Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by H. C. Beeching
John Bunyan (16281688)
[John Bunyan was born, the son of a tinker, at Elstow, near Bedford, in 1628. In his seventeenth year he enlisted, but whether on the side of King or Parliament is undetermined; the fact is noteworthy because of the use he made of his military experiences in the Holy War. He married early a wife who brought him for dowry The Plain Mans Pathway to Heaven, and The Practice of Piety, books which first attracted him to godliness and literature. His earliest writings were against the Quakers (1656). He was arrested in 1660 for preaching, and imprisoned for twelve years, during which time he wrote various tracts, and notably Grace Abounding, the history of his conversion. He was a licensed preacher from 167275, but when the Declaration of Indulgence was cancelled, was again arrested. In the six months of imprisonment that followed he wrote the first part of the Pilgrims Progress (1677), several of the best passages being added in the second edition of the next year. Other works followed, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), The Holy War (1682), the second part of the Pilgrims Progress (1684). For the next sixteen years he was pastor of a church in Bedford, writing in all some sixty volumes; none of which retain vitality but those mentioned. He died 31st August 1688.]
HE had a sharp quick eye, accomplished with an excellent discerning of persons, being of good judgment and quick wit. So writes Bunyans first biographer. I never went to school to Aristotle or Plato, but was brought up in my fathers house in a very mean condition among a company of poor countrymen. So writes Bunyan in his religious autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. And these two sentences give us more than half the explanation of the charm of Bunyans writing; for that charm lies, first of all, in the excellent discerning of persons, the quick comprehension of the various mixtures of simple and radical virtues and vices, of which his poor countrymen were composed, and then in the vivid homely phrases in which the sketches were made. It is more especially the first of these great qualities, the discernment of spirits, which gives permanence to the permanent residue of Bunyans vast literary production; for while in all his writing there is abundant evidence of brain-power, and his skill in marshalling texts to defend his dogmatic positions is admirable, yet this general cleverness would not have raised him above the rank of the popular preacher whose performances in the next generation cumber the book-stalls, had it not been for that drop of precious elixir which nature infused into his eyes at birth, as into those of such different people as Geoffrey Chaucer and Jane Austen. It is this which divides Bunyan from one in other respects so like him as George Fox. Both were children of the people, both were intensely religious, both were given to hearing voices in their ears speaking the words of God or of Satan, both for their faith were in prisons oft; but the discriminating eye, and the sense of humour which accompanies it, were lacking to Fox, as his Journal makes abundantly conspicuous.
One outcome of this gift of vivid realisation was of course the corresponding vigour of the characters in the allegories; it is a commonplace to acknowledge that Mr. By-ends, Mr. Talkative, and the rest are as familiar to us as people we have met in real life. They were no doubt drawn from the quick, and the descriptive touches are put in with a sure pencil so that they live to us. Examples will be found on nearly every page, but the epithet gentlemanlike by which he describes the attitude of Demas, is one of the simplest and most effective. And how happy he is in the names of persons and places, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Sir Having Greedy, Mrs. Bats-eyes, Mr. Facing-both-ways, A young woman her name was Dull, Vanity Fair, The Slough of Despond, Flesh Lane (where Forget-good dwelt) right opposite to the Church. His vocabulary as a rule is homely enough, but it is copious, and it is always justly and accurately employed. In the preface to Grace Abounding Bunyan says, I could have stepped into a style much higher than this in which I have here discoursed, and could have adorned all things more than here I have seemed to do, but I dare not. I may not play in the relating of them, but be plain and simple, and lay down the thing as it was. The accurate delineation which in that book he gives of the thing as it was, in that case the growth of his religious feelings and ideas, depends upon his vivid perception, and this again enables him to clothe his experiences in adequate and nervous language; and so too when the thing he has to represent is some neighbour whom he knows, or some coinage of his fancy, the fit words are equally at command. Had the poor tinkers son been sent to grammar-school or university, this natural freedom of style, though probably from his preachers habit it could never have been pestered in such a pinfold as Milton affected, yet it could not but have grown more abstract, and perhaps have made him a more lively Howe; as it was, the words and phrases and images remained racy of the soil. Here are some sentences from the Holy War: Nor did the silly Mansoul stick or boggle at all at this most monstrous engagement, but as if it had been a sprat in the mouth of a whale, they swallowed it without any chewing. He had for his malapertness one of his legs broken, and he that did it wished it had been his neck. At this they were all of them struck into their dumps. When Mr. Cerberus and Mr. Profane did meet they were presently as great as beggars; and there are a hundred other quaint expressions for which it would be hard to find a parallel in religious literature, such as quat and close, in the very nick and first trip, ticking and toying, put to my plunge. The same freshness may be noted in such phrases as a tongue bravely hung, to clap up in prison, gird them up from the ground, and let them not lag with dust and dirt, he saw something like a lion, and it came a great padding pace after, I saw the clouds rack at an unusual rate. Free scope is given for such lively turns of phrase by the large use of dialogue.1
Bunyans literary education was based upon two books, Foxes Acts and Monuments, and the Genevan version of the Bible. The former supplied him with the model of a homely and yet forcible mode of writing, and to this example we probably owe it that Bunyan was contented to write in the vernacular. He borrowed from it further the practice of using the margin for notes and comments, very desirable appendages to an allegory. Occasionally some of his are pungent summaries of the text, and some are exclamations; e.g.: Hopeful swaggers, Christian snibbeth his fellows, O brave Talkative! O good riddance! O sweet prince! Thats false, Satan! again, Mark this! Take heed, Mansoul! Look to it, Mansoul! the last of these repeated very effectively at each period in the Infernal Conclave. The Bible Bunyan must have known by heart; its phraseology and imagery he made so thoroughly his own, that many passages of description are simply a cento of quotations; elsewhere he intermingles them with those of his own day without any sense of incongruity. At times to us the incongruity is sufficiently manifest, as when Mercy falls down before the Keeper of the Gate, and says Let my Lord accept of the sacrifice which I now offer Him with the calves of my lips; at times also his extreme familiarity with the text seems to have led him to quote more than he meant, as in the close of the Preface to the Holy War.
But such singularities are but trifles in comparison with the magnificent use he made of the book generally. Two passages in Grace Abounding show the passionate intuition he brought to the sacred text: When I have considered also the truth of his resurrection and have remembered that word, Touch me not Mary, etc., I have seen as if he leaped at the graves mouth for joy that he was risen again. At this time also I saw more in those words Heirs of God, than ever I shall be able to express while I live in this world. Heirs of God! God himself is the portion of the saints. This I saw and wondered at, but cannot tell you what I saw. As a consequence of this penetrating appreciation he was able to vivify not only the events of the narrative, but the images and the very metaphors, which were thus erected into the machinery of his allegories.
Outside the Bible he had nothing to draw upon but his own observation, and this, while it afforded a sufficient variety of persons, left him little choice in the matter of scenery. He was born and bred, as Kingsley says in the monotonous Midland, and so, while his meadows and streams and sloughs are described graphically (though sometime idealised as, e.g., the meadow by the River of God, which was curiously beautified with lilies), his hills and the ferior natura have no verisimilitude; in one place he allows himself to speak of a wide field full of dark mountains; in another of Emmanuel leaping over the mountains, a phrase which a verse in Canticles (ii. 8) may account for, but will not justify. But where his eye has once rested upon the object the descriptions are very lively.
By this time they were got to the enchanted ground, where the air naturally tended to make one drowsy. And that place was all grown over with briars and thorns. The way also was here very wearisome through dirt and slabbiness. Nor was there on all this ground so much as one inn or victualling-house, therein to refresh the feebler sort. Here therefore was grunting, and puffing, and sighing; while one tumbleth over a bush, another sticks fast in the dirt, and the children, some of them lost their shoes in the mire. While one cries out, I am down, and another, Ho, where are you? and a third, The bushes have got such fast hold on me I think I cannot get away from them.
Note 1. Bunyan frequently employs the contraction a for have, especially in the second part of the Pilgrims Progress, which is the more homely in style as in matter; e.g., What could you a done to a helped yourself? A still more interesting colloquialism is a narrative use of should, which occurs repeatedly in Grace Abounding, e.g., I should at these years be greatly afflicted for I used to be. I have not noticed this in other works of Bunyan, but there is a curious use of shall, half narrative, half conditional, in the Holy War. This was the condition of Mansoul for about two years and a halfwhat rest then could be to the inhabitants? Had the enemy lain so long without, it had been enough to have famished them; but now when they shall be within, when the terror shall be in their tent, this was terrible, and yet this was now the state of Mansoul. [back]