Title page to the Bible translated into English, 1539
In the beginning was the word. Aelfric referred to Genesis as gecynd-boc, the book of beginnings, and we may find in its successive translations and redactions the history of the English word from its origins. The earliest version of Genesis, in the Old English of the late seventh or early eighth century, translated from a mixed Old Latin and Vulgate version, begins
Her aerest gesceop ece drihten, helm eallwihta, heofon and eorthan
“Now first the everlasting lord, protector of all things, made heaven and earth.” The two poems in the Junius manuscript, Genesis A and Genesis B, comprise almost three thousand lines of verse; they are accompanied by ink drawings as illustrations, which emphasise the importance attached to this first book of the Old Testament.
The earliest translation of Genesis in Middle English emerges in a poem of rhyming couplets which opens:
In firme biginning of noght Was hevene and erthe samen wroght
“In the first beginning of nothingness, heaven and earth were made together.” Details and digressions are incorporated within this early biblical narrative; some of them are as familiar and domestic as the marginal scenes in illuminated manuscripts, and some of them are borrowed from the context or content of medieval romance. There is evidence to suggest, too, that the narrative also became the subject of minstrels’ song. A later medieval version of Genesis, tentatively dated to the fourteenth century, is composed in the form of a metrical paraphrase:
how god, that beldes in endlese blyse, all only with hys word hath wroght, heuyn on heght for hym and hys, this erth and all that euer is oght
It is noticeable how the alliterative measure of Old English effortlessly emerges, as if in recounting the story of origins the poet instinctively turned to the original cadences of the language. This is also the pattern of Genesis in the medieval plays:
At my bydding now made be light! Light is goode, I see in sighte
The vocabulary itself is borrowed from Old English to emphasise the ancientness of the theme. Yet that which is most ancient is still of pressing and permanent significance; the actors in the mysteries conceived the drama in contemporary terms, and the words of Old English still lived within the texture of the modern language. The author of Cursor Mundi, which paraphrases Genesis in rhyming couplets, remarks that he has translated the narrative into English precisely because of its contemporary presence and significance. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales allude by allegory and analogy to the action of Genesis, while Langland uses its themes and images throughout Piers the Plowman . He refers to the book as
Genesis the gyaunt, the engendroure of vs alle
so that the text itself becomes the procreator not only of words but of destinies.
Wycliff ’s Bible, or the “Lollard Bible,” opens thus: “In the bigynnyng god made of nought: hevene and erthe/Forsothe the erthe was idel: and voide: & derknessis weren on the face of depthe.” These simple words, translated “for the profit of English men” in 1395, mark the beginning of what may be called the defiantly English translation of the sacred scriptures. Wycliff was a theologian and philosopher who challenged the jurisdiction of the Pope in England and who questioned the sacramental teaching of the Church itself. He can be seen in one sense as the academic voice of the Lollards, a loosely knit group of religious reformers who called for the removal of episcopal authority and a radical reshaping of the sacramental system. They detested all the trappings of authority, and found the Holy Spirit within the humble worship of ordinary men and women. The words of the “Lollard Bible,” then, may be said to mark the origins of English “Nonconformity” and to contain the seeds of the Reformation. They represent a genesis indeed. As one biblical historian has written recently, the “translation of the Bible into English would be a social leveller on an hitherto unknown scale.”1 If “simple men,” to use Wycliff ’s phrase, can read and understand the Bible then they may take its lessons to heart; the Bible might then become an agent of social revolution. And if simple men interpret the scripture, without the mediatory agency of the doctors and priests of the Church, the whole fabric of ecclesiastical authority might be shaken. In the prologue to the “Lollard Bible,” written by many hands and not simply by his own, Wycliff cites the example of Bede and Alfred as if the power and significance of the Old English masters could still be employed in the fourteenth century. There is, again, a continuity.
Wycliff ’s English has been described by Dean Milman as “rude, coarse, but clear, emphatic, brief, vehement, with short stinging sentences, and perpetual hard antithesis”; Wycliff himself believed that “a flowery, captivating style of address is of little value compared to right substance.”2Here too lies one of the sources of the English imagination, rooted as it is in the speech of the people and conveyed in “clear” vernacular; this concern for “substance” is a mark of the native inclination towards the practical and the pragmatic, and is one which emerges in the language of English philosophy and experiment. If indeed we can say that the predilections of Wycliff ’s faith emerged triumphantly at the time of the Reformation and the Elizabethan settlement, when the vernacular Bible was in the ascendant, then we may agree with one historian of Englishness “that religion was from the very first mingled with the sense of English identity, and that the history of English religion and the history of England are in many epochs inseparable.”3 The English became, in one favourite phrase, “the people of a book.”
The natural successor of Wycliff was William Tyndale, who translates the opening lines of Genesis in the following manner:
In the beginnying God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptye and darcknesse was upon the depe & the spirite of God moved upon the water
This represented the first English translation from the Hebrew original, commonly considered to be the language of God Himself, but Tyndale declared that his native idiom was designed to “sucke out the pithe of the scripture” in knowing or unwitting imitation of Wycliff ’s desire to elicit the “substance” of the sacred words. Thus he gives to the serpent a demotic vocabulary not unlike that of the devils in the mystery plays. “Ah, syr,” the evil one whispers to Eve; and then, in a later passage, he is casually reassuring with “Tush, ye shall not dye.” The tree itself is “lustie” to Eve’s eyes and, when she and Adam discover their nakedness, “they sawed fygge leves togedder and made them apurns”; “apurns” is a sixteenth-century variant of aprons. Tyndale employs such homely terms as “mesyllynge” for drizzle and “tyllman” for farmer, emphasising the native and vernacular idiom to which he aspired. In Genesis, Joseph is described as “a luckie felowe” wearing a “gaye” coat.
Tyndale translated only the Pentateuch, the first five books, and was never able to expedite an entire translation of the Old Testament. He had left England for Germany in 1525 in order to print and publish his work without fear of harassment or interruption from the authorities. He was already suspected of heresy; it was not clear whether he was a Lollard or a Lutheran but, at a time when the established Catholic Church was being undermined by reformers, it did not much matter. Ten years later, he was entrapped by an English agent in Antwerp, imprisoned and then strangled at the stake before his body was burnt. Yet he had managed to complete an English version of the New Testament which, in its earliest printing, included marginal notes that Thomas More and others believed to be of a Lutheran tendency. He had deemed the work to be in “proper English,” by which he meant a clear and lucid style aptly expressing the meaning of the original. While engaged in that purpose he fashioned a language of devotion that was unparalleled for its beauty and clarity until the publication of the King James Bible, which itself borrows heavily from Tyndale’s earlier translations. He came from the Vale of Berkeley in the Cotswolds, an area much loved by Lollards and Lollard preachers in the fourteenth century, and the whole wealth of the native language flooded within his classical and European learning to create an instrument of speech both subtle and supple. “Axe and it shalbe geven you. Seke and ye shall fynd. Knocke and it shalbe opened unto you.” Tyndale was a master of the short phrase, placed within the movement of a larger cadence, and this in turn is based upon a Gloucestershire dialect touched by wider understanding; it is a paradigm of the English imagination itself. It might be noticed here that Tyndale’s English reproduces “the rhythm of the original Hebrew” as well as that ancient tongue’s “balance, imagery and conciseness of expression”;4 it is another example of the ability of the English to adapt, to borrow and to synthesise. In similar fashion Tyndale created phrases which will live as long as the English language itself, such as “my brother’s keeper” in Genesis as well as “the powers that be” and “a law unto themselves.” He invented words, like “atonement” and “scapegoat,” which have also entered the language as visible tokens of the immense influence which his translation exerted.
The effect of Tyndale’s New Testament was, however, immediate and profound. Soon after its publication in Worms, in 1526, copies were smuggled into England from Antwerp, Cologne and Worms; they could be purchased clandestinely in Coleman Street, Honey Lane, or Hosier Lane. Sir Thomas More, then Lord Chancellor, denounced “nyght scoles” of dissent and sedition, where individuals and families read from Tyndale’s translations before worshipping together. A native of Chelmsford, William Maldon, decided to remedy his illiteracy precisely in order to read Tyndale’s New Testament; he described the poor men of his town who “did sit reading in lower end of church, and many would flock about to hear them reading.” When one eminent divine condemned the fact that the teachings of Wycliff were once more abroad—“trying to infiltrate this country of ours with the old and damnable heresy of Wycliff ”—the important connection is made clear. To impart the scriptures in English, apparently plain and simple English at that, was to create an entirely new religious world. As one eminent historian has written of the period after the Reformation, “Henceforth both those who accepted the Anglican supremacy and those who dissented from it expressed their beliefs in the sanctified idiom of Tyndale. God had found a voice, and the voice was English.” 5
That is why Thomas More’s The Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer is the most important religious polemic in English culture. With some half a million words of dispute and controversy, it is also certainly the longest. Yet the theme was the single most pressing of the period. As More put it, “bytwene Tyndale and me no thynge ellys in effecte, but to fynde out whyche chyrche is the very chyrche.” The English translation had in effect subtly shifted both the grounds of belief and the practice of faith; by substituting “congregation” for “church,” “elders” for “priests,” “repentance” for “penance,” “love” for “charity” and “knowledge” for “confession,” Tyndale seriously undermined the Catholic Church’s claims of universality and primacy. Their conflict represented a struggle for the soul of England itself and, although this is not the occasion to sift the dust of forgotten theological controversies, it is at least worth observing that More’s Confutation was entirely composed in English. This is in marked contrast to his most famous and distinguished work, Utopia , which was written in Latin for a European audience. Now More was directly addressing his compatriots and fellow citizens. The result was a spirited debate in the vernacular:
TYNDALE: Marke whyther yt be not true in the hyest degree . . .
MORE: Tyndale is a great marker. There is nothynge with hym now but marke, marke, marke. It is a pytye that the man were not made a marker of chases in some tenys playe.
TYNDALE: Iudge whyther yt be possible that any good sholde come oute of theyr domme ceremonyes and sacramentes.
MORE: Iudge good crysten reader whythyr yt be possyble that he be any better than a beste oute of whose brutyshe bestely mowth, commeth such a fylthye fome.
Tyndale was a grave and learned scholar; More a distinguished humanist on the European model. Yet in this dialogue they resort to the oldest patterns and resources of the language, as if there the real truth might be elicited. Thomas More in particular reverts to the power of alliteration as a way of conveying his anger, and indirectly as a token of the power of inherited speech.
The appetite for English translation, once awakened, became immense; it is as if the whole spiritual history of the world was now available to the plough-boy and the household, and over the next thirty years no fewer than five great translations of the Bible appeared; significantly, all of them were to a large extent based upon Tyndale’s original. The first complete English Bible, published in 1535, was the work of Miles Coverdale; he appears to have had little direct engagement with the original texts but, in characteristically English manner, arranged a compilation of all previous translations. His version is characterised by its ease and naturalness, harmonising previous versions and rendering euphonious existing ones; it anticipates the extraordinary achievement of the King James Bible, which, despite its role as a translation of translations, is a unique work of art. Coverdale was of pragmatic and conciliatory nature, and he took the middle way; he was concerned to resolve differences between translations, and to smooth out complexities, and it has been said that he possessed a “real gift in melodious expression” and that his translation “excels in the music of its phrasing.”6 This capacity suggests in turn that English music may itself spring out of moderation and conciliation; it is perhaps significant, therefore, that he introduced within the language such phrases as “loving kindness” and “tender mercy” which might have sprung from the lips of Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich.
Two years after the Coverdale Bible was printed and published another English work, known as “Matthew’s Bible,” appeared; it was named after the pseudonymous “translator” rather than the disciple, but it was essentially a conflation of Tyndale and Coverdale to which various marginal notes were appended. The steady pressure of inherited language continued unabated. Coverdale then in turn supervised the revision of “Matthew’s Bible,” in order to create what became known as the “Great Bible.” This reliance upon the translations of translations at least ensured a continuity of language in a period of perpetual change; it testifies also to a profound conservatism among biblical redactors which had a direct effect upon the English language itself. As one biblical scholar has put it, “the retention of older English ways of speaking in religious contexts” created “the impression that religious language was somehow necessarily archaic.” 7 By the slow and subtle process of the English imagination, the homely directness of Wycliff and the Lollards was replaced by the harmonious simplicity of the now “authorised” version of the “Great Bible” which had upon its title page an engraving of Henry VIII handing the volume in question to a grateful Archbishop of Canterbury and assorted clergy. The English Bible had at last become a central token of the national culture. William Strype declared that “Everybody that could bought the book, or busily read it, or got others to read it to them.” A contemporaneous pamphlet declared that “Englishmen have now in hand, in every church and place, the Holy Bible in their mother tongue, instead of the old fabulous and fantastical books of the Table Round, Lancelot du Lake, Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick etc. and such other, whose impure filth and vain fabulosity the light of God has abolished utterly.”
Another version, “Taverner’s Bible,” was disseminated in 1539 but it was overshadowed by the Great Bible, which was in turn supplanted by the Geneva Bible or “Breeches Bible”; Tyndale’s “aprons” had been succeeded, in other words, by “breeches.” It was the work of several hands but relied once more upon its precursors. Nevertheless it cleared up certain absurdities by direct reference to Hebrew originals and, with the more vigorous expression represented by the use of “breeches,” it revitalised the line of English music as it flowed through the various translations. The first line of its Genesis marks a new beginning in another sense—“In the beginning God created ye heaven and ye earth”—which has remained ever since the plangent introduction to sacred scripture. Other of its changes have entered the language. The translators altered the wording of the twenty-third psalm so that “leade me forth besyde the waters of comforte” became “& leadeth me by the stil waters,” for example, while “my cup shalbe full” was changed to “my cup runneth ouer.” The extraordinary significance of the English Bible, within the English imagination, is testified in phrases such as these which have entered the national consciousness.
Sixty editions of the Geneva Bible appeared during the reign of Elizabeth; by the middle of the seventeenth century 140 had been promulgated. It was produced in compact quarto size, rather than in cumbersome folio. It was the first to be printed in clear roman type, with italics to suggest the meaning of missing words, and was divided into discrete units of verse. More significantly it provided annotations and explanations of difficult passages or “hard places” for the edification of “the simple reader.” The Geneva Bible was employed directly by Shakespeare and by Marlowe, thus assuring its place in English cultural history. Here once more is evidence of that curious and powerful tendency within English letters to appropriate and to reformulate foreign texts so that they become thoroughly English in the process; the effect is heightened in the biblical context by the fact that the English of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were identified with the Hebrews as the “chosen race.”
Two other translations appeared at the close of the sixteenth century. A more orthodox “Bishops’ Bible” avoided the taint of Calvinist precepts, while the Catholic Douay Bible preserved a Latinate diction appropriate for the “old faith”; but these were mere milestones, as it were, to the great achievement of the King James Bible which has aptly been described as the supreme manifestation of the English language. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” It is impossible to use the language without being influenced by the cadence and vocabulary of this translation; and it says much about the English imagination itself that it should be so moved and modified by a translation. It is significant, too, that this extraordinary work should have been produced out of compromise and the wholesale adaptation of different sources. It might act as a mirror of Englishness itself. With the eventual publication of the King James Bible, it could even be asserted that “God is an Englishman.”
James I had been so disturbed by the popularity of the Geneva Bible, which seemed in its annotations to deny the divine right of kings as well as to perpetrate other puritanical abuses of scripture, that he assembled a conference at Hampton Court “for the reformation of some things amiss in ecclesiastical matters.” In the course of this conference it was proposed that a company of translators be established in order to begin work upon a wholly new translation which would avoid the excesses of Puritanism, Presbyterianism and Roman Catholicism. Their standard text was to be the Bishops’ Bible but other versions were to be employed when they were closer to the sacred originals, in the sequence of “Tindoll’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva.” Here is one “line” of English music whereby each version harmonises with, and amplifies, its predecessor. There were fifty scholars whose “endeavour” or “mark” was “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” Their purpose was to redeploy the resources of an older English—Tyndale’s translation, which comprises some nine-tenths of the King James version, had been published almost a century before—so that it might reverberate in another era and, indeed, in subsequent centuries. It is a memorable fact of English continuity or conservatism that all the changes wrought in the language during the period of Shakespeare and Marlowe were set aside for the simplicity and directness of Tyndale’s vernacular.
The preface to the King James Bible is itself an epitome of the English genius for assimilation and adaptation, since translation “it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel . . . that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.” Yet by that curious transformation, already observed in a variety of contexts, this translated work “played no small part in shaping English literary nationalism, by asserting the supremacy of the English language as means of conveying religious truths.”8 Indeed it became the touchstone of English literary culture itself. In his lectures “On Translating Homer,” Matthew Arnold declared that there is “an English book and one only, where, as in the Iliad itself, perfect plainness of speech is allied with perfect nobleness; and that book is the Bible.” Thus it had become known as an “English book.” Many phrases from Hebrew, Greek and Latin were internalised and domesticated so that they seem as much part of the language as any phrase out of Old English. Alister McGrath, in his erudite study of the King James Bible entitled In the Beginning, records many of these now idiomatic phrases taken out of the Hebrew; among them “sour grapes,” “rise and shine,” “a fly in the ointment,” “a drop in the bucket,” “to lick the dust,” “the land of the living,” “the skin of my teeth” and to “go from strength to strength.” From the Greek originals spring “the salt of the earth” and “a thorn in the flesh.” No one would now know that these were originally foreign phrases imported in the early seventeenth century; it is testimony to the plastic power of the English language, and of course the English imagination, that they have been so thoroughly absorbed that they are now an instinctive and intimate part of speech. As McGrath put it, the King James Bible demonstrated the fact that English is “perhaps the global language which has been most welcoming to words whose origins lie elsewhere.”9 Perhaps this extraordinary adaptive ability is the very reason why the language has attained its contemporary global status, far surpassing the Latin tongues of the classical and medieval centuries.
The King James Bible was not simply a translated work but, as has been intimated, already an antiquated one. This in turn suggests the almost intuitive antiquarianism of the English imagination, since within this new version were perpetuated “thou” rather than “you” and “sayest” rather than “says.” Then, on a more general scale, the cadences and syntactical variations of an earlier language were also maintained. By remaining faithful to earlier English translations, the King James Bible did in fact preserve old forms of speech. Here lies another aspect of the fidelity to an older English tradition; the scholars read out their translations to one another, so that in a sense the native breath or breadth might enter their words. The spoken word is always a more conservative form than the written language; one of the secrets of the King James Bible’s success, and of its continuity, lies in its employment of this natural power.
It is perhaps appropriate that the King James Bible should have been published in 1611, the presumed date of Shakespeare’s retirement from the public theatre; in one sense it continued the dramatist’s tradition and, by inheriting the language from Chaucer as well as Genesis, from Spenser as well as from the Psalms, it continued the line of English music itself. The Coverdale Bible translated the phrase from I Kings 19 as “a styll softe hyssinge” but the Matthew Bible changed this to “a small styll voyce” until the King James Bible rewrote it memorably as “a still small voice.” Thus the line of biblical translations into English has been described as “both cumulative and progressive, like the course of a river” while the King James Bible itself has been characterised “by its smoothness, its even-flowing tempo, its ease and naturalness and harmony.” 10 As one biblical scholar has put it, “all previous versions . . . resonate somewhere in their text.” In translation, too, there is also a measure of self-effacement. As the Preface to the King James Bible stated of its contributors, “There were many chosen, that were greater in other men’s eyes than in their own, and that sought the truth rather than their own praise.”
We may look for its influence in the language itself or, as John Livingston Lowes puts it, “its phraseology has become part and parcel of our common language—bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh.” We can trace it in the work of Milton and Bunyan, Tennyson and Byron, Johnson and Gibbon, Walton and Thackeray, none of whom according to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch could resist “the rhythms of our Bible . . . it is everything we see, hear, feel because it is in us, in our blood.” More significantly for this study, perhaps, we may trace its effect in the immediate outpouring of religious literature in the vernacular. The King James Bible invigorated the consciousness of the nation, and prompted some of its most eloquent manifestations. The religious controversies of the seventeenth century were now conducted within an entirely national context, and the publication of the Bible heralded a vast outpouring of religious poetry, books of devotion, tracts and pamphlets of every kind; religious poetry had a political dimension, and political poetry wore a spiritual aspect. It has been estimated that, in the first forty years of the century, one half of the books printed were concerned wholly or partly with religious topics. The enthusiasm attendant upon the assorted creeds of Anabaptists, Laudians, Levellers, Presbyterians, Calvinists, Puritans and Anglicans, was itself directly related to the translation of the Bible; but even after the civil war and the Protectorate religious texts were at a premium. Volumes such as Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying and John Rawlet’s The Christian Monitor passed through innumerable editions; one optimistic publisher believed that Benjamin Keach’s War with the Devil and Travels of True Godliness would sell “till the end of time.” Volumes of sermons were also in great demand, while religious poetry flourished in the form of songs and emblems, odes and cantatas.
In this context both the new prominence of the hymn, in a church service set in the vernacular, and the popularity of the Psalms, newly translated into English, are instructive. They could now be sung by congregations, to readily recognisable tunes. The central principles of devotional writing had become those of simplicity and intelligibility; the central role afforded to the English Bible led naturally and ineluctably to a more profound attention to the word, written or spoken, rather than to the drama and gesture of the Mass. Multiple interpretations of the Bible, the scholastic equivalent of polyphony, were displaced by a plainer and more literal elucidation of the sacred texts. Thus the Westminster Directory of 1644 suggests that “in singing of Psalms the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered, but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.” In a sermon preached at Oxford in 1668 Robert South, the Public Orator to that university, disparaged pulpit eloquence which consisted in “difficult Nothings, Rabbinical Whimsies, and remote Allusions.” The sentiments are part of a general English aversion to florid discourse or openly expressed sentiment, but the tone and rigour of this return to “plain” and traditional English are a direct consequence of the publication of the King James Bible.
No more striking evidence of its influence can be found than in the pages of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the plain-speaking narrator weaves the words of the King James version within the texture of his prose. In this passage, “Safe for those for whom it is to be safe, but transgressors shall fall therein . . . for saith he, Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips, I have kept them from the paths of the destroyer. Thus they lay bewailing themselves in the Net,” the italicised words are taken from that version. It has been said of Bunyan himself that “some phrase or sentence from the English Bible suddenly speaks to him in an hour of crisis . . . the thought as it is incarnated in the familiar words of the Authorized Version.” 12 Bunyan emphasised the traditional plainness of King James when he declared that “I have not writ at a venture, nor borrowed my Doctrine from Libraries. I depend upon the sayings of no man: I found it in the Scriptures of Truth, among the true sayings of God.” The plain speaking of this plain man, inherited in one sense from William Langland and Piers the Plowman, is here given doctrinal authority from the example of the vernacular Bible. Thus at any point in the text passages may be selected which derive from the same source. “Ah thou sinful sleep! How for thy sake am I like to be benighted in my Journey! I must walk without the Sun, darkness must cover the path of my feet, and I must hear the noise of doleful Creatures, because of my sinful sleep!” None of this could have been written without the influence and example of the English Bible; its vocabulary and cadence are everywhere apparent and, if we concur that The Pilgrim’s Progress is “the first modern English novel,”13 then the King James Bible has been influential indeed. In the nineteenth century, however, Southey made the essential point that Bunyan’s “homespun style” represented “a clear stream of current English.” So it may be inferred that the King James Bible helped to confirm and to emphasise an existing tradition within the language. That is why it has been suggested that The Pilgrim’s Progress represents “a bridge between two worlds, the medieval and the modern”14 in precisely the manner that the Authorised Version may be said to “bridge” that gap or transition between Wycliff and the seventeenth century.
The connection between English spirituality and the English imagination is in fact a continuous and permanent one. It is only necessary to note, in the eighteenth century, the unique popularity of the biblical oratorio. The success of Handel’s productions, in particular, rested partly on the identification of the English with the Israelites of the Old Testament and their especial rank as God’s “chosen people.” The oratorios, in the words of one musical historian, “made the history of the Hebrews into a kind of ‘national epic’ in which Englishmen could see themselves.” 15 It is an ancient and well-worn theme; a century before, John Milton remarked that “God reveals himself to his servants and, as his manner is, first to his Englishmen.” It is the secret of Handel’s Messiah which, according to one commentator, “sums up to perfection and with the greatest eloquence the religious faith, ethical, congregational, and utterly unmystical, of the average Englishman.”16 Handel himself became a naturalised Englishman in 1727, after his art had been thoroughly assimilated. The power of place is once again manifested. We may call it placism, as an antidote to racism. The English oratorio was in fact a distinct and readily identifiable form; it was adapted from continental models and from its inception incorporated English, French, Italian and German elements to create a familiar mixed and “mungrell” style. It was part drama, part anthem, and part epic; it moved from the sublime to the tender, and thus amply fulfilled the English appetite for variety and theatricality. Just as the Elizabethan settlement of the sixteenth century afforded a practical “middle ground” for those of different political persuasions, so the eighteenth-century oratorio “established a common ground for expressing certain basic religious beliefs that reunited the English as no other area of the nation’s culture had done.” 17 A pragmatic instinct is at work, whereby the beliefs and practices of the Church are subtly united with the rituals of English social life.
The popularity of the hymn, in the eighteenth century, manifests a similar spirit of commonality drawn in large part from the fellowship of the vernacular in biblical translations. The fact that Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and Joseph Addison all wrote popular hymns is a clear indication, also, that they could encompass various forms of popular devotion. The hymn itself has been described by Helen Gardner as “the great eighteenth-century lyric form,” so that “the glory of the eighteenth century in religious poetry lies in its hymns.”18 When they are praised for their clarity and plainness, as well as for their “impersonal majesty,” the affiliations with the English translations of the Bible are again manifest. When Isaac Watts wrote:
My best-Beloved keeps his Throne On Hills of Light, in Worlds unknown; But he descends, and shows his Face In the young Gardens of his Grace
he could not have composed the lines without the direct impress of the King James Bible and of the religious poetry which sprang from it. “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” perhaps the most famous of all English hymns, is directly based upon a psalm translation. When it is stated that “the purpose of a hymn is to create the sense of belonging to a continuing fellowship . . . a sense of unity with fathers and forefathers,”19 that unity is the English imagination itself.