The latest New Yorker has a brilliant review by James Wood of God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson that not only makes me want to read the book but introduces me to a fine word and a fine poem. The word comes about halfway through, as Wood is discussing King James’s desire to “elide doctrinal differences”; he quotes Nicolson as follows: “This is the heart of the new Bible as an irenicon… an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace. It is the central mechanism of the translation, one of immense lexical subtlety, a deliberate carrying of multiple meanings beneath the surface of a single text.” The OED defines “irenicon” (or, in the older spelling, “eirenicon”) as “a proposal designed to promote peace, esp. in a church or between churches; a message of peace”; I like the word, and the way Nicolson defines it in context, very much.
The poem comes earlier in the review, as Wood is tracing the line of influence of the King James Bible in some surprising places, like Philip Larkin, “an English poet of decidedly secular leanings.” I’ve never been a big fan of Larkin’s (apart from everybody’s pitch-black favorite, “This Be The Verse“), but the poem Wood quotes to illustrate Biblical echoes, “Cut Grass,” is a gorgeous little lyric:
Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.
Aside from these incidental pleasures, the review provides one of the best concise summaries I’ve seen of exactly why the KJB is so great and will never be replaced:
The Hebrew texts in particular feature what have been called “key-words,” words or phrases repeated and subtly modified in a passage, as a kind of threaded meaning. The English translators were sensitive watchers of these words, and the King James Bible is considered superlative for the pursuit of such threads. The scholars Robert Alter and Gerald Hammond have discussed the technique as it appears in II Samuel 3, in which the phrase “and he went in peace” undergoes a series of variations analogous to those of the original Hebrew:
And David sent Abner away; and he went in peace. And behold, the servants of David and Joab came from pursuing a troop, and brought in a great spoil with them: but Abner was not with David in Hebron; for he had sent him away, and he was gone in peace. When Joab and all the host that was with him were come, they told Joab, saying, Abner the son of Ner came to the king and he hath sent him away, and he is gone in peace. Then Joab came to the king, and said, What hast thou done? Behold, Abner came unto thee; why is it that thou hast sent him away, and he is quite gone?
Hammond notes that later versions of this passage, like the Jerusalem Bible and the New English Bible, smother the effect by varying their translations of the key-phrase too drastically.
Wood discusses the use of repetition further, then sums up: “So there is a one-word answer to the question of what the translators got right. It is music.” Amen.
(You can read the first few paragraphs of the book here.)