Both clear and rich: The language of the King James Bible (The making of the King James Bible, part II: Glimpses from Adam Nicolson)

Cover of "God's Secretaries: The Making o...

Nicolson's penetrating book on the King James Bible

Throughout his book God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicolson probes the culture of Jacobean England (that is, England under James I) for clues to the nature of the King James Bible—in particular the political, spiritual, and aesthetic commitments of those who translated it, and how those emerged in the way it was written, the rhetorical and poetic qualities of the language. Here are a few of those clues, which amount to a penetrating portrait of the language of the King James Bible–its sources and nuances:

“[James I’s] troubled upbringing had shaped a man with a divided nature. Later history, wanting to see him as a precursor for his son’s catastrophe, has chosen only the ridiculous aspects of James: his extravagance, his vanity, his physical ugliness, his weakness for beautiful boys, his self-inflation, his self-congratulatory argumentativeness. Some of that had been in evidence at Hampton Court. But there was another side to James which breathed dignity and richness: a desire for wholeness and consensus, for inclusion and breadth, for a kind of majestic grace, lit by the clarity of a probing intelligence, rich with the love of dependable substance, for a reality that went beyond show, that was not duplicitous, that stood outside all the corruption and rot that glimmered around him. These were the elements in James and in Jacobean court culture that came to shape the Bible which bears his name.” (60-61)

“[T]he method, staffing and manner of the King James Bible stemmed from James himself. The Bible was to become part of the new royal ideology. Elizabeth had portrayed herself as a Protestant champion against the powers of Rome and Spain. That was now out of date. James, Rex pacificus, was to make the Bible part of the large-scale redefinition of England. It had the potential to become, in the beautiful phrase of the time, an ‘irenicon’, a thing of peace, a means by which the divisions of the church, and of the country as a whole, could be encompassed in one unifying fabric founded on the divine authority of the king.” (66)

“The essence of the King James Bible lies precisely in the coming together of these mentalities, the enriched substance of [Lancelot] Andrewes’s [one of the lead translators, a sort of high-churchman before “high church” existed] supremely well-stocked mind lit by the fierce white light of Puritanism.” (125)

In talking about the translators’ work on the Song of Songs, Nicolson makes these revealing observations:

“The Sancroft-Bonnest correspondence, Andrewes’s private prayers, Donne’s sermons and sacred sonnets, the poetry off Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne [one of C. S. Lewis’s favorite authors, by the way], all show that a profoundly open ‘passionality’ is completely and immediately available to these men. Their lives and works are largely motivated by a frame of mind in which emotion, intellect, spirituality, and desire do not exist in insulated compartments but feed and nourish each other . . . a self-communicativeness which we have lost. Again and again, as the marginal alternatives make clear, they chose the more passionate, the more immediate, and the more exciting of the alternatives that were open to them. ‘Thou hast ravished my heart’, the lover tells his girl, not, as he might have done, ‘Thou hast taken away my heart. . . . This is not the work of people who are avoiding the rich and potent interpenetration of religion and flesh. It is in fact one of the greatest of all English celebrations of that union, culminating in the verse which the Translators entitled ‘The vehemencie of loue’. The girl of the song, the church, declares, in language as magisterial, passionate and imposing as the translation gets: ‘Set me as a seale vpon thine heart, as a seale vpon thine arme: for loue is strong as death, iealousie is cruel as the graue: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.’” (134)

“For these Puritans, and in a way we can scarcely understand now, the words of the scriptures were thought to provide a direct, almost intravenous access to the divine.” (135)

“The globe had suddenly become elastic and from all the new corners came the delicious luxuries. Things had never been so rich. Goods were pouring into England: silks, lace, Venetian glass, tin-glazed ceramics, fine thick Italian paper, German swords and armour, Turkish carpets and Venetian instruments, metal-threaded textiles like the wonderful Italian silk worn by James’s Queen Anne, in which the peacock eyes sparkle across its glimmered surface. . . . It was a culture of repetition, of piling richness upon richness, in love with the exotic and with the exotic enriched.” (140 – 141)

“This love of variegation, of the multiplicity of things, overlay something else: an appetite for the undeniably solid. The hunger for substance was Victorian in its intensity. There is no Augustan or eighteenth-century conception of fineness or slenderness. Chippendale would not have thrived in Jacobean England. What was valuable to a Jacobean was robust and huge. Tables and sideboards sprouted fat melons clamped to their legs. From the high, plain and virginal concealment of Elizabethan taste, women’s necklines plunged through the first decade of the century to a deep, bosom-revealing immodesty. At court masques, the queen and her attendant ladies would appear dressed in nothing but the finest silk gauze.” (142)

“No buildings in English history until the twentieth century had such enormous light-admitting windows as these great private prodigy houses. The rooms encrusted with the beloved substantiality were also flooded with the all-revealing light. . . . here, even with the luxury and thickness of the Turkey carpet underfoot and the Venetian silk velvets on the table, the ostrich feathers in the band of the hat, the Indian pearls at its brim, the jeweled pommel of the German sword on its embroidered hanger at the waist, still there is, washing over it all, the clarity of a pure, unshadowed, Protestant light.” (144)

“One can read almost everything from this visual and aesthetic amalgam into the making of the King James Bible.” (144)

“That shifting, layered sensibility is also, in part, the world into which the King James Bible was born. The king’s instructions were perfectly explicit: they were to use ‘circumlocution’, in other words language in which meaning was to be ‘sett forth gorgeously’. There was no terror of richness in this. Richness, as King David had known when he decorated the temple for God, was one of the attributes of God. Majesty, honour and power were gorgeous in themselves and the Jacobean sense of the beautiful loved both pearls and diamonds, both openness and ceremony.” (145)

“But the sense of clarity and directness was sewn and fused to those other Jacobean virtues: a pattern of order and authority; the majestic substance, the ‘meat’ of the word of God; the great ceremonial atmosphere of its long, carefully organised, musical rhythms, a ceremony of the word; an atmosphere both godly and kingly; both rich and pure, both multiplicitous and plain. This Bible, in other words, would absorb the full aesthetics of the age.” (146)

“The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires. It as, in short, lost all authority. The language of the King James Bible is the language . . . of patriarchy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority is a form of good; the New English Bible is motivated by the opposite, an anxiety not to bore or intimidate. It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died.” (153 – 154)

“The men at the core of this Oxford group [of KJV translators] were deeply engaged with the realities of money and power. That political involvement brought a worldliness and glamour which provided a certain steel. And that raises an intriguing question: was the King James Bible so alive precisely because the Translators weren’t entirely good?” (155)

I would hazard the observation that in his following description of the language of the KJV, Nicolson is actually putting his finger on that which is still very medieval about Jacobean sensibilities. Just read Lewis’s Discarded Image, or better, the introductory section of his magisterial Sixteenth-Century Literature, and you’ll see that what Nicolson is saying here is exactly the mindset and the worldly-divine aesthetic of the medievals (at least high and late medievals):

“The gift of [the KJV’s] language-moment, the great Jacobean habit of mind on which the King James bible rides for chapter after chapter and book after book, is this swinging between majesty and tangibility, the setting of the actual and perceptible within an enormous and enriching frame, the sense of intimacy between great and small, the embodiment of the most universal ideas in the most humble of forms, the sense in other words that the universe, from God to heifer, is one connected fabric.” (159)

“The King James Bible is the work of people who were dazzlingly open, at least in some parts of their minds, to the new spirit of scientific inquiry.” (161)

“Precision in Bible scholarship and in translation was the foundation stone of the Reformation. High fidelity reproduction was a moral as well as a technical quality and it was axiomatic that Translators and scholars could approach the text only in a mood of humility and service.” (183)

“Secretaryship is one of the great shaping forces behind the King James Bible. There is no authorship involved here. Authorship is egotistical, an assumption that you might have something new worth saying. You don’t. Every iota of the Bible counts but without it you count for nothing. The secretary knows that. . . . For this reason, biblical translation, like royal service, could only be utterly faithful. Without faithfulness, it became meaningless.” (184)

“But there is another, all-important element which comes into play in the first decade of the seventeenth century in England and which had a shaping influence on the translation: a growing love of ceremonial, of a sense of religion which goes beyond the merely verbal and begins to take up the more luscious, musical and sensuous elements which extreme Puritanism would reject as popish trash.” (185)

“One of the King James Bible’s most consistent driving forces is the idea of majesty. Its method and its voice are far more regal than demotic. Its archaic formulations, its consistent attention to a grand and heavily musical rhythm are the vehicles by which that majesty is infused into the body of the text. Its qualities are those of grace, stateliness, scale, power. There is no desire to please here; only a belief in the enormous and overwhelming divine authority, of which royal authority, ‘the powers that be’ as they translated the words of St Paul, was an adjunct and extension.” (189)

“[T]he King James Bible conform[ed] both to Protestant and to pre-Protestant ideas about the nature of Christianity. It is both clear and rich. It both makes an exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony. It has that peculiarly Jacobean combination of light and richness, the huge windows illuminating the densely decorated room, the unfamiliar amalgam of the court-Puritan, both strict and grand.” (196)

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