Thursday, March 31, 2011

"For reading and declaiming aloud"

The celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible has occasioned many appreciations. This is the best I've read. Ann Wroe, "In the Beginning Was the Sound":
The King James now breathes venerability. Even online it calls up crammed, black, indented fonts, thick rag paper and rubbed leather bindings—with, inside the heavy cover, spidery lists of family ancestors begotten long ago. To read it is to enter a sort of communion with everyone who has read or listened to it before, a crowd of ghosts: Puritan women in wide white collars, stern Victorian fathers clasping their canes, soldiers muddy from killing fields....

...[T]he grandeur of the language gives momentousness even to the corner of a room, a drain running beside a field, a patch of abandoned ground:
I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding;
And lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down.
Then I saw, and considered it well; I looked upon it, and received instruction.
Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep… (Proverbs 24:30-33, KJV)
In such places shepherds “abide” with their sheep, motionless as figures made of stone. This landscape is carved broad and deep, like a woodcut, with sharply folded mountains, thick woven water, stylised trees and cities piled and blocked as with children’s bricks (all the better to be scattered by God later, no stone upon another). A sense of desolation haunts these streets and gates, echoing and shelterless places in which even Wisdom runs wild and cries. Yet within them sometimes we find a scene paced as tensely as in any modern novel, as when a young man in Proverbs steps out,
Passing through the street near her corner; and he went the way to her house,
In the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night:
And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an harlot, and subtil of heart. (Proverbs 7:8-10, KJV)
Just as stained glass shines more brightly for being set in stone, so the King James gains in splendour by comparison with the Revised Standard, Good News, New International and Heaven-knows-what versions that have come later. Thus John’s magnificent “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, KJV), has become “The Word was already existing,” scholarship usurping splendour. That lilting line in Genesis (1:8, KJV), “And the evening and the morning were the second day” (note that second “the”, so apparently expendable, yet so necessary to the music) becomes “There was morning, and there was evening,” a broken-backed crawl. ....

Everywhere modern translations are more specific, doubtless more accurate, but always less melodious. The King James, deeply scholarly as it is, displaying the best learning of the day, never forgets that the word of God must be heard, understood and retained by the simple. For them—children repeating after the teacher, workers fidgeting in their best clothes, Tyndale’s own whistling ploughboy—rhythm and music are the best aids to remembering. This is language not for silent study but for reading and declaiming aloud. It needs to work like poetry, and poetry it is. ....

Undoubtedly the King James has been enhanced for us by the music that now curls round it. “For unto us a child is born” (Isaiah 9:6, KJV) can’t now be read without Handel’s tripping chorus, or “Man that is born of a woman” without Purcell’s yearning melancholy (“He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” Job 14:2, KJV). Even “To every thing there is a season”, from Ecclesiastes (3:1, KJV), is now overlaid with the nasal, gently stoned tones of Simon & Garfunkel. Yet the King James also lured these musicians in the beginning, snaring them with stray lines that were already singing. “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love” (Song of Solomon 2:5, KJV). “Thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns” (Psalms 22:21, KJV). “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19:1, KJV). “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls” (Job 30:29, KJV). Or this, also from the Book of Job, possibly the most beautiful of all the Bible’s books—a passage that flows from one astonishingly random and sudden question, “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” (Job 38:22, KJV):
Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Plaeiades, or loose the bands of Orion? (Job 38:28-31, KJV)
The beauty of this is inherent, deep in the original mind and eye that formed it. But again, the translators have made choices here: “hid” rather than “hidden”, “gendered” rather than “engendered”, all for the very best rhythmic reasons. We can trust them; we know that they would certainly have employed “hidden” and “engendered” if the music called for it. Unfailingly, their ear is sure. .... [read it all]
[Note: I added the "KJV" to all of the scripture references, although that should be obvious, because that allows an online link to the passage in that translation.]

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE SOUND | More Intelligent Life