Thursday 20 January 2011

The King James Version

It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black...

Thus begins Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood. Bible-black is a lovely phrase because, even though my own copy of the King James Version is obstinately brown, I know exactly what he means. The alliteration of Bible-black also makes it a pleasure to say aloud.

The Bible infects and infests our imaginations and our language. This is, dear reader, a Good Thing, because the language of the King James Version is bloody beautiful. John Ruskin once wrote:

Walter Scott and Pope's Homer were reading of my own election, but my mother forced me, by steady daily toil, to learn long chapters of the Bible by heart; as well as to read it every syllable through, aloud, hard names and all, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, about once a year; and to that discipline -- patient, accurate, and resolute -- I owe, not only a knowledge of the book, which I find occasionally serviceable, but much of my general power of taking pains, and the best part of my taste in literature. From Walter Scott's novels I might easily, as I grew older, have fallen to other people's novels; and Pope might, perhaps, have led me to take Johnson's English, or Gibbon's, as types of language; but once knowing the 32nd of Deuteronomy, the 119th Psalm, the 15th of 1st Corinthians, the Sermon on the Mount, and most of the Apocalypse, every syllable by heart, and having always a way of thinking with myself what words meant, it was not possible for me, even in the foolishest times of youth, to write entirely superficial or formal English.

Anything that keeps you away from Walter Scott is a blessing. However, Ruskin's mother must have been a terrifying woman: Psalm 119 is jormungandrian in length (it's an abecedarian acrostic in Hebrew). Deuteronomy 32, though, was a fine choice:

My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass

And so it did, through the strange and sumptuous language of the KJV.

I was reminded of all this by a splendid little article over at the BBC on the King James Bible and how it changed English. I recommend it and you can find it here.

However, the BBC article makes no mention at all of Myles Coverdale, which is a trifle unfair. So I would direct you to this antediluvian post on how iron enters into your soul.

And all the Inky Fool's biblical posts are collected here

P.S. It's worthwhile looking for the misprint in the picture on the top right.


  1. "Thou shalt commit adultery" - it would appear that I'm covered, then.

  2. It's known as The Sinner's Bible of 1631. Only eleven copies survive.

  3. Bulbous warty scrotum face!

  4. Interesting had to google "thou shalt commit adultery":

  5. I guess lots of people were very happy to shalt instead of shalt not when that Sinners Bible came out.