The Greatest English Classic

If you love the Bible, you love English literature, and you adore words this would be a good book to read. 

I remember a conversation with a friend – a cynic, agnostic/atheist (he couldn’t decide), and a curmudgeon who couldn’t help but be lovable in his crankiness.  We worked together and often got sidetracked discussing our philosophies, viewpoints, etc.  We were opposites on so many issues; but we respected one another and usually had a cracking good time while we debated.  Finally, for efficiency, we restricted theology to Thursdays. 

Once, out of the blue, he asked, “Do you read the Bible every day, [insert last name]?”  

I squirmed and replied, “Well, I try to, but I have varying levels of consistency.” 

“You read the King James Version?” he continued.

“Uh, no.  Readability–vocabulary–not the best choice.”  We often telescoped our sentences when we talked.

“You’re flat wrong, Carol.  You ought to be reading the King James Version.  You will develop an ear for strong, muscular words, for poetry, for cadence, for language if you read the KJV.”

Isn’t it funny that, twenty years later, we now agree on that one?  I’m not an “exclusive KJV” Christian, but I really am enjoying reading through it. 

Cleland McAfee’s The Greatest English Classic (1912) tells the story of translations before the KJV, the making of the KJV, and why it is a classic.  He then outlines the influence the KJV has had on literature and history.

“The Bible is a book-making book.  It is literature which provokes literature.” (p.130)

This interested me:  He divided English literature since the making of the KJV (began 1604) into these groups:
          1. Jacobean Period (Milton, Bunyan, Dryden, Addison, Pope)
          2. Georgian Period (Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Scott, Wordsworth)
          3. Victorian Age (Arnold, Browning, Carlyle, Dickens, Eliot, Kingsby, Macauly, Ruskin, Stevenson,                         Swinburne, Tennyson, Thackery)
          4.  American Writers (Franklin, Poe, Irving, Bryant, Curtis, Emerson, Hawthorne, Holmes, Lowell,                             Longfellow, Thoreau, Whittier)
 
Remember: this book was written in 1912.  Do you notice who is missing from the list?  Miss Jane!! HELLO!!  And I am heartbroken to tell you I didn’t copy the quote about Austen, so I shall have to paraphrase:

       ~ Austen doesn’t have any lasting influence on the flow of English literature. ~

So that’s what he thought back then.  There was enough other good stuff to atone for this grievous offence, but I did contemplate throwing the book against the wall for one moment.

“There has come about a “decay of literary allusions,” as one of our papers editorially says.  In much of our writing, either the transient or the permanent, men can no longer risk easy reference to classical literature. ” (p. 270)

“The tendency of language is always to become vague, since we are lazy in the use of it.  We use one word in various ways, and a pet one for many ideas.” (p.102)

I gleaned several names of authors I’d like to explore from this book (John Ruskin, Maria Edgeworth, Thomas Grey).  I was also reminded of favorite passages I’ve read in the past that I’d like to revisit (from Eliot, Dickens and Tennyson).

7 thoughts on “The Greatest English Classic

  1. *lazy in the use of it.* – language…such an interesting topic.  One of my parenting  beliefs is that children respond in kind….if I choose my words poorly then so will the child.  The way one speaks reflects on one’s character as does posture.  Sorry if I seem off topic.
    Seems like I read that the Geneva Bible was the one Shakespeare knew best.

  2. Great post. I will have to add this book to the loooooong list.
    As far as his opinion on Austen, while it is true she may have not had the impact on the English language that some of her contemporaries had, her works *are* still widely read,   unlike some of the illustrious authors on the list. They may have made contributions that I take for granted, as a modern speaker of English. I know of some of these authors, I have read some, and others are totally unknown to me. I venture to say that Austen’s contribution to my little corner of the world is greater than those with whom I haven’t had contact.
    My ‘students’ know to call me “Mrs. Bennet” when I need it… ; )

  3. Hello.  I have been frequenting your site for awhile now and was wondering…….I homeschool, and my son (and I) is learning Latin. I know “Magistra” means female teacher but what does “mater” mean? 

  4. Hi, KC. Good for you for picking out magistra. If I could redo setting up xanga, I would capitalize both ems in the name: MagistraMater. Mater means mother. An easy way to remember is the word English word maternity. Dana, I’ve had the banner quote up a while. In fact, I’ve been thinking about changing, but a replacement hasn’t presented itself to my mind. After the wedding, haha! (Do you find yourself saying that often?)

  5. Very interesting post.  I’ve always preferred the beauty of the KJV and while Shakespeare may have preferred the Geneva Bible, the KJV used the language that was current during Shakespeare time.  Shakespeare’s plays provide much less difficulty for those familiar with the language and syntax of the KJV.
    I love the quote you mentioned: “The Bible is a book-making book.  It is literature which provokes literature.” (p.130) 

  6. The KJV was only available to Shakespeare the last several years of his life. The author mentioned that while the Bible (and yes, it was most likely the Geneva) was infused into his work, it wasn’t the KJV.

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