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MEMOIR OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS
HE most popular religious book in English literature, — in which the most popular books are of a religious character, — is the production of an
uneducated peasant, who worked his way out of the lowest vice and ignorance, not by the force of his genius, so much as by that of an impulse which quickened his genius into life, and transformed him at once intellectually and morally. The finest specimen of wellsustained allegory in any language, is the composition of this self-taught rustic, who little aimed at literary celebrity in the homely parable which he wrote to solace his prison hours, for the religious instruction of the common people. The most admirable exposition of the elements of Christian theology, - one which is so little of a controversial or sectarian character, that it may confessedly be read without offence by sober-minded Protestants of all persuasions, and yet so comprehensive, as to form the best popular body of divinity,- is the composition of an obscure itinerant preacher, whose apostolic labours consigned him, in the days of the Stuarts, to a twelve years' imprisonment in Bedford gaol, for no other crime than his nonconformity. What is still more remarkable, this work, the Odyssey of the English people,—the favourite with young and old; which the poet admires for its imaginative beauty, and in which the artist finds the most delightful subjects for the pencil; to the extraordinary merit of which, testimony has been borne by critics who have had no sympathy with either the design and religious spirit of the work, or the theological opinions interwoven with it, and who rank the realities shadowed in the allegory with the visionary creations of romance ;--this work-we need not name it, the Pilgrim's Progress, is, in fact, a powerful address to the conscience; having no other object than to delineate the successive stages of the spiritual life, and to portray the mental conflicts of experimental piety, which, to those who have no corresponding experience, must appear the hallucination of fanaticism. Strange that a work should have power so to please the imagination of an indevout man, which can be understood only by the heart in which religion has its seat ;-that those who have not the key to the cipher, should still admire the character in which the spiritual meaning is veiled, and which experience alone can perfectly interpret. But such is the fact. This extraordinary work, it has been beautifully remarked by an American critic, “ is like a painting meant to be exhibited by fire-light: the common reader sees it by day. To the Christian (the actual pilgrim) it is a glorious transparency; and the light that shines through it, and gives its incidents such life, its colours such depth, and the whole scene such a surpassing glory, is light from eternity, the meaning of heaven.”
Religion never offends, so long as she addresses only the imagination ; a fact of which, for opposite purposes, the Author of all Truth and the apostles of error have alike availed themselves ; the former to gain access by this avenue to the understanding and the conscience, the latter to enlist the imagination in the support of superstition. He who spake as never man spake, taught the people in parables, and by this means obtained a hearing from those who could not bear his hard sayings; and still these divine allegories—the matchless parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance—have charms for readers who never take home to their own bosoms their spiritual import. Rousseau has eloquently eulogised the sublime poetry of the Scriptures. The Pilgrim's Progress is replete with the spirit of poetry, caught from no earthly muse. Bunyan's genius was nourished purely from the fountain - head of inspiration. He thought in the very dialect of Scripture; and the imagery of the Bible was ever present to his thoughts, as, if we may say so, the native scenery of his spiritual birth. He was made by the Bible; educated by the study of it; it was his “ book of all learning;” and the simplicity of purpose and the intense interest with which he searched its contents, as the treasury of heavenly wisdom, rendered him, like Apollos, “ eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures,” wbile his mind became more and more imbued with their “spirit and life.” It bas been said with some truth, that the genius of his work is Hebrew. “ The poetry of the Bible,” remarks the critic to whom we have already referred, “ was not less the source of Bunyan's poetical power, than the study of the whole Scriptures was the source of his simplicity and purity of style. His heart was not only made new by the spirit of the Bible, but his whole intellectual being was penetrated and transfigured by its influence. He brought the spirit and power gathered from so long and exclusive a communion with the prophets and apostles, to the composition of every page of the Pilgrim's Progress. To the habit of mind thus induced, and the workings of an imagination thus disciplined, may be
traced the simplicity of all his imagery, and the power of his personifications. . . . . He wrote from the impulse of his genius, sanctified and illuminated by a heavenly influence : and its movements were as artless as the movements of a little child left to play upon the green by itself.”* It is in this inimitable simplicity and artlessness, that the work comes nearer to the character of the sacred writings than, perhaps, any uninspired composition.
And, like the Scriptures, Bunyan's parable, while it commands the admiration of cultivated minds by those qualities which delight the imagination, has conveyed instruction and consolation to thousands incapable of appreciating its genius, and unconscious of the spell which it exerted over their minds. To the child, it is a gallery of pictures; to the man of taste, an exquisite drama; to the plain Christian of duller fancy, a chart and road-book of his course through this world. With regard to many whom the Pilgrim's Progress captivates, it might be said of its Author as of the Hebrew prophet : “ Lo! thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.” On the other hand, thousands who have had no ear for the music, have delighted in the words of the song, and have followed the instruction it conveyed : it would not otherwise be adapted to the mass of common minds among the lower classes for whom it was designed, and upon whom it has, for two hundred years, exerted a beneficial effect which it is impossible to bring within any estimate. But the rich vein of native good sense and sober pleasantry which runs through the work, recommends it to all orders of readers; and the Pilgrim's Progress was the favourite of the people, before the fame of its Author had made its way up to those who are called the public. In the “ well-told tale,"
“ Sweet fiction and sweet truth alike prevail.
Its humorous vein, strong sense, and simple style,
North American Review, No. LXXIX. p. 462.
Witty, and well employed, and, like thy Lord,
Should move a sneer at thy deserved fame.” So Cowper sang fifty years ago; and that there is no longer any danger of moving a sneer by naming the Author of the Pilgrim's Progress, affords reason to hope that we have grown, in this country, somewhat wiser.
In addition to these various sources of attraction, the work possesses, in a considerable degree, the interest of autobiography: for it is impossible not to feel that, in the progress of his pilgrim, the Author is laying open to us his own mental history. As he tells us in his homely rhymes,
“ It came from mine own heart, so to my head,
And thence into my fingers trickled." This characteristic feature of the parable broadly and happily distinguishes it from the heavy ingenuities of didactic or sentimental allegorists, such as the brood of imitators whom his success raised up, or those who had preceded him in the same species of composition. The charge of being a plagiarist, or of having been assisted in the composition, Bunyan himself indignantly repels :
“ Manner and matter too was all mine own." “But,” remarks Dr. Southey, “original as Bunyan believed his own work to be, and as, in the main, undoubtedly it is, the same allegory had often been treated before him."*
Mr. Montgomery, in his very able Introductory Essay to the Pilgrim's Progress, refers to a poem, entitled “ The Pilgrim,” in Witney's “ Emblems," (1585,) the print affixed to which represents a pilgrim leaving the world, (a geographical globe,) and travelling towards the symbol of the Divine Name. This emblem, with the following stanza, might, it is imagined, have suggested to Bunyan the first idea of his story; though it does not, in fact, present any thing beyond the familiar scripture simile :
“O happier they that, pondering this arighte,
Before that here their pilgrimage bee past,
Where, without rust, it lastes for evermore.” Dr. Southey mentions a once popular French poem, composed A. d. 1310, entitled, “ Le Pelerin de la Vie Humaine,” as having suggested the Voyage of