Literature's debt to the language and intent of the Bible
EVERY reader of the AV, the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, realizes the superb quality of its utterances - and one is more, rather than less, impressed with the beauty of its language as one turns back to it from more recent translations. This beauty has seeped into English and American life and literature to an extent unmeasured and, probably, immeasurable. ``The greatest of all translations is the English Bible,'' says George Sampson speaking of the AV in the ``Concise Cambridge History of English Literature.'' ``It is more than that: It is the greatest of English books, the first of English classics, the source of the greatest influence upon English character and speech.... Its themes are those of perpetual concern in great literature: God, Man and the universe.''
The Bible is still - and has been since 1611 - the most widely read communication the world has ever known. Its influence has reached not only into literature but into law, government (would that it had been stronger!), art, music, modern science (its basic concepts date from the Reformation, of which the Bible was a major manifestation) - indeed, into the whole of our culture. The Reformers insisted on public schools so that people could learn to read the Scriptures themselves, so that they no longer had to depend on clerical interpreters, stained-glass windows, or other representations of scriptural stories and meanings.
The biblical impetus to literacy which began in Renaissance times continues. Language after language has been reduced to writing so that people could learn to read the Bible in their own tongue. Today at least one book of the Bible has been translated into 1,884 languages or dialects. Every year over 100 million copies of the Scriptures are circulated.
T.S. Eliot, in his essay ``Religion and Literature,'' says: ``The Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God.'' Further on he makes the point that the relationship between religion and fiction is behavior. ``Our religion imposes our ethics, our judgment and criticism of ourselves, and our behavior toward our fellowman.'' The literary writer is also endeavoring to affect his or her readers wholly, as human beings - whether this is the stated intention or not - ``and we are affected (by a work of imagination) as human beings, whether we intend to be or not.''
Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, George Herbert, and John Bunyan - to name only a few 17th-century writers - were all influenced by the Bible in a mighty way, both in content and expression. And think of how affective as well as effective has been the influence of just two of these writers, Shakespeare and Bunyan!
Did you know that Shakespeare either quotes or alludes to 42 books of the Bible (18 of the Old Testament, 18 of the New, and 6 of the Apocrypha)? His early history play ``King John'' refers to Joshua's making the sun stand still. Shakespeare makes five references to the Shunammite woman's reply to Elisha's inquiry concerning her son, ``It is well.''
John Milton's first successful poem was his Christmas ode ``On the Morning of Christ's Nativity'' (1629), in which the infant Jesus dispels the illusions known as pagan gods. The magnificent epic ``Paradise Lost'' is based upon Genesis 1 to 3, as well as upon the rest of the Bible. The short epic ``Paradise Regained,'' modeled after the Book of Job, is a poetic treatment of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. ``Samson Agonistes'' is a poetic drama of Samson's inner struggle to recover his capacity to carry out God's commission, despite his earlier failure.
BUNYAN'S ``Pilgrim's Progress'' has its main, virtually its only, source in the Bible; as a result, it has sent many readers to its source and has been called the second most influential book after the Bible. Christian's (the main character's) story is our story; Christian is Everyman. His struggles appeal to us because they symbolize our struggles, just as Milton's Adam and Eve remind us constantly of ourselves and our experiences. These literary works are as alive and meaningful today as they were when they were written, because they are based on the eternal truths about man and his relationship to his Maker.
John Donne's ``Holy Sonnets'' and George Herbert's beautiful religious poetry reflect just as directly this stupendous influence. Hear Herbert on ``Love'':
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne. But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd any thing.
A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he. I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on Thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my Go where it doth deserve. [shame And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the My deare, then I will serve. [blame? You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my So I did sit and eat. [meat:
John Dryden's great political satire ``Absalom and Achitophel,'' John Wesley's ``Journal,'' Samuel Johnson's ``Prayers and Meditations,'' William Cowper's ``Olney Hymns,'' all derive from the Bible. Robert Burns has the father in ``The Cotter's Saturday Night'' read the Bible to his family.
William Blake's lyrics ``The Lamb,'' ``The Divine Image,'' and many others were inspired by his much reading of the Scriptures. Lord Byron's ``Cain,'' Thomas Carlyle's prose style, and much of Tennyson's poetry owed their inspiration to the Bible (2,000 citations in Tennyson alone). Read Robert Browning's ``Saul'' for a longish poem impelled by the Hebrew record.
The list is endless - and we haven't even touched upon the American writers from colonial times (such as Anne Bradstreet and Cotton Mather) to the present, including Eugene O'Neill's ``Lazarus Laughed,'' Robert Frost's ``A Masque of Reason,'' and Archibald MacLeish's ``J.B.'' (the latter two based on Job).
The language of the Authorized Version deserves a concluding word, and it has been best said by John Livingston Lowes in his essay ``The Noblest Monument of English Prose'': ``The English of the Bible has a pithiness and raciness, a homely tang, a terse sententiousness, an idiomatic flavor which comes home to men's business and bosoms ... a singular nobility of diction and ... a rhythmic quality ... unrivaled in its beauty.''