Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Posts tagged “King James Bible

Looking Back, and Far Ahead

The Jerusalem Chamber. (c) Westminster Abbey.

The Jerusalem Chamber, (c) Westminster Abbey.

I’m writing this from Borough High St. in Southwark (London), a few blocks from Southwark Cathedral, and in the vicinity of what used to be Winchester Palace, the London residence of the Bishop of Winchester. Lancelot Andrewes, translator of the King James Bible and perhaps supervisor of the First Westminster Company, was granted the bishopric in 1618. He is buried in Southwark Cathedral and is represented in effigy lying on top of his tomb.

London is full of reminders of the translation of the English Bible. Across London Bridge, which is just up the road and on the right, is the church of St. Magnus Martyr. Miles Coverdale, who translated the first complete English Bible (apart from the Wycliffites), is buried there, since he served for a time as rector.

William Tyndale. English translation, Pentateuch. 1530. Ohio State University.

William Tyndale. English translation, Pentateuch. 1530. Ohio State University.

William Tyndale, translator of translators, is buried in Vilvoorde in the Netherlands, where he was strangled and burned, but his sculpted head is included as a decorative architectural feature at St. Dunstan-in-the-West, where he lectured. John Donne later preached at St. Dunstan’s.  A little south of St. Paul’s, where Donne was dean, stood the church of Holy Trinity the Less, destroyed in the Great Fire. John Rogers, the man responsible for Matthew’s Bible (1537), was rector there a few years earlier. He was later burned alive as a heretic at Smithfield, a 10 minute walk north, near the church of St. Bartholomew the Great. Benjamin Franklin worked briefly for a printer in the Lady Chapel of St. Bart’s.

Of course, Westminster itself, the location of two companies of the King James Bible translators, is down the Thames to the west. Thomas Bilson, Bishop of Winchester (before Andrewes), member of the Second Cambridge Company, and one of the revisers of the final King James Bible text, is buried in Westminster Abbey, as is, of course, King James I. Archbishop Matthew Parker, who supervised the translation of the Bishops’ Bible (1568), is buried at Lambeth just across the Thames.

Erasmus. Novum Testamentum. 1519. Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Erasmus. Novum Testamentum. 1519. Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

The celebrations of the King James Bible anniversary have died down here. There are no upcoming events listed on the website of the King James Bible Trust. And in the United States, the tour of Manifold Greatness comes to end on July 12—oddly enough, my birthday. Perhaps more appropriately, it is the date of the death of Erasmus (1536), who produced the Greek text of the New Testament that became known as the Textus Receptus, an essential resource for translators from William Tyndale to the King James Bible companies.

As I reflect on the long history of Manifold Greatness, from its inception and planning, to the years of research, to the exhibition at the Folger, to the long journey of the panel exhibitions, I wonder what lies ahead for the King James Bible in 2111. Will the 500th anniversary be celebrated as were the 400th and the 300th? Will the King James Bible still be in use in some churches? Will American presidents still be sworn in on it? Will the King James Bible have an afterlife in the 21st century? Will some lecturer refer back to the 2011 anniversary celebrations at the Folger, as I referred in my opening lecture to celebrations in New York and London in 1911? Few of us will know. As Matthew writes, “of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


“Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land”: The King James Bible and the Liberty Bell

Liberty Bell. National Park Service.

Liberty Bell. National Park Service. The line from the King James Bible is near the top of the bell.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Liberty Bell is that it was first cast many years before the American Revolution, in 1751—not in 1776, as one might assume. Pennsylvania’s colonial assembly ordered a bell for its state house, specifying that the London company making the bell place on it a passage from the King James Bible, Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.” That phrase was apparently a reference to the liberties established in the Pennsylvania colony by its Quaker founder William Penn, including religious freedom and the powers of the legislative assembly. Anti-slavery advocates later gave the Liberty Bell its name based on the biblical words, and used it as an abolitionist symbol starting in the 1830s.

As explained by the National Park Service, the first bell cracked almost immediately after it reached Philadelphia. The same metal was used to cast a second bell, with the same biblical language, in 1753. That one—the bell we know today—lasted until 1846, when a crack appeared and another followed, retiring it from service. What would the Liberty Bell sound like if it had never cracked? For that matter, what would it sound like if it were rung today, as-is? Thanks to a computer model described in this article on a National Park Service website, you can hear it for yourself. Just select the  audio links for the “unbroken” or “cracked” Liberty Bell.

Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, is a joint project of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, with assistance from the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, that marked the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Bible. A traveling exhibit to 40 libraries around the United States is now at the 40th library, the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library in Conyers, Georgia, through next Friday, July 12. Manifold Greatness also includes an extensive website with image galleries, original videos, interactive timelines, and more.


Fine Press Books and the King James Bible

Song of Solomon. Chapman and Hall, 1897. Cary Collection, RIT.

Song of Solomon. Chapman and Hall, 1897. Cary Collection, RIT.

The 40-location Manifold Greatness traveling exhibit is in the midst of its grand finale at the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library of the Rockdale-Conyers Library System in Conyers, Georgia; the Conyers exhibit runs through July 12, the final day of the 40-site tour. Several months from now, the recently retired panels will be on view in Rochester, New York, as explained by Manifold Greatness co-curator Steven Galbraith:

A few weeks ago one of the four sets of the traveling Manifold Greatness exhibition arrived at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where they will be on display one last time this coming fall. Although that’s still several months away, I couldn’t resist putting up a few of the panels. It reminded me of my second post to the Manifold Greatness blog, The Exhibition Panels Have Arrived, back on April 15, 2011 (see photo below). I felt like I was being reacquainted with old friends, to whom I want to introduce new friends at RIT.

The focus of the RIT’s Cary Collection differs quite a lot from that of my previous home at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Cary Collection documents the history of graphic communication, with an emphasis on the history of printing. One of the strongest collections here is of fine press books; that is, books that exhibit exceptional quality in design, materials, and execution. With this in mind, the Cary Collection’s version of Manifold Greatness will present the history of the King James Bible alongside 19th and 20th-century fine press editions of the Bible, most of which use the King James translation as their text.

Bible, Doves Press. 1903-05. Cary Collection, RIT.

Bible, Doves Press. 1903-05. Cary Collection, RIT.

For example, the edition of the King James Bible printed by The Doves Press is a typographical masterpiece (Hammersmith, England, 1903-1905). Designed to reflect 15th-century Venetian printing, this Bible has little ornamentation, letting the text speak for itself through an elegant typeface. The type’s designer and founder of the Doves Press, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, is as famous for his type design as he is for what he eventually did with his type. In 1916 he threw his type and the punches and matrices used to make it into the River Thames. A dramatic end to the Doves Press.

The edition of The Song of Solomon published by Chapman and Hall in 1897 features beautiful Pre-Raphaelite-inspired plates designed by H. Granville Fell, but what makes the Cary Collection copy so outstanding is the book’s vellucent binding by Cedric Chivers (1853-1929) from Bath, England. In preparing a vellucent binding, a painting on paper is set beneath a translucent layer of vellum, so that the image can be seen through it. Any tooling, like the good tooling used in this design, was applied to the outside of the binding.  Not only does this technique create a striking binding, but it also ensures that the painting won’t be damaged when the book is handled or shelved between other books.

April 15, 2011: The day the panels arrived! Folger exhibition team. L to R, curator Hannibal Hamlin, exhibitions manager Caryn Lazzuri, curator Steve Galbraith

April 15, 2011: The day the panels arrived! Folger exhibition team. L to R, curator Hannibal Hamlin, exhibitions manager Caryn Lazzuri, curator Steve Galbraith

One last example from the Cary Collection demonstrates that illustrations found in fine press editions of the King James Bible can be as remarkable as the type and the bindings. One of the most famous printmakers and type designers of the early twentieth century is Eric Gill (1882–1940). If you have used the typeface Gill Sans, then you are familiar with Gill’s work. Gill created 50 illustrations for The Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Four Gospels (1931). Look through these pages to see the Deposition of Christ as told in the Gospel of Mark, and notice how Gill incorporates the word “And” into the design. Joseph of Arimathea actually stands on the letter N, while a figure, perhaps Mary, the mother of Jesus, climbs a ladder that scales the side of the letter A. Mary Magdalene holds Jesus at the base of the cross.

These are just a few of the fine press editions of the King James Bible that will be on display at the Cary Collection this coming fall when we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible. I guess it will officially be the 402nd anniversary, but who’s counting?

Steven Galbraith, Curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at Rochester Institute of Technology, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Digital Footprints on the Sands of Time

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, Death Valley. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, photo by Carol M. Highsmith. LC-DIG-highsm-24050.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, photo by Carol M. Highsmith. LC-DIG-highsm-24050.

“Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime. / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time”

In these familiar lines from his 1838 poem “A Psalm of Life,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow offered the famous image of “footprints on the sands of time.” Written during the years after the death of the poet’s first wife and before his marriage to his second, the poem is one of those that Longfellow liked to call his “psalms.” The footprints are also a great image for the sometimes fleeting, sometimes longer lasting, digital materials that emerge from major projects today.

Our Manifold Greatness project has certainly left behind hundreds, if not thousands, of ephemeral footprints on Twitter, Facebook, and local news site calendars; it also leaves some more enduring footpaths that seem likely to continue long after this project is complete. In addition to the project’s own core resources previously chronicled on this blog (the website, the app, the Folger videos, the traveling exhibit YouTube videos, the Folger exhibition pages, the exhibition opening podcast, and more), Manifold Greatness has inspired a far-flung array of other online materials. Here’s a trail guide to those we’ve spotted so far:

Baker Beach, San Francisco. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, photo by Carol M. Highsmith. LC-DIG-highsm-20593.

Baker Beach, San Francisco. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, photo by Carol M. Highsmith. LC-DIG-highsm-20593.

On iTunes U, look for the series of Manifold Greatness lectures at Oxford (as audio or video). At the University of Wyoming, a Manifold Greatness page in the Wyoming Scholars Repository brings together five illustrated lecture videos (also available on YouTube): “The Role the King James Bible Played in Mormonism and the Settlement of the West” (Philip Barlow), “The World’s First Scripture Translations: The Targums and the Septuagint” (Paul V.M. Fletcher), “Seventeenth Century Needleworks and the King James Bible” (Susan Frye), and “Jerome’s Vulgate Translation: The First People’s Bible” (Kris Utterback).

Several of the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibit host libraries—particularly those at colleges and universities—used Libguides to create what are, in effect, small, focused websites, ranging from lists of books and resources at that library, to online sources, to detailed surverys of the exhibit cases in their own accompanying exhibitions. So far, we know of seven Manifold Greatness Libguides, all quite different, and each leaving its own set of digital footprints to follow: Arizona State University Libraries, Harford Community College Library, Loyola Marymount University, Pepperdine University Libraries, University of Wyoming Libraries, Whitworth University Library, and (on the King James Bible Quadricentennial), William Carey University.

On Vimeo, Claremont Graduate University, one of the earliest Manifold Greatness exhibit sites, has posted “‘A Bible! A Bible! We Have Got a Bible!': Mormonism’s Selective Affair with the King James Bible” (Patrick Mason) and “The Bible and Translation” (Tammi Schneider). And in the last two weeks, the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library in Conyers, Georgia, posted on Vimeo, too, sharing a recent presentation by Michael Morgan on “The Origins of the King James Bible,” that includes highlights of Morgan’s collection of Bibles and related materials, including Handel’s Messiah.

We invite you to follow some of these Manifold Greatness digital footprints, and see what new content and ideas you may find. But don’t be too surprised if you discover, over the years, that some of the links are broken and their footprints faded back into the sand. As Longfellow noted in 1838, such is the nature of life—digital and otherwise.

Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible is on exhibit at the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library in Conyers, Georgia, through July 12.


A Grand Tour Draws to a Close

A large crowd gathered to hear four Kennesaw State University faculty disccus the history and language of the King James Bible.

A large crowd gathered to hear four Kennesaw State University faculty discuss the history and language of the King James Bible in Kennesaw, GA.

It feels like yesterday that I was drafting the itinerary for the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition to libraries. Almost two years later, the exhibition has traveled to 40 libraries across the United States, and it wraps up at its final site—Nancy Guinn Memorial Library of the Conyers-Rockdale Library System in Conyers, Georgia—on July 12, 2013. The ALA Public Programs Office has been honored to coordinate the tour to public and academic libraries, who presented a variety of free humanities programs in conjunction with the exhibition.

Host libraries enthusiastically planned for Manifold Greatness. Library patrons were exposed to more than 230 programs related to the King James Bible—and more than 130,000 people visited the exhibition over the course of the project! To illustrate the creative hard work of library hosts, here is a sampling of just a few of the many unique programs presented:

  • The Sacred Praise Chorale chorale performs at Loyola Marymount University. Photo by Jeannine Emmett.

    The Sacred Praise Chorale chorale at Loyola Marymount University in California. Photo by Jeannine Emmett.

    Lecture: “The King’s English in a Tamil Tongue” was presented by Dr. Dyron Daughrity—Pepperdine University Library, Malibu, CA

  • Lecture: “King James Bible and Two of Its Famous Contemporaries: William Shakespeare and John Milton” was presented by Drs. Edward Jones and David Anderson, followed by discussion—Oklahoma State University Library, Stillwater, OK
  • Lecture: “The Role the KJB Played in Mormonism and the Settlement of the West” was presented by Dr. Philip L. Barlow, Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture, Utah State University—University of Wyoming Libraries, Laramie, WY
  • Activity: “Illuminations Family Night,” a family activity in which the Utah Calligraphy Artists taught children about illuminating manuscripts—Provo Library, Provo, UT
  • Musical performance: “Praise Ye The Lord: A Festival of Hymns Inspired by the King James Bible,” music performance, script, and sing-a-long of hymns—Transylvania County Library, Brevard, NC
  • At Rhodes College. L to R: Naomi Tadmor, Vincent Wimbush, Hannibal Hamlin, Ena Heller, Robert Alter

    At Rhodes College in Memphis: Naomi Tadmor, Vincent Wimbush, Hannibal Hamlin, Ena Heller, Robert Alter

    Demonstration: “Teen 19th Century Bloggers”; Tracy Honn of Silver Buckle Press demonstrated the use of a nineteenth century printing press for ages 11 to 18—Verona Public Library, Verona, WI

  • Lecture: “Covering the Feet: Scatological References in the King James Bible” was presented by Dr. Daniel C. Browning, Jr. who discussed the King James Bible from an archaeologist’s point of view—William Carey University, Hattiesburg, MS
  • Presentation: “Impact of Scripture on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” a lecture given by Reverend O’Neil Wiley, was accompanied by dramatic readings from two of Dr. King’s speeches by University of Mobile theater major Broderick S. Ryans—Ben May Main Library of the Mobile Public Library, Mobile, AL
  • Lecture: “The First Editions of the King James Bible: Misprints and Misfortunes” was presented by Dr. Pablo Alvarez, who talked about the printing process that led to errors in the first editions of the King James Bible—Van Wylen Library, Hope College, Holland, MI
  • Presentation: “The Family Bible: A Historical and Genealogical Resource” offered owners of family bibles information on how to use their treasured family heirlooms as a tool when doing genealogical and historical research—Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA
  • Lecture: “Catholics and the King James Bible: Stories from England, Ireland, and America” was presented by Dr. Ellie Bagley from Middlebury College—Rhodes College, Memphis, TN
Manifold Greatness visitors, Kellenberger Library, Northwest Christian University, Eugene, Oregon

Northwest Christian University, Eugene, Oregon

In addition to stellar program line-ups, libraries reported that the exhibit provided them with the opportunity to try new programming formats.

Project Director Katy Kelly at the University of Dayton opened up exhibit-related brown bag lunches—typically limited to faculty and staff—to the public. Kelly said the new lunchtime presentations were very well-attended and “brought greater awareness to the local community of the kinds of scholarship and research our faculty undertake.”

Project director Steve Silver of Northwest Christian University commented on the long-term impact of hosting the exhibit. He said, “Connections made with local groups as a result of Manifold Greatness endure after a year and a half since we hosted the exhibit. Those connections would not have been made without the requirements of the grant.”

Even though the exhibition’s grand tour is coming to an end, ALA looks forward to building on the inspiring success of Manifold Greatness in our future work with libraries.

Jennifer Dominiak is a program officer for exhibitions in the Public Programs Office at the American Library Association.


Just for Kids (and Families): Berry Ink, Online Printing, and More

From "Making a Ruff" craft video, www.manifoldgreatness.org

From “Making a Ruff” craft video

The King James Bible has inspired plenty of children’s and family activities as part of the Manifold Greatness project. One of the most popular original videos on our YouTube channel is Making Ink. There’s a sequel to that one, Making a Quill Pen, another video on Making a Quarto, and still another on Making a Ruff—the essential fashion statement for a well-dressed King James Bible translator!

And there’s more: on our Manifold Greatness website, all four craft videos come with suggested supplies and other tips. (There’s a printing demonstration video by Manifold Greatness co-curator Steven Galbraith, too.)  The website’s Kids Zone also includes All About the King James Bible, which is filled with cool facts and image galleries, a family guide, and many online activities.

King James Coloring
Among the online games and activities, you’ll see some of our favorite features, including a “translator scavenger hunt” that helps you search for a translator’s ink, pen, glasses, and more, an audio-rich translation comparison, an online printing press, the chance to design your own book bindings, crossword puzzles, and highly original pictures to color.

For more materials on the subject, you may wish to explore our past blog posts on Ideas for Educators (from Teacher Appreciation Week in 2011) and The KJB and Young Audiences, as well as this report from Tifton, Georgia, on a Making a Quarto workshop during the Tifton exhibit of Manifold Greatness. (For more on a family classic influenced by the King James Bible, by the way, read Manifold Greatness co-curator Hannibal Hamlin’s post on My Favorite Exhibition Item?, including his thoughts on A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965).)

Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, is on view at Nancy Guinn Memorial Library in Conyers, Georgia, through July 12, 2013. For a wealth of material on earlier English Bibles, the origins and translation of the King James Bible, its diverse early formats, and its widespread cultural, literary, and social influence for the next 400 years, see our website, www.manifoldgreatness.org.


The Blog Revisited: Anniversaries, Holidays, and Happy Birthdays

Handel's Messiah. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Toronto, Canada. Photo by Gary Beechey.

Handel’s Messiah sing-along. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Toronto, Canada. Photo by Gary Beechey.

You may have noticed that Hannibal Hamlin’s recent post on Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, and the King James Bible began “Happy Birthday Walter!” And with good reason. As we look back on the Manifold Greatness blog since its own birth announcement on March 15, 2011, birthdays and other anniversaries have been an enormous help to us in tracing the origins and cultural influences of the 1611 King James Bible, from its time to the present day. Many of our posts have been quite different, of course, with no anniversary connotation. But again and again, we’ve found that anniversary dates are a welcome and frequent part of the mix.

A special date, like Whitman’s birthday, not only gives a blog post an easy-to-understand reason for appearing when it does; it often means that there will be other links and resources elsewhere for readers to explore on the same day on the same topic. For our  blog, paying attention to such dates has also created, in effect, a real-world immersion in the width and breadth of the King James Bible’s influence, so that we find ourselves noting the anniversary of the first Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) one day, the death date of reggae superstar Bob Marley another day, and the death of King James Bible translator John Rainolds on yet another. Others in an almost endless list of examples include the anniversaries of the reading from Genesis from Apollo 8 in lunar orbit, the death of William Blake, and the death of Elvis Presley.

Drummer boy, Manassas 150th anniversary. Copyright Jeff Mauritzen and Discover Prince William & Manassas, VA.

Drummer boy, Manassas 150th anniversary. Copyright Jeff Mauritzen and Discover Prince William & Manassas, VA.

Anniversary dates can be tough deadlines, too. Behind the scenes, we’ve occasionally found ourselves scrambling to create a post on or near belatedly discovered date. Steve Galbraith produced that post on the anniversary of Bob Marley’s death in a matter of hours; Helen Moore, at the Bodleian, wrote the Rainolds tribute in very short order; and, quite recently, Hannibal Hamlin marked the rarely noted anniversary of the death of Casiodoro de Reina, a crucial early Spanish Bible translator, with just a few hours’ notice. For all of which and more, many thanks to all three!

King James Bible-influenced poems, songs, movies, television shows, and other creative works have anniversaries to celebrate, too, from the release of the 1956 film version of Moby Dick to the debut of the Byrds’ Turn, Turn, Turn. Handel’s Messiah has given rise on this blog to posts on Handel’s birthday, the anniversary of the oratorio’s original Dublin premiere, and the modern custom of performing it in the days before Christmas rather than during Lent, the period before Easter. Christmas and Easter, of course, are among the annual holidays—religious and secular, fixed-date like Christmas and moveable feast like Easter—that we have marked on the blog, too, which has also included posts tied to Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, among others.

Ultimately, the impulse to celebrate anniversaries led to the entire Manifold Greatness project, inspired by the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Bible, and to countless other projects around the globe in the anniversary year of 2011. But the same impulse has also inspired a modern King James Bible myth. The natural desire to link the King James Bible to a specific date, as well as to the year 1611, has led to the widespread, but false, idea that the King James Bible was first published on May 2, one of several King James Bible myths debunked on this blog over time.

King James himself, of course, is inevitably linked to several anniversary dates, including the date of his coronation. On June 19, 2011, we first wished him “Happy Birthday, King James!” You can wish him the same next Wednesday, as June 19 rolls around once more.


Walt Whitman’s American Bible

Whitman, Leaves of Grass. 1856. Drew Univ. Library, gift of Norman Tomlinson, Jr.

Whitman, Leaves of Grass. 1856. Drew Univ. Library, gift of Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr.

Happy Birthday, Walter! Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is deeply indebted to the King James Bible, despite Whitman’s claims to be utterly original. In fact, Whitman wrote of his work as “the Great Construction of a New Bible.” The first, slim, volume of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. Whitman paid for it himself, and there were fewer than 800 copies. The rest of Whitman’s poetic life was spent revising and adding to this collection, culminating in the final “Deathbed” edition of 1891. The original 95 pages had swollen to almost 450, and the 12 poems of the 1855 edition had become nearly 400.

Various explanations have been offered for Whitman’s title, “Leaves of Grass,” including the obvious pun on the “leaves” of a book. But somewhere in the background is probably the statement of Isaiah that “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7). Isaiah’s grim prophecy of death is transformed by Whitman into a celebration of the natural cycle, in which death is part of life and the poet, like all the people he sings of in his poem, returns to the earth from which he came. As Whitman writes in “Song of Myself,” “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/ If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

Walt Whitman. From a copy of Shakespeare's works associated with Whitman. Folger.

Walt Whitman. Engraving in Whitman’s former copy of Shakespeare’s works. Folger.

“Song of Myself,” the first poem in the 1855 edition, may also derive its title from the Bible. The great Old Testament celebration of love is the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, an erotic dialogue between a man and a woman rich in metaphors of spices, fruits, animals, and birds. Whatever the original author intended, Jews and Christians have both traditionally interpreted the poem as an allegory for the love between God and humanity. Whitman’s “Song,” typically and radically, is not of God, or even a lover, but of himself: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”

One striking feature of Whitman’s poetry is his rambling but rhetorically powerful prose-poetic line, often full of lists of people, places, and things. He adapts this line, just as William Blake did before him (and Alan Ginsberg after), from the parallelistic prose of Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets, in the King James Version. Leaves of Grass may be a new American Bible, but in some ways it sounds a lot like the old one.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Note: You can read (or hear) about the Whitman engraving shown here on the web page Personalizing Shakespeare, by Louis B. Thalheimer Head of Reference Georgianna Ziegler.


Opening This Week: The Manifold Greatness Finale

After an event-filled tour that has criss-crossed the United States since the fall of 2011—including, most recently, exhibits in Bel Air, Maryland; Danville, Kentucky; and Tifton, Georgia—Manifold Greatness is ready to open at its final exhibit site. The 40th of its 40 locations in 27 states is the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library of the Conyers-Rockdale Library System in Conyers, Georgia, where Manifold Greatness will be on view from tomorrow, May 29, through July 12.

As detailed in the library’s brochure below, the Conyers display includes a wealth of programs this June. To see what’s coming, including photos of some intriguing local Bibles that will also be on exhibit, read this preview in the Rockdale Citizen. You can also check out the library’s website or its Facebook page. (To examine the brochure at larger size, just select the page you wish to read.)

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Arlington National Cemetery and the King James Bible

World War I chaplains memorial, Chaplains Hill, Arlington Cemetery. Esther Ferington, 2013.

World War I chaplains memorial, Chaplains Hill, Arlington Cemetery.

Since this blog began in the spring of 2011, the 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible, we’ve examined inscriptions from the King James Bible in several locations around Washington, DC, home of the Folger Shakespeare Library. We took a look at the Library of Congress and at biblical influences on Martin Luther King’s rhetoric, including a biblical inscription at the Martin Luther King Memorial, which we revisited recently as part of our Washington, DC, cherry blossoms entry.

On this Memorial Day weekend, Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac, seemed like a good place to look for King James Bible inscriptions. Two examples on the Arlington memorials and monuments are perhaps the best known, in addition to some private citations on individual tombstones. (Robert E. Lee’s former home, Arlington House, still stands at the highest point on the grounds; in yet another KJB connection, you can see Lee’s own King James Bible here.)

One of the two King James Bible inscriptions is on the World War I chaplains memorial, dedicated in 1926. The memorial includes a line from John, 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Located on the brow of Chaplains Hill within the cemetery, the memorial is now accompanied by memorials to Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chaplains that include later wars; the Jewish chaplains memorial was dedicated relatively recently, in 2011.

Confederate Memorial, Arlington Cemetery

Confederate Memorial, Arlington Cemetery

Ploughshares

The Confederate Memorial was unveiled in 1914, almost half a century after the end of the Civil War, in a section of the cemetery that was set aside for Confederate graves in 1900. Both the graves section and the memorial were seen as symbols of national reconciliation.

The memorial is encircled near the top with the line from Isaiah 2:4, “and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.” Above this inscription, a female figure representing the South lifts a laurel wreath southward with one hand; she holds a pruning hook in her other hand, which she rests on a plow. The pruning hook and plow are meant to illustrate the King James Bible passage.

Learn more about the King James Bible in American history, including Confederate and Union copies of the King James Bible, in our Historic American Bibles image gallery. 

Curious about the post-Civil War origins of Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day? Try this recent blog post from the Smithsonian American History Museum.


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