Monday 11 October 2010

"Shakespeare and the Bible"


On the old radio programme, Desert Island Discs, they used to ask the 'castaway' to choose a book to take with them; but they were first reassured that Shakepeare's complete works and the Bible were already on the imaginary island.


Shakespeare and the Bible - the meaning of this phrase depends on whether Bible refers to the King James version, or to the Bible in a generic form.

I have always assumed that in this instance the King James version was implied, and that the reassurance was that the twin pinnacles of English *literature* would be available.

For indeed the poetic qualities of the KJB are, quantitatively, equalled only by Shakespeare - and, like Shakespeare, are scattered through the books.


From Psalm 42

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.  

My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?  

My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?  

When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday 

Why art thou cast down , O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.  

O my God, my soul is cast down within me: therefore will I remember thee from the land of Jordan, and of the Hermonites, from the hill Mizar.  

Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.


 This is poetry: Beauty, as well as Truth and Virtue. 

And, indeed, I can never ignore the content of poetry - its 'subject matter: to work as well as possible, a poem needs to be as true as possible, and to be virtuous. 

This fact, alone, goes a long way to explain the diminution then disappearance of poetry from England - since the writers no longer aim after the transcendental goods as a unity: at most they aim for one or two at the cost of others - truth at the price of beauty, virtue and beauty at the price of truth, beauty at the price of truth and virtue etc.  


But why is this Psalm an example of poetry? 

There are no rhymes, no consistent rhythm and the lines vary in length. 

The 'technique' was re-used from the late 19th century by Walt Whitman, and his more modern imitators (such as Alan Ginsberg) - but never with anything like the poetic power frequently attained in the KJB (and, indeed, in many of the older English versions of the psalms, especially the Miles Coverdale translation used in the Book of Common Prayer).

Perhaps this is poetry because the psalms are intended to be sung. Poetry is, somehow, song: the relationship is close.   

The poetic line is, at root, a musical phrase. 

And after all, the full title of the best anthology of English poetry is  Palgrave's Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics. 


dearieme said...

Surely calling the Authorised Version the "King James" is an unnecessary Americanism?

Bruce Charlton said...

Most of my readers *are* American!

dearieme said...

Aw gee.

xlbrl said...

Damn right.