The Poetry of King James

I was completely off the grid in the wilderness last week, so I took the opportunity to read through “Figures of Speech: 60 Ways To Turn A Phrase” (as well as halfway through “Perception“). I bought the book based on this review by Dandelionsmith, HT: Unk.

In “Figures of Speech“, Quinn introduces 60 different figures of speech, citing several examples of each. This little book is a virtual bestiary of many of my favorite lines from Yeats, Shakespeare, the Bible, and other sources. Over the years, I’ve read and memorized extensively, and I know what I like, but I’ve never in my life taken a college-level literature course. It was exciting to see that all of these different techniques have names and can be correlated across sources. Since reading this book, my mind has been flooded with examples Quinn didn’t cite, explaining so many lines of poetry I found beautiful but couldn’t say why. For example, the parallels are obvious between Blake and Shakespeare here:

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?


Tell me where is fancy bred?
Or in the heart or in the head

But before reading this book, I never would have thought to articulate the parallel. Of course, poetry is about much more than figures of speech, but this was an enjoyable and illuminating book.

While reading the book, I found myself re-evaluating my attitudes about the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. As a child, most of the verses I memorized were KJV, but I’ve since switched to New International Version (NIV), and memorized several Psalms in NIV. Quinn cites beautiful passages from KJV, many of which I remember from childhood. But when I looked them up in NIV I was surprised to find that many had lost the very figures of speech which made them beautiful. The ugly starts right at the beginning of the Bible. Compare KJV:

the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

with NIV:

the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

How many times have I read my NIV and not noticed this? Many other examples of figures of speech present in KJV are lost in NIV, and upon further reflection, it makes sense. KJV attempts to be more literal, word-for-word, while NIV attempts to express the semantic meaning in natural English. To be sure, the editors of NIV were able to preserve a fraction of the figures of speech present in the Hebrew and Greek, but it appears that many were lost.

C. S. Lewis once speculated that Ecclesiastes might not be inspired, and I’ve always intended to write an essay defending Ecclesiastes. This post from Unk both defends Ecclesiastes and underscores the beauty of the figures of speech in KJV. Unk quotes Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (KJV, NIV) and says:

It is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, in terms of the poetic quality of the language, at least in the King James Version—about that season of life.

Who can disagree? The NIV version is beautiful, but the fidelity of KJV more beautiful still. Yeats’ poem “When You are Old” is one of my favorite depictions of this season, but is a pale shadow of Ecclesiastes 12 in KJV, and apes the same figures of speech. Shall we assume that Yeats was not speaking of Ecclesiastes 12, and the creator who is Love, who moved upon the face of the waters?

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

7 thoughts on “The Poetry of King James”

  1. I might also add that I started out on the KJV, got it all associated with the dead wood and unimaginative religion fundamentalism preserves, read in many translations (and the originals–but that something different) and made the return to the KJV, ridding it of the old associations which drove us originally away. And many things brought me back, the most surprising to me were the comments of poets like Randall Jarrell.

  2. Doh! Should’ve known you linked it first. I’d never even heard of Jarrell, I need to check him out. I’m interested by Alter’s mention of Auerbach’s “Mimesis”, but that one has to go on my wishlist for now since it’s not on Kindle.

  3. Randall Jarrell was a really good critic. If you get a collection of his best essays you’ll find him talking about the RSVs lack of poetry in one of them. It might be “To the Laodiceans” in No Other Book.

    Adam Kirsch has a study of the six confessional American poets and includes a chapter on Jarrell in it. The Wounded Surgeon.

  4. I’m not an expert, but in my quick survey of the verses mentioned above, I didn’t like NKJV nearly as much. It definitely doesn’t read the same as KJV. However, NKJV is intended to be much more literal than NIV, and it shows. I will be interested to see what Alter says about it.

    Here is an interesting chart that attempts to categorize “literal” versus “paraphrase”. Note that they lump KJV and NKJV together, and this chart comes from a KJV-Only site which seems to think NKJV is perfectly OK.

    On the other hand, here is noted fundamentalist Kent Brandenberg arguing that NKJV is a bad translation, for entirely different reasons. Undoubtedly, many fundies agree with him.

    Finally, FWIW, here is a chart from popular evangelical Michael Patton, ranking all versions by literalness. Interestingly, he puts ASV as most literal. My pastor swears by the ASV, and when I looked at the verses mentioned above in ASV, they read pretty nicely.

    So in my very unscientific test, I hypothesize that ASV and KJV both maintain more of the poet’s voice, and NKJV slightly less.

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