Nothing could reveal more clearly than this list how we are distinguishing the Bible as literature from the Bible as an authoritative book in morals. One would much dislike to credit the Bible with any part of the personal life of Shelley or Byron. They were friends; they were geniuses; but they were both badly afflicted with common moral leprosy. It is playing with morals to excuse either of them because he was a genius. Nothing in the genius of either demanded or was served by the course of cheap immorality which both practised. It was not because Shelley was a genius that he married Harriet Westbrook, then ran away with Mary Godwin, then tried to get the two to become friends and neighbors until his own wife committed suicide; it was not his genius that made him yield to the influence of Emilia Viviani and write her the poem "Epipsychidion," telling her and the world that he "was never attached to that great sect who believed that each one should select out of the crowd a mistress or a friend" and let the rest go. That was not genius, that was just common passion; and our divorce courts are full of Shelleys of that type. So Byron's personal immorality is not to be explained nor excused on the ground of his genius. It was not genius that led him so astray in England that his wife had to divorce him, and that public opinion drove him out of the land. It was not his genius that sent him to visit Shelley and his mistress at Lake Geneva and seduce their guest, so that she bore him a daughter, though she was never his wife. It was not genius that made him pick up still another companion out of several in Italy and live with her in immoral relation. In the name of common decency let no one stand up for Shelley and Byron in their personal characters! There are not two moral laws, one for geniuses and one for common people. Byron, at any rate, was never deceived about himself, never blamed his genius nor his conscience for his wrong. These are striking lines in "Childe Harold," in which he disclaims all right to sympathy, because,
In the Georgian group we need to call only five great names which have had creative influence in literature. Ordinary culture in literature will include some acquaintance with each of them. In the order of their death they are Shelley (1829.), Byron (1824), Coleridge (1831), Walter Scott (1832), and Wordsworth (1850). The last long outlived the others; but he belongs with them, because he was born earlier than any other in the group and did his chief work in their time and before the later group appeared. Except Wordsworth, all these were gone before Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. Three other names could be called: Keats, Robert Burns, and Charles Lamb. All would illustrate what we are studying. Keats least of all and Burns most. They are omitted here not because they did not feel the influence of the English Bible, not because they do not constantly show its influence, but because they are not so creative as the others; they have not so influenced the current of literature. At any rate, the five named will represent worthily and with sufficient completeness the Georgian period of English literature.
The second element which English literature finds in the Bible is its . The words of the Bible are the familiar ones of the English tongue, and have been kept familiar by the use of the Bible. The result is that "the path of literature lies parallel to that of religion. They are old and dear companions, brethren indeed of one blood; not always agreeing, to be sure; squabbling rather in true brotherly fashion now and then; occasionally falling out very seriously and bitterly; but still interdependent and necessary to each other." 3 Years ago a writer remarked that every student of English literature, or of English speech, finds three works or subjects referred to, or quoted from, more frequently than others. These are the Bible, tales of Greek and Roman mythology, and Aesop's Fables. Of these three, certainly the Bible furnishes the largest number of references. There is reason for that. A writer wants an audience. Very few men can claim to be independent of the public for which they write. There is nothing the public will be more apt to understand and appreciate quickly than a passing reference to the English Bible. So it comes about that when Dickens is describing the injustice of the Murdstones to little David Copperfield, he can put the whole matter before us in a parenthesis: "Though there was One once who set a child in the midst of the disciples." Dickens knew that his readers would at once catch the meaning of that reference, and would feel the contrast between the scene he was describing and that simple scene. Take any of the great books of literature and black out the phrases which manifestly come directly from the English Bible, and you would mark them beyond recovery.
But English literature has found more of its material in the Bible than anything else. It has looked there for its characters, its illustrations, its subject-matter. We shall see, as we consider individual writers, how many of their titles and complete works are suggested by the Bible. It is interesting to see how one idea of the Scripture will appear and reappear among many writers. Take one illustration. The Faust story is an effort to make concrete one verse of Scripture: "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Professor Moulton reminds us that the Faust legend appeared first in the Middle Ages. In early English, Marlowe has it, Calderon put it into Spanish, the most familiar form of it is Goethe's, while Philip Bailey has called his account of it Festus. In each of those forms the same idea occurs. A man sells his soul to the devil for the gaining of what is to him the world. That is one of a good many ideas which the Bible has given to literature. The prodigal son has been another prolific source of literary writing. The guiding star is another. Others will readily come to mind.
First, the style of the King James version has influenced English literature markedly. Professor Gardiner opens one of his essays with the dictum that "in all study of English literature, if there be any one axiom which may be accepted without question, it is that the ultimate standard of English prose style is set by the King James version of the Bible." 2 You almost measure the strength of writing by its agreement with the predominant traits of this version. Carlyle's weakest works are those that lose the honest simplicity of its style in a forced turgidity and affected roughness. His Heroes and Hero Worship or his French Revolution shows his distinctive style, and yet shows the influence of this simpler style, while his Frederick the Great is almost impossible because he has given full play to his broken and disconnected sentences. On the other hand, Macaulay fails us most in his striving for effect, making nice balance of sentences, straining his "either-or," or his "while-one-was-doing-this-the-other-was-doing-that." Then his sentences grow involved, and his paragraphs lengthen, and he swings away from the style of the King James version. "One can say that if any writing departs very far from the characteristics of the English Bible it is not good English writing."
Just for safety's sake, accept another narrowing of the field. The effect of the Bible and its religious teaching on the writer himself is a separate study, and is for the most part left out of consideration. It sounds correct when Milton says: "He who would not be frustrate of his Power to write well ought himself to be a true poem." But there is Milton himself to deal with; irreproachable in morals, there are yet the unhappy years of his young wife to trouble us, and there were his daughters, who were not at peace with him, and whom after their service in his blindness he yet stigmatizes in his will as "undutiful children." Then, if you think of Shelley or Byron, you are troubled by their lives; or even Carlyle, the very master of the Victorian era—one would not like to scan his life according to the laws of true poetry. Then there is Coleridge, falling a prey to opium until, as years came, conscience and will seemed to go. Only a very ardent Scot will feel that he can defend Robert Burns at all points, and we would be strange Americans if we felt that Edgar Allen Poe was a model of propriety. That is a large and interesting field, but the Bible seems even to gain power as a book-making book when it lays hold on the book-making proclivities of men who are not prepared to yield to its personal power. They may get away from it as religion; they do not get away from it as literature.
That makes only twelve names from Franklin to Whittier. Others could be included; but they are not so great as these. No one of these could be taken out of our literature without affecting it and, in some degree at least, changing the current of it. This is not to forget Bret Harte nor Samuel L. Clemens. But each is dependent for his survival on a taste for a certain kind of humor, not delicate like Irving's and Holmes's, but strong and sudden and a bit sharp. If we should forget the "Luck of Roaring Camp," "Truthful James," and the "Heathen Chinee," we would also forget Bret Harte. We are not apt to forget Tom Sawyer, nor perhaps The Innocents Abroad, but we are forgetting much else of Mark Twain. Whitman is not named. His claims are familiar, but in spite of his admirers he seems so charged with a sensuous egotism that he is not apt to be a formative influence in literary history. It is still interesting, however, to remember how frequently he reveals his reading of Scripture.
Turn now to the American group of writers. If we except theological writers with Jonathan Edwards, Horace Bushnell, Henry Ward Beecher, and their like, and political writers with Jefferson, Webster, and their like, the list need not be a long one. Only one writer in our narrower sense of literature must be named in the earlier day—Benjamin Franklin. In the period before the Civil War must be named Edgar Allan Poe (died 1849) and Washington Irving (died 1859). The Civil War group is the large one, and its names are those of the later group as well. Let them be alphabetical, for convenience: William Cullen Bryant, poet and critic; George William Curtis, essayist and editor; Emerson, our noblest name in the sphere of pure essay literature; Hawthorne, the novelist of conscience, as Socrates was its philosopher; Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose "two chief hatreds were orthodoxy in religion and heterodoxy in medicine"; James Russell Lowell, essayist and poet, apt to live by his essays rather than by his poetry; Longfellow, whose "Psalm of Life" and "Hiawatha" have lived through as much parody and ridicule as any two bits of literature extant, and have lived because they are predestined to live; Thoreau, whose Walden may show, as Lowell said, how much can be done on little capital, but which has the real literary tang to it; and Whittier, whose poetry is sung the world around.
Another thing to be said is that America has a unique history among great nations in that it has never been affected by any great religious influence except that which has issued from the Scriptures. No religion has ever been influential in America except Christianity. For many years there have been sporadic and spasmodic efforts to extend the influence of Buddhism or other Indian cults. They have never been successful, because the American spirit is practical, and not meditative. We are not an introspective people. We do not look within ourselves for our religion. Whatever moral and religious influence our literature shows gets back first or last to our Scriptures. The point of view of nature that is taken by our writers like Bryant and Thoreau is that of the Nineteenth Psalm. Moreover, we have been strongly under the English influence. Irving insisted that we ought to be, that we were a young nation, that we ought frankly to follow the leadership of more experienced writers. Longfellow thought we had gone too far that way, and that our poets, at least, ought to be more independent, ought to write in the spirit of America and not of traditional poetry. Whether we ought to have yielded to it or not, it is true that English influence has told very strongly upon us, and the writers who have influenced our writers most have been those whom we have named as being themselves under the Bible influence.
We come back again into the atmosphere of strong Bible influence when we name Alfred Tennyson. When Byron died, and the word came to his father's rectory at Somersby, young Alfred Tennyson felt that the sun had fallen from the heavens. He went out alone in the fields and carved in the sandstone, as though it were a monument: "Byron is dead." That was in the early stage of his poetical life. At first Carlyle could not abide Tennyson. He counted him only an echo of the past, with no sense for the future; but when he read Tennyson's "The Revenge," he exclaimed, "Eh, he's got the grip o' it"; and when Richard Monckton Milnes excused himself for not getting Tennyson a pension by saying his constituents had no use for poetry anyway, Carlyle said, "Richard Milnes, in the day of judgment when you are asked why you did not get that pension, you may lay the blame on your constituents, but it will be you who will be damned!" Dr. Henry van Dyke studied Tennyson to best effect at just this point. In his chapter on "The Bible in Tennyson" are many such sayings as these: "It is safe to say that there is no other book which has had so great an influence upon the literature of the world as the Bible. We hear the echoes of its speech everywhere, and the music of its familiar phrases haunts all the field and grove of our fine literature. At least one cause of his popularity is that there is so much Bible in Tennyson. We cannot help seeing that the poet owes a large debt to the Christian Scriptures, not only for their formative influence on his mind and for the purely literary material in the way of illustrations and allusions which they have given him, but also for the creation of a moral atmosphere, a medium of thought and feeling in which he can speak freely and with an assurance of sympathy to a very wide circle of readers."