Thou art love: the rich have kissed Thy feet, and, like him following Christ, Gave their substance to the free, And through the rough world follow thee."

Page after page of Shelley reveals these half- conscious references to the Bible. There were two sources from which he received his passionate democracy. One was the treatment he received at Eton, and later at Oxford; the other is his frequent reading of the English Bible, even though he was in the spirit of rebellion against much of its teaching. In Browning's essay on Shelley, he reaches the amazing conclusion that "had Shelley lived, he would finally have ranged himself with the Christians," and seeks to justify it by showing that he was moving straight toward the positions of Paul and of David. Some of us may not see such rapid approach, but that Shelley felt the drawing of God in the universe is plain enough.

The influence of the Bible is still more marked on Byron. He spent his childhood years at Aberdeen. There his nurse trained him in the Bible; and, though he did not live by it, he never lost his love for it, nor his knowledge of it. He tells of his own experience in this way: "I am a great reader of those books [the Bible], and had read them through and through before I was eight years old; that is to say, the Old Testament, for the New struck me as a task, but the other as a pleasure."[1] One of the earliest bits of his work is a paraphrase of one of the Psalms. His physical infirmity put him at odds with the world, while his striking beauty drew to him a crowd of admirers who helped to poison every spring of his genius. Even so, he held his love for the Bible. While Shelley often spoke of it in contempt, while he prided himself on his divergence from the path of its teaching, Byron never did. He wandered far, but he always knew it; and, though he could hardly find terms to express his contempt for the Church, there is no line of Byron's writing which is a slur at the Bible. On the other hand, much of his work reveals a passion for the beauty of it as well as its truth. His most melodious writing is in that group of Hebrew melodies which were written to be sung. They demand far more than a passing knowledge of the Bible both for their writing and their understanding. There is a long list of them, but no one without a knowledge of the Bible would have known what he meant by his poem, "The Harp the Monarch Minstrel Swept." "Jephtha's Daughter" presumes upon a knowledge of the Old Testament story which would not come to one in a passing study of the Bible. "The Song of Saul Before his Last Battle" and the poem headed "Saul"

could not have been written, nor can they be read intelligently by any one who does not know his Bible. Among Byron's dramas, two of which he thought most, were, "Heaven and Earth"

and "Cain." When he was accused of perverting the Scripture in "Cain," he replied that he had only taken the Scripture at its face value.

Both of the dramas are not only built directly out of Scriptural events, but imply a far wider knowledge of Scripture than their mere titles suggest.

[1] Taine, English Literature, II., 279.

There are striking references in many other poems, even in his almost vile poem, "Don Juan." The most notable instance is in the fifteenth canto, where he is speaking of persecuted sages and these lines occur:

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