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circumstance that has happened lately. How are my dear

2023-11-29 16:55:22 source:Surprise Intersection Networkauthor: control click:355Second-rate

A moment ago it was said that as a piece of literature the Bible must accept the standards of other literary books. For all present purposes we can define great literature as worthy written expression of great ideas. If we may take the word "written" for granted, the rough definition becomes this: that great literature is the worthy expression of great ideas. Works which claim to be great in literature may fail of greatness in either half of that test. Petty, local, unimportant ideas may be well clothed, or great ideas may be unworthily expressed; in either case the literature is poor. It is not until great ideas are wedded to worthy expression that literature becomes great. Failure at one end or the other will explain the failure of most of the work that seeks to be accounted literature. The literary value of a book cannot be determined by its style alone. It is possible to say nothing gracefully, even with dignity, symmetry, rhythm; but it is not possible to make literature without ideas. Abiding literature demands large ideas worthily expressed. Now, of course, "large" and "small" are not words that are usually applied to the measurement of ideas; but we can make them seem appropriate here. Let us mean that an idea is large or small according to its breadth of interest to the race and its length of interest to the race. If there is an idea which is of value to all the members of the human race to-day, and which does not lose its value as the generations come and go, that is the largest possible idea within human thought. Transient literature may do without those large ideas. A gifted young reporter may describe a dog fight or a presidential nominating convention in such terms as lift his article out of carelessness and hasty newspaper writing into the realm of real literature; but it cannot become abiding literature. It has not a large enough idea to keep it alive. And to any one who loves worthy expression there is a sense of degradation in the use of fine literary powers for the description of purely transient local events. It is always regrettable when men with literary skill are available for the description of a ball game, or are exploited as worthy writers about a prize-fight. If a man has power to express ideas well, he ought to use that power for the expression of great ideas.

circumstance that has happened lately. How are my dear

Many of us have seen a dozen books hailed as classic novels sure to live, each of them the great American novel at last, the author to be compared with Dickens and Thackeray and George Eliot. And the books have gone the way of all the earth. With some, the trouble is a weak, involved, or otherwise poor style. With most the trouble is lack of real ideas. Charles Dickens, to be sure, does deal with boarding-schools in England, with conditions which in their local form do not recur and are not familiar to us; but he deals with them as involving a great principle of the relation of society to youth, and so David Copperfield or Oliver Twist becomes a book for the life of all of us, and for all time. And even here it is evident that not all of Dickens's work will live, but only that which is least narrowly local and is most broadly human.

circumstance that has happened lately. How are my dear

There is a further striking illustration in a familiar event in American history. Most young people are required to study Webster's speech in reply to Robert Hayne in the United States Senate, using it as a model in literary construction. The speech of Hayne is lost to our interest, yet the fact is that Hayne himself was gifted in expression, that by the standards of simple style his speech compares favorably with that of Webster. Yet reading Webster's reply takes one not to the local condition which was concerning Hayne, but to a great principle of liberty and union. He shows that principle emerging in history; the local touches are lost to thought as he goes on, and a truth is expressed in terms of history which will be valid until history is ended. It is not simply Webster's style; it is that with his great idea which made his reply memorable.

circumstance that has happened lately. How are my dear

That neither ideas nor style alone can keep literature alive is shown by literary history after Shakespeare. Just after him you have the "mellifluous poets" of the next period on the one hand, with style enough, but with such attenuated ideas that their work has died. Who knows Drayton or Brown or Wither? On the other hand, there came the metaphysicians with ideas in abundance, but not style, and their works have died.

Here, then, is the English Bible becoming the chief English classic by the wedding of great ideas to worthy expression. From one point of view this early seventeenth century was an opportune time for making such a classic. Theology was a popular subject. Men's minds had found a new freedom, and they used it to discuss great themes. They even began to sing. The reign of Elizabeth had prepared the way. The English scholar Hoare traces this new liberty to the sailing away of the Armada and the releasing of England from the perpetual dread of Spanish invasion. He says that the birds felt the free air, and sang as they had never sung before and as they have not often sung since. But this was not restricted to the birds of English song. It was a period of remarkable awakening in the whole intellectual life of England, and that intellectual life was directing itself among the common people to religion. Another English writer, Eaton, says a profounder word in tracing the awakening to the reformation, saying that it "could not fail, from the very nature of it, to tinge the literature of the Elizabethan era. It gave a logical and disputatious character to the age and produced men mighty in the Scriptures."[1] A French visitor went home disgusted because people talked of nothing but theology in England. Grotius thought all the people of England were theologians. James's chief pride was his theological learning. It did not prove difficult to find half a hundred men in small England instantly recognized as experts in Scripture study. The people were ready to welcome a book of great ideas. Let us pass by those ideas a moment, remembering that they are not enough in them- selves to give the work literary value, and turn our minds to the style of the English Bible.

[1] T. R. Eaton, Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 2.

From this point of view the times were not perfectly opportune for a piece of pure English literature, though it was the time which produced Shakespeare. A definite movement was on to refine the language by foreign decorations. Not even Shakespeare avoids it always. No writer of the time avoids it wholly. The dedication of the King James version shows that these scholars themselves did not avoid it. In that dedication, and their preface, they give us fine writing, striving for effect, ornamental phrases characteristic of the time. Men were feeling that this English language was rough and barbarous, insufficient, needing enlargement by the addition of other words constructed in a foreign form. The essays of Lord Bacon are virtually contemporaneous with this translation. Macaulay says a rather hard word in calling his style "odious and deformed,"[1] but when one turns from Bacon to the English Bible there is a sharp contrast in mere style, and it favors the Bible. The contrast is as great as that which Carlyle first felt between the ideas of Shakespeare and those of the Bible when he said that "this world is a catholic kind of place; the Puritan gospel and Shakespeare's plays: such a pair of facts I have rarely seen save out of one chimerical generation."[2] And that gives point to the word already quoted from Hallam that the English of the King James version is not the English of James I.

[2] Historical Sketches, Hampton Court Conference.

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