World War I Poets
During Word War I (1914-18), millions of religious publications, including Bibles and prayer books, were distributed to British troops in the field. War poets such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden frequently used biblical language and imagery to reflect on their horrific experiences at the Front. Graves and Blunden survived the war to become prolific writers, but Lieutenant Wilfred Owen was killed in action at the Sambre-Oise Canal in France on 4 November 1918, aged 25.
T. S. Eliot
Some of the most significant poems of 1920s to 1940s are T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Ash Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1945). Although they contain many other cultural references, these works are also rich in phrase and imagery from the KJB. Raised in America as a Non-Conformist, Eliot was a convert to Anglicanism and became a Warden of the Church of St Stephen, London.
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. Set in the American South in the civil war period, it uses as an allegory the biblical story of Absalom (2 Samuel 13) in which a rebellious son, unwilling to accept the terms of his society, meets his downfall. In addition to its title, the story is infused with biblical themes and associations by Faulkner’s use of key words such as 'land', 'bones', 'flesh', 'dust', and 'seed'.
Ernest Hemingway’s novels are similarly notable for their biblical allusions. The Sun Also Rises evokes Ecclesiastes; The Old Man and the Sea (1952) has a Christ-like central character in the fisherman Santiago. Hemingway’s prose is noted for its simple and economical style: the syntax of the KJB is echoed in his sentences with parallel clauses linked simply with 'and'. For example:
'They sat on the Terrace and many fisherman made fun of the old man and he was not angry. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and of the steady good weather and of what they had seen' .
(The Old man and the Sea, p. 2)
The prizewinning novels of Toni Morrison explore aspects of African-American history and identity. The Bible has played a key role in African-American culture, and this emerges in Morrison’s writing, most clearly in The Song of Solomon (1977). Characters’ names (Hagar, Pilate, First Corinthians) and their histories are enriched by association with their biblical namesakes. The biblical 'Song of Solomon' is an expression of love between King Solomon and his black Shulamite bride, though often interpreted more widely. Morrison’s Song of Solomon is about female characters seeking valid relationships.
Anthem for doomed youth: 12 soldier poets of the First World War (London: Constable in association with the Imperial War Museum, 2002).
Robert Alter, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010) (Canterbury Staff/Students only)
The Bible and American Arts and Letters, ed. by Giles Gunn (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983)
The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature, ed. by Rebecca Lemon, Emma Mason et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010) (Canterbury Staff/Students only)
The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford.