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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Religion

The Bible Before Classics

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Transcript from original newspaper article: -
THE BIBLE BEFORE CLASSICS.

It is a very common thing for young men, fresh from their books, to boast of the superiority of the heathen poets, and to interlard their writings with quotations from their works. But if these budding young gentlemen did but know it, the Bible is as much superior to their favorite authors in purity, vitality and sublimity of style, as the latter are to ordinary poets. Let us take, for an illustration, the description of the horse in his glory, by Homer, Virgil, and Job. We will commence with Homer:

“Freed from his keepers thus with broken reins
the wanton courser prances o’er the plains;
Or in the pride of youth o’er leaps the mounts,
And snuffs the females in forbidden grounds;
Or seeks his watering in the well-known flood,
To quench his thirst, and cool his fiery blood;
He swims luxuriant in the liquid plain,
And o’er his shoulders flows his waving mane;
He neighs, he snorts, he bears his head on high,
Before his ample chest the froth waters fly.

Virgil’s description is much fuller than the foregoing, which is only a simile; whereas Virgil professes to treat of the nature of the horse. It is thus admirably translated:

“The fiery courser, when he hears from far
The sprightly trumpets and the shouts of war,
Pricks up his ears, and trembling with delight,
Shifts, pace and paws; and hopes the promis’d flight.
On his right shoulder his thick mane reclined,
Ruffles at speed, and dances in the wind.
His horny hoofs are jetty black and round:
His chin is double starting, with a bound
He turns the turf, and shakes the solid ground.
Fire from his eyes, clouds from his nostrils flow;
He bears his rider headlong on the foe.”

Now follows that in the book of Job; which under all the disadvantages of having been written in a language little understood; of being expressed in phrases peculiar to a part of the world whose manner of thinking and speaking seems to use very uncouth; and, above all, of appearing in a prose translation; is, nevertheless, so transcendently above the heathen descriptions that hereby we may perceive how faint and languid the images are which are formed by mortal authors, when compared with that which is figured, as it were, just as it appears in the eye of the Creator. God speaking to Job asks him –

“Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder? Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? The glory of his nostrils is terrible. He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength. He goeth on to met the armed men. He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword. The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear, and the shield. He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage; neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumper. He saith amongst the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar of; the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

Here are all the great and sprightly images that thought can form of this generous beast, expressed in such force and vigor of style as would have given the great wits of antiquity new laws for the sublime, and they been acquainted with these writings. We cannot but particularly observe, that whereas the classical poets chiefly endeavor to paint the outward figure, lineaments, and motions; the sacred poet makes all the beauties to flow from an inward principle in the creature he describes, and thereby gives great spirit and vivacity to his description. The following phrases and circumstances seem singularly remarkable:

“Hast thou clothes his neck with thunder?”

Homer and Virgil mention nothing about the neck of the horse but his mane. The sacred author, by the bold figure of thunder, not only expresses the shaking of that remarkable beauty in the horse, and the flakes of hair which naturally suggest the idea of lightening; but likewise the violent agitation and force of the neck, which in the oriental tongues had been flatly expressed by a metaphor less than this.

“Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper?”

There is a twofold beauty in this expression which not only marks the courage of this beast, by asking if he can be reared? But likewise raises a noble image of his swiftness, by insinuating, that if he could be frighted, he would bound away with the nimbleness of a grasshopper.

“The glory of his nostrils is terrible.” This is more strong and concise than that of Virgil, which yet is the noblest line that was ever written with out inspiration:

“And in his nostrils rolls collected fire.”

“He rejoiceth in his strength – He mocketh at fear – neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet. He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.” Are signs of courage, and we said before, flowing from an inward principle. There is a peculiar beauty in his “not believing it is the sound of the trumpet;” but when he was sure of it, and is “amongst the trumpets, he saith, Ha, ha;” he neighs, he rejoices. His docility is elegantly painted in his being unmoved at the “rattling quiver, the glittering spear, and the shield:” and is well initiated by Oppian (who undoubtedly read Job as well as Virgil) in his poem upon hunting:

“How firm the managed war-horse keeps his ground,
Nor breaks his order, tho’ the trumpets sound!
With fearless eye the glittering host surveys,
And glares directly at the helmet’s blaze!
The master’s word, the laws of war he knows,
And when to stop, and when to charge the foes.”

“He swalloweth the ground,” is an expression for prodigious swiftness, in use amongst the Arabians, Job’s countrymen at this day. It is indeed the boldest and noblest of images for swiftness….

The Baible Before Classics


“The impatient courser pants in every vein,
And pawing, seems to beat the distant plain:
Hills, vales, and floods, appear already cross’d,
And ere he starts, a thousand steps are lost.”

“He smelleth the battle afar off.” and what follows about the shouting, is a circumstance expressed with great spirit by Lucan:

“So when the ring with joyful shouts resounds,
With rage and pride the imprisoned courser bounds;
He frets, he foams, he rends his idle rein;
Springs o’er the fence, and head-long seeks the plain.”

Thus incomparably superior is the sacred writer to the profane poets.