|Bible Research > English Versions > McAfee > The Influence of the King James Version|
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.
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." 2 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."
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." 3 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.
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.
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." 4 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.
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." 5 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.
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. 6 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."
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." 7
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." 8 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.
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:
"Was it not so, great Locke? and greater Bacon?
Great Socrates? And Thou Diviner still,
Whose lot it is by men to be mistaken,
And Thy pure creed made sanction of all ill?
Redeeming worlds to be by bigots shaken,
How was Thy toil rewarded?"
In a note on this passage Byron says: "As it is necessary in these times to avoid ambiguity, I say that I mean by 'Diviner still' Christ. If ever God was man—or man God—He was both. I never arraigned His creed, but the use or abuse of it. Mr. Canning one day quoted Christianity to sanction slavery, and Mr. Wilberforce had little to say in reply. And was Christ crucified that black men might be scourged? If so, He had better been born a mulatto, to give both colors an equal chance of freedom, or at least salvation." Byron could live far from the influence of the Bible in his personal life; but he never escaped its influence in his literary work.
Of Coleridge less needs to be said, because we think of him so much in terms of his more meditative musings, which are often religious. He himself tells of long and careful rereadings of the English Bible until he could say: In the Bible "there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books together; the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being." Of course, that would influence his writing, and it did. Even in the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" much of the phraseology is Scriptural. When the albatross drew near,
"As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name."
When the mariner slept he gave praise to Mary, Queen of Heaven. He sought the shriving of the hermit-priest. He ends the story because he hears "the little vesper bell" which bids him to prayer. When you read his "Hymn Before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamounix" you find yourself reading the Nineteenth Psalm. He calls on the motionless torrents and the silent cataracts and the great Mont Blanc itself to praise God. Coleridge never had seen Chamounix, nor Mont Blanc, nor a glacier, but he knew his Bible. So he has his Christmas Carol along with all the rest. His poem of the Moors after the Civil War under Philip II. is Scriptural in its phraseology, and so is much else that he wrote. Frankly and willingly he yielded to its influence. In his "Table Talk" he often refers to the value of the Bible in the forming of literary style. Once he said: "Intense study of the Bible will keep any writer from being vulgar in point of style." 9
The very mention of Coleridge makes one think of Wordsworth. They had a Damon and Pythias friendship. The Wordsworths were poor; they had only seventy pounds a year, and they were not ashamed. Coleridge called them the happiest family he ever saw. Wordsworth was not narrowly a Christian poet, he was not always seeking to put Christian dogma into poetry, but throughout he was expressing the Christian spirit which he had learned from the Bible. His poetry was one long protest against banishing God from the universe. It was literally true of him that "the meanest flower that grows can give thoughts that too often lie too deep for tears." If this were the time to be critical, one would think that too much was sometimes made of very minute occurrences; but this tendency to get back of the event and see how God is moving is learned best from Scripture, where Wordsworth himself learned it. If you read his "Intimations of Immortality," or the "Ode to Duty," or "Tintern Abbay," or even the rather labored "Excursion," you find yourself under the Scriptural influence.
There remains in this Georgian group the great prose master, Walter Scott. Mr. Gladstone said he thought Scott the greatest of his countrymen. John Morley suggested John Knox instead. Mr. Gladstone replied: "No, the line must be drawn firmly between the writer and the man of action—no comparison there." 10 He went on to say that Burns is very fine and true, no doubt, "but to imagine a whole group of characters, to marshal them, to set them to work, and to sustain the action, I must count that the test of highest and most diversified quality." All who are fond of Scott will realize how constantly the scenes which he is describing group themselves around religious observances, how often men are held in check from deeds of violence by religious conception. Many of these scenes crystallize around a Scriptural event. Scott's boyhood was spent in scenes that reminded him of the power the Scripture had. He was drilled from his childhood in the knowledge of its words and phrases, and while his writing as a whole shows more of the Old Testament influence than of the New, even in his style he is strongly under Bible influence.
The preface to Guy Mannering tells us it is built around an old story of a father putting a lad to test under guidance of an ancient astrologer, shutting him up in a barren room to be tempted by the Evil One, leaving him only one safeguard, a Bible, lying on the table in the middle of the room. In his introduction to The Heart of Midlothian, Scott makes one of the two men thrown into the water by the overturned coach remind the other that they "cannot complain, like Cowley, that Gideon's fleece remains dry while all around is moist; this is the reverse of the miracle." A little later a speaker describes novels as the Delilahs that seduce wise and good men from more serious reading. In the dramatic scene when Jeanie Deans faces the wretched George Staunton, who has so shamed the household, she exclaims: "O sir, did the Scripture never come into your mind, 'Vengeance is mine, and I will repay it?' " "Scripture!" he sneers, "why I had not opened a Bible for five years." "Wae's me, sir," said Jeanie—"and a minister's son, too!" Anthony Foster, in Kenilworth, looks down on poor Amy's body in the vault into which she has fallen, in response to what she thought was Leicester's whistle, and exclaims to Varney: "Oh, if there be judgment in heaven, thou hast deserved it, and will meet it! Thou hast destroyed her by means of her best affections—it is the seething of the kid in the mother's milk!" And when, next morning, Varney was found dead of the secret poison and with a sneering sarcasm on his ghastly face, Scott dismisses him with the phrase: "The wicked man, saith the Scripture, hath no bonds in his death."
His characters use freely the familiar Bible events and phrases. In the Fortunes of Nigel, a story of the very period when our King James version was produced, Hildebrod declares that if he had his way Captain Peppercull should hang as high as Haman ever did. In Kenilworth, when Leicester gives Varney his signet-ring, he says, significantly: "What thou dost, do quickly." Of course, Isaac, the Jew in Ivanhoe, exclaims frequently in Old Testament terms. He wishes the wheels of the chariots of his enemies may be taken off, like those of the host of Pharoah, that they may drive heavily. He expects the Palmer's lance to be as powerful as the rod of Moses, and so on.
Scott was writing of the period when men stayed themselves with Scripture, and his men are all sure of God and Satan and angels and judgment and all eternal things. His son-in-law vouches for the old story that when Sir Walter was on his death-bed he asked Lockhart to read him something from the Book, and when Lockhart asked, "What book?" Scott replied: "Why do you ask? There is but one book, the Bible."
All this is scant justice to the Georgian group; but it may give a hint of what the Bible meant even at that period, the period when its grip on men was most lax in all the later English history.
It is in the Victorian age (1840-1900) that the field is most bewildering. It is true, as Frederick Harrison says, that "this Victorian age has no Shakespeare or Milton, no Bacon or Hume, no Fielding or Scott—no supreme master in poetry, philosophy, or romance whose work is incorporated with the thought of the world, who is destined to form an epoch, to endure for centuries." 11 The genius of the period is more scientific than literary, yet we would be helpless if we had not already eliminated from our discussion everything but the works and writers of pure literature. The output of books has been so tremendous that it would be impossible to analyze the influences which have made them. There are in this Victorian period at least twelve great English writers who must be known, whose work affects the current of English literature. Many other names would need mention in any full history or any minute study; but it is not harsh judgment to say that the main current of literature would be the same without them. A few of these lesser names will come to mind, and in the calling of them one realizes the influence, even on them, of the English Bible. Anthony Trollope wrote sixty volumes, the titles of most of which are now popularly unknown. He told George Eliot that it was not brains that explained his writing so much, but rather wax which he put in the seat of his chair, which held him down to his daily stint of work. He could boast, and it was worth the boasting, that he had never written a line which a pure woman could not read without a blush. His whole Framley Parsonage series abounds in Bible references and allusions. So Charlotte Bronte is in English literature, and Jane Eyre does prove what she was meant to prove, that a commonplace person can be made the heroine of a novel; but on all Charlotte Bronte's work is the mark of the rectory in which she grew up. So Thomas Grey has left his "Elegy" and his "Hymn to Adversity," and some other writing which most of us have forgotten or never knew. Then there are Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen. We may even remember that Macaulay thought Jane Austen could be compared with Shakespeare, as, of course, she can be, since any one can be; but neither of these good women has strongly affected the literary current. Many others could be named, but English literature would be substantially the same without them; and, though all might show Biblical influence, they would not illustrate what we are trying to discover. So we come, without apology to the unnamed, to the twelve, without whom English literature would be different. This is the list in the order of the alphabet: Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning (Mrs. Browning being grouped as one with him), Carlyle, Dickens, George Eliot, Charles Kingsley, Macaulay, Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Swinburne, Tennyson, and Thackeray.
It is dangerous to make such a list; but it can be defended. Literary history would not be the same without any one of them, unless possibly Swinburne, whose claim to place is rather by his work as critic than as creator. Nor is any name omitted whose introduction would change literary history.
Benjamin Jowett thought Arnold too flippant on religious things to be a real prophet. At any rate, this much is true, that the books in which Arnold dealt with the fundamentals of religion are his profoundest work. In his poetry the best piece of the whole is his "Rugby Chapel." His Religion and Dogma he himself calls an "essay toward a better apprehension of the Bible." All through he urges it as the one Book which needs recovery. "All that the churches can say about the importance of the Bible and its religion we concur in." The book throughout is an effort to justify his own faith in terms of the Bible. The effort is sometimes amusing, because it takes such a logical and verbal agility to go from one to the other; but he is always at it. He is afraid in his soul that England will swing away from the Bible. He fears it may come about through neglect of the Bible on one hand, or through wrong teaching about it on the other. Not in his ideas alone, but markedly in his style, Arnold has felt the Biblical influence. He came at a time when there was strong temptation to fall into cumbrous German ways of speech. Against that Arnold set a simple phraseology, and he held out the English Bible constantly as a model by which the men of England ought to learn to write. He never gained the simplicity of the old Hebrew sentence, and sometimes his secondary clauses follow one another so rapidly that a reader is confused; but his words as a whole are simple and direct.
There is no need of much word on the spell of the Bible over Robert Browning and Mrs. Browning. It is not often that two singing-birds mate; but these two sang in a key pitched for them by the Scripture as much as by any one influence. Many of their greatest poems have definite Biblical themes. In them and in others Biblical allusions are utterly bewildering to men who do not know the Bible well. For five years (1841-1846) Browning's poems appeared under the title Bells and Pomegranates. Scores of people wondered then, and wonder still, what "Pippa Passes" and "A Blot in the Scutcheon " and the others have to do with such a title. They have never thought, as Browning did, of the border of the beautiful robe of the high priest described in the Book of Exodus. The finest poem of its length in the English language is Browning's "Saul"; but it is only the story of David driving the evil spirit from Saul, sweeping on to the very coming of Christ. "The Death in the Desert" is the death of John, the beloved disciple. "Karshish, the Arab Physician" tells in his own way of the raising of Lazarus. The text of "Caliban upon Setebos" is, "Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself." The text of "Cleon" is, "As certain of your own poets have said." In "Fifine at the Fair" the Cure expounds the experience of Jacob and his stone-pillow with better insight than some better-known expositors show. In "Pippa Passes," when Bluphocks, the English vagabond, is introduced, Browning seems to justify his appearance by the single foot-note: "He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust"; and Mr. Bluphocks shows himself amusingly familiar with Bible facts and phrases. Mr. Sludge, "the Medium," thinks the Bible says the stars are "set for signs when we should shear sheep, sow corn, prune trees," and describes the skeptic in the magic circle of spiritual "investigators" as the "guest without the wedding-garb, the doubting Thomas." Some one has taken the trouble to count five hundred Biblical phrases or allusions in "The Ring and the Book." Mrs. Browning's "'Drama of Exile" is the woman's side of the fall of Adam and Eve. Ruskin thought her "Aurora Leigh" the greatest poem the century had produced at that time. It abounds in Scriptural allusions. Browning came by all this naturally. Raised in the Church by a father who "delighted to surround him with books, notably old and rare Bibles," and a mother Carlyle called "a true type of a Scottish gentlewoman," with all the skill in the Bible that that implies, he never lost his sense of the majesty of the movement of Scripture ideas and phrases.
We need spend little time in discussing the influence of the English Bible on Thomas Carlyle. He does not often use the Scripture for his main theme; but he is constantly making Biblical allusions. On a railway journey when I was rereading Carlyle's Historical Sketches, I found a direct Biblical reference for every five pages, and almost numberless allusions beside.
The "Everlasting Yea," of which he says much, he gets, as you at once recognize, from the Scripture. His "Heroes and Hero Worship" is based on an idea of heroism which he learned from the Bible. He is an Old Testament prophet of present times; and, while he degenerated into a scold before he was through with it, he yet spoke with the thunderous voice of a true prophet, and much of the time in the language of the prophets. Some one said once that the only real reverence Carlyle ever had was for the person of Christ. Certainly there is no note of sneer, but of the profoundest regard for the teaching, the ideas and the history of the Scripture.
The name of Charles Dickens suggests a different atmosphere. He is a New Testament prophet. Where Carlyle has caught the spirit of rugged power in the Old Testament, Dickens has caught the sense of kindly love in the New Testament. Dickens's love for the child, the fact that he could draw children as he could draw no one else and make them lovable, suggests the value to him of those frequent references which he makes to Christ setting a child in the midst of the disciples. It is notable, too, how often Dickens uses the great Scripture phrases for his most dramatic climaxes. There are not in literature many finer uses of Scripture than the scene in Bleak House, where the poor waif Joe is dying, and while his friend teaches him the Lord's Prayer he sees the light coming. A Christmas season without Dickens's Christmas Carol would be incomplete; but there again is the Scripture idea pressed forward.
George Eliot surely, if any writer, was under the spell of the Scripture. One of her critics calls her the historian of conscience. All of her heroes and heroines know the lash of the law. She knows very little about the New Testament, one would judge; but the one thing about which she has no doubt is certainly the reign of moral law. If a man will not yield to its power, it will break him. There is no such thing as breaking the moral law; there is nothing but being broken by it. Her characters are always quoting the Bible. They preach a great deal. She tells that she herself wrote Dinah Morris's sermon on the green with tears in her eyes. She meant it all. While her own religious faith was clouded, her finest characters are never clouded in their religious faith, and she grounds their faith quite invariably on their early training in the Scripture. It is an interesting fact that George Eliot has no principal story which has not in it a church, and a priest or a preacher, with all that they involve.
Charles Kingsley is grouped hardly fairly in this list, because he was himself a preacher, and naturally all his work would feel the power of the Book, which he chiefly studied. Professor Masson says that "there is not one of his novels which has not the power of Christianity for its theme." No voice was raised more effectively for the beginning of the new social era in England than his. Alton Locke and Yeast are epoch-making books in the life of the common people of England. Even Hypatia, which is supposed to have been written to represent entirely pagan surroundings, is full of Bible phrases and ideas.
Lord Macaulay had been held up for many a day as one of the masters of style. Such great writing is not to be traced to any one influence. It could not have been easy to write as Macaulay wrote. Thackeray may have exaggerated in saying that Macaulay read twenty books to write a sentence, and traveled a hundred miles to make a description; but all his writing shows the power of taking infinite pains. It becomes the more important, therefore, that Macaulay held the Bible in such estimate as he did. "In calling upon Lady Holland one day, Lord Macaulay was led to bring the attention of his fair hostess to the fact that the use of the word 'talent' to mean gifts or powers of the mind, as when we speak of men of talent, came from the use of the word in Christ's parable of the talents. In a letter to his sister Hannah he describes the incident, and says that Lady Holland was evidently ignorant of the parable. 'I did not tell her,' he adds, 'though I might have done so, that a person who professes to be a critic in the delicacies of the English language ought to have the Bible at his fingers' ends.' " That Macaulay practised his own preaching you would quickly find by referring to his essays. Take three sentences from the Essay on Milton: "The principles of liberty were the scoff of every growing courtier, and the Anathema Maranatha of every fawning dean. In every high place worship was paid to Charles and James, Belial and Moloch, and England propitiated these obscene and cruel idols with the blood of her best and brightest children. Crime succeeded to crime, and disgrace to disgrace, until the race, accursed of God and man, was a second time driven forth to wander on the face of the earth and to be a by-word and a shaking of the head to the nations." In three sentences here are six allusions to Scripture. In that same essay, in the paragraphs on the Puritans, the allusions are a multitude. They are not even quoted. They are taken for granted. In his Essay on Machiavelli, though the subject does not suggest it, he falls into Scriptural phrases over and over. Listen to this, "A time was at hand when all the seven vials of the Apocalypse were to be poured forth and shaken out over those pleasant countries"; or this, "All the curses pronounced of old against Tyre seemed to have fallen on Venice. Her merchants already stood afar off lamenting for their great city"; or this, "In the energetic language of the prophet, Machiavelli was mad for the sight of his eyes which he saw."
And if Macaulay is baffling in the abundance of material, surely John Ruskin is worse. Carlyle's English style ran into excess of roughness; Macaulay's ran into excess of balance and delicacy. John Ruskin's continued to be the smoothest, easiest style in our English literature. He also was a Hebraic spirit, but of the gentler type. Mr. Chapman calls him the Elisha to Carlyle's Elijah, a capital comparison. 12 Ruskin is one of the few writers who have told us what formed their style. In the first chapter of Praeterita he pays tribute to his mother. He himself chose to read Walter Scott and Pope's Homer; but he says: "My mother forced me by steady daily toil to learn long chapters of the Bible by heart, as well as to read it, every syllable aloud, hard names and all, from Genesis to the Apocalypse about once a year; and to that discipline—patient, accurate, and resolute—I owe not only a knowledge of the Book which I find occasionally serviceable, but much of my general power of taking pains and the best part of my taste in literature." He thinks reading Scott might have led to other novels of a poorer sort. Reading Pope might have led to Johnson's or Gibbon's English; but "it was impossible to write entirely superficial and formal English" while he knew "by heart the thirty-second of Deuteronomy, the fifteenth of I Corinthians, the One hundred and nineteenth Psalm, or the Sermon on the Mount." In the second chapter of Praeterita he is even more explicit. "I have next with deeper gratitude to chronicle what I owed to my mother for the resolute persistent lessons which so exercised me in the Scripture, as to make every word of them familiar in my ear as habitual music, yet in that familiarity reverenced as transcending all thought and ordering all conduct." He tells how his mother drilled him. As soon as he could read she began a course of Bible work with him. They read alternate verses from the Genesis to the Revelation, names and all. Daily he had to commit verses of the Scripture. He hated the One hundred and nineteenth Psalm most; but he lived to cherish it most. In his old Bible he found the list of twenty-six chapters taught by his mother.
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. 13
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." 14 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."
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.
1 Thoughts that Breathe.
2 Atlantic Monthly, May, 1900, p. 684.
3 Chapman, English Literature in Account with Religion.
4 History of English Literature, chap. iii.
5 Wordsworth, Shakespeare's Knowledge and Use of the Bible, p. 9.
6 Strong, The Theology of the Poets.
7 History of England, vol. III., p. 220.
8 Taine, English Literature, II., 279.
9 June 14, 1830.
10 Morley, Life of Gladstone, vol. iii, p. 424.
11 Early Victorian Literature, p. 9
12 English Literature in Account with Religion.
13 This is fully worked out in Professor Richardson's American Literature, with ample illustration and argument.
14 American Men of Letters Series, Washington Irving, p. 302.
|Bible Research > English Versions > McAfee > The Influence of the King James Version|