Proofs of Holy Writ

(notes edited and amplified by George Engle)


First published in the April 1934 issue of the Strand Magazine. Collected only in the Sussex edition (vol. 30) and the Burwash edition (vol. 23). Republished in the Strand Magazine of December 1947 and in the issues of the Kipling Journal of June 1958 and December 1965. Included by Roger Lancelyn Green in his selection Rudyard Kipling: Stories and Poems (Dent, Everyman’s Library, 1970), and by John Bayley in his selection Rudyard Kipling: Mrs Bathurst and other stories (Oxford, The World’s Classics,1991).Also contained in Writings on writing by Rudyard Kipling edited by Sandra Kemp and Lisa Lewis (Cambridge, 1996). A paperback edition of 145 hand-printed copies, with an introduction by Philip Mason, was published by the Tregara Press in 1981.
The fact that the story was first published in 1934, two years after the publication of Limits and Renewals, the last collection of Kipling’s stories, explains why it was not included in a collection in Kipling’s lifetime.


In a note in the 1947 Strand Magazine Hilton Brown says that the idea of the story originated at a lunch in Fleet Street, at which the conversation turned on the rhythms and assonances of the Authorised Version of the Bible. John Buchan said it was strange that such splendour had been produced by a body of men learned, no doubt, in theology and languages, but including among them no writer. Could it be, he wondered that they had privately consulted the great writers of the age, Shakespeare perhaps, and Jonson and others? ‘Kipling said to Buchan: “That’s an idea” and away he went to turn it over.’

Kipling started work on the story in January 1932 at Bath, where he visited his friend George Saintsbury (formerly Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh) who, Kipling said in Something of Myself [page 86, line 4] gave him ‘inestimable help in a little piece of work called “Proofs of Holy Writ,” which without his books could never have been handled.’ Saintsbury’s History of English Prose Rhythm devotes half a chapter to the Authorised Version, and was clearly the main source for the story, dealing at length, as it does, with the very verses from Isaiah 60 discussed in the story, for which it sets out in full the Greek and Latin versions, as well as those of Coverdale’s and the Bishops’ Bibles, pointing out various differences in the Geneva and Douai versions.

Background to the story

In 1604, soon after the accession of James I to the English throne, a conference was convened at Hampton Court in the hope of settling the differences between the bishops and the Puritans. At this a suggestion that a new and better translation of the Bible was needed was taken up by the king himself, who said:

‘I wish some special pains were taken for an uniform translation; which should be done by the best learned in both Universities, then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by Royal Authority, to be read in the whole Church, and no other’.
(Fuller’s Church-History of Britain, 1655, Bk X, p.14).

Accordingly a body of scholars was appointed, which included the most learned men in the Kingdom. They were split into six groups meeting at Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster, each taking a different portion of the text. Eventually Miles Smith, a distinguished oriental scholar of Brasenose College, Oxford, and Thomas Bilson, the learned Bishop of Winchester, were appointed to make a final revision of the text of the Old Testament. Smith was made a bishop in 1612, following the publication of the King James Bible in 1611.
The characters of Jonson and Shakespeare, and their relationship, resemble the account in Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1619).

The story

The story largely consists of a supposed conversation in 1610 or 1611 between Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare in the orchard of New Place, Shakespeare’s home near Stratford-upon-Avon. During their talk it emerges that Shakespeare has been consulted by Miles Smith, one of the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible then under preparation, with a view to improving its English. Thereupon Shakespeare and Jonson work over some verses of Isaiah which have been sent to Shakespeare in proof (“hand-pressed proofs on their lavish linen paper”) for his suggested amendments. Their discussion of the choice of words is at the heart of the story, which has been called “Kipling’s valedictory statement on art”.

Critical comments

This story has not received much attention from the critics — probably because, not having been included in any popular collection of Kipling’s stories until 1970, it was little known.
Charles Carrington (page 501) called it a “charming conversation piece”. J M S Tompkins (page 205) cited it as an example of how Kipling’s dreams faded as he grew older: “their track grows much fainter and is only to be suspected occasionally in an image”. She gives as an instance of what she calls “dream scenery” the reported comment of Miles Smith (on the lines from Macbeth beginning “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”) that they were:

“to his godly apprehension, a parable, as it might be, of his reverend self, going down darkling to his tomb `twixt cliffs of ice and iron.”.

Roger Lancelyn-Green, introducing the reprint of the story in the Kipling Journal 156 of December 1965 thought it:

“has a special appeal of its own, and must surely rank with his greatest artistic successes, even if on a lower spiritual plane than some of his most famous stories…[it] has a special appeal to those who follow Kipling’s own profession and most appreciate `the miracle of our land’s speech’.”

In his introduction to Stories and Poems (Dent, 1970) Lancelyn-Green wrote of its “relaxed atmosphere of peace in the shady garden of old age”. But Angus Wilson (page 331) found it overrated: “It is the sort of piece of old-fashioned dons’ recreation which is usually called delightful, and so it is, but no more.” And Andrew Lycett (page 568) called it unenthusiastically “an erudite debate…on the craft of writing” in which “Rudyard was able to demonstrate his learning in a manner he enjoyed and, in particular, to show off his familiarity with Jacobean literature and culture.”

For Sandra Kemp:

“he gives imaginative expression to his belief that the King James Bible represents the perfection of English speech…it is as if Kipling is trying to recreate the processes by which first Tyndale and Coverdale, and their early Jacobean scholars produced what Kipling believed to be the finest translation of the Bible”. (Kipling’s Hidden Narratives p.84).

For an excellent full-length study of the story see John Coates’s article (subtitled “Kipling’s valedictory statement on art”) published in KJ 243 of September 1987 and reprinted in his The Day’s Work: Kipling and the idea of Sacrifice (pp. 120-127). The final paragraph reads as follows:

“The resulting piece of short fiction has a control of tone, not perhaps usually associated with Kipling. Its creation of character, atmosphere and period, its convincing unpretentious sketch of creation in act, its deeper seriousness, blend with its surface pleasures, the portrait of two old friends nodding in a shady garden, the mellow civilised tone. After so many stories involving reconciliation in his last period, it is fitting that Kipling should have reconciled art and intellectualism, himself and his critics.”

See also Philip Mason’s “”Proofs of Holy Writ”: an introduction” in the Kipling Journal of March 1988 (KJ245)  (page 33), and David Norton’s “”Proofs of Holy Writ”: Myths of the Authorised Version: Kipling and the Bible” in the Kipling Journal of December 1989, (page 18).



©George Engle 2004 All rights reserved