CHAPTER IV. THE PURITANS. BUNYAN'S “PILGRIM'S PROGRESS.”
The renaissance of learning, with its delight in a sense of existence, its enjoyment of a new life, a newly acquired knowledge, and a quickened intelligence, was gradually supplanted by that renaissance of religion which followed the general introduction of the Bible among the English people. Weary of the oppression of the clergy, weary of giving an often ruinous obedience to the tyranny of men whose lives gave them no claim to control the conduct of others, the early Puritan found in the Bible the knowledge of God and the means of grace which he despaired of obtaining from the priest. The Bible became in realityThe Book. It was the one volume possessed and read by the people at large. The classical authors, the volumes of translations issued in Elizabeth's time, the productions, even, of English genius had been familiar only to the upper and best-educated classes. The great body of the people were without books, and the Bible became their one literary resource, and the sole teacher of the conditions by which salvation could be attained. It was seized upon with extraordinary avidity and enthusiasm. Old men learned to read, that they might study it for themselves. Crowds gathered in churches and private houses to hear it read aloud. A good reader became a public benefactor. Alike in manor and in cottage, the family gathered at night to listen with awe-struck interest to the solemn words whose grandeur was not yet lessened by familiarity. As we quote, often unconsciously, from a hundred different authors, the Puritans quoted from their one book. Some, like Bunyan, at first preferred the historical chapters. But the Bible soon came to have a far more powerful and absorbing interest than any of a literary nature. There men looked for their sentence of eternal life or eternal torment. There they sought the solution of the question: “What shall I do to be saved?” And they sought it with all the fervor of conscientious men who realized, as we cannot realize, the doctrine of eternal damnation. To understand the influence of the Bible, we must remember how completely men believed in a personal God, ruling England then, as He had ruled Israel of old; and in a devil who stalked through the world luring men to their perdition. The Bible was studied with a fearful eagerness for the way to please the one and to escape the other. Looked upon as the word of God, pointing out the only means of salvation, men placed themselves, through the Bible, in direct communication with the Deity, and, casting aside the authority of a church, acknowledged responsibility to Him alone. The difficulty of interpreting obscure portions of the Scriptures drove many to frenzy and despair. A hopeful or consoling passage was hailed with joy. “Happy are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” “Lo,” wrote Tyndale, “here God hath made a covenant wyth us, to mercy full unto us, yf we wyll be mercy full one to another.”
Thus two ideas became paramount: the idea of God, and the idea of conscience. God was thought of as a judge who will reward His chosen servants by eternal happiness, but who will deliver those who do not know Him, or those who sin against His laws, to Satan and everlasting fire; a God to please whom is the first object of this life, as no pleasure and no pain here can compare with the pleasure or pain to come. This conception of the Deity still survives among us, but it is not realized with the intensity of men who feel the hand of God in every incident of their lives, who fancy that the Devil in person is among them, and who distinctly hear his tempting words. Conscience, the guide who pointed out the path of rectitude, became strict and self-searching, ever looking inwardly, and judging harshly, magnifying, through the greatness of its ideal of virtue, every failing into a crime. The natural result of these ideas seething in a brain which had little other food was Puritanism: the subordination of all other interests of life to the attainment of a spiritual condition acceptable in the sight of God. Following this aim with feverish intentness, and tortured by a conscience of extreme tenderness, the Puritans naturally cast aside the pleasures of this life as likely to interfere with the attainment of future happiness, and as worthless compared to it. It was no time for gaiety and trifling when the horrors of hell were staring them in the face.
There is extant a life-like picture of a London housewife, which can teach us much regarding the spirit of Puritanism. “She was very loving and obedient to her parents, loving and kind to her husband, very tender-hearted to her children, loving all that were godly, much misliking the wicked and profane. She was a pattern of sobriety unto many, very seldom was seen abroad, except at church. When others recreated themselves, at holidays and other times, she would take her needlework, and say, 'here is my recreation.'”
The self-denial of this virtuous housewife developed into that austerity which, when Puritanism had become the ruling power in England, closed the theatre and the bear-garden, stopped the dancing on the village green, and assumed a dress and manner, the sombreness of which was meant to signify a scorn of this world. While we can now easily perceive the mistakes of the Puritans, and condemn the folly of prohibiting innocent amusements which form a natural outlet for exuberant spirits, it will be well if we can do justice to the nobility of aim, and the greatness of self-sacrifice, to which their austerity was due. We must remember that the aim of the Puritans was a godliness far more exacting than that which we seek, and requiring a proportionate sacrifice of immediate pleasure. We must remember, too, that the amusements of that time were in large part brutal, like the bear-gardens; and licentious, like most of the theatres. Puritanism could only exist among men filled to an uncommon degree with a love of virtue, who were ready to undergo every hardship, and to sacrifice every personal inclination to attain it. Growing up among the people at large, Puritanism showed a strong national love of religion and morality. The resolution with which its devotees pursued their aims, the serene content with which the martyrs welcomed the flames which were to open the gates of Heaven, were backed by a strength of faith not exceeded by that of the early Christians. The self-control and self-sacrifice of the Puritans moulded the armies of the Commonwealth, and overthrew the tyranny of Charles. But their finer qualities were clouded by the fanaticism which a long persecution had engendered. A phrase in our description of the London housewife unconsciously tells the story: “Loving all that were godly, much misliking the wicked and profane.” The godly were the sharers of her own faith, the “wicked and profane” were all those without its pale. Here lay the weakness of Puritanism: its narrowness, its lack of sympathy with the world at large, its indifference to the sufferings of those who had no place in the ranks of the elect.
Among such men we must look in vain for literary productions having the aim of entertainment. The literature of the time was chiefly polemical, and commentaries crowded on the book-shelves the volumes of classical and Italian writers. To Puritanism, fiction was the invention of the Evil One, but still to Puritanism we owe, what is now, and seems destined ever to remain, the finest allegory in the English language.
[Footnote 82: See Green's “Short History of the English People,” chap. viii, sec. 1.]
[Footnote 83: John Wallington's description of his mother. Green's “Short History of the English People,” p. 451.]
That John Bunyan, a poor, illiterate tinker, was able to take the first place among writers of allegory, and to accomplish the extraordinary intellectual feat of producing a work which charmed alike the ignorant, who could not perceive its literary merits, and cultivated critics, who viewed it only from a literary standpoint, depended partly on his own natural gifts, and partly on the character of Puritan thought. To write a good allegory requires an imagination of unusual power. It requires, in addition, a realization of the subject sufficiently strong to give to immaterial and shadowy forms a living personality. These conditions were combined in Bunyan's case to an unexampled degree. He possessed an imagination the activity of which would have unsettled the reason of any less powerfully constituted man. His subject, the doctrine of salvation by grace, was, by the absorbing interest then attached to it, impressed upon his mind with a vividness difficult to conceive. In “Grace Abounding in the Chief of Sinners,” Bunyan left a description of his life, and the workings of his mind on religious subjects, which is without a parallel in autobiography. The veil which hides the thoughts of one man from another is withdrawn, and the reader is placed in the closest communion with the mind of the writer. In “Grace Abounding” is easily detected the secret of Bunyan's success in allegory. “My sins did so offend the Lord, that even in my childhood He did scare and affright me with fearful dreams, and did terrify me with dreadful visions. I have been in my bed greatly afflicted, while asleep, with apprehensions of devils and wicked spirits, who still, as I then thought, labored to draw me away with them, of which I could never be rid. I was afflicted with thoughts of the Day of Judgment, night and day, trembling at the thoughts of the fearful torments of hell fire.” One Sunday, “as I was in the midst of a game at cat, and having struck it one blow from the hole, just as I was about to strike it the second time, a voice did suddenly dart from heaven into my soul, which said, 'Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to Heaven, or have thy sins and go to Hell?' At this I was put to an exceeding maze; wherefore leaving my cat on the ground, and looking up to Heaven, saw, as with the eyes of my understanding, Jesus Christ looking down upon me very hotly displeased with me, and severely threatening me with some grievous punishment for my ungodly practices. * * * I cannot express with what longing I cried to Christ to call me. I saw such glory in a converted state that I could not be contented without a share therein. Had I had a whole world it had all gone ten thousand times over for this, that my soul might have been in a converted state.” After Bunyan's conversion he says of his conscience: “As to the act of sinning, I was never more tender than now. I durst not take up a pin or a stick, though but so big as a straw, for my conscience now was sore, and would smart at every touch. I could not tell how to speak my words for fear I should misplace them.”
A man so sensitive to supernatural impressions could realize them as completely as the actual experiences of his daily life. Such, in fact, they were. With a conscience so tender, and a longing so intense for what he considered a condition of grace, Bunyan described the journey of Christian with the minuteness and fidelity of one who had trod the same path. The sketch of the pilgrim, which opens the work, stamps Christian at once an individual.
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a
certain place where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to
sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I
saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his
face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great burden
upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and read
therein; and, as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able
longer to contain, he broke out with a lamentable cry, saying “what
shall I do?”
The same impression of reality pervades the whole work. Christian's sins take an actual form in the burden on his back. Every personage whom he meets on his journey, and every place through which he passes appears to the mind of the reader with the vividness of actual experience. The child or the laborer reads the “Pilgrim's Progress” as a record of adventures undergone by a living man; the scholar forgets the art which has raised the picture before his mind, in a sense of contact with the subject portrayed. This is the triumph of a great genius, and it is a triumph to which no other writer has attained to the same degree. Other allegorists have pleased the fancy or gratified the understanding, but Bunyan occupies at once the imagination, the reason and the heart of his reader. Defoe's power of giving life to fictitious scenes and personages has not been surpassed by that of any other novelist. But Defoe's scenes and characters were of a nature familiar to his readers, and therefore easily realized. In the “Pilgrim's Progress,” strange and unreal regions become well-known places, and moral qualities distinct human beings. Evangelist, who puts Christian on the way to the Wicked Gate; Pliable, who deserts him at the first difficulty; Help, who pulls him out of the Slough of Despond; Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who shows him an easy way to be rid of his burden, are all life-like individuals. Timorous, Talkative, Vain Confidence, Giant Despair, are not mere personifications, but distinct human beings with whom every reader of the “Pilgrim's Progress” feels an intimate acquaintance. Not less real is the impression produced by the various scenes through which the journey of Christian conducts him. The Slough of Despond, the Wicket Gate, the House of the Interpreter, the Hill Difficulty, have been familiar localities to many generations of men, who have watched Christian's struggle with Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation, and followed his footsteps as they trod the Valley of the Shadow of Death, as they passed through the dangers of Vanity Fair, and brought him at last to the Celestial City, and the welcome of the Shining Ones.
The “Pilgrim's Progress” and the “Holy War” are not as allegories entirely perfect, but they probably gain in religious effect, as much as they lose from a literary point of view, in those passages where the allegorical disguise is not sustained. The simplicity and power of their language are alone sufficient to give them an important place in English literature. Throughout the “Pilgrim's Progress” are evidences of a strong human sympathy, and a kindly indulgence on the part of the author for the weak and erring among his fellow-men. Ignorance, to be sure, is cast into the bottomless pit; but as the work taught a spiritual perfection, it could not afford to encourage the willingly ignorant by bestowing a pardon on their representative. Bunyan himself was distinguished for a general sympathy with his fellow-men which the narrowness of Puritanism had failed to impair. The sad words in which he mourned, while in prison, his long separation from his wife and children, show the natural tenderness of his disposition, as well as the greatness of the sacrifice which he was making for his religion:—“The parting with my wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I often brought to mind the many hardships, miseries, and wants that my poor family was like to meet with; especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer to my heart than all I had beside.”
With the allegories of Bunyan, we leave ideality behind us as a characteristic feature of English fiction. The knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his merry men, the princes and princesses of the “Arcadia,” the pilgrim Christian, were the ideal heroes of the particular periods to which they belong. They were placed amid the scenes which seemed most attractive, and were endowed with the qualities which seemed most admirable to the men whose imaginations created them. But, with the exception perhaps of Robin Hood, they were purely ideal, without prototypes in nature. The writer of fiction had not yet turned his attention to the delineation of character, to the study of complex social questions, to the portrayal of actual life. With the fall of Puritan power, begins a great intellectual change. History shows, since the Restoration, a tendency which has continuously grown stronger and wider, to subordinate the imagination to the reason of man, to withdraw political and social questions from the influence of mere tradition, to subject them instead, to the test of practical experience, and to encourage the patient physical investigations which have resulted in the triumphs of modern science. This tendency has pervaded all the channels of human industry. Its effect upon works of fiction has been to introduce into that department of literature, a spirit of realism, and a love of investigating the problems of life and character, which have resulted in the modern novel. Henceforth we shall meet no more ideal beings, but men or women, more or less true to nature. In the fiction of the Restoration are first observable the new tendencies, which, although but slightly marked at first, have finally given to the English novel its present importance. An attempt to trace the gradual perfection of this form of literature, its development into a work of art, into a natural history of men, into a truthful reflection of very varied social conditions, will occupy the remainder of this volume.