Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent 
by Richard Greaves.
Stanford, 693 pp., £57.50, August 2002, 0 8047 4530 7
Show More
Theology and Narrative in the Works of John Bunyan 
by Michael Davies.
Oxford, 393 pp., £65, July 2002, 0 19 924240 2
Show More
The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ 
by Isabel Hofmeyr.
Princeton, 320 pp., £41.95, January 2004, 0 691 11655 5
Show More
Show More

According to E.P. Thompson, The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Rights of Man are the two ‘foundation texts’ of the English working-class movement. It is above all in John Bunyan, he argues, that we find ‘the slumbering Radicalism’ which was preserved through the 18th century, and broke out again and again in the 19th.

Bunyan was born in a cottage on the edge of Elstow, a village near Bedford, in November 1628. His father was a brazier. He was 13 when the Civil War broke out, and at 16 joined a regiment garrisoned at Newport Pagnell. During his army years Bunyan witnessed the struggle between Presbyterians, who wanted to reform the Church of England, and radical sectaries. He had a religious awakening in 1650 – the year his blind daughter, Mary, was born – and suffered from a series of nervous illnesses which Richard Greaves unhelpfully approaches by means of psychiatric theory and William Styron’s compelling account of his own severe depression. In 1650 Bunyan had heard three or four women discussing religion: they were, he said, ‘far above out of my reach’, and he began seeking out the company of these people, who were members of a separatist church organised by John Gifford, a former major in the royalist army. A few years later Bunyan started to preach himself, to a Bedford congregation which a contemporary called ‘Bunian his society’, and this got him into trouble even before the restoration of the monarchy and the traditional church in 1660. He was indicted at the Bedford Assizes in February 1658, probably following a complaint from the local vicar, Thomas Becke, who was a Presbyterian.

Bunyan’s legal torments began in earnest when he was invited to preach at the hamlet of Lower Samsell on 12 November 1660. When he got there, a friend told him there was rumoured to be a warrant for his arrest, but he decided to preach anyway, not wanting to set a bad example for recent converts or nonconformists by fleeing. He was arrested for preaching without a licence at an unlawful assembly, put on trial and sentenced to three months in jail. He wasn’t helped by the fact that, during his trial, Thomas Venner led an insurrection of militant Fifth Monarchy men in London, thus bringing all nonconformists under suspicion.

Bunyan’s first wife, whose name has never been recorded, had died, leaving him four children. His second wife, Elizabeth, courageous and pious like his first, presented a petition to secure his release. Angered by the callous attitude of one of the Justices of the Peace, and by the mockery of several bystanders, she denounced the proceedings: ‘Because he is a Tinker, and a poor man; therefore he is despised, and cannot have justice.’ Elizabeth had miscarried when she heard the news of her husband’s arrest, and her experience is glimpsed in the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

A Dream I had of two ill-lookt ones, that I thought did Plot how to make me miscarry in my Journey, that hath troubled me much: Yea, it still runs in my mind, and makes me afraid of every one that I meet, lest they should meet me to do me a mischief, and to turn me out of the way.

After serving his sentence, Bunyan would not be allowed to preach and would have to attend Church of England services or be banished from the realm. If he returned without the monarch’s permission, he would hang, as the statute prescribed. Defiantly, Bunyan replied that if he were freed one day, he would preach the next. Towards the end of his sentence, the Bedfordshire justices sent Paul Cobb, a clerk of the peace, to obtain Bunyan’s submission. Had Bunyan been willing to sue for pardon and to admit that he had wrongfully convened the meeting at Lower Samsell, he would have been freed, but he refused. Bunyan told Cobb he was willing to submit to the government but qualified this by insisting that he was prepared to obey only righteous statutes. Cobb, a member of the gentry, who treated Bunyan with respect and civility, broke off the negotiation.

Bunyan spent most of the next 12 years in Bedford jail, where he supported his family by making long tagged shoelaces, and was made miserable at the thought of their suffering. He was released in 1672 and began to preach again – now with a licence – and to write The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he completed during another spell in prison in 1677; he had been returned there briefly when the government mounted a campaign against conventicles. As Greaves shows, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was published in 1678, not only as a guide to the Christian life, but as an attempt to shape the Restoration crisis of 1667-73 by setting liberty of conscience against the state’s authority and the conformity of the rich, the corrupt, the careerist and the spineless. Greaves says there is ‘no escaping the fact’ that The Pilgrim’s Progress is a ‘profoundly political tract’, but he fails to communicate the pressure of those times and their influence on Bunyan’s work. Noting Jack Lindsay’s statement that Bunyan’s The Holy War, published in 1682 near the end of Charles II’s reign, is a commentary on ‘absolutism against the liberties of the people’, Greaves asserts that this view ‘cannot be sustained’, but doesn’t explain why. Yet Sharon Achinstein, a scholar he cites elsewhere, has convincingly argued that The Holy War is ‘a veiled commentary on the political situation during England’s Exclusion crises’. Greaves’s sense of dissenting culture is bland and uninformed, and his passionless, comfortable prose, composed in the Florida sunshine, betrays no sense of the Dissenters’ experience during the Restoration. He notes that Bunyan could pack London meeting-houses to overflowing at a day’s notice, that The Pilgrim’s Progress had made Bunyan a celebrity, and adds that his printed sermons ‘suggest he was at times a powerful orator’, but he never tries to analyse the power of ‘Bishop Bunyan’. He reduces one of the most powerful, charismatic and influential writers and preachers of his age to a dull and worthy figure. Both Greaves and Michael Davies appear to accept, and even collude with, Bunyan’s diminished presence in contemporary British culture.

Bunyan, however, remains an enduring presence in Ulster Protestantism. In a lecture given many years ago, ‘The Triumph of the Word of God in the Life and Literature of John Bunyan’, Ian Paisley praised this ‘dreamer and penman’ for his ‘strong doctrinal’ preaching, his opposition to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the enormous crowds he drew, and for his prose style. This ‘poor unschooled tinker’ became, Paisley argued, ‘the most prominent man of letters . . . as far as English literature is concerned’. He had ‘the tinker’s power of reaching the heart’. ‘Prick him anywhere,’ Paisley said, ‘and you will find that his blood is bibline.’ Bunyan the rebel lives in Paisley’s preaching and fuels his opposition to liberal theology, Catholicism and political change (he exercised a similar influence on Kipling). Bunyan the Commonwealth man and soldier in the Parliamentary army has become one of the avatars of what has until now been the most reactionary and negative form of Ulster Unionism, though there are currently strong signs that the DUP is moving towards a deal with Sinn Fein.

Bunyan still speaks directly to anyone who feels they are in the power of Mr Worldly-Wiseman, ‘my Lord Turn-about, my Lord Time-server, my Lord Fair-speech . . . Mr Smooth-man, Mr Facing-bothways, Mr Any-thing; and the parson of our parish, Mr Two-tongues’. These visionary caricatures remind us that beneath the social and institutional surfaces where we encounter other people – friends, acquaintances, colleagues, enemies and those in between – exist certain forces for good and evil, and certain irrefrangible principles. However much we try to dip, dodge and jeuk in our social and professional lives, there are moments when we fall into what can feel like a bottomless pit. Bunyan, like Milton and Blake, is one of the guides we may summon when we find ourselves taking that plunge.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect a critic to identify with Bunyan’s dream of truth, but Michael Davies’s lengthy study is remarkable for its failure to empathise with Bunyan’s heroic political battles. Davies tries to argue, though in fact he merely states, that ‘non-doctrinal readings’ of Bunyan can be ‘inappropriate (if not pernicious, on occasion)’, because they frequently issue from ‘distinct historical and polemical’ motives. Though Davies properly calls attention to Bunyan’s doctrine of grace, he separates the politics of the period from Bunyan’s dissenting faith and dismisses those critics who have failed to see the light of true doctrine, which states that Bunyan is always keen to point any metaphor or analogy ‘towards the spiritual and away from the political when discussing salvation’. When Bunyan describes grace as setting ‘open the prison doors’ and letting ‘the prisoners go free’, ‘it is not necessarily a politicised experience he is advocating’; he is ‘simply discussing grace as offering the only possible liberty from a range of spiritually perilous factors’. Writing in a slickly chatty style, Davies is concerned to deny the reasons that drew his contemporaries to Bunyan, and which have made his dream vision available in almost every written language.

These translations make The Pilgrim’s Progress part of world literature, as Isabel Hofmeyr’s study, The Portable Bunyan, shows. Where Bunyan scholarship is ‘almost obsessive’ in its focus on him as a national figure who heroically embodies 17th-century English Puritanism, his major work can be understood as part of a broader diasporic and imperial history in the Protestant Atlantic. On the one hand, his allegory served imperial values by demonstrating ‘the universal appeal of Englishness’; on the other, middle-class African mission elites used the text to articulate anticolonial ideologies. It was perhaps because of this that Alfred Noyes attacked Bunyan during his tercentenary celebrations in 1928, calling him a ‘piously repulsive writer’, who was fanatical, crude and superstitious. Noyes compared his work to ‘the lowest and most squalid levels of the primitive races of Africa’. However, Bunyan easily secured a place in the Leavisite canon. For Q.D. Leavis – no friend of multiracial Britain – his prose was implicitly ‘white’, because it draws ‘on the accumulated associations of a race’. But as most proselytising was done by African evangelists, rather than white missionaries in Africa, the text became rooted in the continent, often abridged and shorn of its theological sections.

In one sermon, ‘Justification by an Imputed Righteousness; or, No Way to Heaven but by Jesus Christ’, Bunyan says:

Living by faith begets in the heart a son-like boldness and confidence to Godward in all our gospel duties, under all our weaknesses, and under all our temptations. It is a blessed thing to be privileged with a holy boldness and confidence Godward, that he is on our side, that he taketh part with us, and that he will plead our cause ‘with them that rise up against us’.

It is this quality of holy ‘boldness’ that Bunyan’s writing communicates, and it moved and uplifted his audiences, instilling in them – or, rather, drawing out of them – a confidence that they were the equal of anyone else, and need not be intimidated by those who held power in the land. John Owen, a former vice-chancellor of Oxford, told Charles II he would gladly exchange his learning for the tinker’s power in the pulpit.

This confidence, or holy boldness, is not a simple, armoured, spiritual front – Bunyan admits feeling anxiety and fear at what his enemies have in store for him. In ‘The Greatness of the Soul’, a sermon of 1682, he anticipates Robinson Crusoe’s fate when he imagines a man being ‘taken by them of Algiers, and there made a slave of, and there be hunger-bit, and beaten till his bones are broken’. The repeated b sounds and the mainly monosyllabic words give a physical texture to Bunyan’s language, and encode his own experience of imprisonment. The solitariness of the puritan soul at times gives way to the sense of abandonment which Crusoe feels in his darkest moments. Where Milton designs a magnificent, climbing cadence in the lonely tower passage in ‘Il Penseroso’, Bunyan offers an image which is both homely and, to a 17th-century audience, slightly foreign and unusual: ‘But this man has provided for things; like the tortoise, he has got a shell on his back, so strong and sound that he fears not to suffer a loaden cart to go over him. The Lord is his rock, his defence, his refuge, his high tower, unto which he doth continually resort.’ In folklore, the tortoise symbolises slowness, determination and long life, and the animal lovingly evoked in this posthumously published sermon, ‘Christ a Complete Saviour’, is like someone low down the social scale whose faith is a high stone tower which protects and encircles the soul. From ‘tortoise’ to ‘resort’ the run of t and o and r sounds pattern and cadence the statement. His Cavalier near-contemporary, Lovelace, chooses the grasshopper as a symbol of his precarious identity; Bunyan the Roundhead identifies with a shy creature inside a horny shell.

In an early sermon called ‘The Resurrection of the Dead, and Eternal Judgment’, Bunyan uses a corpse as a similar symbol:

The body ariseth, as to the nature of it, the self-same nature; but as to the manner of it; how far transcendent is it! There is a poor, dry, wrinkled kernel cast into the ground, and there it lieth, and swelleth, breaketh, and, one would think, perisheth; but behold, it receiveth life, it chitteth, it putteth forth a blade, and groweth into a stalk, there also appeareth an ear; it also sweetly blossoms, with a full kernel in the ear: it is the same wheat, yet behold how the form and fashion of that which now ariseth, doth differ from that which then was sown, its glory also when twas sown, is no glory, when compared with that in which it riseth.

Bunyan’s mortalism is expressed in an organic metaphor that takes authority from the dialect verb ‘chitteth’ (‘provincial and almost obsolete’, his devoted Victorian editor, George Offor, wrongly noted). The verb chit is commonly used by gardeners to mean ‘to sprout’, and there is also a suggestion of another meaning – ‘to chirp’ – which lends a new-hatched quality, added to the diminutive, sometimes slightly derogatory usage ‘a chit of a girl’. At the same time, an identification is being made between Bunyan and his audience, and the ‘poor, dry, wrinkled kernel’ which has been ‘cast into the ground’. Like the figure of the castaway, to which he returns, the buried human body is a symbol of what it feels like to be at the mercy of powerful political forces.

The promise of resurrection becomes a figure for political emancipation. In bringing imagination to the explanation of religious doctrine and the fight for justice, Bunyan aligns himself with ‘the learned Herbert’, quoting his couplet from The Temple in the verse preface to Scriptural Poems: ‘A verse may find him, who a sermon flies/And turn delight into a sacrifice.’ In ‘The History of Samson’, the most powerful of those poems, Bunyan makes Samson a fearless preacher who uses his jaw to defeat his enemies:

The Philistines against him gave a shout:
And mightily the Spirit of the Lord
Came on him, and like burning flax each cord
That was upon his arms became; the bands
Were likewise separated from his hands.
And he the jaw-bone of an ass espied,
And took and smote them till a thousand died.
Then said he, with an ass’s jaw-bone I
Have made mine enemies in heaps to lie.
Behold I have destroyed a thousand men
With this same worthless ass’s jaw.

As Christopher Hill has pointed out, The Pilgrim’s Progress was written in jail at almost exactly the same time as Milton, imprisoned by blindness, was composing Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Bunyan was, Hill noted, the first major English writer who was neither based in London nor university educated, and he must, like Bottom, have recognised in the ass a figure for his lowly position, and a compensating symbol of boundless imagination and power. The ass’s jawbone is on one level a witty figure for the preacher’s limitless flow of words, and for their power, but also their flimsy, opinionated vulnerability. Samson is both a heroic freedom fighter and a blind, helpless prisoner.

In ‘Christian Behaviour’, published in 1663 when he was in prison, Bunyan says:

The doctrine of the gospel is like the dew and the small rain that distilleth upon the tender grass, wherewith it doth flourish, and is kept green. Christians are like the several flowers in a garden that have upon each of them the dew of heaven, which being shaken with the wind, they let fall their dew at each other’s roots, whereby they are jointly nourished, and become nourishers of one another.

The ‘small rain’ seems to descend from one of the most famous medieval lyrics:

Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne downe can rayne –
Cryst yf my love wer in my Armys
and I yn my bed agayne!

The small rain, therefore, comes out of the common tongue, and is a figure, again, for the lowly social position of Bunyan and his audience. The ‘tender grass’, like Whitman’s leaves of grass, represents the democratic energy of the popular will. The dew distilled on the grass is an image of mutual support, the communal faith that sustained puritan congregations – what the Unitarians called ‘sociality’. Bunyan develops this idea in the next sentence: ‘For Christians to commune savourly of God’s matters one with another, it is as if they opened to each other’s nostrils boxes of perfume.’

It is Bunyan’s observation of small things, such as the ‘dish of milk well crumbed’ in the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress, that makes – or made – his work so popular. Earlier in the second part, Christiana and Mercy are asked to observe a hen and her chickens in the House of the Interpreter.

So they gave heed, and perceived that the hen did walk in a fourfold method towards her chickens. 1. She had a common call; and that she hath all day long. 2. She had a special call; and that she had but sometimes. 3. She had a brooding note. And, 4. She had an outcry.

Then the Interpreter compares the hen to God, whom he calls ‘your King’. The comparison speaks to ordinary experience, as does this paragraph in Grace Abounding:

But God did not utterly leave me, but followed me still, not now with convictions, but judgments; yet such as were mixed with mercy. For once I fell into a creek of the sea, and hardly escaped drowning: another time I fell out of a boat into Bedford river, but mercy yet preserved me alive: besides, another time, being in the field with one of my companions, it chanced that an adder passed over the highway; so I, having a stick in mine hand, struck her over the back; and having stounded her, I forced open her mouth with my stick, and plucked her sting out with my fingers, by which act, had not God been merciful to me, I might, by my desperateness, have brought myself to mine end.

Bunyan then relates how, during a siege in the Civil War, one of his company took his place ‘and coming to the siege, as he stood sentinel, he was shot in the head with a musket ball and died.’ The sense of being one of the elect, which is evident in this passage, is an unattractive feature of puritanism, but it must have had something to do with the confidence Bunyan had and which he instilled in the members of his congregations.

His language convinces by its homely simplicity: ‘Physicians get neither name nor fame by pricking of wheals, or picking out thistles, or by laying of plasters to the scratch of a pin; every old woman can do this. But if they would have a name and a fame, if they will have it quickly, they must, as I said, do some great and desperate cures.’ Bunyan repeats the phrasal rhyme ‘name’/‘fame’, but he also gives ‘quickly’ a significant emphasis because it draws into itself ‘pricking’, ‘picking’, ‘thistles’, ‘pin’ and ‘this’. The word doesn’t simply mean ‘speedily’, as we realise when he begins the next sentence: ‘Let them fetch one to life that was dead.’ The quick and the dead are foreshadowed in ‘quickly’, and the word also carries a reminiscence of the fleshy quick pricked and scratched by pins.

Bunyan represents what he called ‘the bustle and cumber of the world’ in his verse and prose. Again and again, he uses dialect words which give body and authority to his writing: ‘How brag and crank are our poor wantons and wicked ones in this day of forbearance!’ Here, brag means ‘spirited, brisk, lively’. It is used by Auden in The Age of Anxiety: ‘How brag and crank were the birds.’ Crank means ‘brisk, jolly, lusty, spiritful, buxom’ and is used by Milton in L’Allegro’: ‘Jest and youthful Jollity,/Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,/Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles.’

The rough and tumble of Bunyan’s monosyllables has the buzzing intimacy of direct speech, as in this passage from The Pilgrim’s Progress:

CHRISTIAN: Just there, said Christian, did I sit down to rest me; but being overcome with sleep I there lost this roll out of my bosom.

FAITHFUL: But good brother, hear me out: so soon as the man overtook me, he was but a word and a blow: for down he knocked me and laid me for dead. But when I was a little come to myself again, I asked him wherefore he served me so. He said, ‘Because of my secret inclining to Adam the First’; and with that he struck me another deadly blow on the breast, and beat me down backward; so I lay at his foot as dead as before. So when I came to myself again, I cried him mercy; but he said, ‘I know not how to show mercy,’ and with that knocked me down again. He had doubtless made an end of me, but that one came by and bid him forbear.

CHRISTIAN: Who was that, that bid him forbear?

FAITHFUL: I did not know him at first, but as he went by, I perceived the holes in his hands, and his side; then I concluded that he was our Lord. So I went up the Hill.

Christian explains that the man who overtook Faithful was Moses: ‘He spareth none, neither knoweth he how to show mercy to those that transgress his law.’ Simultaneously, Bunyan makes Moses and the limitations – as he sees it – of Mosaic law robustly, immediately present to his readers. Davies comments on this passage, and suggests that the burden of guilt is made heavier by ‘the oppressiveness of religious legalism’, but he doesn’t remark on the way the holes in Christ’s hands are made physically present in an almost casually realistic manner, like the pricking pins. Under the guise of remembering early Christian and later Protestant martyrs, Bunyan offers a vision of Restoration England in the Valley of the Shadow of Death where ‘the way was all along set so full of snares, traps, gins and nets here, and so full of pits, pitfalls, deep holes and shelvings down there, that had it now been dark, as it was when he came the first part of the way, had he had a thousand souls, they had in reason been cast away.’ Now he sees that at the end of the valley ‘lay blood, bones, ashes and mangled bodies of men, even of pilgrims’. A little before him he spies a cave ‘where two giants, Pope and Pagan, dwelt in old time’.

Neither Greaves nor Davies notices the symbolic political code that Bunyan is employing here. That code, which was designed to put Charles II’s Licenser of the Press off the track, becomes apparent if we consider that ‘old time’ is a piece of deliberate naivety, since Bunyan would have been thinking of the king and his closeness to the Catholic Louis XIV, as well as of Charles’s Catholic brother, James, the Duke of York. He would also have had certain recent martyrs to the Whig cause in mind: Algernon Sidney and William Russell, as well as the ‘protestant joiner’, Stephen College. Bunyan’s printer Francis Smith had published a ballad by College, ‘A Ra-ree Show’, which attacked the king and the duke. College, an apprentice of Smith’s, was brought to Oxford, sentenced to death and hanged for sedition. The struggles and deaths of the Exclusion Crisis in the 1680s are part of the historical vision of The Pilgrim’s Progress, just as they are part of Dryden’s attack on Monmouth, Shaftesbury and the Exclusionists in Absalom and Achitophel. Between 1661 and 1678 Smith had printed nearly all Bunyan’s books, but in 1678, when Smith was in permanent trouble and deeply involved in politics, Bunyan moved to another radical printer, Benjamin Harris (Nathaniel Ponder, however, published The Pilgrim’s Progress). Harris, too, was always in trouble with the authorities. He was pilloried and fined £500, a huge amount. Smith was committed to Newgate in 1681 and charged with high treason. Bunyan’s voice takes its life partly from his knowledge that by speaking aloud and then publishing his words, he was challenging the authority of Judge Jeffreys and Lord Chief Justice Scroggs.

When we read the famous opening paragraph of The Pilgrim’s Progress, we can see that this isn’t simply a religious allegory of sin and redemption:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled: and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry; saying, ‘What shall I do?’

The rags of sin, the burden of sin and individual conscience are clearly figured here. The anapaestic movement of the prose – ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world’ – is lulling. Perhaps we remember the martyr William Tyndale, who translated the Bible so the ‘meanest ploughboy’ could read it. Then we begin to see that the ‘great burden’ on the man’s back is the tinker’s pack Bunyan must have carried down muddy lanes and roads in Bedfordshire. He is both inside and outside his own book, just as we are. But the burden is more than a pack of tools, more than a symbol of guilt and sin. The weight of the state, its cruel and biased judicial system, is on his back. As we read, the words ‘back’, ‘book’, ‘brake’ echo each other, and we catch the Lutheran emotionalism that is such a feature of Bunyan’s prose. The repeated i sounds in the paragraph produce a lonely lyric, tight with grief and suffering. In the next paragraph, Christian tells his wife and children: ‘I am for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from Heaven.’ Here, Bunyan is recalling the Great Fire of London, 12 years earlier, as well as his own emotional and spiritual struggles.

In this passage from Grace Abounding, one of the masterpieces of English prose, Bunyan writes of being in prison that:

the parting with my wife and poor children hath oft been to me in this place, as the pulling my flesh from my bones; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardship I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.

Poor child! thought I, what sorrow art thou like to have for thy portion in this world? Thou must be beaten, must beg, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness, and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure the wind should blow upon thee: but yet recalling myself, thought I, I must venture you all with God, though it goeth to the quick to leave you: O I saw in this condition I was as a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children; yet thought I, I must do it; I must do it; and now I thought of those two milch kine that were to carry the ark of God into another country, and to leave their calves behind them (1 Sam. 6.10-12).

The passage from Samuel is a coded political statement: in this chapter the ark of the Lord has been in the country of the Philistines for seven months. The inhabitants call for the priests and diviners, asking: ‘What shall we do to the ark of the Lord? Tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place.’ They are advised to ‘send it not empty’, but to return ‘a trespass offering’. They attach two milch kine to the cart, and a coffer with ‘mice of gold and the images of their emerods’. The lords of the Philistines follow the cart to the border of Beth-shemesh. Later, God smites the men of Beth-shemesh because ‘they had looked into the ark of the Lord.’ In the next chapter, Samuel speaks to the house of Israel, saying: ‘If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.’ Bunyan thinks that his homeland is one which worships strange gods, and which will be punished before, like the children of Israel, it will put away Boalim and Ashtaroth and learn to serve ‘the Lord only’.

Bunyan feared that his ‘imprisonment might end at the gallows’:

It was a great trouble to me: for I thought with myself, that in the condition I now was in, I was not fit to die, neither did I think I could if I should be called to it: besides, I thought with myself, if I should make a scrambling shift to clamber up the ladder, yet I should either with quaking or other symptoms of faintings, give occasion to the enemy to reproach the way of God and his people, for their timorousness: this therefore lay with great trouble upon me, for methought I was ashamed to die with a pale face, and tottering knees, for such a cause as this.

He adds that he ‘was also at this time so really possessed with the thought of death, that oft I was as if I was on the ladder, with the rope about my neck’. He derives a bleak comfort from the thought that he might have an opportunity ‘to speak my last words to a multitude’. ‘If God will but convert one soul by my very last words, I shall not count my life thrown away, nor lost.’ Then, in a passage written in a direct, unflinching vernacular rhythm, he delivers this dramatic speech:

I thought also, that God might choose whether he would give me comfort now, or at the hour of death; but I might not therefore choose whether I would hold my profession or no: I was bound, but he was free: yea, twas my duty to stand to his Word, whether he would ever look upon me or no, or save me at the last: wherefore, thought I, the point being thus, I am for going on, and venturing my eternal state with Christ, whether I have comfort here or no; if God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the ladder even blindfolded into eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell; Lord Jesus, if thou wilt catch me, do, if not, I will venture for thy name.

Bunyan uses the word ‘scrambling’ when imagining how he would climb the ladder to the scaffold, and his relish of vernacular phrases is clear everywhere in his work. In ‘The Heavenly Footman’, he mentions the ‘soul-entangling flatteries’ of what he terms ‘sink-souls’. George Offor, Bunyan’s Victorian editor, says this is one of his ‘strong Saxonisms, full of meaning’. In ‘The Author’s Apology for His Book’, with which he prefaces The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan moves intuitively from the image of his fancies sticking ‘like burrs’ to say that his book is writ ‘in such a dialect/As may the minds of listless men affect’. Twice using the word ‘rude’ (an obsessive term in the work of his admirer John Clare), he justifies his art in a deliberately naive, vernacular style – ‘Be not too forward therefore to conclude/ that I want solidness, that I am rude’ – and goes on to deny that he is ‘rude’ in handling ‘figure, or similitude’. He is alluding here to A Discourse of Ecclesiastical Politie, a pamphlet published in 1670 by Samuel Parker, who was later to become the Bishop of Oxford, and who had dismissed the adherents of ‘Schismatical Non-conformity’ as the worst and most dangerous enemies to ‘the Security of Government’, and ‘the rudest and most barbarous people in the world’. Parker also called for an act of parliament to ‘abridge Preachers use of fulsome and lushious Metaphors’. Bunyan’s Scriptural Poems show a confident, precise grasp of the rhyming couplet, but in his verse apology for The Pilgrim’s Progress he aims to appear both wondering and slightly uncertain of his gift and of the reception of his book by his congregation who, like Parker, are unsympathetic to images, metaphors and artistic effects:

When at the first I took my pen in hand,
Thus for to write, I did not understand
That I at all should make a little book
In such a mode.

His confidence in his use of vernacular cadences shows in the sudden elucidatory parenthesis in this passage:

Am I afraid to say that Holy Writ,
Which for its style and phrase puts down all wit,
Is everywhere so full of all these things,
(Dark figures, allegories), yet there springs
From that same book that lustre and those rays
Of light that turns our darkest nights to days.

The way his voice drops in afterthought as he adds the explanation, ‘dark figures, allegories’, changes the rhythm of the lines before the original rhythm returns with a leap in the verb ‘springs’. The change of tone and cadence also softens and makes more subtle the ‘things’/‘springs’ rhyme. In an earlier couplet, ‘Fell suddenly into an allegory/About their journey, and the way to glory’, the greater stress on ‘glory’ pushes back onto ‘allegory’ to fuse the two words into the subliminal pun ‘alleglory’.

Bunyan’s first readers and those who followed them for many generations perceived the historical struggle his narrative describes. As he lifts his pen to start his ‘Author’s Apology’, I see Joe Gargery choosing a pen from the pen-tray ‘as if it were a chest of large tools’. Of course, Bunyan is a highly assured writer, and is only trying to reassure his audience with a display of anxious modesty, but the oral culture he embodies, like Joe’s, ‘savours’, as he would say, of human kindness and communal bonds.

He is a good limner, the author of one of the very greatest English hymns:

Who would true valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement,
Shall make him once relent,
His first avowed intent,
To be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round,
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright
He’ll with a giant fight,
But he will have a right,
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend,
Can daunt his spirit:
He knows, he at the end,
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day,
To be a pilgrim.

Prompted by Amiens’s song in As You Like It, Bunyan changes the abab rhyme scheme to resolute triplets before introducing the shorter, even tighter unrhymed refrain, with its two ih sounds – ‘pilgrim’. To stand by Bunyan’s tomb in Bunhill Fields is to muse on the way his name rhymes with the graveyard’s name – and it is to remember all those often anxious, but steady and fearless dissenters whom he inspired. Bunyan the wandering tinker, who became the convinced pilgrim, and fought the lion and the giant.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences