The Greatest English Prose Ever Written

Book cover
God's Secretariesby By Adam NicolsonHarper Collins. 304p $24.95

Adam Nicolson must have thought one good masterpiece of English deserved another. He has matched the eloquent beauty of the King James Bible with prose that doesn’t just sparkle, but sings.

This story has been told before (Benson Bobrick’s Wide as the Waters and Alister McGrath’s In the Beginning). Nicolson may be less erudite. But rarely has a story about the composition of any book been told so well or served as such a fitting tribute to its subject. Not many books of scholarship give so much pleasure to the general reader.

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Nicolson is a grandson of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, who begot Nigel, who begot Adam and several other siblings. He lives on a farm near the ancestral gardens at Sissinghurst. Whether influenced by heredity or environment, in God’s Secretaries (the phrase is Calvin’s) he has written literary nonfiction of the highest sort.

The first key figure in Nicolson’s story is the new English monarch, James I (already James VI of Scotland), who in 1603 followed Queen Elizabeth I (who beheaded his mom, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587). From James’s view, Elizabeth seems to have made amends by naming him to succeed her. James had survived the assaults of Knox-ious presbyters in Scotland, mostly by ducking their punches. Once on England’s throne, he was determined to solidify Elizabeth’s precarious balance between such extreme Presbyterians on one side and, on the other, Papists (and Jesuit agents like Father Henry Garnet, who, Nicolson shows, was implicated in Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot in 1605).

James’s goal was a broad church policy designed to unite the two halves of Protestant England. The one was Anglo-catholic, still imbued with a love of ritual, ceremony and the sacraments. The other was Calvinist in inspiration, fierce in its rejection of the symbolism of faith and emphatic about direct spiritual and intellectual access to the Word. As Nicolson explains the details, the latter asked James for a new translation of the Bible, to succeed Tyndale’s (c. 1530) and a Genevan version (1560). The former group, if forced to have a readable Bible, wanted one that would preserve the authority of bishops. The kingan intellectual in his own right (see his On Demonologie, which inspired Macbeth)wanted to keep everyone both happy and insecure about just what he thought. He made one exception. He would have none of the Geneva Bible, into which Calvinist divines had inserted anti-monarchial marginalia.

The central figure in Nicolson’s narrative is not the king but a lesser-known master of English prosea contemporary of Francis Bacon, John Donne and that prose genius ShakespeareLancelot Andrewes, dean of Westminster. Andrewes headed the committee of ecclesial scholars charged with producing the new translation. As Nicolson notes, he probably wrote most of the early chapters of Genesis himself.

Some may know of Andrewes through T. S. Eliot, who in his Anglo-catholic days celebrated the bishop’s sermons. Eliot used one to begin Journey of the Magi: A cold coming we had of it,/ Just the worst time of the year/ For a journey, and such a long journey:/ The ways deep and the weather sharp,/ The very dead of winter.

Such is true Andrewes; the subtle iteration of clipped cadences are trademark. Take his rendering of Gen. 1:1, which Nicolson succinctly but substantively compares to other versions. Andrewes twice evokes the phrase face to stress the mysterious person behind creation. Or, as John Carey of Oxford University has suggested, take the sermon on John’s Easter Gospel (20:11, K.J.B.): But Mary stood without at the sepulcher, weeping. There is no autem in the Vulgate (Mariam stabat ad monumentum foris, plorans). Andrewes thought the Hebrew and Greek demanded a conjunction, and in his sermon rhapsodizes on why.

Beginning with Tyndale, Protestant translators of an English Bible strove to go beyond Latin to original, primitive sources. As Andrewes wrote to his co-controversialist, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Our appeal is to antiquity, yea, even to the most extreme antiquity.

Nicolson sees Andrewes as no saint; he loved luxury and persecuted Separatists too pure for any united front. They liked the Geneva Bible and left armed with it, first to Holland and then Pilgrim Massachusetts. As Nicolson notes, they believed in the priesthood of the whole congregation; even presbyters stank of hierarchy. Perhaps the Genevan marginalia against kings fed the crankiness that exploded in 1776.

Is the King James Bible important? It should be to Catholics, even if as a parallel text. Before the how-to handbooks of Martha Stewart, it was the most read book in Englishthe languge of an empire on which, in Shakespeare’s dark backward and abysm of time, the sun never set. With Athens and Rome, Nicolson argues, it has been our primer on eloquence, an indelible part of our heritage, a code that energizes the speeches of everyone from Lincoln to Churchill to John F. Kennedy. (In fairness, Tyndale was no slouch either and coined phrases like let there be light, the signs of the times and the powers that be, some of which Andrewes’s team preserved.)

Our age is not just postmodern, but also post-eloquent. Even before left literary criticism indicted eloquence as an Enemy of the People, many others had tried to dumb it or drab it down, includingas Nicolson lamentsthe many liturgical committees who confuse making the word accessible with making it dull. Anyone who loves language will delight in his book, which attests to the radiance of the word as well as the Word. Nicolson is also the author of a highly praised book (a poetic paean) about the remote Shiant Islands. Here he has written several passageson the collaborative nature of the K.J.B. and one psychological profile of Andrewesworth the price of many other works published this year (combined).

Finishing this text, a poor exiled postmodernist like me was left to echo Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost, We have been at a feast of languages, and eaten the scraps. Even such scraps are manna.

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