« PreviousContinue »
The self-same thing they will abhor
172. were ass and widgeon. The author ! geon” (pidgeon) which figure
intends to stigmatize the Pres in the history of Mahomet. byterians as foolish persons; 176. advowson of his conscience: that is, but the words also contain an the patronage or the control of allusion to a mule and a “wid
CHARACTERIZATION BY TAINE. 1. After the Bible, the book most widely read in England is the Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan. The reason is that the basis of Protestantism is the doctrine of salvation by grace, and
· History of English Literature, by H. A. Taine, translated by Van Laun, rol. i. p. 398 et seq.
that no writer has equalled Bunyan in making this doctrine understood.
2. To treat well of supernatural impressions, one must have been subject to them. Bunyan had that kind of imagination which produces them. Powerful as that of an artist, but more vehement, this imagination worked in the man without his cooperation, and besieged him with visions which he had neither willed nor foreseen. From that moment there was in him, as it were, a second self, dominating the first, grand and terrible, whose apparitions were sudden; its motions unknown; which redoubled or crushed his faculties, prostrated or transported him, bathed him in the sweat of anguish, ravished him with trances of joy ; and which by its force, strangeness, independence, impressed upon him the presence and the action of a foreign and superior master.
3. Bunyan was born in the lowest and most despised rank, a tinker's son; himself a wandering tinker, with a wife as poor as himself, so that they had not a spoon or a dish between them. He had been taught in childhood to read and write, but he had since “almost wholly lost what he had learned.” Education draws out and disciplines a man; fills him with varied and rational ideas; prevents him from sinking into monomania, or being excited by transport ; gives him determinate thoughts instead of eccentric fancies, pliable opinions for fixed convictions ; replaces impetuous images by calm reasonings, sudden resolves by results of reflection ; furnishes us with the wisdom and ideas of others; gives us conscience and self-command. Suppress this reason and this discipline, and consider the poor workingman at his work. His head works while his hands work—not ably, with methods acquired from any logic he might have mustered, but with dark emotions, beneath a disorderly flow of confused images. Morning and evening, the hammer which he uses in his trade drives in with its deafening sounds the same thought, perpetu: ally returning and self-communing. A troubled, obstinate vision floats before him in the brightness of the hammered and quivering metal. In the red furnace where the iron is bubbling, in the clang of the hammered brass, in the black corners where the damp shadow creeps, he sees the flame and darkness of hell, and hears the rattling of eternal chains. Next day he sees the same image; the day after, the whole week, month, year. During his long solitary wanderings over wild heaths, in cursed and haunted bogs, always abandoned to his own thoughts, the inevitable idea pursues him. These neglected roads where he sticks in the mud; these sluggish rivers which he crosses on the cranky ferryboat; these threatening whispers of the woods at night, where in perilous places the livid moon shadows out ambushed forms—all that he sees and hears falls into an involuntary poem around the one absorbing idea. Thus it changes into a vast body of sensible legends, and multiplies its power as it multiplies its details.
4. Having become a dissenter, Bunyan is shut up for twelve years, having no other amusement than the Book of Martyrs and the Bible, in one of those infectious prisons where the Puritans rotted under the Restoration. There he is, still alone, thrown back upon himself by the monotony of his dungeon, besieged with the terrors of the Old Testament, by the vengeful outpourings or denunciations of the prophets, by the thunder-striking words of Paul, by the spectacle of trances and of martyrs, face to face with God; now in despair, now consoled ; troubled with involuntary images and unlooked-for emotions, seeing alternately devil and angels, the actor and the witness of an internal drama, whose vicissitudes he is able to relate. He writes them — it is his book. You see now the condition of this inflamed brain. Poor in ideas, full of images, given up to a fixed and single thought, plunged into this thought by his mechanical pursuit, by his prison and his readings, by his knowledge and his ignorance, circumstances, like nature, make him a visionary and an artist, furnish him with supernatural impressions and sensible images, teaching him the history of grace and the means of expressing it.
5. Allegory, the most artificial kind, is natural to Bunyan. If he employs it throughout, it is from necessity, not choice. As children, countrymen, and all uncultivated minds, he transforms arguments into parables; he only grasps truth when it is made simple by images; abstract terms elude him ; he must touch forms, and contemplate colors. His repetitions, embarrassed phrases, familiar comparisons, his frank style, whose awkwardness recalls the childish periods cf Herodotus, and whose lightheartedness recalls tales for children, prove that if his work is
allegorical, it is so in order that it may be intelligible, and that Bunyan is a poet because he is a child.
6. Again, under his simplicity you will find power, and in his puerility intuition. These allegories are hallucinations as clear, complete, and sound as ordinary perceptions. No one but Spenser is so lucid. He distinguishes and arranges all the parts of the landscape-here the river, on the right the castle, a flag on its left turret, the setting sun three feet lower, an oval cloud in the front part of the sky—with the preciseness of a carpenter. Dialogues flow from his pen as in a dream. He does not seem to be thinking; we should even say that he was not himself there. Events and speeches seem to grow and dispose themselves within him independently of his will. Nothing, as a rule, is colder than are the characters in an allegory. His are living. Looking upon these details, so small and familiar, illusion gains upon us. Giant Despair, a simple abstraction, becomes as real in his hands as an English jailer or farmer.
7. Bunyan has the freedom, the tone, the ease, and the clearness of Homer. He is as close to Homer as an Anabaptist tinker could be to an heroic singer, a creator of gods. I err; he is nearer: before the sentiment of the sublime, inequalities are levelled. The depth of emotion raises peasant and poet to the same eminence; and here, also, allegory stands the peasant in stead. It alone, in the absence of ecstasy, can paint heaven; for it does not pretend to paint it. Expressing it by a figure, it declares it invisible as a glowing sun at which we cannot look full, and whose image we observe in a mirror or a stream. The ineffable world thus retains all its mystery. Warned by the allegory, we imagine splendors beyond all which it presents to us.
8. Bunyan was imprisoned for twelve years and a half. In his dungeon he made laces to support himself and his family. He died at the age of sixty in 1688. At the same time, Milton lingered obscure and blind. The last two poets of the Reformation thus survived amid the classical coldness which then dried up English literature, and the social excess which then corrupted English morals.