Magazine article The Spectator

The Best Committee That Ever Sat

Magazine article The Spectator

The Best Committee That Ever Sat

Article excerpt

POWER AND GLORY: JACOBEAN ENGLAND AND THE MAKING OF THE KING JAMES BIBLE by Adam Nicolson HarperCollins, L18.99, pp. 288 ISBN 0007108931

There are two literary facts in English which it is almost impossible to examine, to see clearly. They are Shakespeare and the King James Bible. In both cases, the impossibility derives from the same point; that critical standards of what great English writing means stem so completely from Shakespeare's peculiar virtues and from the values of the prose in the King James Bible that all commentators and, indeed, all English-speakers subsequently have lived within their limits, and have been unable to step outside and discuss their subjects with any clarity, as one can step outside Spencer or Wordsworth, and see their world whole and distant, with an awareness of alternative models of excellence. For the English, King Lear is not a work with particular characteristics and specific flavour; it is just what all other plays fall short of. The great climaxes of the King James Bible, similarly, are quite simply what English prose is, or ought to be. They have set the standard, and the standard itself is almost impossible to judge.

There is no English writer subsequently who can be trusted not to lapse into those characteristic rhythms at elevated moments. Dickens is full of its music. Wordsworth's plainness, his insistence on rocks and stones and trees, is straight from the version of Ecclesiastes. Tennyson has no idea how a poem like 'Ulysses' might rise to its thunderous cadence other than on the model of the Psalms. The influence of the King James Bible is so pervasive in English literature, even in Waugh or Martin Amis, that it is hardly worth writing a book about; it is as limitless as the universe.

If imaginative literature finds it impossible to escape from it, imagine the problem faced by any subsequent attempt to translate the Bible into English. Adam Nicolson has a great deal of fun with the absurdities of subsequent translations, all of which is quite deserved; the 18th-century translator who replaced Peter's `Lord, it is good for us to be here' with `Oh, sir! What a delectable residence we might establish here!', or the insanity of the New English Bible, improving the simple and beautiful `Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and yee shall finde' into `Shoot the net to starboard, and you will make a catch.' These bathetic and inadequate updatings are very funny, but it is important to understand why they are so hopeless. The King James Bible came to demonstrate and embody the principles of expressive English, and any deviation from it can never hope to rival its beauty and perfection. Here is the permanent definition of beauty and perfection in English prose. Other definitions are conceivable. Perhaps, in different circumstances, we might consider that graceful and precise employment of 'delectable' a masterly and elegant stroke - after all, the French have no apparent problem with a translation which contains, in the Beatitudes, the memorable and rather agreeable sentiment, `Blessed are the nonchalant'. We can imagine those different circumstances; in practice they are impossible to enter into. We have learnt to consider the decisions of the King James Bible as beyond discussion.

And yet the translation was produced in particular circumstances, by individual men, who made a series of exact and debatable decisions. This is the subject of Adam Nicolson's book, which, though I have no previous knowledge at all of the vast subject, seems to me unobtrusively learned, rich in curious and purposeful detail, an ideal balance between fervent enthusiasm and elegantly witty detachment. The story of the translation's origins and production is a subject which, one always felt, would be nice to hear from a really sparkling and sharp guide. This volume strikes me as exactly that, a brilliantly entertaining, passionate, funny and instructive telling of an important and gripping story. …

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