This entry consists of four articles that survey, by geographical region, the uses of the Bible in and its influences on literature:
From the swift Christianization of Britain in the seventh century CE, at the beginning of which native writing of texts had not yet begun, down to the present “post‐Christian” era in which textuality is almost exclusively the preserve of literary traditions, the Bible has been by far the most important of foundational texts for English literature. In the earliest days of written English, it may be said that the Bible effectively established the literary canon; and until the time of the Enlightenment, it largely continued to shape its outer contours. In the modern period, though this definitive influence has declined dramatically, we may still say that the Bible remains the most widely alluded to of all texts in works by English‐speaking authors.
This vast influence is attributable in part to the formative role “free translation” of the Bible had in the development of self‐conscious English narrative style. Bede (673–735), in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, offers as paradigm the case of Caedmon, an unlettered cowherd who was miraculously transformed overnight into an accomplished poet: Caedmon's first composition was a hymn drawing on Genesis in praise of creation, and his name was subsequently attached to the relatively large body of Anglo‐Saxon hexameral poetry that reflected patristic commentaries on Genesis (especially the Hexameron of Basil). The chief literary themes of this tradition—the six days of creation, the revolt and fall of the angels, and the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve—are felt in the Caedmonian versification of Genesis (A and B), or paraphrase‐abridgement of Exodus, Daniel (1–5), and dramatic Christ and Satan, with its three‐part relation of the revolt and fall of the angels, Christ's temptation, and the harrowing of hell. Later Christian poems associated with the author Cynewulf (ninth and tenth century) tend to concern saints' lives, miracles, and lyrical parables, with the notable exception of the three‐part poem, Christ. The third section of this poem is a powerful treatment of the contest between Christ and Satan, culminating in the Last Judgment. The Exeter Harrowing of Hell draws heavily on the apocalyptic gospel of Nicodemus, while another tenth‐century poem, Solomon and Satan, applies the prevalent theme of holy war between Christ and his adversary in a debate between Christian and non‐Christian wisdom. As a type of Christ, Solomon interprets biblical narratives (e.g., the tower of Babel) as well as wisdom literature in such a way as to confound his opponent's resistance to the gospel. All these works, as much as the sermons of Wulfstan and Aelfric, the beautiful Advent Lyrics or more literal translations of the Psalter and Gospels, reflect a desire to transmit biblical knowledge. The authors of Anglo‐Saxon literature were for the most part missionaries, monks, or lay brothers trained in monasteries, and much of their work can be seen as an outgrowth of the evangelization of Britain. Even in the great non‐Christian epic Beowulf (which occurs in the same manuscript as a retelling of the apocryphal narrative, Judith), biblical allusion is a significant feature.
Later Middle Ages.
After 1066, with the massive cultural and linguistic upheaval occasioned by the Norman invasion, there followed a quiet period for English literature. (The great Jeu d'Adam, perhaps the first biblical play in the vernacular to be written in England, was written in Anglo‐Norman French.) Yet in the twelfth century, revival of interest in late Roman Christian learning (especially the works of Augustine and Gregory the Great) provided an opportunity for substantial progress in the development of Christian literary theory. Initially, this was applied to reading the Bible itself. But the Augustinian notion that classical literature ought to be appropriated to Christian use, “baptized” by subordination to biblical and catechetical rewriting, had also been defended in his On Christian Doctrine by analogy with the divine command to the Jews exiting from Egypt to take with them vessels of Egyptian gold and silver, later to put them to ordinary uses. Under the continued tutelage of Hugh of St. Victor in France and, in England, John of Salisbury (d. 1180), “Egyptian gold” became a major emphasis in late‐medieval Christian ideas about literature, and shaped the interaction of scripture and vernacular writing in England until well into the Renaissance. The principle of discrimination in all reading, non‐Christian as well as Christian, was held to be the Augustinian test of love. Richard de Bury (1287–1345) reflects these ideas in his treatise on the love of books (Philobiblion) in which “the fables of the poets” are integrated with a canon of humane learning whose basis is scriptural and patristic. Ovid, for example, is subjected to biblical allegory, both in vernacular (Ovide moralisé) and Latin versions (Petrus Berchorius). Within the context provided by these developments, as well as by the striking growth of commentary on the Bible itself reflected in central textbooks such as Peter Lombard's Sentences on the Gospels (1150), the Ordinary Gloss, and Nicholas Lyra's extensive commentaries on scripture (early fourteenth century), the influence of the Bible on vernacular English literature that began to flourish again in the fourteenth century split into two main lines of development.
As in the Anglo‐Saxon period, there was still a strong tradition of narrative works that may be described as biblical paraphrase and abridgement. This includes works of biblical extrapolation and sacred tradition: Cursor mundi, the South English Legendary, the 10,840‐line Stanzaic Life of Christ, and also the famous biblical cycle plays of York, Chester, Wakefield, Lincoln, and Coventry. Multiday pageants covering the biblical history of salvation from creation to the Last Judgment, these plays represent the most extensive adaptation of the Bible to vernacular literary use in the history of English letters. While the Bible provides the principal content, the treatment is free, with more or less skillful interpolation or narrative and dramatic expansion effecting the historiographical or homiletic purpose of the authors. (By 1350, few priests and almost no female religious had sufficient Latin to read the Vulgate even if available; for many, such vernacular works were accordingly a principal source of their biblical knowledge.) Other writers, sometimes with much greater skill and sophistication, might take individual Bible stories and craft them into romance narratives. Two such poems are by the anonymous “Pearl‐poet,” probably a north‐country priest: Patience, a retelling of the story of Jonah, and Cleanness, a fierce denunciation of sin which employs biblical narratives (Sodom and Gomorrah; the fall of Babylon; the parable of the wedding feast [Matthew 22.11–13]; Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar) to underscore the perils of profanation. Pearl, in the same verse form and by the same author, is an exquisite Gothic exposition of the parables of the pearl of great price and the penny‐hire (Matt. 20.1–16), blended with material from the book of Revelation to address the relationship between present life and future hope, time, and eternity.
The second stream of biblical influence, flowing from the revival of Christian literary theory in the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, is illustrated well in a fourth poem by the Pearl‐poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In it Celtic myth and the conventions of ancestral romance narrative are blended with New Testament themes. Although neither biblical narrative nor extended biblical allegory is present, biblical interpretation in the Augustinian tradition heavily flavors the treatment of non‐Christian narrative.
The preeminent poet of the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400), reveals a rich appreciation of biblical literature, yet his poetry involves rather a “baptism” of worldly tales by Christian thought and purpose than simple allegory or biblical paraphrase. In his Canterbury Tales, various pilgrim narrators use biblical idiom and figure in such a way as to characterize their attitudes toward justice, mercy, love, and forgiveness. The humor and the “moralite” of the Miller's use of Noah's Flood and the Song of Solomon, like the outrageous and funny misreadings of the gospel of Matthew and the church fathers by the Wife of Bath, equally with the Parson's sober sermon on repentance (from Jeremiah 6), toward which the collection moves, depend both upon a veridical reading of the biblical text and also upon the more elaborate hermeneutic encoding that is the product of later biblical scholarship and commentary. That how one reads the Bible can be a subject for lively cognizance and considerably sophisticated humor in English court circles is a striking measure of biblical literacy in the fourteenth century. Further, in the deliberate superimposing of biblical text over familiar classical myth, as in Chaucer's Maunciples's Tale or in the anonymous Christian reversal of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend, Sir Orfeo, we see a dependence upon Augustinian notions of how the Bible might be expected to transform non‐Christian story.
For less cultured readers, the same techniques could be adapted to biblically directed social criticism. In Langland's apocalyptic Piers Plowman (1369; 1378; 1386), simple moral and political allegories are projected from the Gospels and Pauline epistles onto contemporary crises in church and state. Here the reader is invited to refer both text and events of contemporary life to the Bible for understanding; Langland not only assumes biblical knowledge but, much like Richard Rolle (d. 1349) and Walter Hilton (d. 1396) among spiritual writers and John Wycliffe among Oxford academics, urges his readers toward direct, personal reading of the scriptures. The Wycliffite Bible translation (1384; 1396) by Nicholas Hereford, John Purvey, and others not only contributed to but depended upon widespread interest in the Bible among nonclerical readers.
The fifteenth century is almost as unremarkable for English literature as were the years immediately following 1066. With the stiff suppression of Lollardry and condemnation of the Wycliffite Bible, it became unfashionable to exhibit biblical influence with the freedom known in the fourteenth century; one could be arrested on suspicion of heresy even for owning a copy of The Canterbury Tales. With the exception of continuation, for a time, of the cycle plays and allegorical morality plays, the most notable examples of biblical influence may be two surviving saints' plays, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Play of Mary Magdalene. Although true saints' plays in form, they are from the very end of the period and probably owe their preservation in Protestant times to the fact that the principals were biblical figures; the St. Paul play is particularly careful to hew close to the account in Acts and at pains to advertise this in its preface. Some of the religious poetry of the Scots poets, such as William Dunbar, and that of English writer John Skelton show indebtedness to biblical story, and among the first printed English works of William Caxton is included an apocryphal narrative on the Infancy of Jesus and another translation from Latin, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. But central, vital influence of the Bible upon the main fabric of English literature degenerated almost entirely until after the stormiest years of the Reformation.
Reformation and Renaissance.
In the sixteenth century, with the translations of Tyndale (1525–30), Coverdale (1535), Rogers, and Taverner, the “Great Bible” (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), and finally the Bishop's Bible (1568) (see Translations, article on English Language), the combination of controversial interest and accessibility assured a fresh infusion of literary interest. While Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer (1564) aided in the increase of biblical knowledge among ordinary persons, its largely liturgical organization of biblical story no longer governed patterns of influence as had its Latin predecessors. The accessible English Bible now invited reading through, like other books, and the success of the King James Version (1611), rightly regarded as the high‐water mark of English literary prose, merely confirmed this new type of literary enjoyment of the Bible. Thus, though there are still examples of poet‐translators of scripture, such as Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke in their rendition of the Psalms (1586; 1589), and Joshua Sylvester's translation (1605) of the Frenchman Du Bartas' Divine Weeks and Works (a highly successful Protestantized version of medieval hexameral literature), the true influence of the Bible is in this period is internalized, revealing itself not merely in the emergence of previously neglected themes and narratives (such as the stories of Jephthah, Samson, Ruth, Deborah, and the theme of the covenant) but in the actual force of idiom, phrase, and cadence of the Coverdale, Geneva, and finally King James Versions working their way into English poetic diction. Spenser's sonnets (66; 68; 70) and Epithalamion (1595) offer exquisite examples, as do, somewhat later, many poems of George Herbert in The Temple (1633); biblical idiom shapes also the prose of Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593; 1597), Decker's The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606), the Devotions of John Donne (1624), and, more extravagantly, Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying (1650; 1651), to cite but a few luminous examples. It can truly be said of the seventeenth century in England that nowhere else has the effect of the Bible on literary language been so all‐pervasive. Both writers and readers savor the flavor of “biblical” English; even playwrights are able to depend on an intimate familiarity with the Bible on the part of popular audiences. As Christopher Marlowe in the opening speeches of Dr. Faustus (1604) can characterize his proud and self‐damning protagonist by his misquotation of key biblical texts, so also William Shakespeare is able, in Measure for Measure, to critique the theology of the Puritans by setting his text from Matthew 7 in a rich context of quotations from Paul's letter to the Romans, such as were frequently featured in the Puritans' own sermons. Throughout his work, Shakespeare draws heavily on the Geneva Bible to encode and enrich his work, whether in romances like The Winter's Tale or history plays like Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2).
Biblical allusion in post‐Reformation England, at least until the time of Milton and Bunyan, is ubiquitous, and it salts every kind of learned discourse. Poetry in the service of biblical interpretation or theological controversy, though more easily delineated as an expression of the influence of the Bible on the growth of humane letters, is almost as impossible to summarize; it must be kept in mind that between 1480 and 1660 more than half of all books printed in England were devoted to theological or ethical subjects, and typically copiously indebted to biblical “evidences” and discourse. Many of these works were dedicated to lay readership, and a large portion elected one or another genre of poetry as a medium. The younger Giles Fletcher's long serial poem, Christ's Victorie and Triumph in Heaven and Earth (1618) and, to a lesser extent, his brother Phineas's The Locusts of Apollyonists (1627) exemplify Protestant allegorical treatments of major biblical themes.
Such adaptations of the agon motif familiar from earlier English portrayals of the cosmic battle between Christ and Satan may have helped redirect the classically trained John Milton 1608–1674) in his desire to write a great English epic. Milton goes beyond Spenser, not only rejecting a plot from Greek or Roman literature but choosing the biblical story of fall and redemption over the national Arthurian myth. Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671) represent a high point, then, of biblical influence on English literature, perhaps the greatest exemplar of a national culture that by this point had come to see the Bible as chief amongst its foundational texts. From the “war in heaven” to the “last battle,” major epic themes from the Bible were adorned with Latinate diction and humane learning of such a high order as to reinforce the centrality of biblical influence through subsequent, much less religious periods in English letters. In his short drama Samson Agonistes and lesser poems as well, Milton offers a shaping of biblical influence so distinctive that many subsequent authors have effectively read their Bible in Milton's “version”—which is also to say, of course, that the Bible became strongly identified in the minds of some with Milton's brand of Protestant theology.
The once‐vigorous tradition of biblical drama did not entirely die out with the Reformation but was substantially adapted to serve the emphases of Protestant interpretations of the Bible. Thus, while the saints' plays probably dominated religious drama in the fifteenth century, they now gave way entirely, to be replaced by plays about heroic figures from the Hebrew Bible; individual Tudor plays, many now lost, were dedicated to the stories of Ruth, Esther, Darius, Hezekiah, Jephthah, Joshua, Samson, Absalom, and Susanna, as well as the more familiar Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau, and a variety of plays about Joseph and his brothers. Common to these plays, as to those with New Testament subjects (such as John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate, and The Prodigal Son) is a movement away from salvation history to a focus on individual spiritual struggle of heroic proportions, ending either in repentance, conversion, and triumph or in hardening of the heart and tragedy. Almost the sole Tudor survival of the classical saints' play is the mediocre Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene (1566) by Lewis Wager. John Bale, protégé of Thomas Cromwell, employed his Antichrist play, King Johan, as anti‐Catholic polemic. His God's Promises (1577), an interesting reworking of the earlier prophet plays, concerns itself with promises to the individual believer rather than the fulfillment of salvation history in Christ. Among a smaller number of surviving Elizabethan plays on biblical subjects are Susanna (1578) by Thomas Carter, Absalon by Thomas Watson, David and Bathsabe (1594) by George Peele, and Herod and Antipater (1622) by Markham and Sampson. After this period, until Milton, biblical influence tends to be less direct yet, as J. H. Sims (Dramatic Uses of Biblical Allusions in Marlowe and Shakespeare ) shows, entirely pervasive.
In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the English sermon was a high art form, and some of the finest examples of biblically influenced prose from this period come from the pens of Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Baxter, Isaac Barrow, the authorized homilists of the Church of England, and from poet‐preachers such as John Donne (1572–1631) and George Herbert (1593–1633). The lyric poetry of the latter is replete with biblical imagery and subject, as is Henry Vaughan's postconversion Silex Scintillans (1655). Also, the characteristically apologetic use of the Bible in this period led to its use in political writings too numerous to contemplate here, including those of major figures such as Parker, Baxter, and Harrington. Even Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) is rich in biblical quotation and allusion. In no period of English literary history is literary language in every subject and genre so thoroughly indebted to the Bible; from autobiographies like the magnificent Religio Medici (1642) of Thomas Browne to praises of science and progress like Abraham Cowley's poem To the Royal Society (1677), or Francis Bacon's essay New Atlantis (1627), to Isaac Walton's biography of John Donne, the images, words, and accents of the English Bible echo on nearly every page of English literature.
After the dismal failure of the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell and the Restoration under Charles II (1660) of Anglican church‐state government, there was a marked turning away from anything that resembled piety in public life and the arts. Accordingly, biblical influence upon an increasingly secular literature suffered a sharp demise; while still felt at the level of language and allusion, biblical subject matter and titles almost entirely disappear, or else, in a case like Dryden's satiric political allegory, Absalom and Achitophel (1681), the reference of the allegory is curiously reversed: biblical story becomes a diaphanous screen for contemporary political miscreance. The notable counterpoint in this period is John Bunyan (1628–1688), whose prison writings were directed not to fashionable taste but to persons as humble as their author, whose literacy lay almost exclusively in knowledge of the Bible. Here again the device was allegory but, after Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), characterized by moral psychomachia rooted in a pattern of familiar biblical typology. The Pilgrim's Progress (1678; 1684), The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), and The Holy War (1682), though enduring classics, stand apart from rather than represent the pattern of biblical influence on English literature going into the eighteenth century, in that they are undisguisedly a species of evangelical tract. An allied literary form favored by the Puritans, spiritual autobiography, was to receive its best‐known popular adaption in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), a progenitor of the modern novel, in which the protagonist's experience is a progress from original sin and alienation through exile, wandering, and providential intervention to a discovery and reading of the Bible, which then interprets life retrospectively, bringing about repentance, conversion, and rescue.
Further erosion of biblical influence on the mainstream of English literature was occasioned not only by increasing political isolation of the Puritans, with whom it had now become so closely associated, but by the rise of religious skepticism and critical attack on the scientific reliability of the biblical texts themselves. Thus, the skeptical modernism that began as a trickle in works such as Lord Herbert of Cherbury's protodeist De Veritate (1623), when coupled with biblical criticism such as Richard Simon's Critical History of the Old Testament (translated in 1682) and the philosophical writings of John Locke, was to grow into a flood of challenges to the authority and relevance of the Bible in writers of major influence, such as Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, and, later, David Hume and Edward Gibbon. Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) celebrates the reinstitution of Roman as opposed to biblical models and values, and English evolution in literature from an era dominated by Christian and biblical influences to one in which they become marginal, from the Puritan to the “Augustan” age. Oliver Goldsmith, who coined the latter term in one of his essays (1759), reflects nostalgically on the fading of core biblical values from contemporary social and literary life in his Vicar of Wakefield (1764); his own oratorio on the Exodus narrative was not published in his lifetime. As in Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub (1704) and Argument against Abolishing Christianity (1711) or the urbane criticism of Alexander Pope's quasi‐deistic Essay on Man (1731–35), the residual influence is institutional Christianity rather than biblical narrative or language. Throughout the period a scattering of poems inspired by progress in science employ biblical paraphrases (e.g., passages in Job, or Psalms 8; 19; 104; 139), often in an attempt to show the correspondence of Newton and scripture, and William Broome's A Paraphrase of Parts of Job (ca. 1720) makes the author of Job, in turn, sound like a lecturer to the Royal Society.
Within the Established Church there was a continuing tradition of biblical verse both narrative and lyric, and though much less distinguished than their predecessors, poet‐priests like the nonjuror Bishop Thomas Ken (1637–1711), John Norris (1657–1711) and, at a lesser rank, Samuel Wesley the elder, wrote moral, biblically inspired verse. Among influential poets in the biblical tradition, however, Isaac Watts, scion of the dissenting tradition, and Charles Wesley, whose work is a fusion of Puritan and Catholic sensibility, must be counted as of a higher rank. Watts, a favorite of Samuel Johnson, wrote on biblical themes in his Horae lyricae (1706), and is remembered for his imitation of the Psalms (1719) as well as numerous celebrated hymns. Charles Wesley, cofounder of Methodism and Watts's only peer as a writer of hymns in this period, also wrote a distinguished biblical poem, Wrestling Jacob (1742). In eighteenth‐century poetry, however, biblical influence was often accompanied by melancholic self‐absorption, as in Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1742–45), Robert Blair's The Grave (1743), James Hervey's Meditations and Contemplations (1747), Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno and Song to David (1763), and, preeminent in this vein, William Cowper's Task (1785) and Olney Hymns (1779), coauthored with the Reverend John Newton. In none of this later poetry is there much of the formative power of the biblical texts so familiar to the seventeenth century and, like the biblical fictions and poems of Elizabeth Rowe (1737) or even the later ones of the considerably more crisp Hannah More (1745–1833), it pales in comparison with Milton or Herbert. As with Johnson's use of biblical allusion to fortify temperate rationalism in Rasselas (1759) or James Thomson's in Aeolus' Harp (1748) to universalize sentiment, not only the focus but also the expectation of readers' familiarity with the Bible has significantly faded. Only rarely in the eighteenth century, and that most memorably in the novel, with Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), does biblical influence extend to narrative structure, governing paradigms, themes, and substance of the discourse. When this happens, as the adaptation in Joseph Andrews of the Joseph story from Genesis applied with the aid of New Testament pericopes like the parable of the Good Samaritan, the effect is to create a text with two or more levels, in which the livelier intertextual relationships seem not merely to encode a moral but ally the novel with an earlier tradition of biblically underwritten narrative.
Romanticism and the Modern Era.
With William Blake (1757–1827), English literature enters an entirely new phase of relationship with the Bible. Blake, in Songs of Experience (1794) as well as his Book of Thel (1789), Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), and the revisionist Milton (1808), Jerusalem (1820), and The Everlasting Gospel (1818), created his “own myth,” as he put it, to avoid being “enslaved by that of another man.” In Blake's reading, authority is transferred from foundational text to the poet of genius, who creates his own “reading,” obliterating traditional understanding: the Bible is “rewritten” to suit his myth. (See also Art and the Bible.) As Northrop Frye (The Great Code ) and others have indicated, Blake becomes in this way a harbinger not only of modernist approaches to the Bible in literature, but also of postmodernism in both literature and criticism. In his reading of Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan becomes the real hero. Subsequent romantic poets, such as Byron in Manfred (1816) and Cain (1821), and Shelley in Prometheus Unbound (1820), follow suit. Coleridge, in his Satanic Hero, reflects on certain consequences.
Within a more conservative biblical tradition was James Hogg, the Scottish shepherd whose Pilgrims of the Sun (1815) and Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) afford a glimpse of prevalent tensions between a biblical view of the human condition and the intensely personalistic romantic quest for identity. Walter Scott's novel Old Mortality (1816) studies, in language rich with the Scottish covenanters' fluent biblicism, social strife attendant upon strict literal application of the “Calvinist” Bible to politics.
Coleridge was a theologically sophisticated reader of the Bible, as chapter 13 of his Biographia litteraria suggests; Wordsworth, as may be seen in Intimations Ode and Westminster Bridge (1807), comparatively naive. With the second wave of Wesleyan revival in the first part of the nineteenth century, however, and the consolidation of religious values in curriculum and canon in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign, the Bible became both more widely acceptable in literary theme or motif, and much more visible in literary language. Yet R. W. Buchanan's Ballad of Judas Iscariot (1863) and Thomas Beddoe's Old Adam the Crow (1828), like Browning's Saul (1847) or Death in the Desert, put the Bible to characteristically broad‐church purposes. Tennyson's Rizpah prefers the Bible to Calvinist interpretations of it, though Tennyson's characteristic reading of the Bible is governed, in fact, by what he called “Higher Pantheism” and other presuppositions similar to Browning's. Browning's analysis of biblical notions of worship in Epilogue of Dramatis Personae reveals his interest in German biblical criticism as much as Abt Volger does his fascination with Feuerbachian eschatology. In the 1860s a poet like Charles Tennyson might be, as Hoxie Fairchild puts it (in his six‐volume Religious Trends in English Poetry: 1700–1965), “much less troubled by Darwinism than by the extension of scientific method to biblical criticism and the comparative study of religion.”
Some of the more peculiar adaptations of the Bible as literary influence in this period are to be found in the work of minor poets such as the spiritualist F. W. H. Myers's St. Paul or the medieval romanticist R. W. Dixon's Christ's Company (1861) with its angular and psychological poems on Mary Magdalene, John, and the Stabat mater theme. An early harbinger of liberation theology is Arthur O'Shaughnessy, especially in Christ Will Return from his Songs of a Worker (1881). The evangelical poets of earlier in the period, whose best effort is probably Elizabeth Barrett's tedious The Seraphim (1838) and pseudo‐Miltonic A Drama of Exile (1844), are the only ones to contribute work of substantially biblical theme and subject. Robert Pollok's The Course of Time (1827), Robert Montgomery's Satan (1830) and Messiah (1832), and John Heraud's Descent into Hell (1830) and The Judgement of the Flood (1834) illustrate a continuing appetite for Miltonic adaptations of the Bible, but also, as does C. J. Wells's Joseph and His Brethren (1824), an exhaustion of that taste and talent.
The vital continuance of biblical influence upon English literature at the close of the century is in some ways shown less vividly in the popularity of evidently Christian works such as Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven (1893) or the poems of John Cardinal Newman, Arthur Hugh Clough, and the Rossettis than in the rich mastery of biblical idiom, motif, and allusion by writers notably antagonistic to orthodox religion. Partly this owes to a substantial attempt by Matthew Arnold in his Literature and Dogma (1873), St. Paul and Protestantism (1890), and God and the Bible (1899) to separate the Bible from its association with Puritan or Calvinistic religion and grant it supremely literary value in an English canon. Partly it owes to the training in these orthodox traditions, and their subsequent partial or complete rejection by numerous major authors: George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895), like Swinburne's Hymn to Proserpine, are rich in biblical influence despite explicit aversion to biblical religion, and George MacDonald in Lilith (1895) treats Jewish apocrypha in a New Testament context in such a way as to challenge his Calvinist colleagues with a hypothesis of universal salvation.
A measure of the literary power of the “English” Bible in overcoming religious considerations is the complete dominance of the King James Version from its first publication until well into the twentieth century; even James Joyce, who makes copious use of the Bible, prefers the cadences of this English translation to facilitate his inversions. This remains the pattern through W. B. Yeats (Adam's Curse, The Second Coming) and the fiction of D. H. Lawrence; it is visible in Robert Graves's King Jesus as well as in works such as Edwin Muir's One Foot in Eden (1956) or, more recently, Ted Hughes's, Crow (1970). Blakean rewriting of biblical narrative had become by World War I perhaps the significant tradition in modern English literature. The type of fiction represented by George A. Moore's The Brook Kerith (1916), which interweaves the lives of a Christ who survives the cross with those of Paul and Joseph of Arimathea, has grown abundantly in the twentieth century; examples are too numerous to list and most lack significant literary merit. Differing literary responses to the Bible have made their mark, however, including the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and perhaps most notably T. S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday (1930), Journey of the Magi (1927), and the magisterial Four Quartets (1935–42). The Anathemata (1952) of David Jones and R. S. Thomas's Stones of the Field (1946), Pieta (1966), and Laboratories of the Spirit (1975) exemplify a revival of biblical voice in modern British poetry, and may come to be seen as part of a neo‐Christian revival of biblical influence. To some extent, the novels of Joyce Carey, notably his second trilogy, Prisoner of Grace (1952), Except the Lord (1953), and Not Honour More (1955), reflect a dissenting tradition, while the fiction of C. S. Lewis, exemplified in his Miltonic retelling of the Eden story, Perelandra, or Voyage to Venus (1940), and the plays of Dorothy Sayers, including The Man Born to Be King (1943) and The Zeal of Thy House (1948), offer explicit representations of biblical narrative. A resonant incorporation of biblical theme, motif, and language is provided by J. R. R. Tolkien's evocation of Nordic saga, The Lord of the Rings (1954–55). Discernably then, the shaping of biblical influence by Miltonic Puritanism, Anglo‐Saxon monasticism, Anglican historicism, and Anglo‐Catholic sacramentalism, all find continued expression in contemporary literature. Since World War II, however, the influence of the Bible on English literature has been markedly reduced in comparison with its influence on literature being written in America and the Commonwealth (see the corresponding articles in this entry). For a detailed tracing of the development of biblical allusion, narrative, and typology from Anglo‐Saxon to contemporary English and American literature, as well as extensive annotated bibliography of critical studies on the use of the Bible by English authors, see D. L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (1992).
David Lyle Jeffrey
British Commonwealth Literature
The influence of the Bible on British Commonwealth literature is complicated by the relatively late development of the British empire. The rise of British control of Australia and New Zealand, India, and substantial parts of Africa, accomplished chiefly in the nineteenth century, coincided with the decline of biblical authority in the West, especially among the educated classes responsible for the production of written literature. Thus, one might expect that Commonwealth literature would owe very little to the Bible; this expectation is often, but not always, fulfilled.
In Australia, for instance, literature is dominated, well into the twentieth century, by the overriding themes of that culture's history: the experiences of the convicts who first colonized Australia and of the bushrangers who soon populated the outback. Many writers understood the Bible to have little relevance to their circumstances—but not all: A. D. Hope (b. 1907), though not a believer, often makes vivid use of biblical themes and imagery (see, for instance, his Imperial Adam); James McAuley (1917–1976), an adult convert to Catholicism, attempts to reconstitute in modern terms, though in traditional forms, the devotional verse of Donne and Herbert:
Since all our keys are lost or broken, Since all our keys are lost or broken,Shall it be thought absurdIf for an art of words I turnDiscreetly to the Word?(“An Art of Poetry,” II. 1–4)
And the continent's most prominent novelist, Patrick White (b. 1912), is noted for his use of biblical symbolism, for instance in his novel Voss (1957), whose title character is gradually revealed as a Christ‐figure of significant dimensions.
In Anglophone Indian literature the situation is much more complex, for three dominant reasons. First is cultural independence: the rise of this literature was simultaneous with a powerful renewal of pride among Indian (especially Hindu) intellectuals in their traditional culture, a renewal strongly encouraged by visitors from the West, especially members of the Theosophical movement. Thus, the typical Anglo‐Indian novel—for example, by R. K. Narayan (b. 1907)—will use European forms to express traditionally Indian ideas and ideals. Second is familial resemblance. Some Indian literature, such as the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), may closely resemble certain kinds of biblical literature, especially the poetry exemplified by the Song of Solomon; but direct influence is a less likely explanation for this phenomenon than a shared use of sexual and natural imagery. Last is Hindu syncretism; again Tagore will provide an example. His philosophical‐poetic meditations on the one God often sound like a variety of Jewish or Christian mysticism, but monotheism has always been one of Hinduism's many facets. It has never been consistently emphasized throughout India, but neither has any other facet of Hinduism. That religion's syncretic ability to absorb multifarious influences makes biblical influences upon it extremely difficult to trace or fix.
In African literature, however, the influence of the Bible has been nothing less than enormous. The oral tradition in Africa is exceptionally powerful, and written literature appeared only after the coming of the Europeans. Since those Europeans, especially the British, favored literacy in the natives chiefly for religious purposes—reading the Bible and the prayer book—it should not be surprising that the earliest written literature in Africa served evangelical aims. This age of didactic literature eventually passed, replaced by novels, plays, and poems that stand at the forefront of post–World War II literature; but the influence of the Bible has remained strong in the countries once or still associated with the British Commonwealth. Nigeria's two best‐known writers, the novelist Chinua Achebe (b. 1930) and the Nobel–Prize winning playwright Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), are of different tribes, but both were raised as Christians; biblical themes and language echo throughout their work. For instance, Achebe's second novel No Longer at Ease presents its protagonist Obi Oknokwo in terms of the prodigal son and of the Magi returning to their kingdoms (as described in T. S. Eliot's poem Journey of the Magi); further, it skilfully presents the competing languages of the traditional Ibo proverb‐oriented culture and the Christian culture of biblical quotation, sometimes seeing the two in direct conflict but often as witness to the Ibos' ability to synthesize the two. Soyinka repeatedly uses biblical archetypes; he too presents the theme of the prodigal (and the larger biblical theme of two brothers in conflict) in The Swamp Dwellers, and writes a profound variation on the Christ‐theme of sacrificial, redemptive death in one of his finest plays, The Strong Breed.
Likewise, in South Africa we see writers, such as the novelist and autobiographer Peter Abrahams, who claim to have learned their prose style and, what is more important, a vocabulary of justice and injustice, power, and oppression, from the King James Bible; and we also see the prodigal once again, this time fused with elements of the David‐Absalom story, in Alan Paton's forthrightly Christian plea for compassion in his land, Cry, the Beloved Country. Paton is white, Abrahams what the South African regime calls “coloured”; it would appear that for South Africans of whatever color, the Bible provides a complex literary vocabulary with which to confront a harsh and difficult society.
The influence of the Bible on continental European literature has been so pervasive as to be almost incalculable. Both as a collection of sacred texts and as the source of the various creeds, codes, and cults of Judaism and Christianity, the Bible is the most essential document in the Western world. To begin with, the spread of Christianity generated a gigantic (and still growing) corpus of liturgies, sermons, pamphlets, prayer books, practical guides, and every conceivable form of theology, which, supplementing and accompanying the Bible, have served as the foundation for Western Christian culture. The bulk of this corpus, as enshrined, for example, in the 383 volumes of Jacques Paul Migne's (1800–75) monumental Patriologiae Cursus Completus, which collects the writings of the church fathers from the apostolic era to the early thirteenth century, may be a dead letter except for historians and students of religion, but significant portions have survived and remain noteworthy.
The Missale Romanum, for instance, which was organized and edited by the Council of Trent (1545–63), contains—apart from many biblical texts arranged to fit the cycle of the liturgical year—some memorable poetry (e.g., the powerful symbols and ceremonies of the Easter Vigil, the “sequences,” etc.) and many prayers marked by a distinctive spare eloquence. Missals, breviaries, and books of hours have made the Bible (particularly the Gospels and the Psalms) an integral part of the consciousness of both clergy and pious lay people for centuries. The liturgy, like the cathedrals (each a Biblia pauperum) that were its supreme setting, and the church music (from before Palestrina to after Fauré) that expressed it, mediated the Bible to the world at large.
The Bible obviously played a key role in the work of early Christian authors. In the pre‐Nicene period (i.e., up to 325 CE) perhaps only Tertullian (ca. 160–225), moralist, apologist, and fierce controversialist, has retained an important place in the Western literary canon. He is remembered for, among other things, the notorious paradox, “Certum est quia impossibile,” and for asking the pregnant question, “Quid ergo Athenis et Ierosolymis?”
Jerome (ca. 342–420) not only produced the first great translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, but some of the most brilliantly rhetorical letters in any language. He is generally considered the supreme stylist of Christian Latinity. In a famous nightmare (Letter XXII) Jerome saw himself being dragged before the judgment seat and asked about his condition. Claiming to be a Christian, he was abruptly contradicted, “You lie. You are a Ciceronian. ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ [Matt. 6.21].” The scene aptly conveys Jerome's ambivalence and guilt (and that of countless Christian intellectuals like him) about his love of classical literature—which persisted, despite this warning from on high.
Although, like Tertullian, he was born in North Africa, Augustine (354–430) spent his crucial formative years (384–90) in Italy; and, like Tertullian's, his works became European classics. He is naturally best remembered for his Confessions and for his great rambling encyclopedic philosophy of history, The City of God. Augustine is the direct progenitor of countless spiritual autobiographies, from Teresa of Avila's Libro de su vida (1587) to Leo Tolstoy's A Confession (completed in 1882) and, through Jean‐Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), of modern autobiography. Beyond this, the teachings in Augustine's huge oeuvre of ninety‐three works reverberated long and fatefully in Western intellectual history—to choose but one example, in the seventeenth‐century Jansenist controversy, which in turn spawned such diverse masterpieces as Pascal's Provincial Letters (1656 and after) and Sainte‐Beuve's magisterial history of Port‐Royal (1840–1859).
One of the most remarkable offshoots of the New Testament was the cult of Mary. After modest beginnings in early Christianity it made enormous advances once Mary was defined by the Council of Ephesus (431) as “God‐bearer” (Grk. theotokos). By the twelfth century Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) could exclaim, “De Maria numquam satis,” and medieval Christian writers seem to have taken this maxim to heart. There is an enormous and varied body of Marian literature, with famous tributes from writers from all over the Christian world, from Aimar, bishop of Le Puy (ca. 1087), author of the great hymn Salve, regina, to Dante (d. 1321), who has Bernard address Mary as, “Vergine madre, figlia di tuo figlio,” in the final canto of the Paradiso. And the tradition was continued by many later writers, in works as diverse as Cardinal Duperron's (1556–1618) Cantique de la Vierge Marie, Anatole France's (1884–1924) Le Jongleur de Notre‐Dame, and Rainer Maria Rilke's (1875–1926) Das Marien‐Leben.
On a much smaller scale than the patristic writings there is a venerable tradition of hymnology and religious poetry in Latin, from Ambrose's (339–397) Aeterne rerum conditor to Thomas Aquinas's (1225–74) Lauda Sion and Pange, lingua, gloriosi. Other names worth recalling here include Caelius Sedulius (fl. ca. 450), Columba (521–597), Venantius Fortunatus (ca. 530–610), Peter Damian (1007–72), Bernard of Cluny (fl. 1140), Adam of St. Victor (fl. 1140), Peter Abelard (1079–1142), Philip the Chancellor (d. 1236), and Thomas of Celano (ca. 1190–1260), author of the immortal Dies irae, which borrows from Matthew 25:31–46 and other New Testament texts to create a haunting vision of the day of judgment. There were also many fine anonymous poets, authors of such familiar pieces as Ave maris stella, Veni creator spiritus, Alma redemptoris mater, Stabat mater, and Dulcis Iesu memoria. This poetry is simple, direct, and unassuming. Consider the Easter sequence by Wipo (d. ca. 1050), who was chaplain to two Holy Roman Emperors: “Victimae paschali laudes/ immolent Christiani./ Agnus redemit oves:/ Christus innocens Patri/ reconciliavit peccatores./ Mors et vita duello/ conflixere mirando:/ dux vitae mortuus/ regnat vivus,” etc. While not true folk art, many of these hymns, heard continually in church services and learned by heart, became an integral part of popular European culture. Some, notably the Dies irae, which was integrated into the Mass for the Dead, were set to music by composers such as Mozart and Verdi; the Gregorian chant Dies irae resounds menacingingly in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. These Latin hymns also introduced the use of rhyme, which was then adopted by writers of vernacular verse.
Another vital element of European literature (in the broad sense) inspired by the Bible was the unique genre of the “rule” for monastic or religious orders, such as Benedict of Nursia's (d. ca. 543) Regula Monachorum, and its many successors, including the rules of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits, along with Ignatius Loyola's (1491–1556) extremely influential Spiritual Exercises, with its numerous echoes in later literature, such as James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–15). This sort of Christian “torah”—with its distinctly utopian cast—was not merely, or even primarily, reading material, though many generations of religious read them over and over again, down through the centuries. They were the constitutions and codes of communities that attempted, despite repeated and inevitable failures (as lampooned, e.g., in Robert Browning's hilarious Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister), to rebuild Jerusalem in the various “green and pleasant lands” of Europe.
Among the founders of religious orders Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) holds a unique literary position. The author of various important works, he is best known for the Canticle of the Sun (a sublime variation on Ps. 148 and similar texts), which Ernest Hatch Wilkins called “the first noble composition in an Italian dialect.” Francis's idiosyncratic, stunningly literal attempt to live the “evangelical counsels” made him a dubious administrator, but his poetic celebration of Lady Poverty (combining the Sermon on the Mount with courtly love) and his notion of friars as God's minstrels have fired the imagination of countless writers and readers. The Fioretti, an anonymous fourteenth‐century collection of Franciscan legends (e.g., how Francis tamed the man‐eating wolf of Gubbio), is perhaps the most colorful and charming volume of Western hagiography.
With the rise of the vernacular languages the influence of the Bible was extended through the medieval mystery (or miracle) plays, which began as severely restrained liturgical dramas on the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, written by clerics and performed in the churches in Latin. They later moved outdoors, shedding both their Latin and their restraint. In the twelfth century, to cite just one example, the Jeu d'Adam dramatized the Fall, Cain's fratricide, and the supposed biblical prophecies about Jesus. In the later morality plays (fifteenth century), allegorical figures representing Virtue and Vice struggled for the human soul, sometimes accompanied by crowd‐pleasing horseplay. While this primitive theater is little read today (continental literature has nothing to rival the delightful Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play, ca. 1400–50), it served as a bridge to the splendid flowering of drama in the Renaissance.
Religion of a crude chauvinistic sort played a major role in the chansons de geste, with their bellicose bishops and cast‐iron conviction, as in The Song of Roland (early twelfth century), that “Paiien ont tort et chrestiens ont dreit.” In The Poem of the Cid (ca. 1140), the Cid addresses his Castilian vassals: “I pray to God, to our spiritual Father/ That you who for my sake have left your homes and lands/ May, before I die, get some good of me/ That you may regain double what you have lost.” On the enemy side, “The King of Morocco is distressed at my Cid Don Rodrigo:/ ‘He has violated my territories/ And gives thanks to no one, except Jesus Christ.’ ”
In the immense corpus of medieval chivalric literature, religion—that is, mystical Christianity—played a large role, especially in the Arthurian cycle. The quest for the Holy Grail (the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly received the blood from Christ's side), which was told in the legend of Parsifal both by Chrétien de Troyes (latter half of twelfth century) and Wolfram von Eschenbach (d. ca. 1220), is one of the most famous chivalric tales. For many years Wagner's Parsifal (1882) was regularly performed on Good Friday. But the heart of chivalry was full of war, lust, and self‐aggrandizement—Tristan and Iseult's irreproachable piety is helpless to check their adulterous desire—and hence alien to Christian ideals. This point was irrefutably made by no less a critic than Sancho Panza, who told Don Quixote (Part II, Chap. viii): “And so, my lord, it's better to be a humble little friar, of any order whatever, than a valiant and wandering knight; God gives more credit for two dozen blows with a lash than for two thousand thrusts with a lance—be they at giants, monsters, or dragons.” Don Quixote feebly responds that there are many paths to heavenly glory, but Sancho has dogma on his side.
Much more directly inspired by the Bible was the richly varied medieval mystical tradition. Some of its crucial figures include Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure (ca. 1217–74), and the Germans Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260–1327), and Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64). Germany undoubtedly had the most highly developed schools of mysticism, but the later Spanish Carmelites Teresa of Avila (1515–82) and John of the Cross (1542–91) reached a wider audience and have a more distinguished place in the literary canon. Teresa's mystical writings include The Path of Perfection and The Interior Castle. John is best known today for three of his poems, Dark Night of the Soul, a phrase now naturalized in English; The Spiritual Canticle, based on the Song of Solomon; and Flame of Living Love, which, like the previous two, borrows the vocabulary of sexual passion to describe the soul's encounter with God. An Augustinian contemporary of John, Luis de León (1527–91), was perhaps an even greater poet, and like him found particular inspiration in the Song of Solomon. For translating that book from the Hebrew (and his “judaizing” tendencies) he was imprisoned for almost five years, during which time he wrote a prose masterpiece, Los Nombres de Cristo, a Platonic dialogue on the meaning of such titles ascribed to Christ as “Prince of Peace” and “Son of God.” Fray Luis also wrote a powerful Exposition on the Book of Job. Mystical literature is vast and of considerable importance in the later development of individualism, religious and otherwise. But most of it belongs more properly in the realm of theology or, in some cases, philosophy.
The supreme literary work of the late Middle Ages‐early Renaissance is Dante's Divine Comedy (finished some time before 1321), which is literally in a class by itself. Dante's poem draws upon science, philosophy, and history, as well as theology, but it is supremely indebted to the Bible. Dante works leading figures from the Bible into his vast tapestry. For example, he shows us Judas locked in the jaws of Satan at the frozen bottom of hell; in the Purgatorio he evokes the scene of Michal scorning David's dance before the ark; and he populates his Paradiso with all sorts of biblical figures, from Adam and Eve to Rachel, Rebekah, and Rahab. But the work as a whole is dogged by the devil's disconcerting way of having all the good tunes: just as Satan is, despite everything, the most interesting and eloquent character in Paradise Lost, so Dante's Inferno is superior to the other two cantiche in dramatic power. And Dante's grandest moments come when he has the damned (e.g., Francesca da Rimini, Farinata, Ulysses, and Ugolino) tell their tragic stories—with a greatness of soul not lessened by the fact that they stand under God's eternal condemnation.
The late Middle Ages also witnessed the appearance of what has been perhaps the most popular of all books inspired by the Bible, the Imitation of Christ, written in Latin and commonly attributed to Thomas Hammerken (ca. 1380–1471), a German Augustinian monk known to history as Thomas à Kempis. Kempis was profoundly influenced by the years (1392–97) he spent with the Brothers of the Common Life, a community of pious laymen in Deventer, near Utrecht. In a simple, pellucid style, interwoven with quotations from the New Testament, the Imitation champions an intensely personal love of Jesus (culminating in a quasi‐erotic mystical union) that focuses on the Eucharist. The book urges its readers to seek imitation in literal adhesion to the Gospels, particularly stressing humility, self‐denial, rejection of the “world,” and constant prayer. Kempis's highly individualistic version of Christianity, which no doubt reflects his own retiring nature (see his famous dictum, “Cella continuata dulcescit”), seems to be oblivious of social justice and the outside world in general; and this has contributed to its current status as an unread, or seldom read, classic. Devotional literature since Kempis has been a fantastically prolific but mostly undistinguished genre. One exception to this rule is the Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales (1567–1622), an agreeably written and more accommodating handbook of Christian piety for the layperson.
During the Middle Ages direct access to the Bible was limited to those who knew Latin. With the coming of the Reformation and the discovery of the printing press, this would change forever. The act of reading one's own copy of the Bible and shaping one's own interpretation of it would eventually become a kind of sacramental symbol of intellectual freedom. In Germany Martin Luther's (1483–1546) translation of the Bible, drawing on the chancery style of Saxony, which laid the groundwork for modern High German, was of unparalleled importance. It is partly thanks to Luther that Germany has been and still is the most biblically literate country in the world. His vigorous, earthy, impetuous prose style, in his pamphlets and controversial works, along with his fine hymns (Ein’ feste Burg, Vom Himmel hoch, etc.) earned him a large niche in German cultural history. At the same time, the power of his pen gave broad currency to his vitriolic anti‐Semitism (as in his pamphlet On the Jews and Their Lies.)
The more irenic Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1469–1536), a peripatetic Dutch Augustinian, published a Greek New Testament with a Latin translation that, while beneath modern standards, helped to focus scholarly attention on the original. His wonderful Praise of Folly (1516) is a satirical hodgepodge, ultimately inspired by 1 Corinthians 1.18–25. And John Calvin's (1509–64) Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536, first written in Latin) is a radical Protestant reading of the Bible, an assault on Catholicism, and a powerful piece of French prose. Partly as the result of Calvin's influence, French Protestant writers, even such a black sheep as André Gide (1869–1951), have been better versed in the Bible than their Catholic or unbelieving counterparts. And the Calvinistic practice of relentless, lonely self‐scrutiny bore autobiographical and biographical fruit in later centuries. It is no accident that both Jean‐Jacques Rousseau and James Boswell (1740–95) were raised in the Calvinist fortresses of Geneva and Edinburgh.
The seventeenth century saw the last great age of biblically based religious literature. The tradition of religious theater survived in the seventeenth century in Spain, with Calderón (1600–81) and his autos sacramentales, and France, with such masterpieces as Corneille's (1606–84) Polyeucte (1641), and Racine's (1639–99) Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). The latter, with its exquisite formal artifice and courtly grandeur (“O divine, ô charmante loi! / O justice! ô bonté suprême! / Que de raisons, quelle douceur extrême / D'engager à ce Dieu son amour et sa foi!”), seems far removed from the Bible; but Racine handles his sources in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles with intelligence and discretion. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Jesuits wrote and staged learned, edifying Latin plays on biblical themes all over Europe. Perhaps the last surviving specimens of popular Christian drama are the Passion Play of Oberammergau (which is based in part on a sixteenth‐century model and has now been sanitized of its worst anti‐Semitic features) and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Jedermann (1911), an effective reworking of the great fifteenth‐century Dutch morality play of the same name (Elckerlijk).
The seventeenth century was also a great age of pulpit oratory. Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) is still remembered for his solemn sermons delivered at the funerals of the aristocracy, full of resonant maxims on the passing of worldly glory (“Tout ce qui se mesure finit, et tout ce qui est né pour finir n'est pas tout à fait sorti du néant, où il est sitôt replongé”). Bossuet retired just about the time that the Jesuit preacher Louis Bourdaloue (1632–1704) was coming into vogue. Bourdaloue may have been the better reasoner and rhetorician, but posterity (although not Voltaire) gave the palm to Bossuet. In Portugal (and later in Brazil and Rome) a still more gifted Jesuit, António Vieira (1608–97) wrote clear, vivid, sharply reasoned sermons that rank with the finest specimens of Portuguese prose.
The age also saw at least two great, if uneven, Protestant poets. Andreas Gryphius (1616–64) lamented the horrors of the Thirty Years War and gave moving expression to his stalwart, deeply humanistic Lutheran piety. In Les Tragiques, a bitterly satirical epic, Agrippa d'Aubigné (1551–1630) anticipated the Last Judgment, as he championed the long‐suffering Huguenots and chastised evil Catholic rulers, especially Catherine de Médicis, who launched the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572.
Pascal's Pensées, one of the most brilliant instances of the French talent for treating serious philosophical questions on a level accessible to the layperson, are an undeniable masterpiece, even though its proof‐text treatment of scripture is its least impressive part. Pascal argued that without the apparently irrational Pauline doctrine of original sin there is no way to understand the mysteries of human nature. Pascal's most memorable device is his dramatized figure of the libertin—a seventeenth‐century descendant of the ungodly gentiles savaged by Paul in Romans 1:18–32—desperately fleeing thoughts of death in “diversion” and terrified by “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces.” Pascal is still read enthusiastically by believers and unbelievers alike, but the fact that the fideistic and pessimistic Pensées were a rear‐guard action against an increasingly triumphant secularism did not bode well for the philosophical future of Christianity.
After more than a century of exhausting religious wars, the Enlightenment brought the first large‐scale rejection of the Bible and biblical religion, along with numerous apologetic counterattacks. This had the inevitable if paradoxical effect that the philosophes spent a great deal of time discussing Holy Writ. Voltaire (1694–1778), a rebellious product of the Jesuit Collège Louis le Grand, devoted much of his prodigious energy to mocking “l'infâme” (well defined by George Saintsbury as “privileged and persecuting orthodoxy”) and everything connected with it. Candide (1759) pronounces all biblical theodicy bankrupt. In one of his gentler pieces, Ingenuous (1767), he taunts contemporary Christians for their deviations from apostolic practice. More benign critics such as Rousseau, in his Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar in Émile (1762), tried to rationalize and demythologize the God of the Bible.
In one of the greatest Enlightenment texts, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) claimed to reject all external moral authority (such as churches and scriptures) in favor of a “categorical imperative” that supposedly applied to all rational beings on earth (or anywhere else), but this “universal” ethics had deep and obvious roots in the German Pietism Kant knew from his youth and in the age‐old Christian tradition of self‐denial.
Even as Kant was condemning all fixed theological statements as “heteronomous,” his almost exact contemporary, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803) was attempting, in a grandly anachronistic (twenty cantos in hexameter) orthodox epic, Der Messias, to do for Germany what Milton had done for England. Drawing mainly from the New Testament, Paradise Lost, and the topoi of classical and Renaissance epics, the poem recounts the passion, death, resurrection, and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of the Father. But traditional epic and biblical narrative (as Erich Auerbach showed in Mimesis) are scarcely compatible, and in any case Klopstock was essentially a lyricist; and so Der Messias, except for the first three cantos, is generally acknowledged to be a well‐intentioned failure.
The eighteenth century witnessed the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, which eventually brought millions of European Jews into the mainstream of European culture. It also led to a painful state of deracination that can be observed in two of the greatest modern Jewish writers, Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) and Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Heine cynically accepted baptism, but never found a satisfactory home in Judaism, Christianity, or unbelief. His scintillating, relentlessly ironic prose records the contradiction of his love for the gods of Greece and his sometimes begrudging attachment to his Jewish roots. In his Confessions (1854) he explains: “In my earlier days I hadn't felt any special love for Moses, possibly because I was under the sway of the Hellenic spirit, and I couldn't forgive the Lawgiver of the Jews his hatred for image‐making and the plastic arts. I failed to see that …he himself was nevertheless a great artist, with the true artistic spirit. Only he, like his Egyptian compatriots, turned his artistic genius exclusively toward the realm of the colossal and the indestructible.” Self‐exiled in Paris for a quarter‐century, Heine summed up his impossible position in his oft‐quoted deathbed words, “Dieu me pardonnera: c'est son métier.”
Kafka, who has been hailed by some critics as the twentieth‐century novelist par excellence, had a love‐hate relation with Judaism characteristic of his assimilated contemporaries in Austro‐Hungary. Although his work seems to be marked by a blank, uncanny lack of any frame of reference, some pieces, such as his fragment Before the Law (later integrated into The Trial) evoke explicitly, as his other stories and novels do implicitly, a haunted, absurd, Job‐like demand for justice. Elsewhere in The Trial, Joseph K., searching for the “law books” studied by his mysterious accusers (and later executioners) can find only clumsy pornography. To the extent that Kafka's dark parables refer to the Bible (In the Penal Colony speaks of the old and new “Commandant,” sacred but unintelligible “scripts,” an impossible commandment to “BE JUST!” etc.), the tone is consistently hostile. But while he was free to carp and complain—in eerily reasonable prose—about the failure of his world to resemble the Bible's, this “religious humorist,” as Thomas Mann called him, was never free to leave the subject alone.
For Marcel Proust (1871–1922), whose mother was Jewish and who strongly identified with her, religion was only a source of aesthetic sensations—and guilt. Still, Remembrance of Things Past (1913–28) has many biblical echoes, most obviously and painfully in its longest single section, Sodome et Gomorrhe, where Proust projects his own horror of “inversion” onto the doomed inhabitants of The Cities of the Plain (as the original three volumes are called in the Montcrieff translation; see Gen. 19.29). The famous scene of the madeleine cookie and the lime tea in Swann's Way is a nostalgic transformation of both the Passover seder and the Eucharist: an attempt to redeem lost time (and create “sacred history,” in the absence of God and revelation) through art.
For Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–91), the son of a Polish rabbi, biblical faith, as preserved and embodied in the shtetl, is unspeakably precious (especially in the horrific light of the Holocaust), but salvation is, at best, a leap in the dark. Singer's Gimpel the fool is a model absurdist, believing for belief's sake. One of Singer's many devout atheists, Rabbi Nechemia in Something is There, inevitably quotes Ecclesiastes 3:19 to himself, “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other”—before its terrible truth breaks his heart.
The Romantic movement, with its validation of the primitive, the irrational, and the noumenal, often took a positive view of biblical religion. In Italy Saul (very freely adapted from 1 Samuel) by Vittorio Alfieri (1749–1803) may well be the finest modern poetic treatment of any biblical figure. Alfieri's pure, severe style proved a splendid match for his subject. Alessandro Manzoni's I promessi sposi (1825–26) deserves mention because, although perhaps marginally “biblical” (it recounts the successful struggle of a pious Catholic couple in early seventeenth‐century Lombardy to get married despite the formidable obstacles placed in their way by a villainous aristocrat and a spineless parish priest), the grandness of its conception and the richness of its execution have led to its being ranked as the greatest Italian novel.
In the early Romantic period Germany had two outstanding poets who grappled with the conflict between the Bible and secular culture (in various guises). Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) is remembered for his impassioned evocation of the gods of Greece. But in his last creative years (he went incurably insane in 1806) Hölderlin wrote enigmatic hymns to an agonizing Christ (“For suffering colors the purity of this man who is as pure as a sword”), the last of the gods, joining them in a hopeful, heretical synthesis against a cruel God the Father.
In Christendom or Europe, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772–1801) conjured up a “new golden age with dark infinite eyes, a prophetic, wonder‐working and wound‐healing comforting time that sparks eternal life—a great time of reconciliation.” This was not meant to be a reactionary restoration of medieval Catholicism, but a kind of sacred dream come true. Novalis also had a vision of the individual as the locus of literally divine possibilities. “The history of each person,” he wrote, “should be a Bible—aims to be a Bible.”
In his Essay on Criticism (1711) Alexander Pope mocked people who “to church repair,/ Not for the doctrine, but the music there.” This stricture would apply to the many Romantics who loved the Bible primarily for its symbols. A crucial instance of this is Goethe's (1749–1832) Faust (1808, 1832). The “Prologue in Heaven,” which frames the entire narrative, is freely adapted from the book of Job. But “der Herr” is less the Lord than the embodiment of cosmic optimism and paternal benevolence, and Mephistopheles is emphatically not the New Testament Satan. He represents instead a destructive, cynical antihumanism. Similarly, Goethe borrows from both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene to create Gretchen. The “Eternal Feminine” that draws Faust upward is a universal Madonna. T. S. Eliot claimed that bad poets borrow but good poets steal; and Goethe shows no compunction about ransacking the Bible for whatever he needed. In any case, nineteenth‐century literature is full of Madonna‐substitutes, like Solveig in Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1867), and Magdalene figures, such as Sonya in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866).
Similarly, other Romantic writers could be classified as in one sense or other “religious”; but upon closer inspection the role of the Bible in their work often proves to be secondary. François René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) was a Romantic apologist for Christianity, who celebrated its aesthetic appeal in an erstwhile classic, The Genius of Christianity, or The Poetic and Moral Beauties of the Christian Religion (1802). In this fervent miscellany Chateaubriand extols the Bible for its “sublimity,” but his two most famous works that originally formed part of the book, Atala and René, show him on more congenial ground, describing the sexual torment, guilt, and despair, in awesomely beautiful natural settings, of young Catholic characters who are projections of himself.
One of the greatest nineteenth‐century religious writers is Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), whose work is without parallel. Although essentially a philosopher‐theologian, Kierkegaard's style—passionate, prodigiously energetic, dramatic, and often ironic—qualifies him as a literary figure. A sort of Danish Don Quixote, Kierkegaard's reading of the Bible “turned his head” (cf. his famous “teleological suspension of the ethical” interpretation of the binding of Isaac in Gen. 22 [see Aqedah]), and impelled him to spend his short life campaigning against the deformation of Christianity into Christendom, and proclaiming the “contemporaneousness” of the Gospels. But as with Pascal before him and Dostoyevsky after, the secular reader may wonder why Kierkegaard's eloquence is so often fired by anxiety and doubt.
In an entirely different sense Gustave Flaubert (1821–80) found frequent inspiration in the Bible. Religion for Flaubert may be an exploded illusion, but its vivid mythology is immeasurably superior to the desiccation and meanness of contemporary life. Madame Bovary (1857), who has been bitterly disillusioned by her banal, soulless lovers, gives the most passionate kiss of her life to the crucifix proffered to her as she dies. In Flaubert's final masterpiece, Three Tales (1877), the failure of biblical religion is still an open wound. The ironically named Félicité in A Simple Heart is a self‐immolating (and totally ignorant) believer. Enslaved by her employer, mistreated or abandoned by almost everyone in a nominally Christian society, she dies during a senile fantasy of her stuffed pet parrot as the Holy Ghost. The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller retells the mysterious, harrowing life of a sort of Christian Oedipus, but the concluding lines dismiss the story as a stained‐glass fairy tale. Worst of all, in Herodias, a skillful fictionalization of the beheading of John the Baptist, Flaubert curses all parties—Jews, Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and proto‐Christians—as bigoted, brutal, and deluded.
Nineteenth‐century Russia produced two great instances of literature shaped by the Bible: the work of the tortured believer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81) and of the aristocratic convert to evangelical simplicity, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Orthodox critics have praised Dostoyevsky's “Christ‐figures,” such as Prince Leo Myshkin from The Idiot (1868–69) and the former monk Alyosha Karamazov (1880), but the voice of his nay‐sayers, such as the Underground Man (1864) or the antitheist Ivan Karamazov strikes most readers as far more compelling. Ivan, to be sure, is as God‐haunted as any Dostoyevskyan character, and in his prose poem, The Grand Inquisitor, he imagines Jesus returning to sixteenth‐century Spain. Yet though he kisses the Grand Inquisitor (who wants to protect his infantilized, anesthetized, but beloved flock from the dangers of Christian freedom), Dostoyevsky's Christ has literally nothing to say.
Tolstoy's peculiar brand of deism, discarding most of Christian dogma but borrowing freely from the New Testament, preaching nonresistance to evil and exalting Christ‐like self‐donation to others, won followers around the world, but he suffers from the archetypal liberal Christian problem of deriving the inspiration and motivating energy of his work from a source he himself no longer believes in. In two of his best stories, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) and Master and Man (1895), Tolstoy creates blindly materialistic protagonists who transcend their bourgeois egoism on the point of death by imitating their altruistic servants. Tolstoy's acid depiction of the lives of Ivan Ilych Golovin and Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov has an angry prophetic power, but the vague redemption they achieve (in lieu of death Ivan Ilych finds a mysterious “light,” and an unnamed “Someone” comes to visit Brekhunov) seems like a biblical deus ex machina.
Then there is the unique and paradoxical case of the “antitheists,” the greatest of whom is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche has secured a place in the literary canon thanks to his unique brand of philosophizing—“with a hammer,” as he put it. While grimly declaring that “God is dead,” and brutally insisting that the slave morality of Jews and Christians has to give way to the master morality of “the blond beast,” Nietzsche, who was the son of a Lutheran pastor, produced an epochal body of work that weirdly mirrors the Bible. His aphorisms have the alternately angry, exultant, or scornful ring of the prophets. His superman is a secular messiah. His doctrine of eternal recurrence is a fantastic substitute for an eternal afterlife. And Nietzsche's life had both the suicidal courage of the Christian martyr as well as the fierce self‐denial and misogynistic celibacy of a Christian hermit.
Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) is a paradoxical heir of Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, who turns doubt into a category of religious experience, an ex‐believer who cannot stop wrestling with the Bible. Early on in The Agony of Christianity (1924) he writes: “Agony, then, is struggle. And Christ came to bring us agony, struggle, and not peace. He told us as much. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth’ [Matt. 10.34].” And he concludes, “Christ, our Christ! Why hast thou forsaken us?” In Saint Manuel the Good (1931) Unamuno describes an utterly devoted but unbelieving priest whose honesty forces him to keep silent as his congregation recites the Creed but who is (almost) buoyed up and borne ahead by the wave of their faith.
A number of other twentieth‐century atheistic writers, such as Jean‐Paul Sartre (1905–80), Albert Camus (1913–60), and the practitioners of the “Theatre of the Absurd” (e.g., Luigi Pirandello, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett), can be seen as conducting a lifelong argument with the biblical version of the world, shaking their fists at an empty heaven. The “nausea” experienced by Sartre's autobiographical hero, Antoine Roquentin (1938), is a kind of metaphysical malaise caused by the fact that “every thing in existence is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by accident.” Although Roquentin, like Proust, decides to seek relief from a godless universe in art, he nevertheless defines himself by what he rejects: the idea of creation.
Beckett's play Waiting for Godot (1952) is full of futile nostalgia for the world of the Bible. Vladimir wonders why only one of the evangelists tells the story of the good thief, and he can't remember a verse from Proverbs: “Hope deferred maketh the something sick.” Although Beckett himself defined Godot as whatever one hopes for, he is clearly a tragicomically incompetent/nonexistent biblical God with an unreliable and very nervous young boy as his angel. Like Kafka, Beckett plays endless variations on the theme of being condemned to hope. But while for Kafka hope is a sort of cruel and crazy mitzvah, for Beckett it is an incurable tic douleureux from which all humans suffer.
Nikos Kazantzakis (1885–1957) is a different and unusual case. At times resembling an incoherent Unamuno, Kazantzakis was a nihilist whose obsession with Christianity knew no bounds (see The Greek Passion, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Report to Greco), but with the passage of time his work strikes many readers as embarrassingly full of sound and fury.
The most significant influence of the Bible on modern literature (roughly from the late eighteenth century to the present) may well be the persistence of Jewish and Christian symbols and allusions—as in Ibsen's Brand (1866), the story of a noble, but self‐destructive zealot, or in the title The Road to Damascus (1898–1904) by August Strindberg, who had nothing in common with Paul except a hair‐trigger emotional sensitivity.
All in all, this biblical influence is so varied and complex that it is hard to assess. The texts, as we have already seen, run a staggeringly broad gamut, from Nathan der Weise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81), a Christian who idealized his friend, the great maskil and “Jewish Socrates,” Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), to the philo‐Christian “Nazarene” novels of the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch (1880–1957). Biblical themes appear in myriad guises. Ernest Renan (1823–92) had an immense scandalous success with his Vie de Jésus (1863) and its vision of Jesus as the “divine charmer” and Jewish Orpheus (cf. the rapturous Hellenism of Renan's Prayer on the Acropolis in his Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse ) but, although dated, it remains the most widely read popular‐scholarly life of Christ. Thomas Mann (1875–1955) created an extraordinarily ambitious, sympathetic, and thoughtful, if not always aesthetically compelling, picture of the world of the ancestors of Israel in his immense novel Joseph and his Brothers (1934–42). When all is said and done, no one can predict what forms the influence of the Bible on future writers may take, but it may be safe to predict that such influence will be both continuous and attenuated.
Peter D. Heinegg
North American Literature
American literature, in its use of the Bible, is not notably characterized by medieval or Miltonic retellings of scriptural narratives. Drawing epic and dramatic material rather from frontier life, New World authors often chose to invest immediate and local experience with eternal significance by encoding it with biblical typology. It is this typological biblicizing of national life, and the theological worldview that such a biblical typology implies, that facilitates the connection of important individual texts to the development of a larger public “myth” in the United States. In Canada, by contrast, where the wilderness seemed more resistant to subjugation, and survival rather than triumph the visible goal, the use of the Bible by literary authors does not follow from a typological worldview; hence it is more tentative, less schematic, and, where involved with questions of identity, more concerned to relate personal rather than public experience to the transvaluation afforded by biblical references.
The United States.
American literature branched off from English literature just at that point in the seventeenth century when the influence of the Bible upon secular texts was at its zenith in Britain. The Puritans who settled in New England and dominated its literary culture for several generations, were, moreover, of English speakers among the most biblically literate. Extensive mastery of the entire biblical corpus in the King James (Authorized) Version was common among ordinary people in the colonies, and individuals who had memorized entire books, or, as in the case of John Cotton, large portions of both Testaments, were far from rare.
The writing of the Puritans themselves was confined largely to diaries, chronicles, and well‐wrought sermons, but a few, such as Anne Bradstreet, with her sense of struggle between The Flesh and the Spirit (1678), and Edward Taylor, so heavily influenced (like his English metaphysical counterparts) by the Song of Solomon, wrote reflective and devotional poetry rich in biblical theme and idiom. Almost any kind of American text in this period, from chronicle to court judgment, might not only quote the Bible extensively but be characterized throughout by biblical diction.
Biblical typology, as Sacvan Bercovitch (Biblical Typology in Early American Literature ) and others have shown, provided a means whereby life in the colonies became literal realization of scriptural metaphor: Fall, exile, Exodus, pilgrim history, Promised Land, and even millennial kingdom are worked almost seamlessly into the narratives of William Bradford, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Michael Wigglesworth (The Day of Doom ), Cotton Mather, Samuel Sewall, and Jonathan Edwards. In Wigglesworth, whose text was buttressed throughout by marginal references to precise biblical texts, or later, in Edwards's dramatic Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), one sees the incipient apocalypticism as well as a hellfire and brimstone call to repentance that the Puritan style of Calvinism was to bequeath to American literary consciousness. In Bradford, Winthrop, and Taylor, one observes paradoxically that America was also seen as a recovered Eden, a new Canaan, or Promised Land in the here and now. In this early period, it is clearly typology and allusion to the Hebrew Bible that predominates: even a poem such as Edward Taylor's Christographia (ca. 1690), a fourteen‐sermon “portrait” of Christ, each sermon preceded by a poetic meditation, tends to be structured according to types, promises, and prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures.
Bercovitch has shown that developmental typology in Puritan literature relates figures from the Hebrew Bible not only to the incarnation but, in a form of sensus plenior, to the second coming of Christ. Thus, typical narratives, such as those of the Babylonian captivity and Promised Land, come to prefigure end‐time events as well as aspects of the story of Christ. America is Eden “in the last days.” This historiographic view is complemented by “the static biographical parallelism offered by correlative typology, in which the focus is not primarily upon Christ but upon certain Old Testament heroes …as they become, through Christ, ‘redivivus' in contemporary heroes.” This second typology, visible in actual names as well as the names of literary characters, relies as much as the first on covenant theology. Typology thus becomes a link between the concept of “a recurrent national covenant and the concept of an unchanging covenant of grace manifest in succeeding stages of the history of redemption” (Bercovitch, p. 25). Thomas Shepard's The Covenant of Grace (1651) reads current frontier events as if they were superimposed upon the lineated covenant history of the Bible; Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) looks back already to the golden age of Puritanism as a lost Eden or New Canaan, as from a pilgrim prospect from which the intervention of providence must be sought to ensure against the temptation to return—even at Harvard College—to the luxurious entrapments of Egypt. For America to realize its destiny as the land of promise, the conversion of American experience into a text about God's unfolding plan of redemption, emergent in Edward Johnson's Wonder‐Working Providence of Sion's Savior (1654), was coupled with a tendency to read the text of the Bible itself as though it were chiefly about Americans, or, as Giles Gunn puts it in The Bible and American Arts and Letters (1983), as if “the Bible was proleptically American.”
The American jeremiad, a political sermon that joins social criticism to spiritual renewal (as well as public dream to private identity), has come to be recognized as a foundational mythopoeic American literary genre. From the frontier outpost sermons of Peter Bulkeley in the midseventeenth century to the television evangelists of the late twentieth century it has tended to read contemporary events as though they were written down in an unfolding text to which the Bible is the master code and ultimate governing form. Characterized not only by biblical rhetoric and diction but also formed upon biblical narrative and dependent for its wide appeal on extensive popular knowledge of the Bible, the jeremiad has in turn had a powerful influence upon other literary genres throughout the history of American letters.
This was less apparent in the second half of the eighteenth century, however, than later. The dominant American writings in this period of consolidation continued to be political, but of a decidedly Enlightenment stripe. Allusions to the Bible occur only rarely in the works of Franklin and Jefferson; classical literature, as in England, usurped the fashion. Even in poetry, dominated by the “Yale poets” (Trumball, Dwight, Barlow, Humphreys, and Hopkins) despite their uniformly Calvinist upbringing, literary use of the Bible is as marginal as it is in the poetry of Philip Freneau who, in the spirit of his time, eulogized On the Religion of Nature. Timothy Dwight's Miltonic allegorical epic, The Conquest of Canaan (ca. 1775), populated with eighteenth‐century Americans with Hebrew names and perhaps the most self‐consciously biblical poem of the period, was unsuccessfully archaic, a relic of his grandfather Jonathan Edwards's day, displaced in popularity by Dwight's own rather conventional pastoral verse. Only the black slave poet, Phillis Wheatley (Thoughts on the Works of Providence ), wrote popular verse that adhered to the Puritan vision and its biblical themes and language, and it too looked backward, as in her most famous poem, On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770.
The nineteenth century brought a notable revival in biblical allusion in the works of writers of diverse religious persuasions; easily recognizable from the Calvinist William Cullen Bryant to the Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier, it is richly present in the most popular poet of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Each of these poets wrote verse heavily marked by biblical idiom and diction, if not always devoted to a biblical theme; Whittier, however, in his concern with slavery, readily invoked the captivity, Exodus, and wilderness themes in poems such as Song of Slaves in the Desert (1847), Ichabod (1850), and First Day Thoughts (1852), while Longfellow, author of The Divine Tragedy (1871), a Passion drama, related Pentecost and the atonement in his verse‐sermon, The Children of the Lord's Supper. In James Russell Lowell's then famous Harvard Oration Ode (1810), the old Puritan vision of America as “the Promised Land / That flows with Freedom's honey and milk” buttresses both the rhetoric and Lowell's moral: “ ’Tis not the grapes of Canaan that repay, / But the high faith that failed not by the way.”
Side by side with these sentiments, the growth of romantic naturalism and transcendentalism expressed in Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson respectively is supported by a subtle recasting of selected biblical verities. Thoreau, in the prophetic sense of mission, evidenced particularly in Walden (1854) and Civil Disobedience (1849), shows familiarity with Genesis, Ecclesiastes, and the gospel of Matthew, though he characteristically edits according to his strong dislike of any emphasis on repentance. Emerson, son of a Unitarian minister and descended from Puritans, began his career as a Unitarian preacher but, in a crisis of vocation, shortly resigned to pursue an interest in Montaigne and certain writers of the English Romantic movement. As a colloquial philosopher in an era when the popular lecture was displacing the sermon in literary importance, he perceived where his future lay: “I believe that wherever we go, whatever we do, self is the sole subject we study and learn …but as self means Devil, so it means God.” In his pursuit of the “God within,” and despite his railing at “sulphurous Calvinism,” he found, in his poem The Problem (1839), that “Out from the heart of nature rolled / the burdens of the Bible old.” Though his antinomian redefinition of those burdens, most memorably expressed in his famous essay On Self‐Reliance (1841), is what he has most contributed to the “biblical tradition” in American literature, Emerson could on occasion quickly revert to Puritan humility before an omnipotent God, as in Grace (1842).
In prose fiction, the novels of James Fenimore Cooper make extended use of biblical analogy for frontier experience. In a recrudescence of the Puritan pattern, Amer of The Oak Openings (1848) thinks the Bible addresses itself particularly to him, directing that he should lead the Indians, descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, back to Palestine. In The Last of the Mohicans (1826) Gamut is a singer of psalms who idolizes King David. Yet Cooper is critical of the Puritan instinct for typological autobiography in The Deerslayer (1841), where he rejects the appropriation to the self of divine authority on the basis of forced biblical analogy. Despite their anti‐Christian stance, Nathaniel Hawthorne's novels and short stories are rich in biblical allusions, though often as parody: in Roger Malvin's Burial, the character Reuben is not only a superficial parallel to his biblical namesake, but a type of Israel seeking redemption from “Cyrus.” In Herman Melville's epic‐novel Moby‐Dick (1851), notwithstanding a fierce resistance to Calvinistic religion, a rich synthesis of biblical narrative and typology reveals a knowledge of the Bible that might almost have done credit to a Puritan divine; Melville's text opens with the evocative words, “Call me Ishmael.” In Pierre (1852), he explores the theme of failed “imitation of Christ,” to which he returns in the posthumously published Billy Budd (1924); in The Confidence Man (1857) he has the prototypical beguiler, Satan himself, come on board the American ship of faith, Fidele, and, by arguing that there are no trustworthy texts (in that the Bible itself is a devilish beguiler), demonstrate that there are in fact no real Christians aboard. The writings of Edgar Allen Poe, who refers to the Qurʾān more approvingly than the Bible, are surprisingly rich in biblicisms, and one story, The Cask of Amontillado (1846), has been read as a demonic parody of the Passion.
The work of these major fiction writers illustrates that if resistance to the formidable biblical inclusiveness of Puritan views of history and writing had been largely passive in the years from the mid‐eighteenth century through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, it began to take on a more strident antinomian flavor during the period known as the American Literary Renaissance. This is particularly evident in the poets, of whom (beside Poe) Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson suffice as illustration. The debt of Whitman's prosody, rhythm, and diction to the language of the King James Bible, along with his special interest in Judaism, does not hinder his Emersonian vindication of “the plain old Adam, the simple genuine self against the whole world.” In A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads, he tells us that in preparation for Leaves of Grass (1855) he grounded himself in both testaments, and the influence is clear enough at the level of structure. His tendency to see himself as a Christ or prophet, as in the climactic thirty‐third section of Song of Myself, “I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” is reinforced by his appreciation of the role of biblical prophets as visionary denouncers of social privilege and cultural hypocrisy.
Dickinson, as Herbert Schneidau has observed, presents an extreme case of the familiar paradox so apparent in Melville: “the more antinomian the American poet, the more he or she falls back upon the traditional guidebook.” Her poetry requires extensive verbal familiarity with the Bible if its full import as a rejection of conformity with received traditions is to be fully understood. Following her years at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, she sees the Bible as “an antique volume / Written by faded men / At the suggestion of Holy Spectres,” rejecting with bitter ironies the orthodox and Calvinistic appropriation of the Bible in which she had been educated.
The presence of the Bible in nineteenth‐century literature is largely a function of educational formation; still living off the spiritual and literary capital of the Puritan era, and possessed thereby of a biblical literacy paralleled today only in certain parts of the English‐speaking third world, American writers almost unavoidably wrote in biblical language, whatever their subject. Yet “the one serious Christian novel of the age,” and most seriously biblical, was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–52). Its actual plot turns upon a biblical treatment of the problem of evil, specifically recollected in a crisis reading of Psalm 73, and the hero Tom is made to be the paragon of the imitation of Christ in his nonviolent resistance to persecution and oppression. Yet this enormously popular work—as to a lesser extent the work of George Washington Cable and Joseph Holy Ingraham's epistolary, sensationalist and trivializing life of Christ, The Prince of the House of David (1855)—are, despite their success in the marketplace, exceptions that merely define the literary mainstream of the later nineteenth century, as represented by the realists Mark Twain, W. D. Howells, and Henry James. Twain (Samuel Clemens), especially in Innocents Abroad (1869), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1883), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), offers narrators who seem to know much about the Bible, yet for strategic purposes deploy it incorrectly. Twain's notorious antireligiosity grows steadily less covert and less comic (but note Eve's Diary ) toward the end of his life, obliterating even this use of the Bible in the despairing cynicism of A Mysterious Stranger (1916). W. D. Howells, raised a Swedenborgian and matured as an agnostic, is said to have known much of the Bible by heart, and his Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) loosely rewords the story of Jacob and Esau. Henry James, whose A Passionate Pilgrim (1871) is heading back to the European “Egypt,” makes almost no significant use of the Bible, except perhaps in the title only of The Golden Bowl (1904), which may be an enigmatic residue of Ecclesiastes 12.6. The Bible is largely displaced in the novels of the 1890s—in Hamlin Garland, Kate Chopin, Frank Norris, Jack London; even in the work of Stephen Crane, son of a Methodist minister, there are few traceable echoes. Exceptions to this generalization in “serious” literature were historical novels based upon biblical times, of which General Lew Wallace's Ben‐Hur (1880) was the most successful, followed by Henry K. Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis? (1896), based upon the apostolic labors of Peter. Even Henry Adams attempted a religious‐historical novel, though his Esther (1884) was not popular.
Among the American poets writing between the two world wars, Robert Frost reflects an ambivalent attitude toward the Bible as a source, choosing the painful paradoxes of Job as the material for his most overtly biblical poem, A Masque of Reason (1945). On the one hand, popular taste was being formed by the popular religious novels of Lloyd C. Douglas, notably The Robe (1942) and The Fisherman (1949), the first of which was made into a movie, and more thoughtfully in the novels of Scholem Asch, including The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), Mary (1949), and Moses (1951). On the other, the poetry and celebrated conversion of T. S. Eliot was prompting the renewal of intellectual interest in the Bible among poets and dramatists in some ways unprecedented since the Puritans. Marianne Moore was by 1920 the “poet's poet” in America. Her poetry, fluent in biblical story and idiom, reached the height of its achievement toward the end of World War II, and is exemplified in poems rich in allusion to Jonah (Sojourn in a Whale) and Job (In Distrust of Merits). Biblical allusions nonetheless waned in the poetry of Vachel Lindsay, after General William Booth Enters into Heaven (1913), and is of small consequence in the work of e. e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Hart Crane—even John Crowe Ransome and Allen Tate—though biblical phrasing flavors the work of William Carlos Williams. In quite different accents it persists in some of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.
In the drama, meanwhile, as in the popular novel, there had merged a tradition of modern retelling of biblical stories: George Cabot Lodge's Cain (1904), F. E. Pierce's The World That God Destroyed (1911), William Ford Manley's The Mess of Pottage (1928), Richard Burton's Rahab (1906), Scholem Asch's Jephthah's Daughter (1915), and R. G. Moulton's The Book of Job (1918). Marc Connelly's famous Green Pastures (1929), Eugene O'Neill's Belshazzar (1915), and Archibald MacLeish's acclaimed J.B., a modernization of the Job story (1958), along with his earlier Nobodaddy (1926), a verse play using Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel (cf. his volume, Songs for Eve ), illustrate something of the diversity of dramatizations of subjects from the Hebrew Bible. Plays on New Testament subjects, though less numerous, were more influential: O'Neill's Lazarus Laughed (1925), Thornton Wilder's Now the Servant's Name Was Malchus (1928) and Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job? (a play about Christ, Satan, and Judas), Robinson Jeffers's dramatic poem Dear Judas (1929), along with Marie Doran's Quo Vadis? (1928), a dramatic adaptation of the novel of Sienkiewicz, highlight a flurry of activity in the 1920s. These plays with their tendency to recharacterize New Testament narratives, are a sharp contrast to the still traditional biblical drama of the prewar period, well represented in Charles Kennedy's The Terrible Meek (1912), and anticipate successful cinematic and musical adaptations of the Christ‐Judas‐Peter narrative in the 1960s and 1970s.
Biblical motif more than biblical language or narrative plot marks a residual influence of the Bible on American fiction of the modern period, often hearkening back to the old Puritan typology and theology of a “God‐blessed America.” In Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins (1971), a biblically encoded national mythology is called up nostalgically in a time when it seems actually to have lost much of its cultural and religious power. In titles that are evocative rather than indicative, biblical allusion is often used as if to borrow a mythological authority for writing unsure of how to proceed without a shareable literary foundation: F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1952) and Grapes of Wrath (1939), Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963), William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses (1942), Saul Bellow's The Victim (1947), and Walker Percy's The Second Coming (1980), all indicate a tendency to call upon biblical points of reference—and a specific mode—to express apocalyptic apprehension. Elsewhere the biblical titles call up a mood of lamentation in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) or, as in Ernest Hemingway's use of Ecclesiastes, an experience of undermined foundations and lost identities in The Sun Also Rises (1926). James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), in a related vein, makes use of Sirach 44 to create a jeremiad on a lost sense of national covenant history.
The parable has become another discernible mode in modern American fiction, with Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952) as perhaps the most eminent modern example. Biblical titles continue to appear, as in Wright Morris's The Ram in the Thicket (1951), with only a loosely allusive function; even in writers with notably religious concerns, such as Percy or Flannery O'Connor (The Lame Shall Enter First; The Violent Bear It Away ), substantive use of biblical material is rare.
What Ursula Brumm describes as “the figure of Christ in American literature” (Partisan Review 24 ), notably in Hemingway, Faulkner, and Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man (1952), is in effect an attempt to give transcendent meaning to the chaotic complexity of ordinary life in which the innocent are made to suffer. Theodore Ziolkowski had identified Gore Vidal's Messiah (1954) and John Barth's Giles Goat Boy (1966) as “demonic parodies of the life of Christ,” works in which “all questions of meaning aside, the events as set down immutably in the Gospels prefigure the action of the plot” (Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus , p. 26). Such works, however much narrative analogues to the Bible, are in effect “anti‐Gospels”—diametrically opposite to the imitation of Christ such as is represented in American fiction by Charles M. Sheldon's “Bible Belt” classic In His Steps (1896). By the second half of the twentieth century, the “Christ‐figure” has often become “Antichrist.”
The Bible continues, nonetheless, to shape and texture American fiction in more traditional fashion. John Updike, in novels whose protagonists bear the consistent character of the fallen Adam—Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990)—as well as The Centaur (1963), and Roger's Version (1987), uses biblical allusion and elements of ancestral saga in the shaping of narrative; in his Couples (1968) the hero is identified with Lot living in the cities of the plain (the coast near Boston), fleeing Sodom with his two daughters and leaving behind his wife turned to salt. Another writer who demands considerable biblical literacy from his readers and whose use of the Bible extends from title to precept and narrative elements as well as significant allusion, is Chaim Potok, notably in his novels of Jewish life in New York, The Chosen (1967) and The Promise (1969). American Jewish fiction born of more recent immigrant experience readily employs biblical analogue for covenant saga, jeremiad, even apocalyptic (Saul Bellows's Mr. Sammler's Planet ) and, in the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, parable. The reemergence of these biblically informed genres lends an appearance of continuity with forms of literary imagination familiar in American literature from its seventeenth‐century Puritan beginnings.
Canadian literature grew up slowly at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth; thus, heavily influenced by enlightenment taste and romantic self‐consciousness, it did not turn readily to the Bible as a foundational literature. The dramatic poem Jephthah's Daughter (1865), published by Charles Heavysege shortly after his arrival in Canada, is perhaps the only significant example of biblical influence before the twentieth century. Without any equivalent to the Puritan legacy of American writers, English Canadian authors begin to take a significant interest in the Bible only after its “rediscovery,” following the influence of Matthew Arnold in Britain, as a “secular” literature, and, subsequently, the success of Jewish writers in Canada following World War II. French Canadian authors have made even less use of scriptural sources, even by way of allusion, although Yves Theriault, in Aaron (1954), a novel about an orthodox Jew who loses his son to gentiles, is a notable parallel to contemporary developments in English Canadian fiction.
While Morley Callaghan incorporated religious ideas and even doctrines into some of his many novels, his conspicuous use of biblical allusion is peripheral: in Such Is My Beloved (1934), for example, the priest‐protagonist concludes his frustrated idealism in a mental hospital working on a commentary on the Song of Solomon; other of Callaghan's suggestively biblical titles fit their plots still more loosely, as is the case in They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935) and More Joy in Heaven (1937). Howard O'Hagan's Tay John (1939) draws on Native American mythology as well as biblical sources in a story of suffering and self‐generated attempts at atonement that contrasts sharply with E. J. Pratt's use of similar sources in his poem Brebeuf and His Brethren (1940). Other more or less gratuitously allusive titles include Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House (1941) and W. O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), and, with varying degrees of apropos, Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night (1959) and Marian Engel's The Glassy Sea (1978).
Beyond the echoing allusions of writers such as Archibald Lampman, E. J. Pratt, P. K. Page, and James Reaney, Canadian poetry and drama have produced few examples of formative biblical influence. Among these may be counted Jay Macpherson's The Boatman (1957) and Margaret Avison's Sunblue (1980), in the latter of which the poet still gladly countenances “The Bible to be Believed.” Renewal of Canadian literary interest in the Arnoldian tradition, evidenced in Northrop Frye's discussion of the Bible as foundational literature in The Great Code (1982) and Words with Power (1990), is necessarily oblique to the generative power of the Bible for those writing out of an immediate experience of it as textual authority, such as Avison, Rudy Wiebe, or, most centrally, A. M. Klein. Klein's Five Characters is a penetrating analysis of the book of Esther, and his Koheleth is a reading back of the dark sayings of Ecclesiastes into the mind behind the utterances. He writes in imitation of the Psalms in The Psalter of Avram Haketani (1948) (a volume that has in turn influenced the prose psalms of Jubilee repentance of Leonard Cohen, A Book of Mercy ), in whimsical parody of “Jonah,” and in moving evocation of Hebrew apocalyptic in A Voice Was Heard in Ramah (1948).
A revival of more substantial engagement of the Bible in Canadian fiction may be traced to A. M. Klein's novel of Jewish covenant history, The Second Scroll (1951), a “double tale” composed of five books named for those of the Torah and five “glosses.” While Ernest Buckler's The Mountain and the Valley (1952), with its artist protagonist David Canaan, is recognizably influenced by New England writers, it is an exception proving the rule that Puritan covenant theology has had little impact on Canadian literary consciousness. The Second Scroll was followed by another novel of diaspora Jewish life, Adele Wiseman's The Sacrifice (1956), in which Abraham and Sarah flee pogroms in the Ukraine during which their sons Jacob and Moses are murdered at Easter (Passover) by Christians only to have their son of later years, Isaac die while saving a copy of the Torah from the flames. Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962) and subsequent The Blue Mountains of China (1970), with its own epic recounting of family/covenant history of the Mennonite diaspora, follow Klein and Wiseman in the way in which contemporary life is grafted directly onto biblical narrative, or made to seem an outgrowth of it. Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel (1964), whose heroine Hagar is a rebel not only against her husband Bram but against God and the world, is a tale from without, a novel molded by the protagonist's sense of covenantal exclusion. It is not, however, like Timothy Findley's grisly and angry redrafting of the story of Noah, Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), a demonic parody of the Bible, or like Wiebe's My Lovely Enemy (1983), a desacralization and inversion of biblical salvation history.
Resistance to the influence of the Bible, especially as represented by the American Puritan legacy in political life, reaches its zenith in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a dystopia in which American fundamentalists have erected a society based on a rigid implementation of biblical law and social custom. Atwood's apocalyptic tale is an antijeremiad, expressing Canadian fears of a biblicist America declaring itself the only “chosen,” and serves to indicate much of the basis for the strikingly divergent uses of biblical tradition in Canadian and American literature.
David Lyle Jeffrey