F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp

Published On


Page Range

pp. 285–336


  • English

Print Length

51 pages

5. “The Divine Style”

An American Prose Style Poeticized

  • F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp (author)
The book’s final chapter turns to an examination of stylistic elements in Whitman’s verse that derive (ultimately) from the plain style of the KJB’s prose. The point of departure is Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, in which the author argues for the existence of an “American prose style” among major American novelists that descends from the KJB. Whitman as a poet is not considered by Alter, and yet, there are ways in which the style of Whitman’s poetry, especially in the early editions of Leaves, shares much with the prose style charted by Alter, albeit in a nonnarrative mode and with a decidedly political bent—an American prose style poeticized and politicized. The chapter begins by tracing Whitman’s self-denominated “plate-glassy style” back, first, to the plain style of the KJB and, ultimately, to William Tyndale (d. 1536), the first to translate the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible into English and the primordial source of the stylistic distinctiveness of the KJB’s prose. The main body of the chapter surveys leading elements of Whitman’s style that may be tied to the KJB, including his use of parallelism, parataxis, the periphrastic of-genitive, and the cognate accusative. The important difference of poetry in how and what is inherited from the prose tradition of the KJB and how that inheritance may manifest itself is also stressed. What Whitman helps to illuminate, in light of Alter’s identification of an American prose style devolved from the KJB, is the possibilities for that style beyond the narrative mode. Next, the place of prose in Whitman’s poetry is taken up, arguing that Whitman may be viewed properly as participating in the prose tradition that Alter identifies, even if in the end Whitman’s poetic style diverges, strikingly in places, from that of the novelists in the tradition. The chapter closes by emphasizing Whitman’s political investment in his style. For Alter the term “American” in the subtitle of his book serves chiefly as a descriptor of nationality and to delineate a style of written prose characteristic of novelists with this nationality. For Whitman, by contrast, “American” as a descriptor is always thoroughly politicized. As the poet culls stylistic elements from the prose of the KJB and reinscribes them in his “great psalm of the republic” (LG, iv), he saturates them with political “stuff” such that upon reading (and rereading) they are themselves political acts of consequence and incitements toward still other such acts. The poet’s biblical borrowings are part and parcel of the political alchemy that charges his “barbaric yawp.”


F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp

James Lenox Librarian and Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary

F. W. “Chip” Dobbs-Allsopp is the James Lenox Librarian and professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He holds a B.A. from Furman University (1984), an M.Div. from the Seminary (1987), and a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University (1992). He joined the faculty of the Seminary in 1999 after spending five years teaching at Yale University (1994-99). He loves sailing and poetry and has been known to enjoy a glass of wine or a wee dram of whiskey. His research interests include the historical, philological, and literary study of biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature (with special focus on poetry and Northwest Semitic inscriptions). Dobbs-Allsopp’s most recent book is On Biblical Poetry (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). Current projects include a monograph-length study of the poetry of Walt Whitman, provisionally entitled, Divine Style: Walt Whitman and the King James Bible., a critical commentary on the book of Lamentations in the Hermeneia series (co-authored with J. Blake Couey), and The Digital Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri: An Image-Based Electronic Edition & Archive.