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Outlines of English and American Literature
John Bunyan
by Long, William J.

There is a striking contrast between the poet and the prose writer of the Puritan age. Milton the poet is a man of culture, familiar with the best literature of all ages; Bunyan the prose writer is a poor, self-taught laborer who reads his Bible with difficulty, stumbling over the hard passages. Milton writes for the cultivated classes, in harmonious verse adorned with classic figures; Bunyan speaks for common men in sinewy prose, and makes his meaning clear by homely illustrations drawn from daily life. Milton is a solitary and austere figure, admirable but not lovable; Bunyan is like a familiar acquaintance, ruddy-faced, clear-eyed, who wins us by his sympathy, his friendliness, his good sense and good humor. He is known as the author of one book, The Pilgrim's Progress, but that book has probably had more readers than any other that England has ever produced.


During Bunyan's lifetime England was in a state of religious ferment or revival, and his experience of it is vividly portrayed in a remarkable autobiography called Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. In reading this book we find that his life is naturally separated into two periods. His youth was a time of struggle with doubts and temptations; his later years were characterized by inward peace and tireless labor. His peace meant that he was saved, his labor that he must save others. Here, in a word, is the secret of all his works.

He was born (1628) in the village of Elstow, Bedfordshire, and was the son of a poor tinker. He was sent to school long enough to learn elementary reading and writing; then he followed the tinker's trade; but at the age of sixteen, being offended at his father's second marriage, he ran away and joined the army.

As a boy Bunyan had a vivid but morbid imagination, which led him to terrible doubts, fears, fits of despondency, hallucinations. On such a nature the emotional religious revivals of the age made a tremendous impression. He followed them for years, living in a state of torment, until he felt himself converted; whereupon he turned preacher and began to call other sinners to repentance. Such were his native power and rude eloquence that, wherever he went, the common people thronged to hear him.

In Bedford Jail

After the Restoration all this was changed. Public meetings were forbidden unless authorized by bishops of the Established Church, and Bunyan was one of the first to be called to account. When ordered to hold no more meetings he refused to obey, saying that when the Lord called him to preach salvation he would listen only to the Lord's voice. Then he was thrown into Bedford jail. During his imprisonment he supported his family by making shoe laces, and wrote Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim's Progress.

After his release Bunyan became the most popular writer and preacher in England. He wrote a large number of works, and went cheerfully up and down the land, preaching the gospel to the poor, helping the afflicted, doing an immense amount of good. He died (1688) as the result of exposure while on an errand of mercy. His works were then known only to humble readers, and not until long years had passed did critics awaken to the fact that one of England's most powerful and original writers had passed away with the poor tinker of Elstow.

Works of Bunyan

From the pen of this uneducated preacher came nearly sixty works, great and small, the most notable of which are: Grace Abounding (1666), a kind of spiritual autobiography; The Holy War (1665), a prose allegory with a theme similar to that of Milton's epic; and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1682), a character study which was a forerunner of the English novel. These works are seldom read, and Bunyan is known to most readers as the author of The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). This is the famous allegory [Footnote: Allegory is figurative writing, in which some outward object or event is described in such a way that we apply the description to humanity, to our mental or spiritual experiences. The object of allegory, as a rule, is to teach moral lessons, and in this it is like a drawn-out fable and like a parable. The two greatest allegories in our literature are Spenser's Faery Queen and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.] in which, under guise of telling the story of a pilgrim in search of a city, Bunyan portrays the experiences of humanity in its journey from this world to the next. Here is an outline of the story:

Story of Pilgrim's Progress

In the City of Destruction lives a poor sinner called Christian. When he learns that the city is doomed, he is terrified and flees out of it, carrying a great burden on his back. He is followed by the jeers of his neighbors, who have no fear. He seeks a safe and abiding city to dwell in, but is ignorant how to find it until Evangelist shows him the road.

As he goes on his journey Mr. Worldly Wiseman meets him and urges him to return; but he hastens on, only to plunge into the Slough of Despond. His companion Pliable is here discouraged and turns back. Christian struggles on through the mud and reaches the Wicket Gate, where Interpreter shows him the way to the Celestial City. As he passes a cross beside the path, the heavy burden which he carries (his load of sins) falls off of itself. Then with many adventures he climbs the steep hill Difficulty, where his eyes behold the Castle Beautiful. To reach this he must pass some fearful lions in the way, but he adventures on, finds that the lions are chained, is welcomed by the porter Watchful, and is entertained in the castle overnight.

Dangers thicken and difficulties multiply as he resumes his journey. His road is barred by the demon Apollyon, whom he fights to the death. The way now dips downward into the awful Valley of the Shadow. Passing through this, he enters the town of Vanity, goes to Vanity Fair, where he is abused and beaten, and where his companion Faithful is condemned to death. As he escapes from Vanity, the giant Despair seizes him and hurls him into the gloomy dungeon of Doubt. Again he escapes, struggles onward, and reaches the Delectable Mountains. There for the first time he sees the Celestial City, but between him and his refuge is a river, deep and terrible, without bridge or ford. He crosses it, and the journey ends as angels come singing down the streets to welcome Christian into the city. [Footnote: This is the story of the first part of Pilgrim's Progress, which was written in Bedford jail, but not published till some years later. In 1684 Bunyan published the second part of his story, describing the adventures of Christiana and her children on their journey to the Celestial City. This sequel, like most others, is of minor importance.]

Such an outline gives but a faint idea of Bunyan's great work, of its realistic figures, its living and speaking characters, its knowledge of humanity, its portrayal of the temptations and doubts that beset the ordinary man, its picturesque style, which of itself would make the book stand out above ten thousand ordinary stories. Pilgrim's Progress is still one of our best examples of clear, forceful, idiomatic English; and our wonder increases when we remember that it was written by a man ignorant of literary models. But he had read his Bible daily until its style and imagery had taken possession of him; also he had a vivid imagination, a sincere purpose to help his fellows, and his simple rule of rhetoric was to forget himself and deliver his message. In one of his poems he gives us his rule of expression, which is an excellent one for writers and speakers:

                         Thine only way,
  Before them all, is to say out thy say
  In thine own native language.


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