The opinions of the Great and learned, upon the merits of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ and the causes of its popularity.
To venerate the memory of Bunyan, is the duty of every British Christian; quite as much as it is the pride of Englishmen universally to admire the genius of Shakspeare or of Milton, the philosophy of Locke, or the philanthropy of Howard. He ought ever to be placed in that constellation which is composed of the brightest luminaries that shed a lustre upon our national literature. His allegory seizes our imagination in childhood, and leaves an indelible impression—it excited our wonder then, and our admiration and esteem in riper age. Thus one of our best poets describes it as
‘Pleasure derived in childhood approved in age.’
There is a degree of publicity to which we should not like to have seen John Bunyan exposed, and from which his ‘Pilgrim’ had a narrow escape. The amazing popularity of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ very nearly led to the accomplishment of a strange design, which would have shocked all our puritan feelings. It was a curious attempt of Mr. Gilpin to dress Bunyan a-la-mode, but how much more singular to have introduced him upon the stage in, a Royal Metropolitan Theatre!! This was most seriously contemplated. The whole story was turned into an Oratorio, and every preliminary arrangement was made to have brought it out in Lent 1834.
The manuscript oratorio, with the correspondence of George Colman the licenser, Mr. Bunn the Manager and Proprietor, and Mr. Mash of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, are in the Editor’s possession. But the fear of my Lord Bishop of London, whose power could have stopped the license, prevented the attempt to bring into the tainted atmosphere of a theatre, as a dramatic entertainment, the poor burdened pilgrim, his penitence, his spiritual combats, his journey, and his ascent to the Celestial City. It was to have been introduced with splendid scenery, and with all the fascinating accompaniments of music and painting, as a sacred oratorio, to amuse Christians in the sorrowful, fasting, hypocritical season of Lent.
Cowper’s apostrophe to Bunyan—
‘Oh thou, whom, borne on fancy’s eager wing
Back to the season of life’s happy spring,
I pleased remember, and, while memory yet
Holds fast her office here, can ne’er forget.
Ingenious Dreamer! in whose well-told tale
Sweet fiction and sweet truth alike prevail;
Whose humorous vein, strong sense, and simple style,
May teach the gayest, make the gravest smile;
Witty, and well employed, and like thy Lord,
Speaking in parables his slighted Word.
I name thee not, lest so despised a name
Should move a sneer at thy deserved fame.
Yet e’en in transitory life’s late day,
That mingles all my brown with sober gray,
Revere the man, whose Pilgrim marks the road,
And guides the Progress of the soul to God.
’Twere well with most, if books that could engage
Their childhood, pleased them at a riper age;
The man, approving what had charmed the boy,
Would die at last in comfort, peace, and joy.’
How rapid has been the change in public opinion since Cowper’s line was written—
‘Lest so despised a name!’
One of the most magnificent American steamers now bears the alluring name of The John Bunyan; and in 1849 an advertisement appeared in the London Papers: ‘For Hong kong and shanghae, will be despatched positively on the 20th of June, the splendid fast sailing-ship John Bunyan.’
The influence that the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ had upon a late learned and zealous divine is well described in the autobiography of the celebrated Dr. Adam Clarke.
A child’s view of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’—
At this early age he read the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ as he would read a book of chivalry. Christian was a great hero, by whom the most appalling difficulties were surmounted, the most incredible labours performed, powerful enchantments dissolved, giants conquered, and devils quelled. It was not likely that he would see it as a spiritual allegory, and, therefore it was no wonder that he could not comprehend how Christian and Hopeful could submit to live several days and nights in the dungeon of Doubting Castle, under the torture of Giant Despair, while the former ‘had a key in his bosom which could open every lock in that castle.’
Lord Kaimes, who did not in the slightest degree partake with Bunyan in his feelings of veneration for Christianity, admires the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ as being composed in a style enlivened like that of Homer, by a proper mixture of the dramatic and narrative.
Mr. Grainger, who was of the high church party, in his Biographical History of England, calls it ‘Bunyan’s masterpiece; one of the most popular, and, I will add, one of the most ingenious books in the English language,’
Dr. S. Johnson, that unwieldy and uncouth leviathan of English literature, who was so thorough bred a churchman as to starve himself on a crossed bun on Good Friday, and to revel in roast beef and good cheer on the day dedicated to Christ’s mass; who was so well taught in the established church as to pray for his wife ‘Tetty’ thirty years after her decease; yet even he, with his deep-rooted prejudices against dissenters, cannot withhold his meed of praise—he describes the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ as ‘a work of original genius, and one of the very few books which every reader wishes had been longer.’205
‘Johnson praised John Bunyan highly: his “Pilgrim’s Progress” has great merit, both for invention, imagination, and the conduct of the story; and it has had the best evidence its merit, the general and continued approbation of mankind. Few books, I believe, have had a more extensive sale. It is remarkable, that it begins very much like Dante; yet there was no translation of Dante when he wrote. There is reason to think that he had read Spenser.’206
‘It was by no common merit that the illiterate sectary extracted praise like this from the most pedantic of critics, and the most bigoted of Churchmen and Tories.’207
A deeply read, learned, and highly esteemed clergyman told me that when he was young, placed under peculiar circumstances,208 he read the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ many times; for when he arrived at the ‘Conclusion,’ he never thought of changing his book, but turning to the first page, started again with poor Christian, and never felt weary of his company. Well might Dr. Johnson say, it is one of the few books in which one can never possibly arrive at the last page.
Dr. Franklin, whose sound judgment renders his opinion peculiarly gratifying, in his praise of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ comes home to the feelings of all who have read this universally admired book:
‘Honest John Bunyan is the first I know of who has mingled narrative and dialogue together—a mode of writing very engaging to the reader, who, in the most interesting passages, finds himself admitted, as it were, into the company, and present at the conversation.’209
Toplady speaks with the warmth of a Christian, who not only admired, but understood and felt its important truths:
‘The “Pilgrim’s Progress” is the finest allegorical work extant; describing every stage of a Christian’s experience, from conversion to glorification, in the most artless simplicity of language; yet peculiarly rich with spiritual unction, and glowing with the most vivid, just, and well-conducted machinery throughout. It is, in short, a masterpiece of piety and genius; and will, we doubt not, be of standing use to the people of God, so long as the sun and moon endure.’
And in his diary, Sunday, Feb. 7, 1768:—
‘In the evening, read Bunyan’s “Pilgrim.” What a stiff, sapless, tedious piece of work is that written by Bishop Patrick! How does the unlearned tinker of Bedford outshine the Bishop of Ely! I have heard that his lordship wrote his Pilgrim by way of antidote against what he deemed the fanaticism of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim.” But what a rich fund of heavenly experience, life, and sweetness, does the latter contain! How heavy, lifeless, and unevangelical, is the former! Such is the difference between writing from a worldly spirit and under the influence of the Spirit of God,’210
Dr. Ryland’s opinion was that
‘As a popular practical writer, on a great variety of important subjects, for the use of the bulk of common Christians, I will dare to affirm that he has few equals in the Christian world. I am persuaded there never has been a writer in the English language whose works have spread so wide, and have been read by so many millions of people, as Mr. Bunyan’s.’
The Great French Biography (Roman Catholic), having alluded to his employment in prison, adds,
‘Mais il y écrivit aussi son fameux Voyage du Pélerin, allégorie religieuse parfaitement soutenue, qui a en cinquante éditions, et a été traduite en plusieurs langues.’211
‘It has been the lot of John Bunyan, an unlettered artisan, to do more than one in a hundred millions of human beings, even in civilized society, is usually able to do. He has produced a work of imagination, of such decided originality, as not only to have commanded public admiration on its first appearance, but amidst all changes of time and style, and modes of thinking, to have maintained its place in the popular literature of every succeeding age; with the probability that, so long as the language in which it is written endures, it will not cease to be read by a great number of the youth of all future generations, at that period of life when their minds, their imaginations, and their hearts are most impressible with moral excellence, splendid picture, and religious sentiment. The happy idea of representing his story under the similitude of a dream, enabled him to portray, with all the liveliness of reality, the scenes which passed before him. It makes the reader himself, like the author, a spectator of all that occurs; thus giving him a personal interest in the events, an individual sympathy for the actors and sufferers. It would be difficult to name another work of any kind in our native tongue of which so many editions have been printed, of which so many readers have lived and died; the character of whose lives and deaths must have been more or less affected by its lessons and examples, its fictions and realities.’
‘Perhaps no other work could be named which, admired by cultivated minds, has had, at the same time, such an ameliorating effect on the working classes in society as the “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is a work so full of native good sense, that no mind can read it without gaining in wisdom and vigour of judgment. It is one of the books that, by being connected with the dearest associations of childhood, always retain their hold on the heart: and it exerts a double influence when, at a graver age, and less under the despotism given to imagination in childhood, we read it with a serene and thoughtful perception of its meaning. How many children have become better citizens of the world through life, by the perusal of this book in infancy! How many pilgrims, in hours when perseverance was almost exhausted, and patience was yielding, and clouds and darkness were gathering, have felt a sudden return of animation and courage from the remembrance of Christian’s severe conflicts, and his glorious entrance at last through the gates into the city! ’
‘Bunyan’s fame may be literally said to have risen; beginning among the people, it made its way up to those who are called the public. In most instances, the many receive gradually and slowly the opinions of the few respecting literary merit; and sometimes, in assentation to such authority, profess with their lips an admiration of they know not what. But here the opinion of the multitude has been ratified by the judicious. The people knew what they admired. It is a book which makes it way through the fancy to the understanding and the heart. The child peruses it with wonder and delight; in youth we discover the genius which it displays; its worth is apprehended as we advance in years; and we perceive its merits feelingly in declining age. If it is not a well of English undefiled, to which the poet as well as the philologist must repair, if they would drink of the living waters, it is a clear stream of current English—the vernacular speech of his age—sometimes, indeed, in its rusticity and coarseness, but always in its plainness and its strength.’
Coleridge the Poet:—
‘The “Pilgrim’s Progress” is composed in the lowest style of English, without slang or false grammar. If you were to polish it, you would at once destroy the reality of the vision.
* * * * *
‘This wonderful work is one of the very few books which may be read over repeatedly at different times, and each time with a new and different pleasure. I read it once as a theologian, and let me assure you, that there is great theological acumen in the work; once with devotional feelings; and once as a poet; I could not have believed beforehand that Calvinism could be painted in such exquisitely-delightful colours.
‘I know of no book, the Bible excepted, as above all comparison, which I, according to my judgment and experience, could so safely recommend, as teaching and enforcing the whole saving truth according to the mind that was in Christ Jesus, as the “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is, in my conviction, incomparably the best summa theologiœ evangelicœ ever produced by a writer not miraculously inspired.’—(May aud June, 1830, Table Talk, vol. i. pp. 160, 161.)
Dr. Arnold of Rugby:—
‘I have left off reading our divines, because, as Pascal said of the Jesuits, if I had spent my time in reading them fully, I should have read a great many indifferent books. But if I could find a great man among them, I would read him thankfully and earnestly. As it is, I hold John Bunyan to have been a man of incomparably greater genius than any of them, and to have given a far truer and more edifying picture of Christianity. His “Pilgrim’s Progress” seems to be a complete reflection of Scripture, with none of the rubbish of the theologians mixed up with it.’—(Dr. Arnold to Justice Coleridge, Nov. 30, 1836. Life, vol. ii. p. 65.)
And, ‘I have always been struck by its piety; I am now (having read it through again, after a long interval) struck equally, or even more, by its profound wisdom.’—Ibid. vol. ii. p. 65.
Mr. Macaulay, from his Review of Southey’s Life of Bunyan:—
‘The characteristic peculiarity of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” is, that it is the only work of its kind which possesses a strong human interest. Other allegories only amuse the fancy. It is not so with the “Pilgrim’s Progress.” That wonderful book, while it obtains admiration from the most fastidious critics, is loved by those who are too simple to admire it. In the wildest parts of Scotland, it is the delight of the peasantry. In every nursery, the “Pilgrim’s Progress” is a greater favourite than Jack the Giant-killer.
‘Every reader knows the straight and narrow path as well as he knows a road in which he has gone backward and forward a hundred times. This is the highest miracle of genius—that things which are not should be as though they were—that the imaginations of one mind should become the personal recollections of another. And this miracle the tinker has wrought. There is no ascent, no declivity, no resting-place, no turn-stile, with which we are not perfectly acquainted. The wicket-gate, and the desolate swamp which separates it from the City of Destruction—the long line of road, as straight as a rule can make it—the Interpreter’s house, and all its fair shows—the prisoner in the iron cage—the palace, at the doors of which armed men kept guard, and on the battlements of which walked persons clothed all in gold—the cross and the sepulchre—the steep hill and the pleasant arbour—the stately front of the House Beautiful by the wayside—the low green Valley of Humiliation, rich with grass and covered with flocks—are all as well known to us as the sights of our own street. Then we come to the narrow place, where Apollyon strode right across the whole breadth of the way, to stop the journey of Christian; and where, afterwards, the pillar was set up, to testify how bravely the Pilgrim had fought the good fight. As we advance, the valley becomes deeper and deeper. The shade of the precipices on both sides falls blacker and blacker. The clouds gather over-head. Doleful voices, the clanking of chains, and the rushing of many feet to and fro, are heard through the darkness. The way hardly discernible in gloom, and close by the month of the burning pit, which sends forth its flames, its noisome smoke, and its hideous shapes, to terrify the adventurer. Thence he goes on, amidst the snares and pitfalls, with the mangled bodies of those who have perished lying in the ditch by his side. At the end of the long dark valley, he passes the dens in which the old giants dwelt, amidst the bones and ashes of those whom they had slain. Then the road passes straight on through a waste moor, till at length the towers of a distant city appear before the traveller; and soon he is in the midst of the innumerable multitudes of Vanity Fair. There are the jugglers and the apes, the shops and the puppet-shows. There are Italian Row, and French Row, and Spanish Row, and Britain Row—with their crowds of buyers, sellers, and loungers, jabbering all the languages of the earth. Thence we go on by the little hill of the silver mine, and through the meadow of lilies, along the bank of that pleasant river, which is bordered on both sides by fruit-trees. On the left side, branches off the path to that horrible castle, the court-yard of which is paved with the skulls of pilgrims; and right onward are the sheepfolds and orchards of the Delectable Mountains. From the Delectable Mountains the way lies through the fogs and briers of the Enchanted Ground, with here and there a bed of soft cushions spread under a green arbour. And beyond is the land of Beulah; where the flowers, the grapes, and the songs of birds never cease, and where the sun shines night and day. Thence are plainly seen the golden pavements and streets of pearls, on the other side of that black and cold river over which there is no bridge.
‘All the stages of the journey—all the forms which cross or overtake the pilgrims—the giants and hobgoblins, ill-favoured ones and shining ones—the tall, comely, swarthy Madam Bubble, with her great purse by her side, and her fingers playing with the money—the black man in the bright vesture—Mr. Worldly-wiseman and my Lord Hate-good—Mr. Talkative and Mrs. Timorous—all are actually existing beings to us. We follow the travellers through their allegorical progress, with interest not inferior to that with which we fellow Elizabeth from Siberia to Moscow, or Jeanie Deans from Edinburgh to London. Bunyan is almost the only writer that ever gave to the abstract the interest of the concrete. Religion has scarcely ever worn a form so calm and soothing as in his allegory. The feeling which predominates through the whole book is a feeling of tenderness for weak, timid, and harassed minds. The character of Mr. Fearing—of Mr. Feeble-mind—of Mr. Despondency, and his daughter Miss Much-afraid—the account of poor Little-faith, who was robbed by the three thieves of his spending money—the description of Christian’s terror in the dungeons of Giant Despair, and in his passage through the river—all clearly show how strong a sympathy Bunyan felt, after his own mind had become clear and cheerful, for persons afflicted with religious melancholy.
‘The style of Bunyan is delightful to every reader; and invaluable as a study to every person who wishes to obtain a wide command over the English language. The vocabulary is the vocabulary of the common people. There is not an expression, if we except a few technical terms of theology, which would puzzle the rudest peasant. We have observed several pages which do not contain a single word of more than two syllables. Yet no writer has said more exactly what he meant to say. For magnificence, for pathos, for vehement exhortation, for subtle disquisition, for every purpose of the poet, the orator, and the divine, his homely dialect—the dialect of plain working men—was perfectly sufficient. There is no book in our literature on which we would so readily stake the fame of the old, unpolluted English language; no book which shows so well how rich that language is in its own proper wealth, and how little it has been improved by all that it has borrowed. Though there were many clever men in England during the latter half of the seventeenth century, there were only two great creative minds; one of those minds produced the Paradise Lost, the other the “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
‘There are, we think, some characters and scenes in the “Pilgrim’s Progress.” which can be fully comprehended and enjoyed only by persons familiar with the history of the times through which Bunyan lived. The character Mr. Greatheart, the guide, is an example. We have not the least doubt that Bunyan had in view some stout old Greatheart of Naseby and Worcester; who prayed with his men before he drilled them; who knew the spiritual state of every dragoon in his troop; and who, with the praises of God in his mouth, and a two-edged sword in his hand, had turned to flight, in many fields of battle, the swearing drunken bravoes of Rupert and Lunsford. Every age produces such men as Bye-ends—he might have found all his kindred among the public men of that time; among the Peers—my Lord Turn-about, my Lord Time-server, and Lord Fair-speech. In the House of Commons—Mr. Smooth-man, Mr. Anything, and Mr. Facing-both-ways; nor would the parson of the parish, Mr. Two-tongues, have been wanting.’
Mr. Macaulay’s character of John Bunyan, from his invaluable History of England:—
‘To the names of Baxter and Howe must be added the name of a man far below them in station and in acquired knowledge, but in virtue their equal, and in genius their superior. John Bunyan. Bunyan had been bred a tinker, and had served as a private soldier. Early in life he had been fearfully tortured by remorse for his youthful sins, the worst of which seem, however, to have been such as the world thinks venial. His keen sensibility, and his powerful imagination, made his internal conflicts singularly terrible. At length the clouds broke. From the depths of despair, the penitent passed to a state of serene felicity. An irresistible impulse now urged him to impart to others the blessing of which he was himself possessed. He joined the Baptists, and became a preacher and writer. His education had been that of a mechanic. He knew no language but the English as it was spoken by the common people. He had studied no great model of composition, with the exception—an important exception undoubtedly—of our noble translation of the Bible. His native force of genius, and his experimental knowledge of all the religious passions, from despair to ecstacy, amply supplied in him the want of learning. His rude oratory roused and melted hearers, who listened, without interest, to the laboured discourses of great logicians and Hebraists. His works are widely circulated among the humbler classes. One of them, the Pilgrim’s Progress, was, in his own lifetime, translated into several foreign languages. It was, however, scarcely known to the learned and polite; and had been, during near a century, the delight of pious cottagers and artizans, before it was publicly commended by any man of high literary eminence. At length critics condescended to inquire where the secret of so wide and so durable a popularity lay. They were compelled to own that the ignorant multitude had judged more correctly than the learned, and that the despised little book was really a masterpiece. Bunyan, indeed, is as decidedly the first of allegorists, as Demosthenes is the first of orators, or Shakspeare the first of dramatists. Other allegorists have shown great ingenuity, but no other allegorist has ever been able to touch the heart, and to make abstractions objects of terror, of pity, and of love.’
Lord Campbell.—It is one of the extraordinary signs of the times in which we live, to witness the highest judicial functionary in the kingdom speaking, without sectarian partiality, and in the highest terms of praise, of a preaching mechanic. It is in Lord John Campbell’s Life of Chief-Justice Hale, when the judges, before whom Mrs. Bunyan had so powerfully pleaded for her husband’s liberty, were trumpeted out of Bedford, she burst into tears, saying, ‘Not so much because they are so hard-hearted against me and my husband, but to think what a sad account such poor creatures will have to give at the coming of the Lord:’—
‘Little do we know what is for our permanent good,’ says Lord John Campbell. ‘Had Bunyan than been discharged, and allowed to enjoy liberty, he no doubt would have returned to his trade, filling up his intervals of leisure with field-preaching; his name would not have survived his own generation, and he could have done little for the religious improvement of mankind. The prison doors were shut upon him for twelve years. Being cut off from the external world, he communed with his own soul; and inspired by Him who touched Elijah’s hallowed lips with fire, he composed the noblest of allegories, the merit of which was first discovered by the lowly, but which is now landed by the most refined critics; and which has done more to awaken piety, and to enforce the precepts of Christian morality, than all the sermons which have been published by all the prelates of the Anglican church.’212
The Penny Encyclopedia is the only work which has treated the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ with disrespect. Under the article John Bunyan, it says:—
‘Among his works, the “Pilgrim’s Progress” has attained the greatest notoriety. If a judgment is to be formed of the merits of a book by the number of times it has been reprinted, and the many languages into which it has been translated, no production in English literature is superior to this coarse allegory. On a composition which has been extolled by Dr. Johnson, and which, in our own times, has received a very high critical opinion in its favour, it is hazardous to venture a disapproval; and we, perhaps, speak the opinion of a small minority when we confess that to us it appears to be mean, jejune, and wearisome.’
Probably this is the glorious minority of one. Such an opinion may excite pity and indignation, but needs no comment.
The ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ has proved an invaluable aid to the Sunday-school Teacher, and to the Missionary. One of the latter wrote home with joy to inform his Christian friends, that a Malay sat up three nights to read it, never having before seen so beautiful a book, and praying that the Holy Spirit may influence his countrymen to read, and also enlighten their hearts to understand the wondrous dream. The pundit who was engaged to translate it into Singhalese, was so deeply affected by the story, that, at times, he could not proceed; when he had passed the wicket-gate, and Christian’s burden fell from his shoulders, at the sight of Christ crucified, he was overcome with joy—he laughed, wept, clapped his hands, danced, and shouted, ‘delightful, delightful!’ It was especially blessed to the persecuted Christian natives in Ceylon; in their distress when driven from home, in places of danger, they encouraged each other by repeating portions of scripture, and the vivid deli–neations of perseverance and triumph from the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’
No book, the result of human labour and in–genuity, has been so eminently useful. Let Homer have the credit of his lofty poem, Plato of his Philosophy, Cicero of his elegancies, and Aquinas of his subtleties; but for real value, as connected with human happiness, our unlettered mechanic rises infinitely their superior.