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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose|
10. 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
English prose in its excellence follows the proportions
manifested by the contours of the elevation of the world's
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
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
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
The force of simplicity finds here its most complete expression;
the story wells from the man's heart, whence come all great
"Then said the Interpreter to Christian, 'Hast thou considered
all these things?'
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.
"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
"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
"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
"Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry
heart, 'He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His
"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."
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