“If you will go with us you must go against wind and tide…” John Bunyan is, or seems to be, a man of dogged sincerity and meticulous accuracy. If he describes the engines of war, each detail is correct. This factual correctness gives weight to the allegorical and moral truths that he tells. “I have used similitudes,” says the epigraph on the title page of The Pilgrim's Progress¹. The words are taken from the Old Testament book of Hosea (xii.10). “The father of the novel, salvation's first Defoe,” Rudyard Kipling called him. We believe Bunyan more readily than we do Defoe, despite the realism with which Defoe portrays the contingent world. This is because Bunyan at his best is not only telling a story but building a marvellous structure, in which all the parts relate to one another. Defoe tells us a series of stories while Bunyan has a plot. Defoe describes others while Bunyan confronts us, figuratively, with a version of ourselves. Melville, his greatest literary beneficiary, invokes him: “Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl…” And Bunyan has a gentle and generous sense of humour. Ford Madox Ford says, “The difference between Bunyan and his predecessors is one more than anything of whole-heartedness...” A more real difference, separating him from many of his successors as well, is his formal instinct. Bunyan is at once more mediaeval (allegorical) and more modern (synthetic) than most.
It is customary for critics to condescend to him. Henry James deals with him obliquely, applauding Edgar Allan Poe for having the “courage to remark” that Pilgrim's Progress is a “ludicrously overrated book”. And Ford: “So let us say that it was to the homespun illustrations, the simple imagery and the stern diction of the Bible that we owe Bunyan – for obviously Bunyan read the Scriptures, year in and year out, during a lifetime of Bedford Gaol, of persecution and turmoil...” Bunyan is less homespun than Defoe, his imagery rather more complex and resonant than Richardson's. It is Bunyan's manifest didactic, spiritual purpose that seems out of place in the world of fiction. Novels exist to test ideas, not to affirm them. But here is an exception: The Pilgrim's Progress is for use, the characters are figures, their clarity is complex. The critic condescends, but ends up marvelling: “He just told on in simple language, using such simple images that the reader, astonished and charmed to find the circumstances of his own life typified [my italics] in word and glorified by print, is seized by the homely narrative and carried clean out of himself into the world of that singular and glorious tinker.”
‘Tinker’ because his father Thomas was a tinsmith and brazier. In Grace Abounding, Bunyan declared: “my descent [...] was, as is well known by many, of a low and unconsiderable generation; my Father's house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families in the land.” This over-states the case: his father owned land, his own house and workshop, and was by later account a Royalist and Anglican. Bunyan exaggerates his humble origins in order to include as wide a constituency as possible in his embrace. “Wherefore I have not here, as others, to boast of noble Blood, or of a high-born State according to the Flesh; though, all things considered, I magnify the heavenly Majesty, for that by the door he brought me into the world, to partake of the Grace and Life that is in Christ by the Gospel.” And why is his style so simple? The reasons are moral, even though the aesthetic demands might have elicited a different mode of address, as he says in the Preface to Grace Abounding:
I could have enlarged much in this my Discourse of my Temptations and Troubles for Sin; as also, of the merciful Kindness, and Working of God with my Soul: I could also 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: God did not play in tempting of me; neither did I play, when I sunk as into a bottomless Pit, when the Pangs of Hell caught hold upon me; wherefore I may not play in relating of them, but be plain and simple, and lay down the thing as it was: He that liketh it, let him receive it; and he that does not, let him produce a better. Farewell.
This is strong stuff. In such Puritan writing we marvel at the spiritual hubris implied in the excessive humility, and in the absolute assurance that God actually cares so directly and so much.
Bunyan identifies his patron in the Preface of Grace Abounding. The author's dedication is “to those whom God hath counted him worthy to beget to Faith, by his Ministry in the Word.” In other words, the book is dedicated to those he has converted or brought back to church, and through their witness to God himself. Imprisoned (“I being taken from you in presence, and so tied up, that I cannot perform that duty, that from God doth lie upon me, to you-ward, for your further edifying and building up...”), he provides an alternative presence, a witness. The clauses follow one another with absolute, unaffected clarity, building long, limpid sentences, unambiguous and reassuring in tone.
John Bunyan was born in 1628 to his father's second wife in Harrowden, near Elstow, Bedfordshire. The cottage where he was born vanished long ago, but the spot is marked by a commemorative stone placed there during the Festival of Britain. He attended the thirteenth-century abbey church of St Helena and St Mary where he was baptised in the font still in use today; and the communion table, too, is from his time. The church overlooks the Green and the Moot Hall. His parents and sisters are buried in the churchyard. This is the village where he spent his youth, rang bells and played tip-cat on the green, nineholes and perhaps stoolball (an early form of cricket). He was reportedly a strong, lusty lad with a commanding voice. The commanding voice of God spoke to him as a boy playing tip-cat on the Sabbath: “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to heaven? Or have thy sins and go to hell?” Some years later he took heed.
He may have attended Bedford's Grammar School, or perhaps the Free School in Houghton Conquest. But he was, by his own account, unmarked by formal education, picking up at best a few words of Latin and Greek. He was apprenticed in the smithy with his father, soon learned the trade and travelled the countryside with him or on his behalf. Later he lay claim to a blasphemous, wayward childhood and a troubled adolescence, racked with terrible, involuntary thoughts, visions and dreams that drove him close to suicide. This may have been dramatic exaggeration, intended to emphasise how great an effort of divine Grace was required to hoist him out of the mire.
He was in his early teens when the First Civil War began (1642-6). It is uncertain why he joined, whether he actually fought, whether he joined for Parliament, and if he did whether he stayed on that side throughout the war. Bedford was a broadly Parliamentarian district though Charles I recruited here as he passed through en route to his climactic defeat at Naseby, 1645. Did he see action there? In Grace Abounding he relates, “when I was a soldier, I, with others, were drawn out to go to such a place to besiege it; but when I was just ready to go, one of the company desired to go in my room; to which, when I had consented, he took my place; and coming to the siege, as he stood sentinel, he was shot into the head with a musket bullet, and died.”
Whatever the truth of the matter, he was demobbed in 1647 and entered his father's business, working away, in Bedford and elsewhere, as an itinerant. Though not yet directly involved or even deeply interested in political or religious controversies, the roots of his spiritual reformation are in this time of his life. He began attending church, reading Scripture. He gave up swearing, gaming and dancing. In 1648 he married his first wife, an orphan: “I changed my condition into a married state, and my mercy was to light upon a wife whose father was counted godly. This woman and I, though we came together as poor as poor might be, not having so much household stuff as a dish or spoon betwixt us both, yet this she had for her part, The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven, and The Practice of Piety, which her father had left her when he died.” He married, then: a woman, and two edifying books to add to his Bible. The next year, Charles I was executed.
Bunyan was now a family man. His daughter Mary was born in 1650, blind from birth and the apple of his eye. Two sons followed, and another daughter. It was Mary who brought him a jug of soup each evening during his imprisonment. He made a violin out of tin and a flute from a chair leg. Music was integral to his Puritanism.
1653 was the turning point in his spiritual life. He befriended the Puritan pastor of St John's Church, Bedford, Mr Gifford, who became his mentor, baptising him a second time in the Ouse, somewhere between what is now Duck Mill Lane car park and the weir bridge. In the same year he fell from a boat into the Ouse and was narrowly saved from drowning. “I fell out of a boat into Bedford river, but mercy yet preserved me alive,” he reports in Grace Abounding. He moved permanently to Bedford and became deacon at St John's. He was invited to begin preaching, at first privately, then in public. He was good at it, quickly gained a following, and became insistently devout, a “soldier of Christ” in the words of Ebenezer Chandler. Then his wife died, followed shortly by Mr Gifford.
Bunyan had the bit between his teeth. In 1656 began his fierce attack on the Quaker preacher Edward Burrough, and on Quakerism generally, in Some Gospel Truths Opened, his first published pamphlet. Thus he entered into the tradition of “Martin Marprelate”, Nashe and Greene, a controversialist, but a consistent fighter, not a pen for hire. The next year Vindication of Gospel Truths followed. He was formally recognised as a preacher and was soon in trouble with the law for preaching outside his area. In 1658 he published A Few Sighs From Hell.
His concerns deepened as his life settled into a more coherent routine. He married a second time and published The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded. The larger, visible structure of his faith was beginning to take shape. Then in 1660 came the Restoration. Charles II may have undertaken to tolerate religious dissenters with the Declaration of Breda, but the politic intention and the political will were at odds. The wind no longer blew the Puritan way. In October the magistrates of Bedfordshire ordered the reinstatement of Anglican liturgy. On 12 November Bunyan was scheduled to preach at Lower Samsell. Upon arrival he was advised that a warrant had been issued for his arrest by the judge Francis Wingate. Wingate and his brother-in-law William Foster tried to persuade Bunyan to offer certain concessions in exchange for his freedom. But, he insisted, he had broken no new law. Bunyan was imprisoned at Bedford, in a gaol on the old bridge over the Ouse. He spent a third of his adult life incarcerated, and it is in large part to this restraint that we owe his writings.
In January he appeared before Sir John Keeling ('Lord Hate-Good' in Pilgrim's Progress) at the Assizes, charged with “devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to Church to hear Divine Service, and for being a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom, contrary to the laws of our sovereign lord and king.” When Bunyan tried to outline his objections to Anglican ritual, a voice exclaims “let him speak no further; he will do harm!” Keeling replied: “No, no, never fear him... he can do no harm; we know the Common Prayer Book hath been ever since the Apostles' time.” He was sentenced to three months with the added threat of banishment if no recantation was forthcoming. Bunyan retorted: “if I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow, by the help of God.”
After twelve weeks, Bunyan was visited in prison by Cobb, a clerk of the peace. Cobb urged that a loyal subject of the King was bound by St. Paul to obey the King's laws. Although St Paul respected the authorities, Bunyan said, he spent time in prison nonetheless. His own loyalty to Charles II did not override what his conscience told him was his duty. Wycliff had declared that he who discontinues preaching and hearing the word of God for fear of the excommunication of man was already excommunicated of God. Bunyan's imprisonment continued despite the amnesty marking the coronation.
The Act of Uniformity of 1662 institutionalised the episcopalian (Catholic) character of the English church, depriving thousands of pastors of their right to preach while restoring others to their parishes. Bunyan's hitherto fairly relaxed regime was tightened; the conditions of his imprisonment remained poor until 1668, though he was allowed a 'library' – “the least and yet the best that ever I saw”: his Bible. “I was never out of the Bible either by reading or meditation.” To support his family he spent his days making shoelaces, reading, writing, preaching to and counselling fellow inmates. As more acts hostile to the Puritan cause were passed, so Bunyan's polemical and reflective work continued. In 1666 he published his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. After a very brief period of freedom, he was rearrested after unauthorised preaching. After 1668 he was allowed limited access to visit his congregations outside gaol. and four years later, in 1672, he was elected pastor. Charles II's Declaration of Indulgence led to his release from Bedford Prison after twelve years. He became pastor of the Independent Congregation, composed largely of burghers and tradesmen, and was now a famous man. He began to preach widely, as far afield as Reading and London. One account says that in London he drew a crowd twelve hundred strong even though he preached at seven in the morning on a working winter's day. On Sundays he drew three thousand and more. Enemies dubbed him 'Bishop Bunyan'. Libels were spread alleging immorality, Jesuitism, even witchcraft.
It was too good to last. The Declaration of Indulgence was overturned in 1673: elements in Parliament thought it favoured the Catholics. In 1674 Bunyan was accused of keeping Agnes Beaumont (herself accused of poisoning her father because of his disapproval) as his mistress. In 1675 Bunyan's license to preach was revoked and he went back to prison. He began work on The Pilgrim's Progress. He was briefly released, then re-arrested. He may even have been grateful this time for the opportunity to return to his imaginary adventures.
In 1677 The Pilgrim's Progress was published, the first of an unprecedented twelve editions within Bunyan's remaining lifetime. By 1792 it had gone through one hundred and sixty editions and was, by most polite authors, regarded with derision. Whatever the English intellectual classes thought, the book was a popular success throughout the Protestant world and was translated into French and Dutch within a decade. His already prolific output quickened, but apart from the cautionary tale The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) nothing quite lived up to Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim's Progress. Mr Badman is an allegory in dialogue form in which Mr Wiseman recounts the life of Mr Badman, recently deceased, and Mr Attentive comments upon it. Mr Badman drank too much, duped a maid and married for money and, upon her death, remarried a wicked woman. He died of a cocktail of diseases. Morally uplifting, the story is also funny. Despite the solemnity of his themes, Bunyan is never a severe or po-faced writer.
In 1687, acknowledging his influence and power, James II offered him a “place of public trust”; Bunyan declined, but gained concessions for his friends. His health was in decline and the next year he caught a fever from having travelled to London in bad weather to try to settle a conflict between a young man and his father. He preached a final sermon and 31 August brought 'the Death of deare Brother Bunyan'. He was buried at Bunhill Fields, where Defoe, Blake and other radical spirits would eventually join him. Due to Victorian restoration, his is by far the most elaborate tomb there, with an imposing marble effigy and bas-relief depictions of scenes from The Pilgrim's Progress. In Bedford himself he stands nine feet tall and green with corrosion at the top of the High Street.
In The Pilgrim's Progress the narrator, weary from walking “through the Wilderness of this World”, finds a den, falls asleep and starts to dream, all within the opening sentence. We are immediately in the mediaeval world of allegory. William Langland is not far away, though Bunyan's sense of structure is far more certain than Langland's, and his translation of the terms of moral argument into a consistent fiction more assured. This has much to do with his style. “The Pilgrim's Progress,” writes Coleridge with measured respect, because from Bunyan he had learned some of the lessons that went into the making of his balladic Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “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. For works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are the more necessary it is to be plain.” His success also has to do with consistency. The unfolding of the allegory, David Lodge reminds us, is controlled completely by correspondences, usually quite specific, to the meanings implied or declared in the given names. But we may feel inclined to disagree with Lodge when he declares that Bunyan lacks what Henry James called “the sense of felt life”. Here we find fear, friendship, tenderness, doubt, joy, grief. There are feelings and there are textures, scents and savours. All that is lacking are literal contingencies which, Bunyan might have said, are rather overvalued in the fictions of this world.
The sleeper spots Christian, bearing a burden on his back and reading from a book in which he learns that the city in which he and his family dwell will be burned with fire. On advice from the Evangelist, Christian flees from the City of Destruction, a kind of Gomorrah, having failed to persuade his wife and children to accompany him. Salvation is a painfully lonely exercise, and the path leads through various perils, temptations and places of recuperation. In Part One the ten chief stopping places are familiar to us, some from the Psalms, others from Blake, Thackeray or elsewhere.
The Slough of Despond
The Interpreter's House
The Palace Beautiful
The Valley of Humiliation
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
The Delectable Mountains
The Country of Beulah
The Celestial City
On the way he encounters a variety of faces and voices: Mr Worldly Wise-man, Faithful (who goes with him but is killed in Vanity Fair), Hopeful (who also joins him), Giant Despair, the foul fiend Apollyon, and many others. This is a world that in its lineaments reminds us now of Spenser's Faerie Queene, except there is little decoration; now of Dante's Inferno, but there is more hope and forgiveness at hand, and Christian is supported from within and urges his way forward with hope rather than fear.
Bunyan himself in imaging the places of trial and temptation may have had specific places in mind: the wicket gate at Elstow church, Squitch Fen, St. John's Rectory, the Chilterns and so on. Some of the allegorical figures were based on human models, for example Evangelist is John Gifford, who brought him to faith. These personal occasions are lost to us: they were part of the process of composition and visualisation, making the pilgrimage real to the author and therefore to us.
Part Two brings the family along. Christian's wife Christiana and children set out on the same hard pilgrimage, accompanied by neighbour Mercy (Christiana's gossip) and over-ruling the objections of Mrs Timorous. Their escort Great Heart overwhelms Giant Despair and they too come to their destination. First man, then woman, first husband, then wife, make their way to salvation.
What makes this story, predictable in its outcome, passage by passage derivative of the Bible, so compelling, so durable, is the reality of its allegorical figuration, and its humour. It is the best fruits of Puritan culture, setting out to include every person among its readers. “I could not have believed beforehand that Calvinism could be painted in such exquisitely delightful colours,” said Coleridge. Bunyan is a most uncommon common man, a man of the people and of a demanding, democratic, accountable faith. Into his novel of practical faith he works dramatic dialogue or interrogation, for example when the Porter cross-examines Christian, or Greatheart elicits from Valiant, like an attorney, an account of his adventures and heroisms; verse, including Bunyan's famous hymn, “Who would true valour see” and runs of homespun couplets for invocations and conclusions; regular marginal rubrics, as in the case of published sermons, summarising action or speech, indicating Biblical allusions; and other formal features, making for a rich impurity and variety of effect. The author avails himself of the elements he feels will make his work direct and “understanded”. Writing in the provinces, he rejects the new urban and the pastoral mode; he knows what literature is and he avoids it because it tends to falsify. No University has infected him with a witty brilliance. His book does not limit itself to a scholarly or cultured class, nor to the rich and powerful. Yet it is figurative, it plays constantly between the Bible and allegory, it is more complex in conception and consistent in execution than any English prose work tat precedes it. It is original without meaning to be; it entertains even the pagan heart. Bunyan's direct legacy is to his faith; his oblique and lasting legacy is to writers including Defoe, Swift and Smollett; Blake and Thackeray (Vanity Fair) and Coleridge; Hawthorne (The Celestial Railway, 1843), and Louisa May Alcott; to Joyce and Wyndham Lewis and Gore Vidal (Burr abundantly alludes to him), to all the makers and re-makers both of plain and of figurative styles.
1. Or to give it its full title, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That which is to Come: Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, Wherein is Discovered The Manner of his setting out, His dangerous Journey , and Safe Arrival at the Desired Country.