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Monday, June 20, 2005

Literary style -- Part 7

I have always been impressed with the literary style of the opening paragraph of the novel, Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
I enjoy the contrasts, the rhythm, the pace of that language. The author, Charles Dickens, leads us from more generic statements toward what he is really concerned about, the political situation of his day.

I like many lines from Shakespeare. The poetic beauty of these lines, uttered by Macbeth, has lodged itself into my memory so deeply that I often start quoting the the lines I have boldfaced, when it is, uh, timely:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
I really enjoy the metaphor of "the last syllable of recorded time."

I am struck by the wordcraft of J.B. Phillips in this passage from James 1:
When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence. And if, in the process, any of you does not know how to meet any particular problem he has only to ask God - who gives generously to all men without making them feel foolish or guilty - and he may be quite sure that the necessary wisdom will be given him. But he must ask in sincere faith without secret doubts as to whether he really wants God's help or not. The man who trusts God, but with inward reservations, is like a wave of the sea, carried forward by the wind one moment and driven back the next. That sort of man cannot hope to receive anything from God, and the life of a man of divided loyalty will reveal instability at every turn.
Note the strong, concise verbs which English teachers tell us are more effective in composition than longer, Latinate based, verbs: "crowd into your lives", and "don't resent them as intruders" (what a vivid way to speak of inanimate trials and temptations!).

A website devoted to Phillips' translation states the literary appeal of this translation, crafted by a Greek and English scholar, like this:
The Phillips version of the New Testament is a hidden treasure in Christian literature. Enthusiastic fans include Chuck Swindol, Os Guinness, and the late Ray Stedman. It was Corrie Ten Boom's favorite in English. Michael Card's songs are often based on Phillips phraseology. Walter Martin gave away many dozens of copies, as have we.
I have been moved spiritually by these lovely lines from Zeph. 3:17:
Is that a joyous choir I hear? No, it is the Lord himself exulting over you in happy song.
Again, note the contrast set up by the author, paraphraser Kenneth Taylor in his Living Bible, between "joyous choir", a vivid phrase, and "No, it is the Lord himself." And then the spiritual zinger which so many of us need to hear, so we know how God really thinks about us: "exulting over you in happy song." "Exulting", not there's a word not used too often in contemporary English, but it is used very appropriately here. It is a strong word. More common (perhaps stylistically weaker ones) such as "delighting" or "taking pleasure in you" just don't cut the mustard here as well as "exult."

The English used by Dickens and Shakespeare in the excerpts above are dated only a bit. In my opinion, they are easier to understand and be impacted by, for contemporary English speakers, than writings from the great Elizabethan period of literature, from which came the beautiful King James Bible--until current speakers spend time in such classical literature getting accustomed to the different syntax and vocabulary of literature from that period.

What are some passages from English Bible versions which have literary excellence and have impacted you? Would you be willing to quote from some of them in comments to this post? Please remember to include the name of the Bible version you are quoting from. And it would help if you could tell us what about the literary style you find pleasing or powerful.

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