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The Glory Of English Prose
John Bunyan
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

In these letters I am never going to quote to you anything that does not seem to me to rise to a level of merit well above ordinary proper prose. There are many writers whose general correctness and excellence is not to be questioned or denied whom I shall not select in these letters for your particular admiration.

By and by, when your own love of literature impels you to excursions in all directions, you may perhaps come to differ from my judgment, for everyone's taste must vary a little from that of others.

English prose in its excellence follows the proportions manifested by the contours of the elevation of the world's land.

Vast tracts lie very near the sea-level, of such are the interminable outpourings of newspapers and novels and school books. And, as each ascent from the sea-level is reached, less and less land attains to it, and when the snow-line is approached only a very small proportion indeed of the land aspires so high.

So among writers, those who climb to the snow-line are a slender band compared to all the inhabitants of the lower slopes and plains.

In these letters I do not intend to mistake a pedlar for a mountaineer, nor a hearthstone for a granite peak. Time slowly buries deep in oblivion the writings of the industrious and the dull.

Born fifteen years later than Jeremy Taylor, of whom I wrote in a former letter, John Bunyan in 1660, being a Baptist, suffered the persecution then the lot of all dissenters, and was cast into Bedford gaol, where he lay for conscience' sake for twelve years. "As I walked through the wilderness of this world," said he, "I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a dream"; and the dream which he dreamed has passed into all lands, and has been translated into all languages, and has taken its place with the Bible and with the Imitation of Christ as a guide of life.

The force of simplicity finds here its most complete expression; the story wells from the man's heart, whence come all great things:—
"Then said the Interpreter to Christian, 'Hast thou considered all these things?'

"Christian. 'Yes, and they put me in hope and fear.'

"Interpreter. 'Well, keep all things so in thy mind that they may be as a goad in thy sides, to prick thee forward in the way thou must go.'

"Then Christian began to gird up his loins, and to address himself to his journey.

"Then said the Interpreter, 'The Comforter be always with thee, good Christian, to guide thee in the way that leads to the city.'

"So Christian went on his way.

"Now I saw in my dream that the highway up which Christian had to go was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below in the bottom a sepulchre.

"So I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

"Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, 'He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death.'

"Then he stood awhile to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden.

"He looked, therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks."
Bunyan died in 1688, and Dr. Johnson was born in 1709. Many years, therefore, elapsed between the time when they each displayed their greatest powers.

The interval was occupied by many reputable worldly-wise writers, but I do not myself find, between these two masters of English prose, anyone who wrote passages of such great lustre that I can quote them for your admiration.

You will have noticed, Antony, that all the writers whom I have quoted, and who reached the true nobility of speech necessary to command our tribute of unstinted praise, have been men of manifest piety and reverence.

And you will find it difficult to discover really great and eloquent prose from the pen of any man whose heart is not filled with a simple faith in the goodness of God.

Your loving old
G.P.

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