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 “William Blake

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.


Remembering William Blake (1757-1827)

Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, c 1790-93. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Bridgman Art Library.

William Blake, who died on August 12 in 1827, was one of English literature’s most eccentric poets. Even the word “poet” doesn’t fit him very well, since he was also a painter, an engraver, and a printer, and many of his works were really multimedia productions, with words, images, and designs all working together to one aesthetic effect. Blake was also a radical in politics and religion, resisting hierarchy, authority, and inequality wherever he perceived it, in the State, the Church, or the Book of Genesis. Blake was a religious poet who strove to overturn traditional religion, a biblical writer who rewrote the Bible. The God of Genesis, for Blake, was an authoritarian tyrant, and Satan’s rebellion against him was not sinful but heroic. For Blake, who considered himself a Christian, Christianity was about forgiveness, not morality. And forgiveness did not depend upon God or the Church but was to be exercised by everyone. True divinity was within every individual.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a page of which is shown here, is an early work (c.1790-93) that shows how deeply Blake was indebted to both the ideas of the Bible and the language of the King James Bible translation. In this section, “Proverbs of Hell,” Blake imitates the style and diction of the Old Testament Proverbs, but resists biblical ideas of wisdom and morality; Blake’s “Hell” is really his view of Heaven, an inversion of the traditional Christian one. Thus, for Blake, “The nakedness of woman is the work of God,” and “Prison are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.” However radical his ideas, Blake’s parallelistic rhetoric is traditionally biblical. Also like the biblical Proverbs, Blake’s are sometimes gnomic or riddling, suggesting mysteries that need puzzling out: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”

Blake’s use of what today we would call prose poetry, borrowed from the lines of Isaiah and Jeremiah in the King James Bible, influenced the similar styles (if different thinking) of later American poets Walt Whitman and Alan Ginsberg. In fact, Blake’s reputation as poet and artist is considerably higher in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than it was in his own day, perhaps partly because his rare, hand-printed and -colored works can now be widely reproduced.

Read more about the influence of the King James Bible on a variety of literary works in the Literary Influences timeline on the Manifold Greatness website.

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


Happy Birthday King James I!!

James I. Miniature, ca. 1620. Folger.

Happy Birthday King James! James I of England, whose birthday is this Sunday, June 19, is the “King James” of the King James Bible. He became King James VI of Scotland at the age of one in 1567, after his mother, Mary (Queen of Scots) was forced to abdicate. Mary was implicated in the death of her second husband (and cousin), Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, James’s father. As retold in novels, plays, opera, and films, Mary herself was imprisoned, and eventually beheaded, by her cousin (once removed), Elizabeth I of England. When Elizabeth died in 1603, James inherited her throne. One weirdness in this succession is that James inherited the crown from the queen who executed his mother, but since Mary was likely involved in the murder of his father, he probably had mixed feelings about her death.

When James came down from Scotland, his new English subjects were naturally concerned about their new king’s religious views and the future of church organization and worship in England. To settle matters, James convened a conference in January of 1604 at the palace of Hampton Court. Though it was not on the agenda, the project for a new translation of the Bible originated in these discussions.

Despite popular misconceptions, James himself had little to do with the translation, apart from setting it in motion,and providing it with royal sanction. (The translators prominently dedicated it to him, too.) He was a learned monarch, deeply engaged with theological questions, and he wrote a number of metrical versions of Psalms. But his learning was not up to the level of the translators.

Map of Christian's journey from Pilgrim's Progress

His one area of contribution to the translation was in shaping the guiding principles for the translators (written by Archbishop Richard Bancroft), especially in the decision to avoid marginal interpretative notes. Such notes had been a popular feature of the Geneva Bible, but a number of these, written by Protestant exiles during the reign of Queen Mary, were sharply critical of monarchs. The King James Bible, as it came to be known, was to be free of such a radical taint. Little did James know that the Bible he sponsored would become the Bible of the radicals John Milton, John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress, right), and William Blake, as well as of America, the British colonies that threw off their king to become a democratic republic.

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


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