Introduction to John Bunyan's "THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS"

by G.K. Chesterton.

John Bunyan was born in 1628, probably in the November of that year, since his baptism followed in that month. His birthplace was the village of Elsow, just outside Bedford. His family was a good example of a thing of which there are many examples, and of which there cannot be too many-- a sort of plebian aristocracy, plain and insignificant in name and handicraft, but rooted in the land like a royal dukedom. The notion that Bunyan's origin lies amid vagrant tinkers is an error; it lies amid highly respectable tinkers, whose presence can be traced for generations and who had left such evidences as a whole farm which had always been called "Bonyon's End." Bunyan's grandfather, Thomas Bunyan, was a small tradesman or "chapman" who died in 1641; of his father less is known, beyond the fact that he had three wives, of whom the second was the mother of John Bunyan, and the third was to all appearance his worst enemy.

He has left on record himself that his youth was riotous, but to judge by the specimens which he gives it would have seemed to boast only a very mild and clumsy sort of rioting. In all human probability he was really only a course and awkward boy, sometimes dropping in among dubious companions, far more often drifting off sulkily by himself. He served in early life in the army, no uncommon episode in the careers of that kind of sullen wastrel. Some dispute has arisen, not indeed about the actuality of his military service, but about the side on which he served in the Civil War. General internal evidence, however, as well as enormous moral probability, allot him to the Parliamentarian camp.

In the year of the Restoration he was arrested for having preached to unlawful assemblies, and was imprisoned in Bedford Gaol for twelve years. In this sudden isolation, shut out from effective acting or speaking, it occurred to him systematically to write, and he opened the first window on the dark and amazing drama which had been going on within his seemingly dull personality while he ran about the fields to be away from his stepmother or leaned on his pike by the watch fires of the great war.

He wrote "Grace abounding to the Worst of Sinners" perhaps the most powerful work ever wrought by genius with the materials of morbidity. Certainly no Parisian decadent, no Swinburnian poet, no Beardsleyian artist so completely contrived to give disease the vigor of health. It is the masterpiece of an element which has a right to have a masterpiece, since it is a living and recurring element-- the element of the dark and hysterical soul of early youth. It is the epic of the pessimism of boyhood.

During the same period he wrote a less-known work called "The Holy City." He was released in 1672, but as he refused to abandon his preaching, which was now powerful and popular, he was flung back again into prison in 1675. It was during this second detention that he wrote the work which has set him finally among the English immortals, "The Pilgrim's Progress." Many controversies have raged as to whether he owed the allegorical type of narrative to anything before him, but all the allegories mentioned in this connection are almost as unlike "The Pilgrim's Progress" as they are unlike "Vanity Fair." The Elstow tinker produced an original thing, if an original thing was ever produced. Nothing stronger can be said of it than that it dwarfs altogether into insignificance "Grace Abounding" published before it, and "The Holy War," published afterwards. Bunyan, released from prison, died quietly in 1688.

Nobody will ever plumb the real depths and meaning of that extraordinary thing, the English Puritan movement. Why the English, whose nature it is to be particularly happy and particularly muddle-headed, should have been the one people in Europe to be influenced in so startling a manner by the bitterness and the logic of Calvin, must remain a riddle. It must remain a riddle for two reasons. First, that it was a religious thing and therefore unfathomable; and second, that it was a successful thing, and therefore we are all its heirs; we are looking at it through our Puritan spectacles, and talking about it through our Puritan noses. But whatever else the Puritan revolution was, there is one thing that it was not, and that is what a vast mass of opinion constantly represents that it was. It was not a step towards greater rationalism, or what we choose to call progress, it was not an advance in inquiry; and it was not, in the ordinary sense, an advance in civilization. To put the matter shortly, it was emphatically not a continuation of the Renaissance. If anything, it was a reaction against the Renaissance. It was essentially a barbaric thing, an outburst of the fierce, mysterious part of man. It had far less in common with modern nonconformist decorum. It had far more in common with some primitive religion, beating gongs and bellowing at an eclipse of the moon. It was the voice of that veiled thing within us which is so secret and intractable that men have never really known whether it is the beast, mystically enthroned, or the God sitting in the underworld. The word "savage" used here may, perhaps be misunderstood as indicating an animadversion against Puritainism; I use the word as a compliment. For I think the probability of the matter was really this, that Puritanism was a blind and heroic protest against a world that was growing more and more rational. At least we see that after the fall of Puritanism, when Cromwell's "righteous Commonwealth" had come crashing to the ground, we suddenly find ourselves in a world of dapper commonsense, a world perfectly unbelieving, perfectly modern. It may be that Bunyan was the last cry of English mysticism under the foot of Hobbes. Religion was indeed preached by the Cavaliers, both before and after the great war: before it, as a very noble scheme of national civilization; after it, as a very ingenious cog-wheel in the political constitution. Between the two rises Puritanism, a naked and roaring giant, announcing that religion is a wheel in no policy, a part of no civilization; a thing as old as fear, and a rapacious of love; that religion is what it really is, a terror, a splendor, a necessity, and a nuisance.

This impression is, at any rate, borne out by a strange literary phenomenon, which everyone must have noticed in connection with the literature of Puritanism. It can also be noticed in connection with the literature of the French Revolution, and of almost all other such religious wars. If we read the high-class literature just preceding or standing apart from the Puritan movement, we are startled to find it seem so much more recent and like ourselves than the literature of Puritanism. Puritanism seems thousands of years old, something that happened in the Stone Age, with its strange cries, its strange visions, its strange tears, its strange happiness. It has in its record a set of things indescribably big and primitive-- the slaying of a king, a sacred book, disgusting massacres, and an immortal epic. Go back a few years before it, and you pick up George Herbert or Herrick, and you will find yourself reading a perfectly modern and sensible sort of gentleman. This produces a peculiar impression on the mind. It is as if we were told that Herbert Spencer lived before Judas Maccabeus. The same singular effect can, as I have said, be noticed about the French Revolution. Danton and Marat are distant and gigantic figures in the dawn of the earth, and one sometimes finds it difficult to remember that they wore any clothes. When we remember that they lived a considerable time after the publication of "The Rivals" and about the time of the invention of the top hat, we feel our head turning topsy-turvy.

These great new outbursts of the elemental in man become suddenly centuries old. And this must, I think, be the real description of English Puritanism; that the soul of an ancient people which had once been profoundly religious, whose country had been called the Garden of Mary, and the Island of the Saints, felt by that sixth sense, that only the simple possess, the earth vibrating under the advancing elephant of Reason. Blinded by dense ignorance, bewildered in an anarchic age, furiously suspicious of philosophers and colleges and kings, it snatched up the first wild piece of new theology that lay to its hand and made war for religion, for the everlasting savage and the everlasting child. It had no culture, no guidance, no tradition, no dignity, no manners. The Puritans struck people of taste in their time simply as a sort of black goblins with big ears. But against every obstruction of misery and vulgarity, a way was broken by the divine energy of its hatred of the wisdom of the world. Before the Puritans were swept off the scene for ever, they had done two extraordinary things. They had broken to pieces in plain battle on an English meadow the chivalry of a great nation, bred from its youth to arms. And they brought forth from their agony a small book, called "The Pilgrim's Progress," which was greater literature than the whole contemporary culture of the great Renaissance, founded on three generation of the worship of learning and art.

The "Pilgrim's Progress" certainly exhibits all the marks of such a revival of primitive power and mystery. Its resemblance to the Bible is not a mere imitation of style; it is also a coincidence of mood. Bunyan, who was a soldier in Cromwell's army, had himself been thrown into a world almost as ferocious as that of Gideon, or the Maccabees, and he was really under the influence of the same kind of emotion. This was simply because, as I have said, Puritanism was a thing barbaric, and therefore eternal. Nowhere, perhaps, except in Homer, is there such a perfect description conveyed by the use of merely plain words. The description in Bunyan of how Moses came like a wind up the road, and was but a word and a blow; or how Apollyon straddled quite over the breadth of the way and swore by his infernal den-- these are things which can only be paralleled in sudden and splendid phrases out of Homer or the Bible, such as the phrases about the monstrous and man-killing hands of Achilles, or the war-horse who laughs at the shaking of the spear.

There is another aspect of Bunyan and the Puritan movement which cannot be neglected, because it throws so great a light on the particular work of Bunyan. To a very considerable extent it is possible to identify even the most important theological and philosophical movement merely with frames of mind. The peculiar frame of mind of Puritanism was a sense of the deadly danger of existence. The whole tendency of England and of the greater part of Europe during the sixteenth century was towards the settlement of everything; toward a pleasant piety, a satisfying learning, well-ordered politics, an authentic philosophy, and so on. It was characteristic of an age in which, for the first time, comfortable private houses began to be built. Just as comfortable houses were built, so were comfortable constitutions built, and comfortable churches built. But no one to whom the name of Bunyan is anything more than a name can ever forget the impression of that awful chapter in "Grace Abounding," in which the sinner takes refuge in place after place only to expect that roof after roof will crash down upon him, and that he is safe nowhere if the very Universe that he inherits belongs to one who is his enemy. Nor will anyone forget the chapter in which the sinner is reconciled to the Universe, and walks about the fields and cannot forbear from talking to the birds about the great mercy of God. It is this general an acute sense of danger that is the soul of Puritanism, and the soul of the "Pilgrim's Progress."

There are an innumerable company of good and picturesque figures in the "Pilgrim's Progress." There is the dark man clad in bright vesture (that admirable person), there is Mr. Worldly-wiseman, whose conversation is indistinguishable from that of a modern philanthropist. There is Apollyon, whose eloquence is like the noblest eloquence of the seventeenth century. There is the Giant Despair, who needs no introduction in the modern enlightened world. But no figure in the whole story quite seizes on the imagination, at once pictorial and spiritual, like the figure with which the whole graphic parable begins. The wild figure of the Pilgrim himself with the burden on his back, and his fingers in his ears, running like mad out of the clamorous and scornful and derisive city, which is called the City of Destruction--this certainly is the embodiment of the actual literary energy of Bunyan.

There may be some--I do not know if there are--who will be so much alienated by the seventeenth century apparatus of the great story, so much out of sympathy with endless arguments about the Atonement, so unresponsive to the significance of the Scriptural names and titles, so weary of old texts, so scornful of old doctrines, that they will fancy that this ancient Puritan poetry of danger is interesting only from a literary and not at all from a philosophical or religious point of view. For such people there is, I suppose, still waiting untried that inevitable mood of which a man may stand amid a fields of flowers in the quiet sunlight and realize that of all conceivable things the most dangerous thing is to be alive.

[home] Up to G.K.Chesterton's Works on the Web.
Last modified: 16th April, 2012
Martin Ward, Software Technology Research Lab, De Montfort University, Leicester.