The Poetics of Tyndale's Translation

Gordon Jackson

You would expect me to say at the outset how great an honour it is for me to be asked to contribute to this expression of the nation's debt to a great man and to a great achievement. I will not disappoint you, because it is for me a profound honour. And I want to start this little address — it isn't a lecture because I'm not an academic, merely a bigoted poet who expects to be acknowledged as a legislator of the world — with some observations on the nature of paying honour.

If we honour the living it's like most of our transactions, we expect something back for it. More normally though we wait for a person to be tidily out of the way before we say the proper things. But who gains then? The dead couldn't care less, however vain they might have been in life, however hungry for compliments. And to be sure the dead can't do the living much good. Yet there is a profit. In honouring the worthiness of another, I lift my own aspirations; in a sense I acquire some of the honour I myself have paid. The more I honour others, the more honourable I become. It's what we might call a reflexive virtue. And we are all in this conference gaining a little in self-respect in the act of honouring William Tyndale. It is a good thing to be doing, and we should be feeling the benefit of it. As in other forms of love, one gains by giving.

Professor Daniell invited me to speak in the hope I would cast some light on the working ear of Tyndale. It was anticipated that, as a practising poet (a calling which, I hasten to add, I practise only in private) and as one who has recently wrestled with the twists and turns of the Psalms, I would have something significant to add that was not obvious to others. I think I am about to disappoint. What I will try to do instead is relate what we have in Tyndale's performance to the overall task of translation, the poetics of recomposition, and that includes, beyond the patterns of phrase-making and setting word against word, the whole idea of composition, rhetoric, melody, cadence, prose and speech, drama, vocality and, finally, the vatic.

That's because the Scriptures Tyndale is rewriting are not quite prose; and though we are used to them presented in numbered units called verses, they are not verse either. In fact the writing moves from discursive prose to historical narrative, crystallizes into proverbs, bursts into dramatic episodes, spins a good yarn, cracks an outrageous joke, and then sings a most lyrical cadenza; and all this in the space of a single chapter in the Gospels. Whatever the style a translator adopts, it needs to be pretty versatile, subtle, able to modulate from register to register; a flexible and brilliant and above all a con- trolled and well-judged medium. Anyone fancy trying his hand at it? If we look at Shakespeare modulating from comic prose to majestic blank verse, using short speech statements as a bridge which nevertheless form a broken but complete iambic pentameter, we can see something of the kind of skill the Gospel translator has need of. By Tyndale's poetics, therefore, I understand not just words, phrase, sentence, rhythm, cadence, image, sound, but more a feel for the whole architecture of the Scriptures, the grand design as well as the detailing, the practical passageways as well as the decorative finials; and behind it all the mind of the architect, and the purpose and the occasion of the great work.

One way to measure Tyndale's literary mastery is to look at his own prose separately from the translation. In that way we can see his stylistic predilections, hear his own voice, feel the writer's pulse. Here are some specimens:

Christ's words were spirit and life: that is to say, they ministered spirit and life, and entered into the heart, and grated on the conscience.[1]

The rhetoric is elegant, but look how startling the effect of that 'grated' is: we have an idiom — I don't know how old — that something 'grates on the ears'. It has a most uncom- rtable physicality, which is apt; and a most common reference to the kitchen, which is perhaps typical.

If a young man break a ring between him and a maid; doth not the fact testify and make a presumption to all men, that his heart meant as his words spake?[2]

I suppose for eloquence I don't know any better English. The parallel of 'heart meant' and 'words spake' is not just a syntactical delight, it is excellent workmanship, practical and lasting.

All that be shaven be sworn together.[3]

What wit! The old hendiadys 'shaven and shorn' is contained in the phrase, one that we've all known from childhood — 'This is the priest all shaven and shorn/That married the man all tattered and torn/That kissed the maiden all forlorn' etc. — with the added novelty that the sign of the tonsure is a kind of masonic conspiracy.

For God thinketh it better for his commonwealth, that twenty should spend twenty or forty shillings apiece, than that one should spend twenty or forty pounds, and nineteen never a whit: for then must many poor hang on one rich.[4]

The parallel is like the one before, but contrasts opposites, 'many poor' — 'one rich', and concretizes the Latin verb 'depend' more pertinently in the English 'hang on' so we can see them actually dangling from the rich man's pocket.

Baptism is called 'volowing' in many places in England; because the priest saith, 'Volo, say ye.' 'The child was well volowed,' say they, 'yea, and our vicar < as fair a volower as ever a priest within this twenty miles'.[5]

One is disposed to wonder whether Tyndale ever read Dickens.

If he promise life, he slayeth first; when he buildeth, he casteth all down first. He is no patcher; he cannot build on another man's foundation.[6]

Not only the metaphoric reference again to the world of work, its good practices and values, but the very mouth of the labourer is audible in the phrase. There must have been thousands of builders whose self-respect shared that contemptuous phrase, 'I'm no patcher,' which Tyndale naturally and easily appropriates to Christ.

Finally, when they had done all they could, and that they thought sufficient, and when Christ was in the heart of the earth, and so many bills and pole-axes about him to keep him down, and when it was past man's help, then holp God.[7]

The triple stressed main clause at the end is dramatic in the extreme, and again apt. It could not be better said, I believe, which must be the mark of the best of writers.

Milton says of the best poetry that it is simple, sensuous and passionate. Not only are the specimens I've given worthy examples of such a combination of qualities, but this seems to be Tyndale's characteristic mode of writing. Putting it another way, he wrote prose with the full power of the poet.

Gavin Bone in an excellent essay on Tyndale and the English language writes:

It will be apparent by this time how richly gifted Tyndale was in his appreciation of spoken idioms. There is no vestige of literariness in his writings... The truth is that Tyndale hated literature. Next to a papist he hated a poet... In all his works there is no trace of writing for effect... In exasperation he calls More a 'poet'... It is an ironical thing that any essay [or lecture for that matter] should come to be written on Tyndale the literary artist.[8]

Which puts me in my place. Twice.

I suppose we all have some idea of what we expect from a poet, or at least from a conventional poet. But I'd briefly like to reconsider the matter, and to help me I wish to bring in an associate whom we are also honouring in the year of our Lord 1994. The Jewish poet and painter Max Jacob was a friend of Picasso in the first decade of this century; he twice had visions of Christ, once in a cinema, and was converted to Christianity. He died at Drancy prison camp in 1944 on his way to Auschwitz. Here are some of his tips to a young man whose parents wanted him to be a poet.

People think that to be a poet you have to make unequal lines equal and finish up with a half-pun. No, to be a poet you have to be first a man, and then a Man-Poet. First of all find God. What makes a good doctor or a good poet is not the number of books they've read, but the quality of their inner life. Buffon says 'Style is the man himself' — that means, what is deepest in the man's heart and blood. What is written lasts.[9]

All of which takes us away from the mechanics of writing to the source, to the character, to the conversation with the Logos. Yes, the ear will be functioning, as will all the other faculties. But the work itself is an open challenge to vanities. It is the making of a man. It is, when finished, an abiding ladder between the world of man and that of his superiors. Jacob also insists on the poet being serious, serious at heart, and that's not with the high seriousness' that Matthew Arnold failed to find in Chaucer, the sort of thing that is dominant in Tennyson, a grave self-importance; no, it is more a quality that comes from a profounder source — we might call it 'deep seriousness', and it is often expressed in jokes as in Shakespeare, or in a brilliant mélange like the great cathedral of the Canterbury Tales.

Such, I believe, is the poetic equipment and attitude that is required of the translator of the holy miscellany we call the Scriptures. As for his task, that is, I take it, to carry over meaning and power from one language, or a series of languages including one 'original' that is putative, to another. And since that task is not entireiy possible, the translator is obliged to select what he can and what he can't translate. The gist can usually be represented, provided the translator understands it, but the force, eloquence, wordplay, euphony, allusiveness that belong to the first language can only rarely be reproduced in the second. Puns are particularly obdurate. So what the translator has to do is effectively to remake the work in his own tongue, or else find an intermediate vehicle which sticks to the form of the original as closely as it can while using near equivalent words in the second language. This is sometimes called translationese, and I think there's more to be said for it than it usually gets.

Jerome says concerning his practice in making the Vulgate that sometimes he translated word for word, and other times he followed the overall sense. Tyndale's task, however was a bit more complicated. He was not just making another translation of the Bible as you or I might, and as the A.V. committee did; he was effectively liberating it from vested interests. He was consciously de-idolizing the Scriptures, taking them from their ceremonial position on the altar of the Church and making them words again for people to mouth.

In his introduction to Tyndale's New Testament Professor Daniell speaks of the two of taste in respect of religion, the one that wants God to be majestic and distant (with the clergy claiming the same attributes), and the other wanting him up-front and in person we can perhaps call the two attitudes 'hieratic' and 'demotic' respectively. In his justification for his work Tyndale was opposed by the hieratic school and driven into the demotic camp. It is not just English he is turning the Bible into, but a particular style of English, with a precise political bias. As against the pettifogging Latinity and the obscurantism of what he abusively calls 'chopology', he was after the plainest English possible.

But we all know that plain English is easier said than done. What does it need to be? In the first place it must be comprehensible and clear. Jacob again on the subject of sacred verse says it must be musical and shining, and such that the most wretched of peasants will say when he hears it, 'That's good', and not, 'What's all that about?' For Tyndale the arbiter of his translation is the shepherd and the ploughman, the housewife and the child.

But plain English is not artless speech. On the contrary, it must speak to the heart with with wisdom, with conviction and authority, with wit, with musicality and with memorability. And to do these things, the flowers of rhetoric are all invoked, not for display but for effectiveness. It is, nevertheless, an easier task than this might suggest. After all the writers Tyndale is translating are themselves proverb-makers and pithy narrative artists and much of the same cast of mind as he himself was, beleaguered and belligerent all of them.

So then, his first task is to create an overall style and language out of the various oral and literary Englishes available, a language that will serve as a vehicle for the whole literature of the Bible. And his success in achieving this was so spectacular that all subsequent versions have at the very least depended on it. 'For God loveth a cheerful giver' has become as true to our ears as 'live and let live'; the ear and the heart are in total consonance. And the English mind and its mysticism and love of plain poetry are all there in his benediction: 'And the peace of God which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesu.'

Every language has its own genius. Its poets explore and exploit that genius for the better use of the tribe that does its living in that dialect. How well Tyndale has effectively done this is evident in the fact that he sounds so modern, even after nearly half a millennium.

As pertaining to good works, understand that all works are good which are done within the law of God, in faith, and with thanksgiving to God; and understand that thou in doing them pleasest God, whatsoever thou doest within the law of God, as when thou makest water. And trust me, if either wind or water were stopped, thou shouldest feel what a precious thing it were to do either or both, and what thanks ought to be given God therefore. Moreover, put no difference between works; but whatsoever cometh into thy hands that do, as time, place and occasion giveth, and as God hath put thee in degree, high or low. For as touching to please God, there is no work better than another. God looketh not first on thy work as the world doth, as though the beautifulness of the work pleased him as it doth the world, or as though he had need of them. But God looketh first on thy heart, what faith thou hast to his words, how thou believest him, trustest him, and how thou lovest him for his mercy that he hath showed thee; he looketh with what heart thou workest, and not what thou workest how thou acceptest the degree that he hath put thee in, and not of what degree thou art whether thou be an apostle or a shoemaker.[10]

What makes for plain English is more than an organization of words; it is the good sense it expresses. I have quoted the passage above from The Parable of the Wicked Mammon not only to demonstrate the modernity of Tyndale's discursive style (and it dates from 1527), but also to show the highest excellence of the theologian, a true familiarity with the mind of God. This is Tyndale the prophet in his own right, not translating the words of other prophets.

The native genius of English was available to Tyndale in the folk speech and proverbs that he loved, as it was to George Herbert a century later. Both of them made collections of proverbs, and Tyndale quotes with delight the shepherds' saying to wanton children: 'This sheep hath maggots in his tail, he must be anointed with birchen salve'. It was there in popular rhymes, like 'When Adam delved and Eve span, where was then the gentleman?' It's the stuff of our nursery rhymes still.

There is a kind of bedrock language that underlies Tyndale's grasp not only of English but also of absolute moral values. What I mean by 'absolute' here is as when the hammer hits the nail on the head with a perfection of drive that is both practical and elegant; We might call it 'the drive absolute'. Here are some specimens from contemporary bedrock English — they come from taped conversations my former students made of persons, two generations older than themselves. In low cunning I have interspersed quotations from Tyndale among them, and you have to guess which is which. There are no prizes, though saving face is its own reward.

'You cut, you choose.' A masterful means of managing a pair of daughters over who should get the biggest slice of cake. The one who doesn't cut gets first choice, so the cutter has every incentive to be even-handed. This exceeds, for my money, all the recorded wisdom of Solomon.

'I take the biscuit for being stubborn, but you take the cake.'

'If you're very very poor you have to be a good manager.' Not an eloquent statement this, but a plain fact witnessed by every generation. It says a lot for organizations being riged by the poorest of folk, and other unthinkable truths.

'A mother can smite, and love.' A similar statement of one of the facts of love. This is by Tyndale from the Commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount.[11] I suppose the verb 'smite' gave it away. I was never smitten myself as a child, but I was given many a good clout. Out of love. I think.

'She was one of those creaking gates, you know, not ill but not fit'. There is a proverbial form of this that says 'A creaking gate will last for ever', which may well be as old Tyndale.

'When I left school I didn't know hay from a fool's foot.' Other versions of this you probably know that can't tell a hawk from a handsaw.

'Well, it's too late, I only get the sack once'. That's the same speaker as the last, a man had been sacked on the supposition of his having stolen some gear. When the real culprit was found, and the man offered his job back, that was his reply; and note how full of an honest man's pride it is. It wasn't the man who was found wanting, but the master, and the injury had been to a place that couldn't be easily patched up.

'A cobbler's prayer is as good as a cardinal's.'[12] You can guess that as Tyndale's from the red hat reference; it expresses sound theology on top of an artisan's pride in his trade and his character.

'He consents that fire is hot when he puts his finger in it.'[13] That's Tyndale's wit as well but it's so traditional in feel that he may well be quoting a common proverb.

If you could carry eighteen stone on your back, you got a man's pay.' A practical measure of manhood as defined in the farmer's jobyard. The subject goes on to tell how, when bringing in such a load, a young lad jumped on top of the bale, and the labourer carried the lot into the barn. It was a measure of strength and pride; and I ought to add that the subject was not a big man.

'She could talk the hangman out of hanging her.' A measure this time of a woman's perseverance, like the one in Luke's Gospel, but is it Tyndale or contemporary? I won't ou the answer to that one.

'No, you've got a family.' Those were the last words of a young miner to a mate when both were trapped and only one could get out. It's not only sound heroics and good manly courage, the reasoning is impeccable too.

'What we didn't have, we went without.' Statements of this order occur again and again. There's a dignity about the resignation, and an utter rejection of modern self-pity.

'I never did like dolls, I didn't: I were more for 'ammer and nails.' I put that in because I thought you'd like it.

'The place God made, and forgot to bless.'[14] I think we've all been there at some time. The speaker in this instance was referring to Barnsley, not Halifax.

'A Christian receives all things of the hand of God, both good and bad, both sweet and sour, both wealth and woe.' That is Tyndale in The Obedience,[15] but the pattern of doublings — here opposites — is very much like the traditional English love of hendiadys, the alliterative doubling of synonyms like 'might and main', 'bag and baggage' and so on. Here's an example from the intercessions prayerboard in Lincoln cathedral: 'Please pray for me and my friend Leela. May God be with us through thick and thin. Love, Lisa and Leela.' It may seem their very friendship was a hendiadys, but I quote the example to show how much is compressed into that beautiful piece of poetry 'through thick and thin'. I don't suppose it was an idiom available to Tyndale, but it's so available to us that we take it as 'ordinary', the sort of thing we say without thinking. Our forebears have formed such phrases for us to do our thinking in, and, as here, our praying.

The point of this little game is to make connection between what we all say when we are talking at our best, and what Tyndale himself thought of as good plain English, and what therefore lies at the heart of the Bible in English. Our language is highly idiomatic, and we revel in new ways of saying old things. We prefer comic sayings to serious ones, and we multiply nouns to denominate fools and knaves, as Tyndale does with his 'pickers' (by which he means half-inchers, i.e. pinchers, appropriators, tealeaves, nimmers, nickers, and all light-fingered folk). But this inventive art belongs to an essentially oral tradition where its beauty is dramatic. Yet for all his being versed in a tradition of formal rhetoric, we should remember that Jesus also was an oral teacher who resisted the temptation to write things down in a book; whose sayings were strikingly memorable; and who produced his wit for the occasion and used his tongue like a rapier. And Paul too seems to be dictating his letters rather then giving them the studied finish of writing. On the other hand, the prejudice of our education favours writing models over good speech, and not the best writing models either. This is often referred to as 'good English' and offered as a 'standard' by which various oral customs are measured and found wanting. I don't wish to get bogged down in the business of vested interests of modern language teaching, but merely to register the fact that language choice is political, and I would like to claim that it's not just on class grounds — the different interests of worker and employer — but on grounds of righteousness, the honest man as opposed to the dishonest, the wise as opposed to the fool, as in the Wisdom literature and our stock of national proverbs. It is a battle in which truth, accuracy, clarity and justice are ranged against political greed and unrighteous power, between men who mean what they say and men who do not.[16]

Here are a couple of poems that come from the vernacular tradition, using rhyme for strength of statement as in the ballads, and with a strikingly successful oral indignation:

     T'Other Side o' t'Coin

     When a miner's killed in t'pit
     An' 'e's only bi his-sen,
     Nob'dy seeams to wittle much
     At one deeath nah an' then.

     Bur if a few gus altergether
     Nah that's a different caper,
     That's when we ger all t'sob stuff
     On t'telly an' in t'paper.

     Then iverbody luvs a miner,
     An' sez 'Thi damn fine chaps,
     'Orny 'anded 'eroes,'
     An' other such claptrap.

     But when it's all deed dahn a bit,
     It sets em in a rage,
     When we stan on ahr back legs
     An' ask for a deeacent wage.

     Then we're brutish ruffians
     Squeezin' t'country dry,
     Shootin's too gud fer us,
     We owt to burn! Or fry!

     They's sooiner trust to t'Arabs
     As keeaps uppin' t'price o'oil
     Than pay a British miner
     A proper wage fer coil.

     Soa we mun trust each other,
     An' be prepared to feight,
     Each man stan' be 'is brother,
     An' 'owd aht fer ahr reights.

     Totley Tom (a working miner)

Here the poet gets good value from purely speech energies. 'Wittle' is a lovely word for putting the pens of Tunbridge Wells in their place, and the much more modern spoken idiom 'sob stuff' does the same for more professional newspaper editorials. The deflating power of a well-chosen, pointed word — as claptrap exposes the empty wind of printed eulogy — has its analogues in the Gospels, as when Jesus says 'Give then unto Caesar, that which belongeth unto Caesar.' (wait for it) 'and to God, that which pertaineth to God.' Which must be all-inclusive and contain Caesar and all his pennies along with gross national products and tithes of cummin.

The second poem is called The Good Life.

     Start at the bottom! And finish there!
     That's what you get at the pit!
     Start at the bottom! And finish there!
     That's all there is to it!

     Get it while you can lads!
     No wonder that's what they say!
     Dust! Bad backs! And broken bones'
     That's our early retirement pay.

     The miners get good wages?
     Or so the people are told.
     But what happens when miners get injured?
     What happens when miners get old?

     What happens when they can't slog and graft?
     When they've given all they've got?
     No golden handshakes! Not even a watch!
     Just 'That's it, mate. That's your lot.'

     'We'll give you enough, just to live on,
     No easy life for you.
     Keep a tight rein on the pennies,
     I'm sure that you'll get through.'

     The miners struggle in retirement
     As they struggle down the pit;
     Start at the bottom! And finish there!
     That's all there is to it!

     Carole Underwood (miner's daughter, miner's wife)[17]

The work here is to bring into sharp and actual focus the languages of those within the mining world and those outside; together with the indignation at injustice, resentment at misrepresentation, and the lyricism that naturally celebrates a lifetime of work. But the true poetry happens when a note is struck that sings a fact and sings it true. 'Dust! Bad backs! And broken bones! That's our early retirement pay.' A most interesting question here concerns the voice; who is doing the speaking? It is not in fact, as one might suppose, the miner himself standing on his back legs and demanding his rights, like the one referred to in the first poem; it is the daughter and wife and mother who feel the indignation more fiercely than the man, and who are no doubt closer to the pennies, who feel the injustice because they feel it at second hand.

Jacob says that the word in poetry should have density, exteriorization, concreteness. He says of such language that it combines the elements of what came forth from the lance wound of Christ- from his heart came water (which is matter) and blood (which is spirit and contains life). It is this language that has authority, the language that gives to poetry its highest prestige. It was a language Tyndale was steeped in; it was there in the literatures he read, and equally there in the labourers he admired, in their wit, in their precise measure of what was what, of what was good for the job, and in their readiness to call a spade a spade, a fool a fool, a hypocrite a hypocrite. He quotes many a saying in the form of contemporary jokes at the expense of the clergy, indicative of their major failing in that their interfering made jobs turn out badly. If the porridge gets burnt it is not the devil who has had his hand in it, but the priest or the bishop.[18]

'The great keep the small under, for their own profit, with the violence of the law. Every man praiseth the law, as far forth as it is profitable and pleasant unto himself: but his own appetites should be refrained, then grudgeth he against the law.'[19] So writes Tyndale in The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, and it sounds politically very modern, and sympathetic to the position of the poor. But the impression changes when we set beside it the very unmodern passage from The Obedience of a Christen Man.

Mark this also, if God send thee to the sea, and promise to go with thee, and to bring thee safe to land, he will raise up a tempest against thee, to prove whether thou wilt abide by his word, and that thou mayest feel thy faith, and perceive his goodness. For it it were always fair weather, and thou never brought into such jeopardy, whence his mercy only delivered thee, thy faith would be but a presumption, and thou shouldest be ever unthankful to God and merciless unto thy neighbour.[20]

I think that was written before Tyndale lost his work in the sea. It would be equally true if after.

The political conflict for Tyndale is not between rich and poor, or between class and class; it is between the man of faith and the man of the world; it is between wise and foolish; ultimately it is within our own souls, in our own interior life. All our labours have this precise moral dimension, whatever is going on about us. In his work of translation Tyndale is facing it as well.

And the tools for this work must be well chosen, and well managed. Tyndale rejects inkhorn terms because they're simply not right for the job. Instead he will have

     The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
     An easy commerce of the old and the new,
     The common word exact without vulgarity,
     The formal word precise but not pedantic.[21]

Or in other words, words that are used to working for their living. The language of the ipsissima verba was Aramaic, a vernacular tongue, and what its properties and what the use Christ made of them we can only guess at. It is equally hard to say what equivalent tongue of English would have been chosen had he come among us. It might have been not English at all, not even an off-centre dialect, but something like Welsh, or Cornish; an outlandish or up-country speech that Peter could be bewrayed by.

But why of all languages should Aramaic be the chosen one? And even if we knew that, and we had the ipsissima verba of Christ himself, there would still be the problem of discerning and translating the ipsissima tona. How does Jesus say his say? Is it like Pasolini's Christ, spitting fiery tirades over his shoulder so that the well-known words strike new terror? Or should they be said in the affectionate tones of the infinitely old and gracious towards worried kiddies: 'Get up, lass, when I've told you. And give her summat t'eat.' To our ear the dramatic language Tyndale adopts seems fairly neutral, and his Christ comes across in character through the substance of his message rather than through its form. And all translations into English that I know, except dialect ones which are served up as comic, follow Tyndale in this.

Perhaps it doesn't matter too much in the narratives and maxims; but in the interviews I sense that something is lost, and in the jokes almost the point itself goes missing. Let us consider the one about the camel and the eye of the needle. We'll assume with the Latin and Greek that it is a camel, and not some smaller hyperbole like a cable, or a ferret certainly it fits the rough style of humour that goes in for millstones used as concrete overshoes, and theme park lakes burning with sulphur and brimstone. But why a camel? The answer must be in the visual image. Let your mind's eye dwell on it for a moment: you're looking at a Disneyesque camel and a somewhat enlarged needle. You see the needle shining. The camel has a mind to get through the needle. We will have to ignore the beast's specific motive for this, and just assume it's because it was there, or some such thing. It strains, and twists, and squirms, and eventually by the most incredible squeezing only possible in animated cartoons, the head, the shoulders and the forelegs finally make it. But there all progress must end, because however a camel will strive to get through a needle's eye, he will always be stopped by the hump. Now Isaid it was a visual joke, and it is; but it is more, because the camel is a similitude for the rich man, and on this analogy the rich man is an ordinary one who has made his wealth into a physical deformity that is not just ludicrous, it will effectively keep him out of heaven. I dwell on this because Jesus the joker is not too commonly advertised; but quite clearly he has both a love of the ludicrous and a comic genius. The grotesque comedy of his similitudes is perfectly attuned to the folk humour that knows well the folly and pride of man, because their own lives are subject to it. But perhaps you think I exaggerate, or that the camel is a one-off, or has crept in by mistranslation. Well, consider the pearls cast before swine. Do you know anyone who does that? In one sense, you might be feeding swine like the prodigal son in the parable, and throwing them pearls instead of acorns. The pigs take one taste, and say, 'Yuk, pearls!' and immediately turn on their pastor and tear him to pieces. Another scenario might be styled the inappropriate gift. A man gives his favourite pig a pearl necklace, puts it round the neck of his beloved animal, and shows her herself in a mirror. Far from being pleased at the embellishment, the pig pulls off the hideous halter, and savages the one who had hoped to please. Either way, Jesus seems to be reminding his hearers on the Mount of the old rabbinic proverb about the fine lady without discretion being like a jewel in a swine's snout.

Tyndale had himself a similar vein of humour. 'Christ said to Peter, "Feed my sheep," not "Shear my flock"'.[22] Elsewhere, 'The Pope for money can empty purgatory when he will.'[23] and 'The parson sheareth, the vicar shaveth, the parish priest polleth, the friar scrapeth, and the pardoner pareth; we lack but a butcher to pull off the skin'.[24] But witty as these are, the humour is much less earthy than the Saviour's.

It's about time I looked at an actual passage that shows the writer at work. I have chosen the one from the Sermon on the Mount at the end of Matthew 6. The theme is, as I've previously stated, one central to Tyndale's teaching, the choice man must make between the call of God and call of the world.

No man can serve two masters. For either he shall hate the one and love theother: or else he shall lean to the one and despise the other: ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, be not careful for your life, what ye will eat, or what ye shall drink, nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more worth than meat, and the body of more value than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither reap, nor yet carry into the barns: and yet your heavenly father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

Which of you (though you took thought therefore) could put one cubit unto his stature? And why care ye then for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They labour not neither spin. And yet for all that I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his royalty was not arrayed like unto one of these.

Wherefore if God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow shall be cast into the furnace: shall he not much more do the same unto you, o ye of little faith?

Therefore take no thought saying: what shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or wherewith shall we be clothed? After all these things seek the Gentiles. For your heavenly father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But rather seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and the righteousness thereof, and all these things shall be ministered unto you.

Care not then for the morrow, but let the morrow care for itself: for the day present hath ever enough of his own trouble.[25]

The first thing to note is how familiar it is to the ear, and how easy to digest. Indeed the most striking features are the words that are different from the A.V. So much so that it feels as if Tyndale has changed 'glory' into 'royalty', and not the other way round. Which is perhaps unfortunate, because the Wycliffe versions, if they were known to Tyndale, had 'glory', and Tyndale's change to 'royalty' was preserved in the Great Bible and the Geneva.[26] And indeed, since it is Solomon's accoutrements that are in question, and not his personal and kingly character, then 'royalty' fits the bill better than 'glory'.

Well, that very ease of the passage, its syntactical as well as lyrical beauty, was something Tyndale was consciously seeking for. We can see that from the changes he himself made: compare what you have just heard, from the 1534 edition, with this from the 1525.

Behold, the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither reap, nor yet carry into the barns: and yet your heavenly father feedeth them. Are ye not better than they?

Which of ye (though you took thought therefore) could put one cubit unto his stature? And why care ye then for raiment? Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow. They labour not neither spin...

As is clear, Tyndale is revelling in repetition in this passage, following the Greek. But in the 1534 text he departs from the reinforcing parallelism of the similitudes — 'behold the fowls of the air: behold the lilies of the field', a repetition that the Wycliffite versions preserve — and varies the sound with a synonym, the now familiar 'Consider the lilies of the field how they grow'. It doesn't alter the sense, and there's nothing at all wrong with the repeated sound of 'Behold' — in no way does it jar. (I'm assuming, by the way, that all our ears prefer 'Consider'.) So, how is it an obvious improvement, and if it's not a change to the sense what is it exactly an improvement of?

Let's try permuting the possibilities. We could have:

     Consider the fowls of the air
     Consider the lilies of the field

We've already had 'Behold the fowls' and 'Behold the lilies'

     Consider the fowls of the air
     Behold the lilies of the field

As against

     Behold the fowls of the air
     Consider the lilies of the field

The answer must lie in what is called euphony, or what I remember being called vowel harmony when I was trying to learn some Turkish: the agreeability of the rounded 'o' sounds in 'behold the fowls', and the same with the short 'i' sounds in 'consider the lilies'. As against that there's the possibility of combining assonance and alliteration in the phrase 'Behold the flowers of the field, how they grow', which does make for a consistent music, but for pretty and perishing lilies it's perhaps a bit heavy.

However, in the parallel passage in Luke, he has 'mark well the ravens' and 'consid- er the lilies' in 1525, and changes this to 'consider the ravens' and 'consider the lilies'. The repetition he resists in Matthew he seems to prefer in Luke, and I'm not sure where that leaves my case.

I don't think I can prove anything from this other than the fact that Tyndale was acutely conscious of the need for certain lyrical effects, and that in his successive versions he was attending more to the sound, having got the sense more or less right. We might even suppose that he would have gone on to make many of the changes others did make, given the chance. But even so, such changes would have been refinements for the ear, and to remove clumsiness. An example of that is at the end of our passage. In the 1525 text we have 'Care not therefore for the day following. For the day following shall care for itself. Each days trouble is sufficient for the same self day.' Had Tyndale's New Testament been like that throughout, we would not be holding this conference today. But it must have cost him little trouble to amend it to 'Care not then for the morrow, but let the morrow care for itself: for the day present hath ever enough of his own trouble'; which is commoner English, kinder, and much more pithy.

Two other changes are made in the second edition. 'What raiment ye shall wear' is simplified to the more homely 'what ye shall put on', which avoids the repetition of 'raiment'. And 'Are ye not better then they?' is intensified to 'Are ye not much better than they?'

What has Tyndale achieved here as a writer? Well, in terms of invention, nothing: the sense and the structure, the rhetoric and imagery are all given. What Tyndale has made is a passage of beauty and power and clarity, pleasing both to the mind and to the ear. It is convincing, with that authority Jacob was looking for. And that authority is arrived at by the same art that makes masterpieces of literary invention. In the next seventy seven years some of Tyndale's phrasing no doubt needed updating; in any case new fashions would suggest alterations. 'Stackered', for example, yields place to the 'staggered' we still use. This happened even less in the next three hundred years, so it is only the odd word that the R.S.V. revises. But the fact that this text has lasted so substantially should not persuade us that Tyndale saw it as a finished work. I am sure that the process we have witnessed above is one that the translator would have continued. I am sure he would have consented to that dictum of Max Jacob: 'One does as much as one can: and if you can do more you should.'

Most translation, and all translation of ancient texts, depends on two chancy elements, guesswork (that is, what is the text's meaning?) and judgement (that is, what can I best use to render that meaning?). Earlier we looked with Dr Richard Marsden at the celebrated britches in Eden. All the translators had the same problem. Tyndale fared no better with his aprons than others that were laughed at for their breeks, which of course doesn't sound funny any more. Aprons anyway sounds delightfully old fashioned since even grandmas don't wear them now. So what do we choose? Loincloths introduce Adam and Eve as Tarzan and Jane, which is fine and primitive, except that the element of shame is missing from the noble savages' indulgence in clothing. Much better is 'something to hide their pudenda', which gets the fact that their 'privities' are newly shameful, but the phrase is far too clinical for Eden. We could suggest 'knickers' as a possibility. What's reaction to that? Far too risqué for Bible-write? But isn't that the attitude you deplore in the A.V. line, and why Tyndale is applauded? Besides, the comicality we associate with the word 'knickers', and why we like the word so much, is exactly appropriate: Adam and Eve when naked in Eden were grand; now in knickers they look rather silly.

I raise the question to highlight what must go on — guessing what the old text was getting at, and then finding a word that will allow as many of the colours as the thing needs. I'm going to leave the problem of the mot juste with you, and I imagine it will be with for the rest of your lives.

Grosseteste uses the idea in word and will of an inner and an outer verbum; the outer one is the expression and involves action in the world, the inner is the intention which invisible except insofar as we can guess it from the action it produces. Translating is like this, and often it can leave the writer wrestling with text when he ought be attending to intention. This is something that modernist writing, and particularly the work of Ezra Pound, has brought home to us.

Which brings me on to the vatic element in Tyndale's work. Poetry enjoys a high lip-service among men because the poet in many cultures has been accorded the status of a seer, prophet, shaman, a spokesman between men and gods. His words come to have near-divine value. In a more civilized and less religious climate, the poet continues to claim the status of prophet but he also demands the rewards of the town.

Customs have grown up in which people looking for guidance will close their eyes and put their fingers on a verse which they will accept as providential. I have not come across novels used in this way, and of poetry only certain kinds. Virgil certainly was; I think that Homer was; the Holy Bible continues to be, particularly the book of Psalms. And if we ask what these have in common we can find one answer is they all give us insight into the hidden word of divinity: they tell us what no merely human thinking or science or wisdom could. They spill the beans on the very source of being, and so open the doors of luck and prosperity.

When poets themselves accept this role they put themselves in danger. It takes little imagination to envisage the risks of saying things about the gods that are'untrue; or even true, but meant to be kept secret. So the poet calls for safeguard on an intermediary, one with divine status and understanding but who has an interest in making the unknown known. And so the muses come in. If Homer says indiscreet things about the Olympians, then it's all down to Calliope.

In the Old Testament we find references to true and false prophets. We find lying spirits at work, so that professional prophets are deceived. We also find in the narrative what the word is that is given to the prophet, and then what the prophet himself says, so we can see he is sticking to the letter of what he was given to say.

We also have a commoner experience of prophecy in such phenomena as intuition, sudden confidence, winning streaks, premonitions and, if we're really unlucky, second sight. As for dreams, perhaps they are even too ordinary to mention here. But one thing I would like to include, which Aristotle himself saw as a definitive characteristic of the true poet: the power of making metaphors. Let me make a distinction here. Simile is the tool of science. Man sees connections defined as similarities between one phenomenon and another. But metaphor, the tool of religion and poetry, asserts an identity between the two phenomena against all sense of the contrary. The simile is a rational scheme or figure, and welcome in the Platonic republic (as well as lots of others): metaphor, on the other hand, is a trope that belongs to the world of magic. In the life of religion these two views of things are in perpetual conflict. One school will fight another to the death on, let's say, the nature of the bread and wine in the Mass. One will argue that when Christ says, 'This is my body, this is my blood', that he really means this is like my body and my blood, it is just a stronger way of putting it: that is a view that anyone can agree with. The other argues that if Christ had meant to use a simile he would have done so; but he chose to say what in fact he said, and deliberately identifies the two dissimilars: so we have a paradox, that Christ albeit remaining Christ is also identical with the consecrated wafer and wine, the doctrine of the real presence. In the ritual meal he ordained, it is Christ himself that we eat and drink, and not some imitation or half-hearted likeness.

Rational, practical people use the expression 'mystical' to put the others in their place, a place which is particularly at the sidelines of human affairs: I suppose they in their turn are called 'unimaginative' by polite mystics, and 'blind mouths' by the more irascible sort.

In introducing these distinction I am paving the way to the idea of Tyndale as a prophetic writer, despite his Zwinglian tendencies;[27] a role that takes him far beyond that of a mere literary hack. And the prophet in his vatic undertaking has his feet planted not on the daily news like the rest of us, but on the abiding threshold of eternity. And his ear and his heart, his scholarship and his imagination, could only do their work, and do it as well as he did, on the unshifting quicksands of faith.

When Professor Daniell invited me to make this contribution to the conference I take it he knew my credentials at secondhand. Unless he had been prodigiously diligent he would not have seen anything of my work. So few people have. Let me treat you to a small sample. It is the closing passage of a long poem called Five Sisters York, a sort of homage to the great grey windows that I've heard one nun call the nearest thing she on earth to the vision of God:

    so poor we are born, poor die, the only
    jewels we can make are tears, our songs
    but sighing hopes, our breath on the cold air
    is silver dust, silly and silent prayer
    the spirit's ignorant grey ghost that dares
    to fly or fall, burdened with boils we
    love and long and beat our brains upon
    our breasts as if friction could make light
    of our offences, but only good
    is right, and we inhabit still the grey
    of daily day, each a false dawn, but one
    day soon the day will surely come and from
    the east proclaim a feast that every eye
    shall witness, palpable Elysium
    of jasper, amethyst, smaragdos,
    jacinth, sardius, chalcedony,
    sardonyx, beryl, chrysolite,
    topaz, chrysoprase and sapphire,
    light that our eyes deny shall we see by
    and not need lamp or sun, our sight
    beweeded, here wedded to where and when
    by nyctalopia, shall be nursed then
    nympholepsy, some vestiges
    only and hints we have, seen on a
    wall of grey lovelight in minuscule
    as rare as angels' music distantly heard
    across a cataract, whom holy dread
    marks ever after, five grail sisters
    sing their gradual, light in counterpoint
    curl upon curl though hanging down suspended
    lifts ever upward, heaven's high aspirate
    and grace's grammar, hallowing where
    it rises in its flight, though here restrained
    to a motet of lenten latin light.[28]

I quote this passage because I want to let you into a few trade secrets. For most of the poem, and certainly the first part of this. I had been taxiing along at a trundle pace trying one word and then another, counting syllables on my fingers' ends, looking up words in dictionaries — I'm still unsure about the pronunciation of kalsedony — my mind on the thought and my ear on the music, and looking to an outsider the exact opposite of the inspired Romantic poet. But as the passage progressed there was an increase of pace, and the final lines — I must be precise here — seemed to write themselves. I was today I can't read the line in which 'five grail sisters sing their gradual' without a sizeable frisson of awe.

There were no voices, no manifestations of any divine or daemonic presences: only the words themselves. I can't for certain say where the seam lies between my own excogitated matter and the muse's gift. I can only say, like Senex in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, on being approached by a new, pretty and very willing slave girl, in Plautus's words 'Whichever of you Gods did this, I give you a thousand thanks'. And yet, in the middle of this miraculous composition I still could manage to look up such an inkhorn term as nyctalopia — the difficulty of seeing in half-light — and nymphotepsy — a frenzied yearning for the unattainable — conscious of the fact that readers like their poets to be more logo-daedalic than themselves — and yes, I got that out of the dictionary as well.

I mention this little experience of my own because it helps me to understand the likely process of Tyndale's operation. He is translating, surrounded by all the books he can get. And if he had been intent on Englishing Luther or Melanchthon, that would have been the end of it. But Tyndale is translating holy writ, the word of God transmitted through old prophets, set down by scribes, and copied by generations of amanuenses. If the writing he is Englishing is 'inspired', it should follow that the translation must be equally so. And along with his patient looking up words, and comparing text with text, and trying this word and that, there must have been many a moment where, as we say in modern English, 'It just occurred to me'. We used to say 'methinks', and Germans still use the same form in mir dünkt 'it (unspecified) thinks to me'. No man can say for sure what is the source of such inspired suggestion, but it is a surprisingly common experience. 'It just came to me', 'I said without thinking', and so on.

But the real difference between these casual offerings of the muses and what Tyndale was doing is this: the task he had undertaken was a prophetic one, and to achieve it called for a vatic dedication. We see the same thing in Milton, the acceptance that his life and his role as vatic poet are one and the same thing. Milton was born to write the grand poems he did, and Tyndale was born to give the English their Bible. In retrospect we can easily see that, but Milton and Tyndale saw it before there was very much chance of realization. Indeed, Milton was blind before he started, and Tyndale was strangled before he finished; but they ventured as they did not on a likely success, but on manly faith. They depended on God to provide. We have Milton's word for it that his poem was 'dictated', and I speculate in the absence of evidence that Tyndale was given a great deal of assistance from the quarter to which he looked.

Probably not in the form of rolling passages. Probably not even in his choice of words, for his gifts as a writer were equal to this. And as my own experience shows me, Tyndale himself would most likely find it difficult to say where the holy muse was speaking and where his own DNA was at work. It is perfectly possible that the word of God and the word of man coincide in perfect partnership, that the word of the divine and the human poet are simultaneous and coextensive; or, to put it another way, 'righteousness and truth have kissed each other'. I would still imagine, however, that had Tyndale lived he would have continued to revise his New Testament; but there are some passages, some phrases, some words, that he would never dare tamper with.

These are mysteries, and will remain so. But there is a further vatic mystery to be considered, and one that goes beyond the power of faith, and the provision of God. I refer to the mystery of being 'in Christ', and the other mystery of Christ being 'in me'. It is the mark of priesthood that the human agent identifies himself with the God he represents. He is, one could say, God in metaphor. In bringing God, through his word, to the a people of England. Tyndale is undertaking a task comparable to that of Christ himself. The task had been claimed by the one who was styled Vicar of Christ, but it was apparent that there was a fatal flaw in this vicarship, and Tyndale made it his mission to take that role on himself, not presumptuously, as he was accused, but with the full humility we true priest, a man prepared to lay down his life for the sheep of God.

It is quite possible he knew John Purvey's prayer for Bible translators:
A translator hath great need to study well the sense both before and after, and then also he hath need to live a clean life and be full devout in prayers, and have not his wit occupied about wordly things, that the Holy Spirit, author of all wisdom and knowledge and truth, dress him for his work and suffer him not to err. By this manner, with good living and great travail, men can come to true and clear translating, and true understanding of holy writ, seem it never so hard at the beginning. God grant to us all grace to know well and to keep well holy writ and to suffer joyfully some pain for it at the last.[29]

Tyndale must have expected the outcome. He had himself translated that passage that promised how he would be turned out of church, and hounded, and beaten, and mocked, and accused of all villainy, and at last ritually killed, for so they used the Christ, the Son of God.

Blessed are they which suffer persecution for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men revile you, and persecute you, and shall falsely say all manner of evil sayings against you for my sake. Rejoice, and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For so persecuted they the Prophets which were before your days.

He could be under no expectation that he might avoid the fate of those who were burnt by Fisher and More, and the Lollards before them who suffered in the English Inquisition. His imagination must have suffered the trial to come many times over. And have wrestled with his own spirit, and prayed too that the cup might be taken away from him. But we know his answer to these temptations, and his Bible is written in blood.

Tyndale's translation, then, is so much more than a shifting of words from one language into another. It is the rendering of self, a self that has all the impurities that ours have into a medium that can carry the fire of the divine. And his work, which we are do fit honour to today, is one that goes beyond mere human achievement. His is the work of a prophet, and apostle. His honest and unrewarded labour was to bring every Englishman, woman and child into the company of Christ: Christ who is the Truth. It was the noblest of aims, and it is doubtful if any man of this nation ever aimed higher. And we who share that aim have the most reason to honour Master William Tyndale, because whether we realise it or not, he has become to the English-speaking world the effective mouth of Christ.

I started this little oration with some observations on honour. Here is another. What we are able to derive from the act of honouring others is a new access of courage. We are here today to celebrate an achievement that itself was the result of courage, that virtue that Jacob says all others depend on. I imagine that many of you here now are worn down and tired, irritated and got down by the circumstances of your work and the unspeakable manners of those you have to work with. You have no doubt seen good friends and colleagues go down under the same strains, and wonder how long it will be before you do. So it was for Tyndale. Probably more so. That's largely why we are set on honouring him in this conference.

But it is also a part of the purpose of paying due honour that we take something in return, that we take heart from his success against the odds, that we recognize the victory there is even in losing battles. And that courage I speak of, that we are here together to share, should be for each one of us a new hope, and a renewed desire to continue our work and push it through to the very end; and trust, as William Tyndale trusted, that God would provide, even if it was left to others to continue the task. So let not your hearts be troubled. Work, as you have never worked before; aspire, as you have never aspired before; and risk, as you have never risked before; as long as you have days left you in the light of this world. And if you dare trust God as William Tyndale quite simply did, then He will see you through, the work, and the trial, and if necessary the burning. Or as good vernacular English has it, to the bitter end.


[1]Exposition of Matthew 5,6,7, in Expositions and Notes on Sundry Portions of the Holy Scriptures (ed. Henry Walter, The Parker Society, Cambridge, 1849), p. 131.
[2]'A Brief Declaration of the Sacraments' in Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures by William Tyndale, Martyr, 1536 (ed. Henry Walter, Parker Society, Cambridge, 1848), p. 361.
[3]'The Practyse of Prelates', Expositions, p. 320.
[4]Ibid. p. 328.
[5]'The Obedience of a Christen Man', Doctrinal Treatises, p. 276.
[6]Ibid. p. 135.
[7]Ibid. p. 134.
[8]G.D. Bone, 'Tindale and English Language', in S. L. Greenslade, The Work of William Tindale (London 1938).
[9]The Max Jacob quotations are taken from the Gallimard reissue of the 1945 text of Conseils à un Jeune Poète. My translation of this is published by Asgill Press (1994).
[10]'The Parable of the Wicked Mammon', Doctrinal Treatises p. 100.
[11]Expositions, p. 62.
[12]'The Obedience of a Christen Man', Doctrinal Treatises, p. 258.
[13]'The Practyse of Prelates', Expositions, pp. 324-5
[14]The folk analects were collected by Lisa Barrett, Janet Butler, Kate Elsom, Fiona Fletcher, Rebecca Griffiths, Sam Holman, Rebecca Hopkins, Lynn Jepson, Nicola Walker, Claire Woods, Clare Wright, students of Bishop Grosseteste College, Lincoln.
[15]Doctrinal Treatises, p. 197.
[16]Cf. Tyndale's translation of 2 Timothy 2: 'Study to show thyself laudable unto God a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, dividing the word of truth justly'.
[17]I owe my aquaintance with these poems to a piece of work by Judith Dudhill, another of my former students. They are from Frank Vernon, The Day the Earth Trembled, (Doncaster Library Service, 1989), which is primarily a miner's record of the Bamburgh Main Colliery disaster of 1942.
[18]See 'The Obedience of a Christen Man', Doctrinal Treatises, pp. 304-5.
[19]Doctrinal Treatises, pp. 114-15.
[20]Ibid. p. 135.
[21]T.S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding', V, Four Quartets.
[22]'The Obedience of a Christen Man', Doctrinal Treatises, p. 257.
[23]Ibid. p. 224.
[24]Ibid. p. 238.
[25]The New Testament translated by William Tyndale 1534, with the Variants of the Edition of 1525 (ed. Hardy Wallis. Cambridge. 1938).
[26]See Bagster's English Hexapla, n.d.
[27]In 'The Souper of the Lorde 1533, an Exposition of John 6' in Tyndale's Answer Sir Thomas More's Dialogue (ed. Henry Walter, The Parker Society, Cambridge, 1850), Tyndale is mainly intent on countering the priestcraft that More is defending. With this in mind we can see his insistence on 'spiritual meaning' here, at odds with his usual insistence on 'literal meaning' elsewhere, is more discredit his opponent's view than to assert an absolute dogma. In any case the force of his argument is to assert the all-importance of the Christian's faith in God's act of salvation present in the host.
[28]G.Jackson, Five Sisters York, V (Asgill Press, Lincoln, 1980).
[29]Quoted in F. F. Bruce, The English Bible: A History of Translations (London, 1961), p. 20.

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