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13 January, 2012
The Glory Of English Prose|
2. On The Glory Of The Bible
by Coleridge, Stephen
|My Dear Antony,
I alluded, in my first letter to you about English literature,
to the necessity of your learning from the beginning the wide
distinction between what is good and what is bad style.
I do not know a better instance of a display of the difference
between what is fine style and what is not, than may be made by
putting side by side almost any sentence from the old authorised
translation of the Bible and the same sentence from The Bible in
I will just put two quotations side by side:—
"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not,
neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in
all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
"Learn a lesson from the wild lilies. Watch their growth. They
neither toil nor spin, and yet I tell you that not even Solomon in
all his magnificence could array himself like one of these."
Here you can feel the perfect harmony and balance of the old
version and the miserable commonplaceness of the effort of these
misguided modern men.
"Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
This is mauled into:—
"Repent, he said, for the kingdom of the heavens is now close at
These examples are perfectly suited to illustrate the immense
difference that separates what is noble and fine in style and what
is poor and third rate.
If you recite the old version aloud you cannot escape the
harmony and balance of the sentences, and nothing dignified or
distinguished can be made of the wretched paraphrases of the two
desecrators of the splendid old text.
And, Antony, I would have you know that I, who have spent a long
life in precious libraries, loving fine literature with all my
heart, have long ago reverenced the old version of the Bible as the
granite corner-stone upon which has been built all the noblest
English in the world. No narrative in literature has yet surpassed
in majesty, simplicity, and passion the story of Joseph and his
brethren, beginning at the thirty-seventh and ending with the
forty-fifth chapter of Genesis. There is surely nothing more moving
and lovely in all the books in the British Museum than the picture
of Joseph when he sees his little brother among his
"And he lifted up his eyes, and saw his brother Benjamin, his
mother's son, and said, Is this your younger brother, of whom ye
spake to me? And he said, God be gracious unto thee, my son.
"And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his
brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his
chamber, and wept there."
The whole of the forty-fifth chapter is touching and beautiful
beyond all criticism, transcending all art. To read it is to
believe every word of it to be true, and to recognise the sublimity
of such a relation.
No narrative of the great Greek writers reaches the heart so
directly and poignantly as does this astonishing story. It moves
swiftly and surely along from incident to incident till Joseph's
loving soul can contain itself no more:—
"Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all of them that
stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me.
And this wonderful chapter ends thus:—
"And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself
known unto his brethren.
"And he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh
"And Joseph said unto his brethren, I am Joseph; doth my father
yet live? And he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck, and wept;
and Benjamin wept upon his neck. Moreover he kissed all his
brethren and wept upon them.
"And after that his brethren talked with him."
"And they went up out of Egypt, and came unto the land of Canaan
unto Jacob their father, and told him, saying, Joseph is yet alive,
and is governor over all the land of Egypt.
If you read the story of Joseph through from start to finish,
you will see that it is a perfect narrative of the life of a man
without fault, who suffered much but without resentment, was great
of heart in evil days, and, when Fortune placed him in a position
of glory and greatness, showed a stainless magnanimity and a
brotherly love that nothing could abate. It is the first and most
perfect story in literature of the nobility of man's soul, and as
such it must remain a treasured and priceless possession to the
"And Jacob's heart fainted, for he believed them not.
"And they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said
unto them: and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to
carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father revived:
"And Israel said, It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive: I
will go and see him before I die."
In the short Book of Ruth there lies embalmed in the finest
English a very tender love story, set in all the sweet surroundings
of the ripening corn, the gathered harvest, and the humble
gleaners. Nothing can be more delightful than the direction of
Boaz, the great land-owner, to his men, after he had espied Ruth in
her beauty gleaning in his fields:—
"And when she was risen up to glean, Boaz commanded his young
men, saying, Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her
This little gem in the books of the Bible inspired Hood to write
one of his most perfect lyrics:—
"And let fall also some of the handfuls on purpose for her, and
leave them, that she may glean them, and rebuke her not."
"She stood breast high amid the corn
Clasped by the golden light of morn,
Like the sweetheart of the sun,
Who many a glowing kiss had won.
* * * * * * *
Thus she stood amid the stocks,
Praising God with sweetest looks.
Sure, I said, Heaven did not mean
Where I reap thou should'st but glean;
Lay thy sheaf adown and come,
Share my harvest and my home."
That the Bible was translated into English at the time when the
language was spoken and written in its most noble form, by men
whose style has never been surpassed in strength combined with
simplicity, has been a priceless blessing to the English-speaking
race. The land of its birth, once flowing with milk and honey, has
been for long centuries a place of barren rocks and arid deserts:
Persians and Greeks and Romans and Turks have successively swept
over it; the descendants of those who at different times produced
its different books are scattered to the ends of the earth; but the
English translation has for long years been the head corner-stone
in homes innumerable as the sands of the sea in number.
No upheavals of the earth, no fire, pestilence, famine, or
slaughter, can ever now blot it out from the ken of men.
When all else is lost we may be sure that the old English
version of the Bible will survive. "Heaven and earth shall pass
away, but my words shall not pass away."
Do not think it enough therefore, Antony, to hear it read badly
and without intelligence or emotion, in little detached snippets,
in church once a week.
Read it for yourself, and learn to rejoice in the perfect
balance, harmony, and strength of its noble style.
Your loving old