Sunday, August 31, 2014

G.K. Chesterton on John Bunyan


John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim's Progress, died on August 31, 1688. G.K. Chesterton wrote an introduction to Bunyan's great allegory:

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.


In his collection of essays The Thing (which we are reading in the Wichita branch of the American Chesterton Society), Chesterton writes "On Two Allegories"--Bunyan's in The Pilgrim's Progress and Dante's in The Divine Comedy, comparing and contrasting their allegories and the theologies on which they are based:

Mr. James Douglas, who once presented himself to me as a representative of Protestant truth, and who is certainly a representative of Protestant tradition, answered Mr. Alfred Noyes in terms very typical of the present state of that tradition. He said that we should salute Bunyan's living literary genius, and not bother our heads about Bunyan's obsolete theology. Then he added the comparison which seems to me so thought-provoking: that this is after all what we do, when we admire Dante's genius and not HIS obsolete theology.  Now there is a distinction to be made here; if the whole modern mind is to realize at all where it stands. If I say that Bunyan's theology IS obsolete, but Dante's theology is NOT obsolete--then I know the features of my friend Mr. Douglas will be wreathed in a refined smile of superiority and scorn. He will say that I am a Papist and therefore of course I think the Papist dogmatism living.  But the point is that he is a Protestant and he thinks the Protestant dogmatism dead. I do at least defend the Catholic theory because it can be defended. The Puritans would presumably be defending the Puritan theory--if it could be defended.  The point is that it is dead for them as much as for us.  It is not merely that Mr. Noyes demands the disappearance of a disfigurement; it is that Mr. Douglas says it cannot be a disfigurement because it has already disappeared. Now the Thomist philosophy, on which Dante based his poetry has not disappeared.  It is not a question of faith but of fact; anybody who knows Paris or Oxford, or the worlds where such things are discussed, will tell you that it has not disappeared. All sorts of people, including those who do not believe in it, refer to it and argue against it on equal terms.

I do not believe, for a fact, that modern men so discuss the seventeenth century sectarianism.  Had I the privilege of passing a few days with Mr. Douglas and his young lions of the DAILY EXPRESS, I doubt not that we should discuss and differ about many things. But I do rather doubt whether Mr. Douglas would every now and again cry out, as with a crow of pure delight "Oh, I must read you this charming little bit from Calvin."  I do rather doubt whether his young journalists are joyously capping each other's quotations from Toplady's sermons on Calvinism.  But eager young men do still quote Aquinas, just as they still quote Aristotle. I have heard them at it.  And certain ideas are flying about, even in the original prose of St. Thomas, as well as in the poetry of Dante--or, for that matter, of Donne.

The case of Bunyan is really the opposite of the case of Dante. In Dante the abstract theory still illuminates the poetry; the ideas enlighten even where the images are dark. In Bunyan it is the human facts and figures that are bright; while the spiritual background is not only dark in spirit, but blackened by time and change.  Of course it is true enough that in Dante the mere images are immensely imaginative. It is also true that in one sense some of them are obsolete; in the sense that the incidents are obsolete and the personal judgment merely personal.  Nobody will ever forget how there came through the infernal twilight the figure of that insolent troubadour, carrying his own head aloft in his hand like a lantern to light his way. Everybody knows that such an image is poetically true to certain terrible truths about the unnatural violence of intellectual pride. But as to whether anybody has any business to say that Bertrand de Born is damned, the obvious answer is No. Dante knew no more about it than I do:  only he cared more about it; and his personal quarrel is an obsolete quarrel.  But that sort of thing is not Dante's theology, let alone Catholic theology.

In a word; so far from his theology being obsolete, it would be much truer to say that everything is obsolete except his theology. That he did not happen to like a particular Southern gentleman is obsolete; but that was at most a private fancy, in demonology rather than theology.  We come to theology when we come to theism. And if anybody will read the passage in which Dante grapples with the gigantic problem of describing the Beatific Vision, he will find it is uplifted into another world of ideas from the successful entry to the Golden City at the end of the Pilgrim's Progress. It is a Thought; which a thinker, especially a genuine freethinker, is always free to go on thinking.  The images of Dante are not to be worshipped, any more than any other images. But there is an idea behind all images; and it is before that, in the last lines of the Paradiso, that the spirit of the poet seems first to soar like an eagle and then to fall like a stone.

There is nothing in this comparison that reflects on the genius and genuineness of Bunyan in his own line or class; but it does serve to put him in his own class.  I think there was something to be said for the vigorous denunciation of Mr. Noyes; but no such denunciation is involved in this distinction. On the contrary, it would be easy to draw the same distinction between two men both at the very top of all literary achievement. It would be true to say, I think, that those who most enjoy reading Homer care more about an eternal humanity than an ephemeral mythology.  The reader of Homer cares more about men than about gods.  So, as far as one can guess, does Homer. It is true that if those curious and capricious Olympians did between them make up a religion, it is now a dead religion. It is the human Hector who so died that he will never die. But we should remonstrate with a critic who, after successfully proving this about Homer, should go on to prove it about Plato. We should protest if he said that the only interest of the Platonic Dialogues to-day is in their playful asides and very lively local colour, in the gay and graceful picture of Greek life; but that nobody troubles nowadays about the obsolete philosophy of Plato. We should point out that there is no truth in the comparison; and that if anything the case is all the other way. Plato's philosophy will be important as long as there is philosophy; and Dante's religion will be important as long as there is religion. Above all it will be important as long as there is that lucid and serene sort of religion that is most in touch with philosophy. Nobody will say that the theology of the Baptist tinker is in that sense serene or even lucid; on many points it necessarily remains obscure. The reason is that such religion does not do what philosophy does; it does not begin at the beginning.  In the matter of mere chronological order, it is true that the pilgrimage of Dante and that of Bunyan both end in the Celestial City.  But it is in a very different sense that the pilgrimage of Bunyan begins in the City of Destruction. The mind of Dante, like that of his master St. Thomas, really begins as well as ends in the City of Creation.  It begins as well as ends in the burning focus in which all things began.  He sees his series from the right end, though he then begins it at the wrong end. But it is the whole point of a personal work like THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS that it does begin with a man's own private sins and private panic about them.  This intense individualism gives it great force; but it cannot in the nature of things give it great breadth and range. Heaven is haven; but the wanderer has not many other thoughts about it except that it is haven.  It is typical of the two methods, each of them very real in its way, that Dante could write a whole volume, one-third of his gigantic epic, describing the things of Heaven; whereas in the case of Bunyan, as the gates of Heaven open the book itself closes.

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