Wednesday, November 28, 2012

`To Make the Eye of Childhood Glisten'

My maternal grandmother, Jewel McBride Hayes, gave me the copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) she had been given by her brother, Harris McBride, my great-uncle, almost half a century earlier. It was an inexpensive edition with a blue cover and brittle, brown pages. Our family was not religious but the appeal of John Bunyan’s story is timeless (Slough of Despond, House Beautiful, Doubting Castle) and nonsectarian. In plain, sturdy prose, the first sentence recalls Dante and Grimm’s Fairy Tales: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.” The book, in 334 years, has never gone out of print. I read it first as an adventure story, which it is and which the subtitle suggests: from This World to That Which Is to Come. I lost the book years ago, I can’t remember when or where, and that is part of my private allegory. In 1773, Boswell reports:

“Johnson praised John Bunyan highly. `His Pilgrim's Progress has great merit, both for invention, imagination, and the conduct of the story; and it has had the best evidence of its merit, the general and continued approbation of mankind. Few books, I believe, have had a more extensive sale. It is remarkable, that it begins very much like the poem of Dante; yet there was no translation of Dante when Bunyan wrote. There is reason to think that he had read Spenser.’” 

A more surprising admirer is William Hazlitt. In Lectures on the English Poets (1818) he writes: 

“I will mention three books which come as near to poetry as possible without absolutely being so, namely, the Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and the Tales of Boccaccio…If it is of the essence of poetry to strike and fix the imagination, whether we will or no, to make the eye of childhood glisten with the starting tear, to be never thought of afterwards with indifference, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe may be permitted to pass for poets in their way. The mixture of fancy and reality in the Pilgrim’s Progress was never equaled in any allegory.”    

Hazlitt and his fellow Romantics seem to have read Bunyan as I first did – like children, judging it a grand adventure tale, as I also read Jules Verne and Kipling. “His pilgrims walk above the earth, and yet are on it," he writes. "What zeal, what beauty, what truth of fiction!” Hazlitt’s friend Charles Lamb sprinkles his letters and essays with references to Bunyan, as in this letter to Bernard Barton on Oct. 11, 1828, in which he criticizes a new illustrated edition: 

“A splendid edition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim—why, the thought is enough to turn one’s moral stomach. His cockle hat and staff transformed to a smart cockd beaver and a jemmy cane, his amice gray to the last Regent Street cut, and his painful Palmer’s pace to the modern swagger. Stop thy friend’s sacriligious hand. Nothing can be done for B. but to reprint the old cuts in as homely but good a style as possible. The Vanity Fair, and the pilgrims there—the silly soothness in his setting out countenance—the Christian idiocy (in a good sense) of his admiration of the Shepherds on the Delectable Mountains—the Lions so truly Allegorical and remote from any similitude to Pidcock’s. The great head (the author’s) capacious of dreams and similitudes dreaming in the dungeon.” 

As he lay dying, Keats wanted John Severn to read aloud to him. Severn obliged with Don Quixote and some of Maria Edgeworth’s novels, but when Keats asked for The Pilgrim’s Progress, Severn said it was “not in Rome.” John Bunyan was born on this date, Nov. 28, in 1628, and died on Aug. 31, 1688.

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