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The Glory Of English Prose
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 Modern Speech.

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.

Again:—
"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 hand."
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 brethren:—
"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 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 heard.

"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 this wonderful chapter ends thus:—
"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.

"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."
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 world's end.

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 not:

"And let fall also some of the handfuls on purpose for her, and leave them, that she may glean them, and rebuke her not."
This little gem in the books of the Bible inspired Hood to write one of his most perfect lyrics:—
"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
G.P.

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