Dr. Johnson once took Bishop Percy's little daughter on his knee, and asked her what she thought of the "Pilgrim's Progress." The child answered that she had not read it. "No?" replied the Doctor; "then I would not give one farthing for you," and he set her down and took no further notice of her.
This story, if true, proves that the Doctor was rather intolerant. We must not excommunicate people because they have not our taste in books. The majority of people do not care for books at all.
There is a descendant of John Bunyan's alive now, or there was lately, who never read the "Pilgrim's Progress." Books are not in his line. Nay, Bunyan himself, who wrote sixty works, was no great reader. An Oxford scholar who visited him in his study found no books at all, except some of Bunyan's own and Foxe's "Book of Martyrs."
Yet, little as the world in general cares for reading, it has read Bunyan more than most. One hundred thousand copies of the "Pilgrim" are believed to have been sold in his own day, and the story has been done into the most savage languages, as well as into those of the civilised world.
Dr. Johnson, who did not like Dissenters, praises the "invention, imagination, and conduct of the story," and knew no other book he wished longer except "Robinson Crusoe" and "Don Quixote." Well, Dr. Johnson would not have given a farthing for ME, as I am quite contented with the present length of these masterpieces. What books do YOU wish longer? I wish Homer had written a continuation of the Odyssey, and told us what Odysseus did among the far-off men who never tasted salt nor heard of the sea. A land epic after the sea epic, how good it would have been--from Homer! But it would have taxed the imagination of Dante to continue the adventures of Christian and his wife after they had once crossed the river and reached the city.
John Bunyan has been more fortunate than most authors in one of his biographies.
His life has been written by the Rev. Dr. Brown, who is now minister of his old congregation at Bedford; and an excellent life it is. Dr. Brown is neither Roundhead nor Cavalier; for though he is, of course, on Bunyan's side, he does not throw stones at the beautiful Church of England.
Probably most of us are on Bunyan's side now. It might be a good thing that we should all dwell together in religious unity, but history shows that people cannot be bribed into brotherhood. They tried to bully Bunyan; they arrested and imprisoned him--unfairly even in law, according to Dr. Brown, not unfairly, Mr. Froude thinks--and he would not be bullied.
What was much more extraordinary, he would not be embittered. In spite of all, he still called Charles II. "a gracious Prince." When a subject is in conscience at variance with the law, Bunyan said, he has but one course--to accept peaceably the punishment which the law awards. He was never soured, never angered by twelve years of durance, not exactly in a loathsome dungeon, but in very uncomfortable quarters. When there came a brief interval of toleration, he did not occupy himself in brawling, but in preaching, and looking after the manners and morals of the little "church," including one woman who brought disagreeable charges against "Brother Honeylove." The church decided that there was nothing in the charges, but somehow the name of Brother Honeylove does not inspire confidence.
Almost everybody knows the main facts of Bunyan's life. They may not know that he was of Norman descent (as Dr. Brown seems to succeed in proving), nor that the Bunyans came over with the Conqueror, nor that he was a gipsy, as others hold. On Dr. Brown's showing, Bunyan's ancestors lost their lands in process of time and change, and Bunyan's father was a tinker. He preferred to call himself a brazier--his was the rather unexpected trade to which Mr. Dick proposed apprenticing David Copperfield.
Bunyan himself, "the wondrous babe," as Dr. Brown enthusiastically styles him, was christened on November 30th, 1628. He was born in a cottage, long fallen, and hard by was a marshy place, "a veritable slough of despond." Bunyan may have had it in mind when he wrote of the slough where Christian had so much trouble. He was not a travelled man: all his knowledge of people and places he found at his doors. He had some schooling, "according to the rate of other poor men's children," and assuredly it was enough.
The great civil war broke out, and Bunyan was a soldier; he tells us not on which side. Dr. Brown and Mr. Lewis Morris think he was on that of the Parliament, but his old father, the tinker, stood for the King. Mr. Froude is rather more inclined to hold that he was among the "gay gallants who struck for the crown." He does not seem to have been much under fire, but he got that knowledge of the appearance of war which he used in his siege of the City of Mansoul. One can hardly think that Bunyan liked war--certainly not from cowardice, but from goodness of heart.
In 1646 the army was disbanded, and Bunyan went back to Elstow village and his tinkering, his bell-ringing, his dancing with the girls, his playing at "cat" on a Sunday after service.
He married very young and poor. He married a pious wife, and read all her library--"The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven," and "The Practice of Piety." He became very devout in the spirit of the Church of England, and he gave up his amusements. Then he fell into the Slough of Despond, then he went through the Valley of the Shadow, and battled with Apollyon.
People have wondered WHY he fancied himself such a sinner? He confesses to having been a liar and a blasphemer. If I may guess, I fancy that this was merely the literary genius of Bunyan seeking for expression. His lies, I would go bail, were tremendous romances, wild fictions told for fun, never lies of cowardice or for gain. As to his blasphemies, he had an extraordinary power of language, and that was how he gave it play. "Fancy swearing" was his only literary safety-valve, in those early days, when he played cat on Elstow Green.
Then he heard a voice dart from heaven into his soul, which said, "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?" So he fell on repentance, and passed those awful years of mental torture, when all nature seemed to tempt him to the Unknown Sin.
What did all this mean? It meant that Bunyan was within an ace of madness.
It happens to a certain proportion of men, religiously brought up, to suffer like Bunyan. They hear voices, they are afraid of that awful unknown iniquity, and of eternal death, as Bunyan and Cowper were afraid.
Was it not De Quincey who was at school with a bully who believed he had been guilty of the unpardonable offence? Bullying is an offence much less pardonable than most men are guilty of. Their best plan (in Bunyan's misery) is to tell Apollyon that the Devil is an ass, to do their work and speak the truth.
Bunyan got quit of his terror at last, briefly by believing in the goodness of God. He did not say, like Mr. Carlyle, "Well, if all my fears are true, what then?" His was a Christian, not a stoical deliverance.
The "church" in which Bunyan found shelter had for minister a converted major in a Royalist regiment. It was a quaint little community, the members living like the early disciples, correcting each other's faults, and keeping a severe eye on each other's lives. Bunyan became a minister in it; but, Puritan as he was, he lets his Pilgrims dance on joyful occasions, and even Mr. Ready-to-Halt waltzes with a young lady of the Pilgrim company.
As a minister and teacher Bunyan began to write books of controversy with Quakers and clergymen. The points debated are no longer important to us; the main thing was that he got a pen into his hand, and found a proper outlet for his genius, a better way than fancy swearing.
If he had not been cast into Bedford jail for preaching in a cottage, he might never have dreamed his immortal dream, nor become all that he was. The leisures of gaol were long. In that "den" the Muse came to him, the fair kind Muse of the Home Beautiful. He saw all that company of his, so like and so unlike Chaucer's: Faithful, and Hopeful, and Christian, the fellowship of fiends, the truculent Cavaliers of Vanity Fair, and Giant Despair, with his grievous crabtree cudgel; and other people he saw who are with us always,-- the handsome Madam Bubble, and the young woman whose name was Dull, and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and Mr. Facing Bothways, and Byends, all the persons of the comedy of human life.
He hears the angelic songs of the City beyond the river; he hears them, but repeat them to us he cannot, "for I'm no poet," as he says himself. He beheld the country of Beulah, and the Delectable Mountains, that earthly Paradise of nature where we might be happy yet, and wander no farther, if the world would let us--fair mountains in whose streams Izaak Walton was then even casting angle.
It is pleasant to fancy how Walton and Bunyan might have met and talked, under a plane tree by the Ouse, while the May showers were falling. Surely Bunyan would not have likened the good old man to Formalist; and certainly Walton would have enjoyed travelling with Christian, though the book was by none of his dear bishops, but by a Non-conformist. They were made to like but not to convert each other; in matters ecclesiastical they saw the opposite sides of the shield. Each wrote a masterpiece. It is too late to praise "The Complete Angler" or the "Pilgrim's Progress." You may put ingenuity on the rack, but she can say nothing new that is true about the best romance that ever was wedded to allegory, nor about the best idyl of old English life.
The people are living now--all the people: the noisy bullying judges, as of the French Revolutionary Courts, or the Hanging Courts after Monmouth's war; the demure, grave Puritan girls; and Matthew, who had the gripes; and lazy, feckless Ignorance, who came to so ill an end, poor fellow; and sturdy Old Honest, and timid Mr. Fearing; not single persons, but dozens, arise on the memory.
They come, as fresh, as vivid, as if they were out of Scott or Moliere; the Tinker is as great a master of character and fiction as the greatest, almost; his style is pure, and plain, and sound, full of old idioms, and even of something like old slang. But even his slang is classical.
Bunyan is everybody's author. The very Catholics have their own edition of the Pilgrim: they have cut out Giant Pope, but have been too good-natured to insert Giant Protestant in his place. Unheralded, unannounced, though not uncriticised (they accused the Tinker of being a plagiarist, of course), Bunyan outshone the Court wits, the learned, the poets of the Restoration, and even the great theologians.
His other books, except "Grace Abounding" (an autobiography), "The Holy War," and "Mr. Badman," are only known to students, nor much read by them. The fashion of his theology, as of all theology, passed away; it is by virtue of his imagination, of his romance, that he lives.
The allegory, of course, is full of flaws. It would not have been manly of Christian to run off and save his own soul, leaving his wife and family. But Bunyan shrank from showing us how difficult, if not impossible, it is for a married man to be a saint. Christiana was really with him all through that pilgrimage; and how he must have been hampered by that woman of the world! But had the allegory clung more closely to the skirts of truth, it would have changed from a romance to a satire, from "The Pilgrim's Progress" to "Vanity Fair." There was too much love in Bunyan for a satirist of that kind; he had just enough for a humourist.
Born in another class, he might have been, he would have been, a writer more refined in his strength, more uniformly excellent, but never so universal nor so popular in the best sense of the term.
In the change of times and belief it is not impossible that Bunyan will live among the class whom he least thought of addressing-- scholars, lovers of worldly literature--for devotion and poverty are parting company, while art endures till civilisation perishes.
Are we better or worse for no longer believing as Bunyan believed, no longer seeing that Abyss of Pascal's open beside our armchairs? The question is only a form of that wide riddle, Does any theological or philosophical opinion make us better or worse? The vast majority of men and women are little affected by schemes and theories of this life and the next. They who even ask for a reply to the riddle are the few: most of us take the easy-going morality of our world for a guide, as we take Bradshaw for a railway journey. It is the few who must find out an answer: on that answer their lives depend, and the lives of others are insensibly raised towards their level. Bunyan would not have been a worse man if he had shared the faith of Izaak Walton. Izaak had his reply to all questions in the Church Catechism and the Articles. Bunyan found his in the theology of his sect, appealing more strongly than orthodoxy to a nature more bellicose than Izaak's. Men like him, with his indomitable courage, will never lack a solution of the puzzle of the earth. At worst they will live by law, whether they dare to speak of it as God's law, or dare not. They will always be our leaders, our Captain Greathearts, in the pilgrimage to the city where, led or unled, we must all at last arrive. They will not fail us, while loyalty and valour are human qualities. The day may conceivably come when we have no Christian to march before us, but we shall never lack the company of Greatheart.
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