Thursday 11 November 2010

A song of songs

I love the English language; I love its beauty, its directness and its simplicity. There are wells of our language, sources where words and expressions were first drawn that people continue to use, often unconscious of their origin. The work of William Shakespeare is one of the most important; the other is the Authorised Version of the Bible, the King James Bible, the translation of which was completed in 1611, almost four hundred years ago.

So far as I am concerned the King James Bible is the Bible, though I have never known it used in worship: the Church of England has long favoured the modern translation. But I grew up in a literate household, one where I was introduced to a range of influences from an early age, including the translation of 1611, based on the earlier Bishop’s Bible of 1568 and William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1525.

There is a marvel to it, a sacred marvel, if you like, lost in modern translation, a marvel that was to have a huge impact on the subsequent course of English literature. I am tempted to say that in abandoning the King James Bible the Church of England abandoned sacred language altogether, the beginning of a process of secularisation, disengagement and decline.

I suppose the argument was that it was too difficult, too archaic, too remote from common understanding and contemporary concerns. If so, it’s rubbish. An editorial in the Times made reference to Politics and the English Language, my favourite essay by George Orwell, where he offers his own up to date translation of one of the most moving passages in Ecclesiastes, of good usage into the worst usage imaginable. Ecclesiastes proceeds as follows;

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The imagery, the cadence, the simple poetry of these words is intense. Now consider the version suggested by Orwell;

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

It’s awful; it’s meant to be awful. Orwell admits it’s a parody, though not, as he says, a gross one. This essay was written over sixty years ago. If anything the problem has got worse since then, as meaningful, direct words are increasingly obscured in fog of abstraction. I’m ever mindful that the abuse of language and the abuse of meaning was part of the political horror that overtook humanity in the course of the last hundred years. There is nothing at all obscure or difficult in Ecclesiastes, nothing that could not be easily grasped and understood

So, as we approach the four hundredth anniversary, it’s time to think again about the importance of the King James Bible, time to restore it in its full cultural significance. I leave you with my favourite passage from The Song of Solomon, my favourite book of the Old Testament, a sublime hymn to love and renewal.

My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.

Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.

My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.

Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.


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  2. Actually, my 'traitorous friends' are generally a fairly decent bunch. :-) As always thanks for your kind words.

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  4. There is no danger to the security of the Falklands. There you are: I've given a hostage to fortune. You might be able to come back at me at some future point, saying 'I told you so!'

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  6. Adam Nicholson's book: "God's Secretaries" is a good read. (Even though I don't have a dog in the theological fight.)

  7. Religion is the invention of man !

  8. Sucio, thanks, I'll look out for that. Ah, books, books, books. :-)

  9. Religion may very well be the invention of man, Anthony; language certainly is.

  10. Mmh. Never mind the Holy Scriptures or Billy Shakespeare..even Enid Blyton has been bowdlerised and "modernised". I read an article recently about how the new editions are being rewritten into contemporary colloquial English so that the modern child isn't stressed by exposure to the manners, prejudices or speech of the distant past..the 1950's. The Golliwogs and Noddy got it in the neck long ago, of course.

    Why not expose children to the unpleasant truth about "adult" thoughts? I read W.E. Johns' Biggles books enthusiastically when I was between 9 and 12. Even then, I noticed that he was a racist and cultural supremacist (not that I knew those terms)and simply discarded that part of it and enjoyed the yarns.

  11. Too many thees and thous. the bible has been translated and retranslated a few times and edited and rewriten. books were added and deleted to suit politics. There are a lot of good life lessons and also a lot of Hebrew bunk . Making themselves to be a chosen people and justifying their atrocities.The Hebrew stories Mirror the Summerian texts which are much older. Christiaity is a Knock off of the Egyptian religion. Virgin birth ,death and ressurection are not original concepts.The teachings of Jesus follow the teachings of the Buddah. Cristianity borrowed much from pagan concepts. Religion is of man and spirituality from spirit ( the God of balance and order in the scheme of things)

  12. Yes, Anthony, all religion is syncretic to some degree or other. As far as the KJB is concerned I love the thees and thous!

  13. Retarius, quite right too. Children have more subtle intellects than many adults allow.

  14. I was just thinking of saying something about the Authorised King James Version enrapturing something of the Holy Spirit and then came upon your having said exactly the same thing. Funnily enough, I was asked last night about the 'Authorised King John Version' I had mistakenly included in the bibliography to 'I am the Master of the Bezels.' I said it was the same as the King James! Orwell's translation seems imitative of dry academia and holds none of the magic, the spirit of the original which is, I believe, the sole purpose of a translation. I am so involved in my own translations of poems that they become poems in themselves. This is why I have chosen to call them not translations but adaptations.

    Perhaps you will be interested in the theory presented by the Holy founder of Ahmadiya, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in his book The Blessings of the Gracious God in which he traces the origins of language from the Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Tongues down to the contemporary arguments of the time presented by Professor Max Müller, concluding with the premise that Arabic in the mother tongue of mankind (Arabic and Herbew are virtually identical) - The book can be read here:

  15. Anyone who has a feel for the beauty of language appreciates the legacy of the King James Bible, even me, an atheist. It is language as it should be written (minus a few case endings perhaps), and as Orwell pointed out, the Saxon words convey concrete images in a way that Latin and Greek words cannot.

    Politics and the English Language is my favourite Orwell essay too.

  16. Rehan, the King John Bible! Goodness knows what that would contain. :-))

    I'm very interested, thanks. I'll have a read just as soon as I can.

  17. Dennis, it should be compulsory reading for all those in public life.