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Study of the King James Bible Part 9

Not only was Ruskin well trained in the Bible, but he was a great teacher of it. In his preface to the Crown of Wild Olives he answers his critics by saying he has used the Book for some forty years. "My endeavor has been uniformly to make men read it more deeply than they do; trust it, not in their own favorite verses only, but in the sum of it all; treat it not as a fetish or a talisman which they are to be saved by daily repetition of, but as a Captain's order, to be held and obeyed at their peril." In the introduction to the Seven Lamps of Architecture he urges that we are in no danger of too much use of the Bible.

"We use it most reverently when most habitually."

Many of Ruskin's most striking titles come straight out of the Scripture. Crown of Wild Olives, Seven Lamps, Unto this Last--all these are suggested by the Bible.

It is almost superfluous to speak of Robert Louis Stevenson. John Kelman has written a whole book on the religion of Stevenson, and it is available for all readers. He was raised by Cummy, his nurse, whose library was chiefly the Bible, the shorter catechism, and the Life of Robert Murray McCheyne. He said that the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah was his special chapter, because it so repudiated cant and demanded a self-denying beneficence. He loved Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; but "the Bible most stood him in hand." Every great story or essay shows its influence. He was not critical with it; he did not understand it; he did not interpret it fairly; but he felt it. His Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is only his way of putting into modern speech Paul's old distinction between the two men who abide in each of us. They told him he ought not to work in Samoa, and he replied that he could not otherwise be true to the great Book by which he and all men who meant to do great work must live. Over the shoulder of our beloved Robert Louis Stevenson you can see the great characters of Scripture pressing him forward to his best work.

Not so much can be said of Swinburne. There was a strong infusion of acid in his nature, which no influence entirely destroyed. He is apt to live as a literary critic and essayist, though he supposed himself chiefly a poet. His own thought of poetry can be seen in his protest in behalf of Meredith. When he had been accused of writing on a subject on which he had no conviction to express ("Modern Love"), Swinburne denied that poets ought to preach anyway.

"There are pulpits enough for all preachers of prose, and the business of verse writing is hardly to express convictions." Yet it is impossible to forget Milton and his purpose to "assert Eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men." Naturally, most poets do preach and preach well. Wordsworth declared be wanted to be considered a teacher or nothing.

Mrs. Browning thought that poets were the only truth-tellers left to God. But Swinburne could not help a little preaching at any rate. His "Masque on Queen Bersaba" is an old miracle play of David and Nathan. His "Christmas Antiphones" are hardly Christian, though they are abundant in their allusions to Scripture.

The first is a prayer for peace and rest in the coming of the new day of the birth of Christ.

The second is a protest that neither God nor man has befriended man as he should, and the third is an assurance that men will do for man even if God will not. Now, that is not Christian, but the Bible phrases are all through it.

So when he writes his poem bemoaning Poland, he needs must head it "Rizpah." At the same time it must be said that Swinburne shows less of the influence of the Bible in his style and in his spirit than any other of our great English writers.

We come back again into the atmosphere of strong Bible influence when we name Alfred Tennyson. When Byron died, and the word came to his father's rectory at Somersby, young Alfred Tennyson felt that the sun had fallen from the heavens. He went out alone in the fields and carved in the sandstone, as though it were a monument: "Byron is dead." That was in the early stage of his poetical life. At first Carlyle could not abide Tennyson. He counted him only an echo of the past, with no sense for the future; but when he read Tennyson's "The Revenge," he exclaimed, "Eh, he's got the grip o' it"; and when Richard Monckton Milnes excused himself for not getting Tennyson a pension by saying his constituents had no use for poetry anyway, Carlyle said, "Richard Milnes, in the day of judgment when you are asked why you did not get that pension, you may lay the blame on your constituents, but it will be you who will be damned!" Dr. Henry van Dyke studied Tennyson to best effect at just this point. In his chapter on "The Bible in Tennyson" are many such sayings as these: "It is safe to say that there is no other book which has had so great an influence upon the literature of the world as the Bible. We hear the echoes of its speech everywhere, and the music of its familiar phrases haunts all the field and grove of our fine literature. At least one cause of his popularity is that there is so much Bible in Tennyson. We cannot help seeing that the poet owes a large debt to the Christian Scriptures, not only for their formative influence on his mind and for the purely literary material in the way of illustrations and allusions which they have given him, but also for the creation of a moral atmosphere, a medium of thought and feeling in which he can speak freely and with an assurance of sympathy to a very wide circle of readers."

I need not stop to indicate the great poems in which Tennyson has so often used Scripture.

The mind runs quickly to the little maid in "Guinevere," whose song, "Late, Late, so Late,"

is only a paraphrase of the parable of the foolish virgins. "In Memoriam" came into the skeptical era of England, with its new challenge to faith, and stopped the drift of young men toward materialism. Recall the fine use he makes, in the heart of it, of the resurrection of Lazarus, and other Biblical scenes. Dr. van Dyke's "four hundred direct references to the Bible" do not exhaust the poems. No one can get Tennyson's style without the English Bible, and no one can read Tennyson intelligently without a fairly accurate knowledge of the Bible.

In this Victorian group the last name is Thackeray's. He is another whose mother trained him in the English Bible. The title of Vanity Fair is from Pilgrim's Progress, but the motto is from the Scripture; and he wrote his mother regarding the book: "What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world (only that is a cant phrase.)" It is certain his mother did not count it a cant phrase, for he learned it from the Scripture. The subtitle of his Adventures of Philip says he is to show who robbed him, who helped him, and who passed him by. Thackeray got those expressions from the Bible. Somewhere very early in any of his works he reveals the influence of his childhood and manhood knowledge of the English Bible.

All this about the Victorian group is meant to be very familiar to any who are fresh from the reading of literature. They are great names, and they have differences as wide as the poles; but they have this in common, that they have drunk lightly or deeply from the same fountain; they have drawn from it ideas, allusions, literary style. Each of them has weakened as he has gotten farther from it, and loyalty to it has strengthened any one of them.

Turn now to the American group of writers.

If we except theological writers with Jonathan Edwards, Horace Bushnell, Henry Ward Beecher, and their like, and political writers with Jefferson, Webster, and their like, the list need not be a long one. Only one writer in our narrower sense of literature must be named in the earlier day--Benjamin Franklin. In the period before the Civil War must be named Edgar Allan Poe (died 1849) and Washington Irving (died 1859).

The Civil War group is the large one, and its names are those of the later group as well. Let them be alphabetical, for convenience: William Cullen Bryant, poet and critic; George William Curtis, essayist and editor; Emerson, our noblest name in the sphere of pure essay literature; Hawthorne, the novelist of conscience, as Socrates was its philosopher; Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose "two chief hatreds were orthodoxy in religion and heterodoxy in medicine"; James Russell Lowell, essayist and poet, apt to live by his essays rather than by his poetry; Longfellow, whose "Psalm of Life" and "Hiawatha"

have lived through as much parody and ridicule as any two bits of literature extant, and have lived because they are predestined to live; Thoreau, whose Walden may show, as Lowell said, how much can be done on little capital, but which has the real literary tang to it; and Whittier, whose poetry is sung the world around.

That makes only twelve names from Franklin to Whittier. Others could be included; but they are not so great as these. No one of these could be taken out of our literature without affecting it and, in some degree at least, changing the current of it. This is not to forget Bret Harte nor Samuel L. Clemens. But each is dependent for his survival on a taste for a certain kind of humor, not delicate like Irving's and Holmes's, but strong and sudden and a bit sharp. If we should forget the "Luck of Roaring Camp," "Truthful James," and the "Heathen Chinee," we would also forget Bret Harte. We are not apt to forget Tom Sawyer, nor perhaps The Innocents Abroad, but we are forgetting much else of Mark Twain. Whitman is not named.

His claims are familiar, but in spite of his admirers he seems so charged with a sensuous egotism that he is not apt to be a formative influence in literary history. It is still interesting, however, to remember how frequently he reveals his reading of Scripture.

Fortunately, all these writers are so near, and their work is so familiar, that details regarding them are not needed. Two or three general words can be said. In the first place, observe the high moral tone of all these first-grade writers, and, indeed, of the others who may be spoken of as in second rank. There is not a meretricious or humiliating book in the whole collection. There is not one book which has lived in American literature which has the tone of Fielding's Tom Jones. Whether it is that the Puritan strain continues in us or not, it is true that the American literary public has not taken happily to stories that would bring a blush in public reading. Professor Richardson, of Dartmouth, gives some clue to the reason of that.

He says that "since 1870 or 1880 in America there has been a marked increase of strength of theistic and spiritual belief and argument among scientific men, students of philosophy, religious 'radicals,' and others." He adds that while much contemporary American literature and thought is outside the accepted orthodox lines, yet "it is not hostile to Christianity; to the principles of its Founder it is for the most part sincerely attached. On the other hand, materialism has scarcely any hold upon it."

Then follows a very notable sentence which is sustained by the facts: "Not an American book of the first class has ever been written by an atheist or denier of immortality." That sentence need not offend an admirer of Walt Whitman, for he "accepts both theism and the doctrine of the future life." American thought has remained loyal to the great Trinity, God, Freedom, and Immortality. So it comes about that while there are a number of these writers who could be put under the ban of the strongly orthodox in religion, every one of them shows the effect of early training in religion and in the Scripture.[1]

[1] This is fully worked out in Professor Richardson's American Literature, with ample illustration and argument.

Another thing to be said is that America has a unique history among great nations in that it has never been affected by any great religious influence except that which has issued from the Scriptures. No religion has ever been influential in America except Christianity. For many years there have been sporadic and spasmodic efforts to extend the influence of Buddhism or other Indian cults. They have never been successful, because the American spirit is practical, and not meditative. We are not an introspective people. We do not look within ourselves for our religion. Whatever moral and religious influence our literature shows gets back first or last to our Scriptures. The point of view of nature that is taken by our writers like Bryant and Thoreau is that of the Nineteenth Psalm.

Moreover, we have been strongly under the English influence. Irving insisted that we ought to be, that we were a young nation, that we ought frankly to follow the leadership of more experienced writers. Longfellow thought we had gone too far that way, and that our poets, at least, ought to be more independent, ought to write in the spirit of America and not of traditional poetry. Whether we ought to have yielded to it or not, it is true that English influence has told very strongly upon us, and the writers who have influenced our writers most have been those whom we have named as being themselves under the Bible influence.

We need not go into detail about these writers, though they are most attractive. Bryant did for us what Wordsworth did for England. He made nature seem vocal. "Thanatopsis" is not a Christian poem in the narrow sense of the word, and yet it could hardly have been written except under Christian influence. His own genial, beautiful character was itself a tribute to Christian civilization, and his life, as critic and essayist, has left an impression which we shall not soon lose. Professor Richardson thinks that the three problematical characters in American literature are Emerson, Hawthorne, and Poe. The shrewdest estimate of Poe that has ever been given us is in Lowell's Fable for Critics:

"There comes Poe with his raven like Barnaby Rudge, Three-fifths of him genius, and two-fifths sheer fudge, Who has written some things quite the best of their kind, But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind."

That says it exactly. Poe knew many horrible situations, but he did not know the way out; and of all our American writers laying claim to place in the first class Poe shows least influence of the Bible, and apparently needs it most.

Irving was the first American writer who stood high enough to be seen across the water.

Thackeray's most beautiful essay is on Irving and Macaulay, who died just one month apart. In it he describes Irving as the best intermediary between the nations, telling us Americans that the English are still human, and assuring the English that Americans are already human.

Irving was trained early and thoroughly in the Bible. All his life he was an old-fashioned Episcopalian with no concern for new religious ideas and with no rough edges anywhere.

Charles Dudley Warner, speaking of Irving's moral quality, says: "I cannot bring myself to exclude it from a literary estimate, even in the face of the current gospel of art for art's sake."[1]

Like Scott, he "recognized the abiding value in literature of integrity, sincerity, purity, charity, faith. These are beneficences, and Irving's literature, walk around it and measure it by whatever critical instruments you will, is a beneficent literature."

[1] American Men of Letters Series, Washington Irving, p. 302.

Then there is Emerson, a son of the manse and once a minister himself. He was, therefore, perfectly familiar with the English Bible. He did not accept it in all its religious teaching.

Indeed, we have never had a more marked individualist in our American public life than Emerson. At every point he was simply himself.

There is very little quotation in his writing, very little visible influence of any one else.

He was not a follower of Carlyle, though he was his friend. If there is any precedent for the construction of his sentences, and even of his essays, it is to be found in the Hebrew prophets.

As some one puts it, "he uttered sayings." In many of his essays there is no particular reason why the paragraphs should run one, two, three, and not three, two, one, or two, one, three, or in any other order. But Mr. Emerson was just himself. It is yet true that "his value for the world at large lies in the fact that after all he is incurably religious." It is true that he could not see any importance in forms, or in ordinary declarations of faith. "He would fight no battle for prelacy, nor for the Westminster confession, nor for the Trinity, but as against atheism, pessimism, and materialism, he was an ally of Christianity." The influence of the Bible on Emerson is more marked in his spirit than in anything else. Once in a while, as in that familiar address at Concord (1873), you run across Scripture phrases: "Shall not they who receive the largest streams spread abroad the healing waters?" That figure appears in literature only in the Bible, and there are others like it in his writings.

As for Longfellow, he is shot through with Scripture. No man who did not know Scripture in more than a passing way could have written such a sentence as this: "There are times when the grasshopper is a burden, and thirsty with the heat of labor the spirit longs for the waters of Shiloah, that go softly." There are two strikingly beautiful expressions from Scripture. Take another familiar saying in the same essay when he says the prospect for poetry is brightening, since but a short time ago not a poet "moved the wing or opened the mouth or peeped." He did not run across that in general current writing.

He got that directly from the Bible. In his poems is an amazing amount of reference to the Bible. One would expect much in the "Courtship of Miles Standish," for that is a story of the Puritans, and they spoke, naturally, in terms of the Bible; yet, of course, they could not do it in Longfellow's poem, if Longfellow did not know the language of the Bible very well.

One might not expect to find it so much in "Evangeline," but it is there from beginning to end. In "Acadia," the cock crowed

"With the self-same Voice that in ages of old had startled the penitent Peter."

And, "Wild with the winds of September, Wrestled the trees of the forest, as Jacob of old with the angel."

Evangeline saw the moon pass

Forth from the folds of the cloud, and one star followed her footsteps, As out of Abraham's tent young Ishmael Wandered with Hagar."

There is a great deal of that sort of thing in his writing. He has done for many what he did for Lowell one day. Discouraged in settling the form of a new edition of his own poems, Lowell took up a volume of Longfellow just to see the type, and presently found that he had been reading two hours. He wrote Longfellow he could understand his popularity, saying: "You sang me out of all my worries." That is a great thing to do, and Longfellow learned from the Scripture how to do that in the "Psalm of Life" and all his other poems.

We need only a word about Lowell himself.

He was the son of a minister, and so knew the Bible from his infancy. He belonged to the Brahman caste himself, but a good deal of the ruggedness of the Old Testament got into his writing. It is in "The Vision of Sir Launfal."

It is in his plea for international copyright where the familiar lines occur:

"In vain we call old notions fudge, And bend our conscience to our dealing, The Ten Commandments will not budge, And stealing will continue stealing."

There is hint of it in his quizzical lines about himself in the Fable for Critics. He says that he is in danger of rattling away

"Until he is as old as Methusalem, At the head of the march to the last New Jerusalem."

Whittier needs no words of ours. His hymns are part of our religious equipment. "Snowbound"

and all the rest of the beautiful, quiet, Quaker-like writing of this beloved poet are among our national assets. We join in his sorrow as he writes the doom of Webster and his fame, and we do not wonder that he chose for it the Scriptural title "Ichabod."

Whatever is to be said about an individual here or there, it is true that great American literature shows the influence of the Bible. Like everything else in America, it has been founded on a religious purpose. Writers in all lines have been trained in the Bible. If they feel any religious influence at all, it is the Bible influence.

This has been a long journey from Shakespeare to Whittier, and it leaves untouched the great field of present-day writers. Let the unstarred names wait their time. Among them are many who can say in their way what Hall Caine has said of himself: "I think I know my Bible as few literary men know it. There is no book in the world like it, and the finest novels ever written fall far short in interest of any one of the stories it tells. Whatever strong situations I have in my books are not of my creation, but are taken from the Bible. The Deemster is a story of the Prodigal Son. The Bondman is the story of Esau and Jacob. The Scapegoat is the story of Eli and his sons, but with Samuel as a little girl; and The Manxman is the story of David and Uriah." Take up any of the novels of the day, even the poorer ones, but notably the better ones, and see how uniformly they show the Scriptural influence in material, in idea, and in spirit. What the literature of the future will be no one can say. This much is as sure as any fact in literary history, that the English Bible is part of the very fiber of great literature from the day it first appeared in our tongue to this hour.

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