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.
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.
Not so much can be said of Swinburne. There was a strong infusion of acid in his nature, which no influence entirely destroyed. He is apt to live as a literary critic and essayist, though he supposed himself chiefly a poet. His own thought of poetry can be seen in his protest in behalf of Meredith. When he had been accused of writing on a subject on which he had no conviction to express ("Modern Love"), Swinburne denied that poets ought to preach anyway. "There are pulpits enough for all preachers of prose, and the business of verse writing is hardly to express convictions." Yet it is impossible to forget Milton and his purpose to "assert Eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men." Naturally, most poets do preach and preach well. Wordsworth declared be wanted to be considered a teacher or nothing. Mrs. Browning thought that poets were the only truth-tellers left to God. But Swinburne could not help a little preaching at any rate. His "Masque on Queen Bersaba" is an old miracle play of David and Nathan. His "Christmas Antiphones" are hardly Christian, though they are abundant in their allusions to Scripture. The first is a prayer for peace and rest in the coming of the new day of the birth of Christ. The second is a protest that neither God nor man has befriended man as he should, and the third is an assurance that men will do for man even if God will not. Now, that is not Christian, but the Bible phrases are all through it. So when he writes his poem bemoaning Poland, he needs must head it "Rizpah." At the same time it must be said that Swinburne shows less of the influence of the Bible in his style and in his spirit than any other of our great English writers.
Leave on one side also the very large body of political and historical writing. Much of it shows Bible influence. In the nature of the case, any historian of the past three hundred years must often refer to and quote from the English Bible, and must note its influence. An entire study could be devoted to the influence of the English Bible on Green or Bancroft or Freeman or Prescott—its influence on their matter and their manner. Another could be given to its influence on political writing and speaking. No great orator of the day would fail us of material, and the great political papers and orations of the past would only widen the field. Yet while some of this political and historical writing is recognized as literature, most of it can be left out of our thought just now.
The literature of which we are thinking in this narrower sense is in the sphere of art rather than in the sphere of distinct achievement. De Quincey's division is familiar: the literature of knowledge, and the literature of power. The function of the first is to teach; the function of the second is to move. Professor Dowden points out that between the two lies a third field, the literature of criticism. It seeks both to teach and to move. Our concern is chiefly with De Quincey's second field—the literature of power. In the first field, the literature of knowledge, must lie all history, with Hume and Gibbon; all science, with Darwin and Fiske; all philosophy, with Spencer and William James; all political writing, with Voltaire and Webster. Near that same field must lie many of those essays in criticism of which Professor Dowden speaks. This which we omit, this literature of knowledge, is powerful literature, though its main purpose is not to move, but to teach. We are only reducing our field so that we can survey it. For our uses just now we shall find pure literature taking the three standard forms: the poem, the essay, and the story. It is the influence of the English Bible on this large field of literature which we are to observe.
The first and most notable fact regarding the influence of the Bible on English literature is the remarkable extent of that influence. It is literally everywhere. If every Bible in any considerable city were destroyed, the Book could be restored in all its essential parts from the quotations on the shelves of the city public library. There are works, covering almost all the great literary writers, devoted especially to showing how much the Bible has influenced them.
The literary effect of the King James version at first was less than its social effect; but in that very fact lies a striking literary influence. For a long time it formed virtually the whole literature which was readily accessible to ordinary Englishmen. We get our phrases from a thousand books. The common talk of an intelligent man shows the effect of many authors upon his thinking. Our fathers got their phrases from one great book. Their writing and their speaking show the effect of that book.
Cultural Context: How does the poem you are looking at relate to the historical context in which it was written? For example, what's the cultural significance of Walt Whitman's famous elegy for Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" in light of post-Civil War cultural trends in the U.S.A? How does John Donne's devotional poetry relate to the contentious religious climate in seventeenth-century England? These questions may take you out of the literature section of your library altogether and involve finding out about philosophy, history, religion, economics, music, or the visual arts.
Analyse the different perspectives on dealing with death in these six poems.
'My Last Duchess' by Robert Browning – Anthology
'Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher' by W.S Landor – Wider Reading
'Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night' by Dylan Thomas – Anthology
'Remember' by Christina Rossetti – Anthology
'We are Seven' by William Wordsworth – Wider Reading
'I Died for Beauty' by Emily Dickinson – Wider Reading
IGCSE English Literature Year 11, Graded A*