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Classics Reissued: The Norton Critical English Bible

The English Bible: King James Version, 2 volumes

edited by Herbert Marks, Gerald Hammond, and Austin Busch

W.W. Norton, 2012

The “Critical Editions” of canonical classics published by W. W. Norton have served university students for decades through a winningly inclusive formula: they present a clear, definitive version of the text in question supported by ample notes, and then they wrap the whole thing up with a carefully-chosen selection of responses to the text: contemporary reactions (the calfskin codex in which Michiko Kakutani calls The Canterbury Tales “lapidary,” for instance, or the quarto volume in which John Leonard refers to Hamlet as “the big glossy doe-eye that looks at us unblinking, though we ourselves blink, because hey, our eyes aren’t getting any younger and the mail just came”), critical essays through the centuries, even artistic adaptations of the source material.

The formula works because it presents its texts in the round, as it were, giving newcomers a chance to realize that many newcomers have come before them and giving those already familiar with the texts a wonderful (and often damn convenient) gathered nosegay of the reviews and criticism they’ve read in scattered locations over the years.

Masterpieces have often resulted. The Norton Critical Pride and Prejudice is one such (every update tends to make it stronger), and the Norton Critical Decameron; the edition of Beowulf featuring Seamus Heaney’s unforgettable translation is another example, as are the volumes dealing with the poetry of Byron and Tennyson. These volumes might be used primarily by students, but they’re also fine editions in their own right.

The greatest of all such Norton masterpieces came out this year: an enormous two-volume Norton Critical Edition of “The English Bible: King James Version” (no idea why they didn’t just call it “The King James Version” – he commissioned the work, he freed the process from dogmatism, and he paid the scholars who performed it – he ought to have the sole undisputed name of the thing), with the phone book-sized Old Testament volume being edited by Herbert Marks and the New Testament (and Apocrypha) volume being edited by Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch. These are big floppy paperbacks with full-color maps in the end papers, thousands of highly detailed footnotes, and scholarly introductions to every segment of the work itself. The end result is something truly stunning, a Bible to stand alongside the Oxford World’s Classics edition brought out by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett in 1997 and the Penguin Classics Bible done by David Norton in 2006. In its sheer breadth, it easily surpasses both those earlier editions.

And yet, they tell it not in Gath, they publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon. Norton does no advertising for its Critical Editions, and its publicity people have been slightly, charmingly befuddled by the reaction in some (admittedly rarefied) quarters to the Norton Critical English Bible. Robert Alter’s grand, magisterial review in The New Republic spelled out clearly what an incredible achievement these books are, and all other grateful critics can only add their own echoes, pointing out as many of their favorite bits and pieces as they can.

Marks’ surpassingly erudite Old Testament volume, for instance, contains in its supplementary material some excerpts from the great Benno Jacob, whose 1936 work The First Book of the Bible: Genesis our editor rightly calls “the greatest twentieth century commentary on Genesis.” Also here is E. A. Speiser (he of the Anchor Bible)’s spry, illuminating essay on the Sacrifice of Isaac (for the glorious illustration of which Tiepolo chose to bind a model of, shall we say, non-canonical age):

What is the meaning of this shattering ordeal? In this infinitely sensitive account the author has left so much unsaid that there is not the danger of one’s reading into it too much – or too little. Certainly, the object of the story had to be something other than a protest against human sacrifice in general, or child sacrifice in particular – an explanation that is often advanced.

And at every turn, Marks himself is a star attraction. His introductory comments on the books of the Old Testament are mini-revelations in their own right, as in this summary of the Book of Kings:

Kings is thus a book at odds as much with itself as with our notions of history and literature. Its intended message, which in its original, preexilic version may have been propaganda tempered by exhortation or warning, has been overwritten in the final, expanded version and rendered moot. It is not properly lament; it is not tribute or memorialization or admonition or excuse. Although it has moments of brilliance, mostly centering on the prophetic legends, it is a dry account, free of nostalgia and idealization. Compared to other great narratives of national devastation where the undersong is elegiac – the Norse sagas, the Morte D’Arthur, Faulkner’s epic histories of the South – it seems glacial in its objectivity. The monotonous regnal formulae give it a unity but also a strangeness.

The huge reach of scholarship there is mirrored in the just-right choice of artistic echoes Marks chooses, ranging from the sonorous beauty of Thomas Wyatt’s towering rendition of Psalm 130:

From depth of sin and from a deep despair,
From depth of death, from depth of heart’s sorrow,
Thee have I called, O Lord, to be my borrow.
Thou in my voice, O Lord, perceive and hear
My heart, my hope, my plaint, my overthrow,
My will to rise, and let by grant appear
That to my voice thine ears do well intend.
No place so far that to thee is not near;
No depth so deep that thou ne mayst extend
Thine ear thereto. Hear then my woeful plaint.
For, Lord, if thou do observe what men offend
And put thy native mercy in restraint,
If just exaction demand recompense,
Who may endure, O Lord? Who shall not faint
At such account? Dread and not reverence
Should reign so large. But thou seeks rather love
For in thy hand is mercy’s residence
By hope whereof thou dost our hearts move.
I in thee, Lord, have set my confidence;
My soul such trust doth evermore approve.
Thy holy word of eterne excellence,
Thy mercy’s promise that is always just,
Have been my stay, my pillar, and pretence.
My soul in God hath more desirous trust
Than hath the watchman looking for the day
By the relief to quench of sleep the thrust.
Let Israel trust unto the Lord alway
For grace and favour arn his property.
Plenteous ransom shall come with him, I say,
And shall redeem our iniquity.

To the weird, nervous brilliance of John Donne’s La Corona

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise,
Weav’d in my low, devout melancholy,
Thou which of good hast, yea, art treasury,
All changing unchang’d Ancient of Days.
But do not, with a vile crown of frail bays,
Reward my muse’s white sincerity,
But what thy thorny crown gain’d, that give me,
A crown of glory, which doth flower always.
The ends crown our works, but thou crown’st our ends,
So at our end begins our endless rest.
This first last end, now zealously possess’d,
With a strong sober thirst, my soul attends.
‘Tis time that voice and heart be lifted high,
Salvation to all that will is nigh.

The bounty continues in the New Testament volume, which includes, among many other things, a delightful array of first- and second-century Church fathers here gathered into a synod of singular usefulness. And of course the artistic echoes of the Gospels are pervasive and often arrestingly good; Thank [your deity here] that Hammond and Busch had the grace to include “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks,” by Countee Cullen:

He never spoke a word to me,
And yet He called my name;
He never gave a sign to me,
And yet I knew and came.

At first I said, “I will not bear
His cross upon my back;
He only seeks to place it there
Because my skin is black.”

But He was dying for a dream,
and He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam
Men journey far to seek.

It was Himself my pity bought;
I did for Christ alone
What all of Rome could not have wrought
With bruise of lash or stone.

The good folks at Norton have done their level best to hide this particular light under a bushel, but we shouldn’t let them succeed! No serious reader – and certainly no serious reader of the Bible – can be without this two-volume set. Go to your local bookstore and order copies; this much sheer brainy fun mustn’t be the exclusive property of distracted college undergraduates.