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The Greatest Monument of English Prose

As the year draws to a close, we’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful books published in 2010, and in doing so, we’ve also realized there are some classics worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, which will appear regularly until the New Year, drawing our attention to books both new and old. Below Gordon Campbell, author of Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011, tells us why the KJV is worth reading in 2011.

Of the current Oxford World’s Classics, the best Christmas gift this year would be The Bible: Authorized King James Version, which has been skillfully edited with an elegant introduction and really helpful notes by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett.

This would be a timely gift, because 2011 will be the quatercentenary of the publication of the King James Bible in 1611. In the UK the King James Bible Trust is coordinating a huge number of celebratory events, including conferences, lectures and exhibitions; it is to be hoped that other Anglophone countries will make a similarly joyful noise. This is, after all, the greatest monument of English prose, and the noble simplicity of its language had endeared it to generations of readers and listeners. The latter group is particularly important, because the King James Version was ‘appointed to be read in churches’, and so was written to be read aloud. That objective accounts for the pulse of the prose (‘she gave me of the tree and I did eat’, for example, is a perfect iambic pentameter line), which in turn makes the King James Version the most memorable of translations. Indeed, that is true in a literal sense: more modern translations may use an accessible idiom, but the rhythm of the King James Version makes it easy to memorize.

The King James Bible is the most widely read of all English translations, but it is also the version most often heard. In music, for example, Handel’s Messiah uses the King James Version, as do the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and English settings of the Nunc dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel’. At a humbler level, countless nativity plays in primary schools begin with the words ‘and it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’. Anyone not moved by such passages must have a ears of tin and a heart of stone, but even those of stony heart and tin ears may be carried to their final resting place to the sound of words that console those who remain: ‘and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain’. English prose doesn’t get any better than that, and it’s all yours for £11.99 ($18.95). Buy it for your friends at Christmas.

Gordon Campbell is Professor of Renaissance Studies at University of Leicester. His recent books for OUP include The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance (2003), Renaissance Art and Architecture (2004), The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts (2 vols, 2006), Milton and the manuscript of ‘De Doctrina Christiana’ (2007), The Grove Encyclopedia of Classical Art and Architecture (2 vols, 2007), John Milton: Life, Work and Thought (2008) and The Grove Encyclopedia of Northern Renaissance Art (3 vols, 2009). In October OUP published his Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011 and his 400th anniversary edition of the Bible. He has previously written this post for OUPblog.

Recent Comments

  1. Dw

    This is incorrect. The version of the Nunc Dimittis usually heard set to music in Engish is that of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP).

    The BCP retained the texts of the earlier Great Bible for the psalms and canticles. It did not update them to the King James version.

    In the case of the Nunc Dimittis, the Great Bible
    has “to be a Light to lighten the Gentiles”; the words “to be” were omitted in the King James translation.

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  3. Gustavo Silva

    I have read somewhere that the first and greatest monument of the English Language is the King James Bible, the second is Shakespeare, but which is the third? Thanks a lot.

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