Essay on John Bunyan by John Kelman


We have seen the eternal battle in its earlier phases surging to and fro between gods of the earth that are as old as Time, and daring thoughts of men that rose beyond them and claimed a higher inheritance. Between that phase of the warfare and the same battle as it is fought to-day, we shall look at two contemporary men in the latter part of the seventeenth century who may justly be taken as examples of the opposing types. John Bunyan and Samuel Pepys, however, will lead us no dance among the elemental forces of the world. They will rather show us, with very fascinating naïveté, true pictures of their own aspirations, nourished in the one case upon the busy and crowded life of the time, and in the other, upon the definite and unquestioned conceptions of a complete and systematic theology. Yet, typical though they are, it is easy to exaggerate their  simplicity, and it will be interesting to see how John Bunyan, supposed to be a pure idealist, aloof from the world in which he lived, yet had the most intimate and even literary connection with that world. Pepys had certain curious and characteristic outlets upon the spiritual region, but he seems to have closed them all, and become increasingly a simple devotee of things seen and temporal.

Bunyan comes upon us full grown and mature in the work by which he is best known and remembered. His originality is one of the standing wonders of history. The Pilgrim's Progress was written at a time when every man had to take sides in a savage and atrocious ecclesiastical controversy. The absolute judgments passed on either side by the other, the cruelties practised and the dangers run, were such as to lead the reader to expect extreme bitterness and sectarian violence in every religious writing of the time. Bunyan was known to his contemporaries as a religious writer, pure and simple, and a man whose convictions had caused him much suffering at the hands of his enemies. Most of the first readers of the Pilgrim's Progress had no thought of any connection between that book and worldly literature; and the pious people who shook their heads over his allegory as being rather too interesting  for a treatise on such high themes as those which it handled, might perhaps have shaken their heads still more solemnly had they known how much of what they called the world was actually behind it. Bunyan was a voluminous writer of theological works, and the complete edition of them fills three enormous volumes, closely printed in double column. But it is the little allegory embedded in one of these volumes which has made his fame eternal, and for the most part the rest are remembered now only in so far as they throw light upon that story. One exception must be made in favour of Grace Abounding. This is Bunyan's autobiography, in which he describes, without allegory, the course of his spiritual experience. For an understanding of the Pilgrim's Progress it is absolutely necessary to know that companion volume.

It is very curious to watch the course of criticism as it was directed to him and to his story. The eighteenth century had lost the keenness of former controversies, and from its classic balcony it looked down upon what seemed to it the somewhat sordid arena of the past. The Examiner complains that he never yet knew an author that had not his admirers. Bunyan and Quarles have passed through several editions and pleased as many readers as Dryden and Tillotson. Even Cowper, timidly appreciative and patronising, wrote of the "ingenious dreamer"—

"I name thee not, lest so despised a name

Should move a sneer at thy deserved fame,"
 

—lines which have a pathetic irony in them, as we contrast the anxious Cowper, with the occasional revivals of interest and the age-long tone of patronage which have been meted out to him, with the robust and sturdy immortality of the man he shrank from naming. Swift discovered Bunyan's literary power, and later Johnson and Southey did him justice. In the nineteenth century his place was secured for ever, and Macaulay's essay on him will probably retain its interest longer than anything else that Macaulay wrote.

We are apt to think of him as a mere dreamer, spinning his cobwebs of imagination wholly out of his own substance—a pure idealist, whose writing dwells among his ideals in a region ignorant of the earth. In one of his own apologies he tells us, apparently in answer to accusations that had been made against him, that he did not take his work from anybody, but that it came from himself alone. Doubtless that is true so far as the real originality of his work is concerned, its general conception, and the working out of its details point by point. Yet, to imagine that if there had been no other English literature the Pilgrim's Progress would have been exactly what it is, is simply to ignore the facts of the case. John Bunyan is far more interesting just because his work is part of English literature, because it did feel the influences of his own time and of the past, than it could ever have been as the mere monstrosity of detachment which it has been supposed to be. The idealist who merely dreams and takes no part in the battle, refusing to know or utilise the writing of any other man, can be no fair judge of the life which he criticises, and no reliable guide among its facts.

Bunyan might very easily indeed have been a pagan of the most worldly type. It was extremely difficult for him to be a Puritan, not only on account of outward troubles, but also of inward ones belonging to his own disposition and experience. Accepting Puritanism, the easiest course for him would have been that of fanaticism, and had he taken that course he would certainly have had no lack of companions. It was far more difficult to remain a Puritan and yet to keep his heart open to the beauty and fascination of human life. Yet he was interested in what men were writing or had written. All manner of songs and stories, heard in early days in pot-houses, or in later times in prison, kept sounding in his ears, and he wove them into his work. The thing that he meant to say, and did say, was indeed one about which controversy and persecution were raging, but, except in a very few general references, his writing shows no sign of this. His eye is upon far-off things, the things of the soul of man and the life of God, but the way in which he tells these things shows innumerable signs of the bright world of English books.

It is worth while to consider this large and human Bunyan, who has been very erroneously supposed to be a mere literary freak, detached from all such influences as go to the making of other writers. He tells us, indeed, that "when I pulled it came," and that is delightfully true. Yet, it came not out of nowhere, and it is our part in this essay to inquire as to the places from which it did come. As we have said, it came out of two worlds, and the web is most wonderfully woven and coloured, but our present concern is rather with the earthly part of it than the heavenly.

No one can read John Bunyan without thinking of George Herbert. Few of the short biographies in our language are more interesting reading than Isaac Walton's life of Herbert. That master of simplicity is always fascinating, and in this biography he gives us one of the most beautiful sketches of contemporary narrative that has ever been penned. Herbert was the quaintest of the saints. He lived in the days of Charles the First and James the First, a High Churchman who had Laud for his friend. Shy, sensitive, high-bred, shrinking from the world, he was at the same time a man of business, skilful in the management of affairs, and yet a man of morbid delicacy of imagination. The picture of his life at Little Gidding, where he and Mr. Farrer instituted a kind of hermitage, or private chapel of devotion, in which the whole of the Psalms were read through once in every twenty-four hours, grows peculiarly pathetic when we remember that the house and chapel were sacked by the parliamentary army, in which for a time John Bunyan served. No two points of view, it would seem, could be more widely contrasted than those of Bunyan and Herbert, and yet the points of agreement are far more important than the differences between them, and The Temple has so much in common with the Pilgrim's Progress that one is astonished to find that the likenesses seem to be entirely unconscious. Matthew Henry is perpetually quoting The Temple in his Commentary. Writing only a few years earlier, Bunyan reproduces in his own fashion many of its thoughts, but does not mention its existence.

In order to know Bunyan's early life, and indeed to understand the Pilgrim's Progress at all adequately, one must read Grace Abounding.  It is a short book, written in the years when he was already growing old, for those whom he had brought into the fold of religion. From this autobiography it has usually been supposed that he had led a life of the wildest debauchery before his Christian days; but the more one examines the book, and indeed all his books, the less is one inclined to believe in any such desperate estimate of the sins of his youth. The measure of sin is the sensitiveness of a man's conscience; and where, as in Bunyan's case, the conscience is abnormally delicate and subject to violent reactions, a life which in another man would be a pattern of innocence and respectability may be regarded as an altogether blackguardly and vicious one. It was, however evidently a life of strong and intense worldly interest stepping over the line here and there into positive wrong-doing, but for the most part blameworthy mainly on account of its absorption in the passing shows of the hour.

What then was that world which interested Bunyan so intensely, and cost him so many pangs of conscience? No doubt it was just the life of the road as he travelled about his business; for though by no means a tinker in the modern sense of the word, he was an itinerant brazier, whose business took him constantly to and fro among the many villages of the district of Bedford. He must have heard in inns and from wayside companions many a catch of plays and songs, and listened to many a lively story, or read it in the chap-books which were hawked about the country then. It must also be remembered that these were the days of puppet shows. The English drama, as we have already mentioned in connection with Faust, was by no means confined to the boards of actual theatres where living actors played the parts. Little mimic stages travelled about the country in all directions reproducing the plays, very much after the fashion of Punch and Judy; and even the solemnest of Shakespeare's tragedies were exhibited in this way. There is no possibility of doubt that Bunyan must have often stood agape at these exhibitions, and thus have received much of the highest literature at second hand.

As to how much of it he had actually read, that is a different question. One is tempted to believe that he must have read George Herbert, but of this there is no positive proof. We are quite certain about five books, for which we have his own express statements. His wife brought him as her dowry the very modest furniture of two small volumes, Baily's Practice of Piety and Dent's The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven. The first is a very complicated and elaborate statement of Christian dogma, which Bunyan passes by with the scant praise, "Wherein I also found some things that were somewhat pleasing to me." The other is a much more vital production. Even to this day it is an immensely interesting piece of reading. It consists of conversations between various men who stand for types of worldling, ignoramus, theologian, etc., and there are very clear traces of it in the Pilgrim's Progress, especially in the talks between Bunyan's pilgrims and the man Ignorance.

Another book which played a large part in Bunyan's life was the short biography of Francis Spira, an Italian, who had died shortly before Bunyan's time. Spira had been a Protestant lawyer in Italy, but had found it expedient to abate the open profession of Protestantism with which he began, and eventually to transfer his allegiance to the Roman Church. The biography is for the most part an account of his death-bed conversation, which lasted a long time, since his illness was even more of the mind than of the body. It is an extremely ghastly account of a morbid and insane melancholia. It was the fashion of the time to take such matters spiritually rather than physically, and we read that many persons went to his death-bed and listened to his miserable cries and groanings in the hope of gaining edification for their souls. How the book came into Bunyan's hands no one can tell, but evidently he had found it in English translation, and many of the darkest parts of Grace Abounding are directly due to it, while the Man in the Iron Cage quotes the very words of Spira.

Another book which Bunyan had read was Luther's Commentary on the Galatians. The present writer possesses a copy of that volume dated 1786, at the close of which there are fourteen pages, on which long lists of names are printed. The names are those of weavers, shoe-makers, and all sorts of tradesmen in the western Scottish towns of Kilmarnock, Paisley, and others of that neighbourhood, who had subscribed for a translation of the commentary that they might read it in their own tongue. This curious fact reminds us that the book had among the pious people of our country an audience almost as enthusiastic as Bunyan himself was. Another of his books, and the only one quoted by name in the Pilgrim's Progress or Grace Abounding, with the exception of Luther on Galatians, is Foxe's Book of Martyrs, traces of which are unmistakable in such incidents as the trial and death of Faithful and in other parts.

In these few volumes may be summed up the entire literary knowledge which Bunyan is known to have possessed. He stands apart from mere book-learning, and deals with life rather through his eyes and ears directly than through the medium of books. But then those eyes and ears of his were no ordinary organs; and his imagination, whose servants they were, was quick to enlist every vital and suggestive image and idea for its own uses. Thus the rich store of observation which he had already laid up through the medium of puppet plays, fragments of song and popular story, was all at his disposal when he came to need it. Further, even in his regenerate days, there was no dimming of the imaginative faculty nor of the observant. The whole neighbourhood in which he lived was an open book, in which he read the wonderful story of life in many tragic and comic tales of actual fact; and in the prison where he spent twelve years, he must often have heard from his fellow-prisoners such fragments as they knew and remembered, with which doubtless they would beguile the tedium of their confinement. That would be for the most part in the first and second imprisonments, extending from the years 1660 to 1672. The third imprisonment was a short affair of only some nine months, spent in the little prison upon the bridge of Bedford, where there would be room for very few companions. The modern bridge crosses the river at almost exactly the same spot; and if you look over the parapet you may see, when the river is low, traces of what seem to be the foundations of the old prison bridge.

When we would try to estimate the processes by which the great allegory was built up, the first fact that strikes us is its extreme aloofness from current events which must have been very familiar to him. In others of his works he tells many stories of actual life, but these are of a private and more or less gossiping nature, many of them fantastic and grotesque, such as those appalling tales of swearers, drunkards, and other specially notorious sinners being snatched away by the devil—narratives which bear the marks of crude popular imagination in details like the actual smell of sulphur left behind. In the whole Pilgrim's Progress there is no reference whatever to the Civil War, in which we know that Bunyan had fought, although there are certain parts of it which were probably suggested by events of that campaign. The allegory is equally silent concerning the Great Fire and the Great Plague of London, which were both fresh in the memory of every living man. The only phrase which might have been suggested by the Fire, is that in which the Pilgrim says, "I hear that our little city is to be destroyed by fire"—a phrase which obviously has much more direct connection with the destruction of Sodom than with that of London. The only suggestions of those disastrous latter years of the reign of Charles the Second, are some doubtful allusions to the rise and fall of persecution, few of which can be clearly identified with any particular events.

There are several interesting indications that Bunyan made use of recent and contemporary secular literature. The demonology of the Pilgrim's Progress is quite different from that of the Holy War. It used to be suggested that Bunyan had altered his views in consequence of the publication of Milton's Paradise Regained, which appeared in 1671. That was when it was generally supposed that he had written the Pilgrim's Progress in his earlier imprisonment. If, as is now conceded, it was in the later imprisonment that he wrote the book, this theory loses much of its plausibility, for Milton published his Paradise Regained before the first edition of the Pilgrim's Progress was penned. It is, of course, always possible that between the Pilgrim's Progress and the Holy War Bunyan may have seen Milton's work, or may have been told about it, for he certainly changed his demonology and made it more like Milton's. Again, there are certain passages in Spenser's Faerie Queene which bear so close a resemblance to Bunyan's description of the Celestial City, that it is difficult not to suppose that either directly or indirectly that poem had influenced Bunyan's creation; while in at least one of his songs he approaches so near both the language and the rhythm of a song of Shakespeare's as to make it very probable that he had heard it sung.

These suppositions are not meant in any way to detract from the originality of the great allegory, but rather to link the writer in with that English literature of which he is so conspicuous an ornament. They are no more significant and no less, than the fact that so much of the geography of the Pilgrim's Progress seems not to have been created by his imagination, but to have been built up from well-remembered landscapes. From his prison window he could not but see the ruins of old Bedford Castle, which stood demolished upon its hill even in his time. This, together with Cainhoe Castle, only a few miles away, may well have suggested the Castle of Despair in Bypath Meadow near the River of God. Again, memories of Elstow play a notable part in the story. A cross stood there, at the foot of which, when he was playing the game of cat upon a certain Sunday, the voice came to his soul with its tremendous question, "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven or have thy sins and go to hell?" There stood the Moot Hall as it stands to-day, in which, during his worldly days, he had danced with the rest of the villagers and gained his personal knowledge of Vanity Fair. There, as he tells us expressly, is the wicket gate, the rough old oak and iron gate of Elstow parish church. Close beside it, just as you read in the story, stands that great tower which suggested a devil's castle beside the wicket gate, whence Satan showered his arrows on those who knocked below. Not only so, but there was a special reason why for Bunyan that ancient church tower may well have been symbolic of the stronghold of the devil; for it had bells in it, and he was so fond of bell-ringing that it got upon his conscience and became his darling sin. It is easy to make light of his heart-searchings about so innocent an employment, but doubtless there were other things that went along with it. We have all seen those large drinking-vessels, known as bell-ringers' jugs; and these perhaps may suggest an explanation of the sense of sin which burdened his conscience so heavily. Anyhow, there the tower stands, and in the Gothic doorway of it there are one or two deeply cut grooves, obviously made by the ropes of the bell-ringers when, instead of standing below their ropes, they preferred the open air, and drew the ropes through the archway of the door, so as to cut into its moulding. The little fact gains much significance in the light of Bunyan's own confession that he was so afraid that the bell would fall upon him and kill him as a punishment from God, that he used to go outside the door to ring it. Then again there was the old convent at Elstow, where, long before Bunyan's time, nuns had lived, who were known to tradition as "the ladies of Elstow." Very aristocratic and very human ladies they seem to have been, given to the entertainment of their friends in the intervals of their tasteful devotion, and occasionally needing a rebuke from headquarters. Yet it seems not improbable that there is some glorified memory of those ladies in the inhabitants of the House Beautiful, which house itself appears to have been modelled upon Houghton House on the Ampthill heights, built by Sir Philip Sidney's sister but a century before. The silver mine of Demas might seem to have come from some far-off source in chap-book or romance, until we remember that at the village of Pulloxhill, which had been the original home of the Bunyan family, and near which Bunyan was arrested and brought for examination to the house of Justice Wingate, there are the actual remains of an ancient gold mine whose tradition still lingers among the villagers.

All these things seem to indicate that the great allegory is by no means so remote from the earth as has sometimes been imagined; and perhaps the most touching commentary upon this statement is the curious and very unlovely burying-ground in Bunhill fields, cut through by a straight path that leads from one busy thoroughfare to another. A few yards to the left of that path is the tomb and monument of John Bunyan, while at an equal distance to the right lies Daniel Defoe. The Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe are perhaps the two best-known stories in the world, and they are not so far remote from one another as they seem.

Nor was it only in the outward material with which he worked that John Bunyan had much in common with the romance and poetry of England. He could indeed write verses which, for sheer doggerel, it would be difficult to match, but in spite of that there was the authentic note of poetry in him. Some of his work is not only vigorous, inspiring, and full of the brisk sense of action, but has an unconscious strength and worthiness of style, whose compression and terseness have fulfilled at least one of the canons of high literature. Take, for example, the lines on Faithful's death —

"Now Faithful, play the man, speak for thy God:

Fear not the wicked's malice, nor their rod:

Speak boldly, man, the truth is on thy side;


Die for it, and to life in triumph ride."

 

Or take this as a second example, from his Prison Meditations

"Here come the angels, here come saints,

Here comes the Spirit of God,


To comfort us in our restraints

Under the wicked's rod.

 

This gaol to us is as a hill,

From whence we plainly see


Beyond this world, and take our fill

Of things that lasting be.

 

We change our drossy dust for gold,

From death to life we fly:

We let go shadows, and take hold


Of immortality."

 

This whole poem has in it not merely the bright march of a very vigorous mind, but also a great many of the elements which long before had built up the ancient romances. In it, and in much else that he wrote, he finds a congenial escape from the mere middle-class respectability of his time, and ranges himself with the splendid chivalry both of the past and of the present. There is an elfin element in him as there was in Chaucer, which now and again twinkles forth in a quaint touch of humour, or escapes from the merely spiritual into an extremely interesting human region.

In Grace Abounding he very pleasantly tells us that he could have written in a much higher style if he had chosen to do so, but that for our sakes he has refrained. He does, however, sometimes "step into" his finer style. There is some exquisite pre-Raphaelite work that comes unexpectedly upon the reader, in which he is not only a poet, but a writer capable of seeing and of describing the most highly coloured and minute detail: "Besides, on the banks of this river on either side were green trees, that bore all manner of fruit...." "On either side of the river was also a meadow, curiously beautified with lilies; and it was green the year long." At other times he affrights us with a sudden outburst of the most terrifying imagination, as in the close of the poem of The Fly at the Candle

"At last the Gospel doth become their snare,

Doth them with burning hands in pieces tear."

 

His imagination was sometimes as quaint and sweet as at other times it could be lurid and powerful. Upon a Snail is not a very promising subject for a poem, but its first lines justify the experiment—

"She goes but softly, but she goeth sure;
She stumbles not, as stronger creatures do."

 

He can adopt the methods of the stately poets of nature, and break into splendid descriptions of natural phenomena —

"Look, look, brave Sol doth peep up from beneath,

Shews us his golden face, doth on us breathe;


Yea, he doth compass us around with glories,


Whilst he ascends up to his highest stories,


Where he his banner over us displays,


And gives us light to see our works and ways."

 

Again in the art of childlike interest and simplicity he can write such lines as these—

OF THE CHILD WITH THE BIRD ON THE BUSH
 

"My little bird, how canst thou sit

And sing amidst so many thorns?


Let me but hold upon thee get,

My love with honour thee adorns.

 

'Tis true it is sunshine today,

Tomorrow birds will have a storm;


My pretty one, come thou away,


My bosom then shall keep thee warm.

 

My father's palace shall be thine,

Yea, in it thou shalt sit and sing;


My little bird, if thou'lt be mine,


The whole year round shall be thy spring.
 

I'll keep thee safe from cat and cur,

No manner o' harm shall come to thee:


Yea, I will be thy succourer,


My bosom shall thy cabin be."

 

The last line might have been written by Ben Jonson, and the description of sunrise in the former poem might almost have been from Chaucer's pen.

Yet the finest poetry of all is the prose allegory of the Pilgrim's Progress. English prose had taken many centuries to form, in the moulding hands of Chaucer, Malory, and Bacon. It had come at last to Bunyan with all its flexibility and force ready to his hand. He wrote with virgin purity, utterly free from mannerisms and affectations; and, without knowing himself for a writer of fine English, produced it.

The material of the allegory also is supplied from ancient sources. One curious paragraph in Bunyan's treatise entitled Sighs from Hell, gives us a broad hint of this. "The Scriptures, thought I then, what are they? A dead letter, a little ink and paper, of three or four shillings price. Alack! what is Scripture? Give me a ballad, a news-book, George on Horseback or Bevis of Southampton. Give me some book that teaches curious Arts, that tells old Fables." In The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven there is a longer list of such romances as these, including Ellen of Rummin, and many others. As has been already stated, these tales of ancient folklore would come into his hands either by recitation or in the form of chap-books. The chap-book literature of Old England was most voluminous and interesting. It consisted of romances and songs, sold at country fairs and elsewhere, and the passing reference which we have quoted proves conclusively, what we might have known without any proof, that Bunyan knew them.

George on Horseback has been identified by Professor Firth with the Seven Champions of England, an extremely artificial romance, which may be taken as typical of hundreds more of its kind. The 1610 edition of it is a very lively book with a good deal of playing to the gallery, such as this: "As for the name of Queen, I account it a vain title; for I had rather be an English lady than the greatest empress in the world." There is not very much in this romance which Bunyan has appropriated, although there are several interesting correspondences. It is very courtly and conventional. The narrative is broken here and there by lyrics, quite in Bunyan's manner, but it is difficult to imagine Bunyan, with his direct and simple taste, spending much time in reading such sentences as the following: "By the time the purple-spotted morning had parted with her grey, and the sun's bright countenance appeared on the mountain-tops, St. George had rode twenty miles from the Persian Court." On the other hand, when Great-Heart allows Giant Despair to rise after his fall, showing his chivalry in refusing to take advantage of the fallen giant, we remember the incident of Sir Guy and Colebrand in the Seven Champions.

"Good sir, an' it be thy will,

Give me leave to drink my fill,


For sweet St. Charity,


And I will do thee the same deed


Another time if thou have need,


I tell thee certainly."
 

St. George, like Christian in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, traverses an Enchanted Vale, and hears "dismal croakings of night ravens, hissing of serpents, bellowing of bulls, and roaring of monsters." St. Andrew traverses a land of continual darkness, the Vale of Walking Spirits, amid similar sounds of terror, much as the pilgrims of the Second Part of Bunyan's story traverse the Enchanted Ground. And as these pilgrims found deadly arbours in that land, tempting them to repose which must end in death, so St. David was tempted in an Enchanted Garden, and fell flat upon the ground, "when his eyes were so fast locked up by magic art, and his waking senses drowned in such a dead slumber, that it was as impossible to recover himself from sleep as to pull the sun out of the firmament."

Bevis of Southampton has many points in common with St. George in the Seven Champions. The description of the giant, the escape of Bevis from his dungeon, and a number of other passages show how much was common stock for the writers of these earlier romances. There is the same rough humour in it from first to last, and the wonderful swing and stride of vigorous rhyming metre. Of the humour, one quotation will be
enough for an example. It is when they are proposing to baptize the monstrous giant at Cologne, whom Bevis had first conquered and then engaged as his body-servant. At the christening of Josian, wife of Bevis, the Bishop sees the giant.

"'What is,' sayde he, 'this bad vysage?'

'Sir,' sayde Bevys, 'he is my page—


I pray you crysten hym also,


Thoughe he be bothe black and blo!'

The Bysshop crystened Josian,

That was as white as any swan;


For Ascaparde was made a tonne,


And whan he shulde therein be done,


He lept out upon the brenche


And sayde: 'Churle, wylt thou me drenche?


The devyl of hel mot fetche thee
I am to moche crystened to be!'

The folke had gode game and laughe,

But the Bysshop was wrothe ynoughe."

 

There is a curious passage which is almost exactly parallel to the account of the fight with Apollyon in the Pilgrim's Progress, and which was doubtless in Bunyan's mind when he wrote that admirable battle sketch—

"Beves is swerde anon upswapte,

He and the geaunt togedre rapte;


And delde strokes mani and fale,


The nombre can i nought telle in tale.

The geaunt up is clubbe haf,

And smot to Beves with is staf,


But his scheld flegh from him thore,


Three acres brede and somedel more,

Tho was Beves in strong erur

And karf ato the grete levour,

And on the geauntes brest a-wonde


That negh a-felde him to the grounde.

The geaunt thoughte this bataile hard,

Anon he drough to him a dart,


Throgh Beves scholder he hit schet,


The blold ran doun to Beves' fet,

The Beves segh is owene blod

Out of his wit he wex negh wod,


Unto the geaunt ful swithe he ran,


And kedde that he was doughti man,


And smot ato his nekke bon;


The geant fel to grounde anon."

 

It is part of his general sympathy with the spirit of the romances that Bunyan's giants were always real giants to him, and he evidently enjoyed them for their own sake as literary and imaginative creations, as well as for the sake of any truths which they might be made to enforce. Despair and Slay-Good are distinct to his imagination. His interest remains always twofold. On the one hand there is allegory, and on the other hand there is live tale. Sometimes the allegory breaks through and confuses the tale a little, as when Mercy begs for the great mirror that hangs in the dining-room of the shepherds, and carries it with her through the remainder of her journey. Sometimes the allegory has to stop in order that a sermon may be preached on some particular point of theology, and such sermons are by no means short. Still the story is so true to life that its irresistible sim plicity and naturalness carry it on and make it immortal. When we read such a conversation as that between old Honest and Mr. Standfast about Madam Bubble, we feel that the tale has ceased to be an allegory altogether and has become a novel. This is perhaps more noticeable in the Second Part than in the First. The First Part is indeed almost a perfect allegory; although even there, from time to time, the earnestness and rush of the writer's spirit oversteps the bounds of consistency and happily forgets the moral because the story is so interesting, or forgets for a moment the story because the moral is so important. In the Second Part the two characters fall apart more definitely. Now you have delightful pieces of crude human nature, naïve and sparkling. Then you have long and intricate theological treatises. Neither the allegorical nor the narrative unity is preserved to anything like the same extent as on the whole is the case in Part I. The shrewd and humorous touches of human nature are especially interesting. Bunyan was by no means the gentle saint who shrank from strong language. When the gate of Doubting Castle is opening, and at last the pilgrims have all but gone free, we read that "the lock went damnable hard." When Great-Heart is delighted with Mr. Honest, he calls him "a cock of the right kind." The poem On Christian Behaviour, which we have quoted, contains the lines—

"When all men's cards are fully played,

Whose will abide the light?"
 

These are quaint instances of the way in which even the questionable parts of the unregenerate life of the dreamer came in the end to serve the uses of his religion.

There are many gems in the Second Part of the Pilgrim's Progress which are full of mother-wit and sly fun. Mr. Honest confesses, "I came from the town of Stupidity; it lieth about four degrees beyond the City of Destruction." Then there is Mr. Fearing, that morbidly self-conscious creature, who is so much at home in the Valley of Humiliation that he kneels down and kisses the flowers in its grass. He is a man who can never get rid of himself for a moment, and who bores all the company with his illimitable and anxious introspection. Yet, in Vanity Fair, when practical facts have to be faced instead of morbid fancies and inflamed conscience, he is the most valiant of men, whom they can hardly keep from getting himself killed, and for that matter all the rest of them. Here, again, is an inimitable flash of insight, where Simple, Sloth, and Presumption have prevailed with "one Short-Wind, one Sleepy-Head, and with a young  woman, her name was Dull, to turn out of the way and become as they."

Every now and then these natural touches of portraiture rise to a true sublimity, as all writing that is absolutely true to the facts of human nature tends to do. Great-Heart says to Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, "Let me see thy sword," and when he has taken it in his hand and looked at it for awhile, he adds, "Ha! it is a right Jerusalem blade." That sword lingers in Bunyan's imagination, for, at the close of Valiant's life, part of his dying speech is this "My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles."

Bunyan is so evidently an idealist and a prince of spiritual men, that no one needs to point out this characteristic of the great dreamer, nor to advertise so obvious a thing as his spiritual idealism. We have accordingly taken that for granted and left it to the reader to recognise in every page for himself. We have sought in this to show what has sometimes been overlooked, how very human the man and his work are. Yet his humanism is ever at the service of the spirit, enlivening his book and inspiring it with a perpetual and delicious interest, but never for a moment entangling him again in the old yoke of bondage, from which at his conversion he had been set free. For the human as opposed to the divine, the fleshly as the rival of the spiritual, he has an open and profound contempt, which he expresses in no measured terms in such passages as that concerning Adam the First and Madam Wanton. These are for him sheer pagans. At the cave, indeed, which his pilgrim visits at the farther end of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we read that Pope and Pagan dwelt there in old time, but that Pagan has been dead many a day. Yet the pagan spirit lives on in many forms, and finds an abiding place and home in Vanity Fair. As Professor Firth has pointed out, Ben Jonson, in his play Bartholomew Fair, had already told the adventures of two Puritans who strayed into the Fair, and who regarded the whole affair as the shop of Satan. There were many other Fairs, such as that of Sturbridge, and the Elstow Fair itself, which was instituted by the nuns on the ground close to their convent, and which is held yearly to the present day. Such Fairs as these have been a source of much temptation and danger to the neighbourhood, and represent in its popular form the whole spirit of paganism at its worst.

All the various elements of Bunyan's world live on in the England of to-day. Thackeray, with a stroke of characteristic genius, has expanded and  applied the earlier conception of paganism in his great novel whose title Vanity Fair is borrowed from Bunyan. But the main impression of the allegory is the victory of the spiritual at its weakest over the temporal at its mightiest. His descriptions of the supper and bed chamber in the House Beautiful, and of the death of Christiana at the end of the Second Part, are immortal writings, in the most literal sense, amid the shows of time. They have indeed laid hold of immortality not for themselves only, but for the souls of men. Nothing could sum up the whole story of Bunyan better than the legend of his flute told by Mr. S.S. M'Currey in his book of poems entitled In Keswick Vale. The story is that in his prison Bunyan took out a bar from one of the chairs in his cell, scooped it hollow, and converted it into a flute, upon which he played sweet music in the dark and solitary hours of the prison evening. The jailers never could find out the source of that music, for when they came to search his cell, the bar was replaced in the chair, and there was no apparent possibility of flute-playing; but when the jailers departed the music would mysteriously recommence. It is very unlikely that this legend is founded upon fact, or indeed that Bunyan was a musician at all (although we do have from his pen one touching and beautiful reference to the  finest music in the world being founded upon the bass), but, like his own greater work, the little legend is an allegory. The world for centuries has heard sweet music from Bunyan, and has not known whence it came. It has seemed to most men a miracle, and indeed they were right in counting it so. Yet there was a flute from which that music issued, and the flute was part of the rough furniture of his imprisoned world. He was no scholar, nor delicate man of belles lettres, like so many of his contemporaries. He took what came to his hand; and in this lecture we have tried to show how much did come thus to his hand that was rare and serviceable for the purposes of his spirit, and for the expression of high spiritual truth.

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This is taken from Among Famous Books.

 

 



 

 

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