Monday, October 11, 2021

'I Did It My Own Self to Gratify'

We were not a church-going family, thoroughly heathen, I thought, yet my father kept a missal on his bedside table and my mother gave me a Bible (RSV) and dated it September 25, 1960. No other book have I owned so long. Twelve years later, after I announced I wanted to get married, my mother handed me a folded slip of paper on which she had written Romans 8:29. It has ever since been in my Bible: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.” My maternal grandmother, who died in 1972, had years earlier given me a book: a nineteenth-century edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). 

I read Bunyan as an adventure story, almost science fiction. I first read Robinson Crusoe around the same time without being aware these books signaled the arrival of the novel in English. Two Protestants dabbling in allegory – Bunyan overtly, Defoe in a more disguised fashion. Their most lasting impact on me is a taste for the plain style, especially in narrative. Along with the Bible, there are few books I’ve read so often.


On this date, October 11, in 1828, Charles Lamb writes to his Quaker friend Bernard Barton:


“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.”


Lamb is mock-offended by the pending publication of a “deluxe” illustrated edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, with a life of Bunyan by Southey and an introduction by Barton. Bunyan’s book, for Lamb, is a model of Christian humility, not to be decked out in finery. Instead, Lamb would “. . . 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 . . . Perhaps you don’t know my edition, what I had when a child: if you do, can you bear new designs . . .”


Consider these lines from Bunyan’s introductory poem, “The Author's Apology for his Book”:


“I did not think

To shew to all the world my pen and ink

In such a mode; I only thought to make

I knew not what; nor did I undertake

Thereby to please my neighbour: no, not I;

I did it my own self to gratify.”

1 comment:

Wurmbrand said...

When I taught a one-semester (scandalous, but I had no choice) British literature course, I always included Part One (Christian’s journey), but not Part Two (his wife’s journey). I purposely didn’t attempt a tedious explication of every episode, and it went over well, as I recall. The course theme was Households and Wastelands, & this fit right in.

Dale Nelson