Feb 6, 2013

Posted by in Literary History | 35 Comments

Red Booth Notes: Our Literary Debt to William Tyndale

Red BoothHalfway to poetry.

So wrote C.S. Lewis when describing “sentences that stick to the mind” from the prose of William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536).[1]

What were these phrases? Here are two that Lewis singled out for special praise in his classic text, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama

 Who taught the eagles to spy out their prey? even so the children of God spy out their Father, that they might see and love again.

Where the spirit is, there is always summer.[2]

Then followed a succinct tribute, as memorable as it was evocative. In the best of Tyndale’s prose, Lewis concluded, “we breathe mountain air.”[3]

 

* * *

 

We also hear echoes of Tyndale’s prose every day, throughout the English-speaking world.

Does that seem far-fetched? A simple presentation of Tyndale’s best-known phrases shows that it’s not. All are present in his celebrated translation of The New Testament, published in 1534. In Matthew, chapter five, we find “the salt of the earth.” Nine chapters later, in Matthew 16, we read of “the signs of the times.” Turn to Luke’s gospel, chapter twelve. There, we discover “eat, drink and be merry.” In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13, there is an admonition regarding “the powers that be.” And, in the Book of James, chapter 5, we encounter this memorable phrase: “the patience of Job.”[4]

Our surprise only grows upon learning that Tyndale’s rendering of these phrases mark the first time they entered our language.

William Tyndale (from Marshall's Dayspring bio 1883)

William Tyndale (from Marshall’s Dayspring bio 1883)

For people in the family of faith, the debt to Tyndale becomes greater. Do we love lines of scripture such as “Let there be light,” “seek, and ye shall find,” “fight the good fight of faith,” or “be not weary in well doing”? They come to us from Tyndale.[5]

Tyndale translated The New Testament by himself—a staggering thought when one considers how many committees have undertaken the task in subsequent centuries. His was a beautiful flowering of scholarship and artistry, the more poignant because his work of translating the entire Bible was cut short by his tragic martyrdom.

Movingly, it’s been said that Tyndale’s translation, timeless and beautiful, bears the hallmarks of a “solitary music.”[6] Today, though we scarcely know it, we are his fortunate heirs. The English we speak owes a great and lasting debt to his scholarship and sacrifice. Many cadences of our literature issued from his pen. More than 475 years have passed since his death. Bless God, we may hear his music still.

 



[1] Both phrases, “halfway to poetry,” and “sentences that stick to the mind,” appear on page 192 of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, by C.S. Lewis, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965).

[2] Both of these citations from Tyndale are cited on page 192 of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, by C.S. Lewis, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965).

[3] From page 192 of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, by C.S. Lewis, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965).

[4] From page x of Tyndale’s New Testament, edited and introduced by David Daniell, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[5] From pages ix-x of Tyndale’s New Testament, edited and introduced by David Daniell, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[6] From page viii of Tyndale’s New Testament, edited and introduced by David Daniell, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

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