The King James Bible (KJB) has long held the ironic distinction of being the English translation of the Bible most associated with the monarchy and the established church—thus having a traditional, even conservative pedigree—while also being a translation favored by dissenters, radicals, and even atheists. Widely known as the Authorized Version (even though it was never officially authorized by the English crown), it has a long history of keeping distinctly anti-authoritarian company.
Nowhere is this irony more evident than in the KJB’s legacy as a literary muse. The list of dissidents, radicals, and atheists whose literary work was inspired by the KJB reads like a who’s-who of literary history: John Milton, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, William Blake, William Wordworth, Percy Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison . . . .
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an almost scandalously bold prequel to the Bible, trying to “justify the ways of God to Man” by telling the backstory to Adam, Eve, and the serpent. Milton knew the Bible in Hebrew and Greek as well as Latin and many modern languages, but when he alludes to the Bible in Paradise Lost it is usually the language of the King James Bible that we hear. Especially when narrating events that are explicitly described in Genesis, Milton tends to defer to the actual words of the King James Bible. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written in the Bedford Gaol, is another great seventeenth century work full of the King James Bible language. The journey of Bunyan’s pilgrim, Christian, is almost a walk through the pages of the Bible itself, as when he walks through Psalm 23’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. Ironically (Bunyan may be having a bit of pious fun with his reader), Christian hears someone singing the psalm while he travels through the valley the Psalm describes. It’s remarkable that two of the first major English writers to show the influence of the King James Bible in their writing were both religious and political radicals, unlikely to have any use for the authorities of Church or King.
The KJB has been the most influential book in the English-speaking world for four centuries; as a result, much of English and American (and Canadian, and West Indian, and Anglo-African, and Australian) literature makes less sense without it. Thus in Melville’s Moby Dick—a novel that implicitly critiques the authority not only of social and political hierarchies but also that of the Bible itself—the narrator Ishmael, a wanderer and outcast like his biblical namesake, begins his epilogue with a line from the Book of Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” The verse seems appropriate, since Ishmael is the sole survivor of his ship, but the careful reader should also remember that Job contains an important reference to the whale, Leviathan, which God can draw up with a hook, but which is beyond human power. The novel’s last line refers to the Rachel, the ship that rescues Ishmael, which is searching “after her missing children.” A reader needs to know the Bible to hear the allusion to “Rachel weeping for her children,” the prophet Jeremiah’s metaphor for the suffering of Jews in exile after the Bablyonian conquest, reinterpreted in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 2:18) as a prophecy of the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem by Herod. The first readers of Moby Dick, published in 1851, might also have remembered that the image of Rachel weeping for her children appeared on the titlepage of the New Testament in one of the most celebrated American King James Bibles, Harpers’ Illuminated Bible, published in installments in the 1840s.
Walt Whitman created Leaves of Grass to be a “new American Bible” that would be exuberantly and democratically anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian. Yet his poetry drew on the KJB for its fundamental form: Whitman’s free verse—which became the major precursor for subsequent generations of poets who wrote in free verse—was inspired by the parallelism of the Psalms in the King James Bible. The seemingly unstructured lines of “Song of Myself, 6,” for example, follow a pattern derived from the KJB whereby each line or thought is composed of two halves, the latter echoing or expanding on the former:
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped.
Through this subtle biblical structuring of otherwise “free” verse, one can see the influence of the KJB extending from Whitman’s poetry to that of Allen Ginsberg and other twentieth-century iconoclasts.
The story of the KJB and its influence over the past 400 years is vast and complex. Yet one of the most recurrent and surprising strands of that story is the way in which the KJB has, as a literary muse, most powerfully inspired those authors who, like Jacob with the angel, have wrestled with its authority.