"Proofs of
Holy Writ"

(notes edited and amplified
by George Engle)

the story

[Jan 18 2009]

“Proofs of Holy Writ”. The title is taken from Shakespeare's Othello, III. iii. 328, where, apropos of Desdemona’s handkerchief, Iago says:

"Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ.
There the phrase refers to the probative value of Scripture, but here Kipling punningly uses it to mean printer’s proofs of the new translation of the Bible. In Rome in 1917 Kipling had seen the room used by a team of Catholic scholars who were revising the Latin Bible.

It breathes me. It gives me a breathing space.

Dekker. Between 1599 and 1601 John Marston, Thomas Dekker and Ben Johnson satirised each other in their plays, in what has become known as 'The War of the Theatres'.

my trade as they called it. See Dekker, Satiromastix (1601), IV. iii. 157-9. Jonson’s father died before Jonson was born, and his mother’s second husband was a master-bricklayer who tried to get the boy to follow his trade.

mocked my face. See Satiromastix, IV. iii. 92-4.

humour. Jonson’s first successful play was Every Man in his Humour (1597), in the 1616 Folio edition of which Shakespeare is listed as a member of the cast. Every Man Out of his Humour (1599) contains satirical portraits of Dekker and Marsden. Medicine in those days regarded the body as containing four chief fluids or “humours” (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy), by the relative proportions of which a person’s physical and mental qualities and temperament were held to be determined.

drawn. Drawn my sword.

Gabriel. Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer in a duel in 1598. He was condemned to hang for the killing, but pleaded benefit of clergy and was branded instead.

my Poetaster. Jonson is said to have pilloried Marston in this vitriolic play because in Histiromastix Marston had represented him as “given to Venerie" (womanising) in his youth. (The word 'Poetaster' means a second-rate poet, a writer of contemptible verses.)

Behemoth. The huge animal (probably a hippopotamus) described in Job 40, 15-24.

sea beaches. Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale, III. iii. is set on “the sea-coast of Bohemia”. (Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, is a landlocked country).

tester. A sixpenny piece.

teres atque rotundus. Smooth and round — of a man, polished and complete (Horace).

a quotation. From Jonson’s The Fall of Sejanus (1603), I. iii. “Silius: Indeed, this place is not our sphere.” Shakespeare is said to have acted in it.

The main of its learning. In Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Subtle, the fake alchemist and astrologer, utters a farrago of technical terms that would have been familiar to believers in those long-discredited sciences.

Moorditch. A London drain.

My Tempest (how I came to write that, I know) See the poem “The Coiner” (Limits and Renewals), and Kipling’s article “Shakespeare and the Tempest” (The Spectator, 2 July 1898, collected in Sussex and Burwash "Uncollected Prose", and reprinted in Writings on Writing, Cambridge University Press, 1996). Kipling’s theory was that Shakespeare met some drunken sailors in a tavern, who were newly returned from the voyage described in Jourdan's A Discovery of the Bermudas (1610).

the boys.They played all the female roles.

Dick Burbage. Richard Burbage (1567(?)-1619) played the chief parts in plays by Shakespeare and Jonson, excelling in tragedy. He inherited from his father, who was also an actor, shares in both the Globe and the Blackfriars theatres.

a vomit. A medicinal emetic.

evened it. Was equal to it.

How fortune…practice ’em. Sejanus V.x. 878-9.

Miles Smith. He was appointed, with Thomas Bilson, to make a final revision of the text of the Old Testament for the King James Bible, first published in 1611. He also wrote the long and beautiful but today rarely printed Preface to the translation. He later became Bishop of Gloucester.

Geneva…Great. Earlier translations of the Bible into English: Coverdale’s (1535), Matthews’s (1537), the Great Bible (1539-41), the Geneva (1560), the Bishops’ (1568), the Rheims (1582), the Douai (1609-10). Matthews’s, the Great and the Bishops’ were all used by the Church of England. The Rheims, translated from the Latin Vulgate by the Jesuits, was illegal in England under Elizabeth I. (The Vulgate was the old Latin version (editio vulgata) of the scriptures, translated by St Jerome and others in the 4th century, twice revised, and in common use over the centuries in the Roman Catholic Church.)

Condell. An actor and shareholder in Shakespeare’s company and one of the two editors of the First Folio (1623) of his plays.

armiger. One entitled to bear heraldic arms. Shakespeare’s father received a grant of arms in 1596, later borne by Shakespeare himself.

the Latin atop. The Old Testament was in fact being translated from the original Hebrew; a language largely unknown to Kipling’s readers. So he writes as if the original were the Latin of the Vulgate.

Holophernes. A comic schoolmaster in Shakespeare's Love’s Labour Lost, given to spouting Latin.

The words illumare and aperient, which appear in all the published texts of this story, should read illuminare and operient, as in the Vulgate.

Ovid…Seneca. Classical authors whose works in Latin were well-known to Elizabethan scholars. A contemporary wrote of Jonson: “He was better versed and knew more in Greek and Latin than all the poets in England.”

Demon. Kipling wrote of his own Demon (or Daemon) of inspiration in Something of Myself (page 208), advising others: “When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait and obey.” He here endows Shakespeare with such a Daemon.

Pliny. One of the Roman authors already mentioned. There were in fact two authors of that name. ORG suggests that the reference here is to Pliny the Younger’s description of the eruption of Vesuvius.

rams’ horns. See Joshua 6,4.

a simple man. Coverdale.

David before Saul. See 1 Samuel 16,23.

Greek word. It is uncertain what Greek word Kipling had in mind – evidently some technical term of prosody. In “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr William Shakespeare” (one of the laudatory poems printed in the First Folio) Jonson wrote “thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek.”

the horses of the dawn. The horses of the sun-god Helios, whose golden chariot was drawn across the sky by winged horses harnessed at dawn by the Horae (the Hours).

trap. Trapdoor.

Boanerges. “Sons of thunder”, meaning loud-voiced preachers, the nickname given by Jesus to the disciples James and John (Mark 3, 17). In Kipling’s poem "The Craftsman" Jonson is referred to as “the overbearing Boanerges”.

upsee-dejee. The meaning is clearly “topsy turvy”, or "upside-down", but Kipling seems to have invented the term. In The Alchemist Jonson uses upsee-Dutch, an old expression meaning 'in the manner of the Dutch'.

the Globe were burned. In 1613, two years after the publication of the Authorised Version, the Globe Theatre did indeed burn down.

my Ezekiel. Shakespeare’s (fictional) translation of Ezekiel 27 for Miles Smith, in which the prophet describes the great seaport Tyre in all its bustling prosperity before its downfall.

For the two (slightly inaccurate) quotations see Ezekiel 27,3 and 27,25.

Kit. The playwright Christopher Marlowe, stabbed to death in 1593, aged 29, in a Deptford tavern, after a quarrel over the bill.

breathed me. Made me exert myself so as to breathe hard.

virtue had gone out of him. In Mark 5,30 the same is said of Jesus after an act of healing.

“Mine earnest vehement botcher…with you.” See The Alchemist V.v.lines 104-5. Jonson calls Shakespeare an unskilful workman (botcher) and at the same time a master of his craft (deacon)


©George Engle 2004 All rights reserved