Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XXX - Secularism on Bunyan

[... back to menu for this book]    




IT is very marvellous to observe the number of strange  and unexpected combinations that are continually occurring  in that moral kaleidoscope we call society. I  do not suppose that I am exceptional in coming  across these ; nor do I use any particular industry in  seeking them out. They come to me; all I do is to  keep my eyes open, and note the impressions they  make on me. I was humbly pursuing my way one  Tuesday evening towards the abode of a phrenologist  with the honest intention of discovering my craniological  condition, when, in passing down Castle Street,  Oxford Market, I was made aware that Mr. G. J.  Holyoake was there and then to deliver himself on  the " Literary Genius of Bunyan." This was one of  the incongruous combinations I spoke of; and forthwith  I passed into the Co-operative Hall, resolving to  defer my visit to the phrenologist. There are some  facts of which it is better to remain contentedly  ignorant ; and I have no doubt my own mental condition  belongs to that category.
    I found the Co-operative Hall a handsome and commodious  building ; and a very fair audience had [-234-] gathered to listen to Mr. Holyoake, who is an elderly  thin-voiced man, and his delivery was much impeded  on the occasion in question by the circumstance of his  having a bad cold and cough. After a brief extempore  allusion to the fact of the Duke of Bedford  having erected a statue to Bunyan, which he regarded  as a sort of compensation for his Grace ceasing to  subscribe to the races, Mr. Holyoake proceeded to read  his treatise, which he had written on several slips of  paper-apparently backs of circulars-and laid one by  one on a chair as he finished them.  The world, he said, is a big place ; but people are  always forgetting what a variety of humanity it contains.  Two hundred years ago, the authorities of  Bedford made it very unpleasant for one John Bunyan,  because they thought they knew everything, and  could not imagine that a common street workman  might know more. The trade of a tinker seems an  unpromising preparation for a literary career. A  tinker in Bedford to-day would not find himself much  flattered by the attentions paid him, especially if he  happened to be an old gaol-bird as well. So much the  more creditable to Bunyan the ascendancy he gained.  If he mended pots as well as he made sentences he was  the best tinker that ever travelled.
    Bunyan had no worldly notions. His doctrine was  that men were not saved by any good they might do  - a doctrine that would ruin the morals of any commercial  establishment in a month ! He declared him-[-235-]self the " chief of sinners :" but judged by his townsmen  he was a stout-hearted, stout-minded, scrupulous  man.
    He was not a pleasant man to know. He had an  unrelenting sincerity which often turned into severity.  Yet he had much tenderness. He had a soul like a  Red Indian's - all tomahawk and truth, until the  literary passion came and added humour to it. He demands in his vigorous doggerel:-

May I not write in such a style as this,
In such a method, too, and yet not miss
My end, thy good?  Why may it not be done?
Dark clouds bring waters, when the bright bring none.

Like all men of original genius, this stout-minded  pot-mender had unbounded confidence in himself. He  was under no delusion as to his own powers. No man  knew better what he was about. He could take the  measure of all the justices about him, and he knew it.  Every shallow-headed gentleman in Bedfordshire  towns and villages was made to wince under his picturesque  and satiric tongue. To clergymen, bishops,  lawyers, and judges he gave names which all his  neighbours knew. Mr. Pitiless, Mr. Hardheart, Mr.  Forget-good, Mr. No-truth, Mr. Haughty - thus he  named the disagreeable dignitaries of the town of  Mansoul.
    At first he was regarded by his "pastors and  masters" as a mere wilful, noisy, praying sectary.  Very soon they discovered that he was a fighting [-236-] preacher. As tinker or Christian he always had his  sleeves turned up. When he had to try his own  cause he put in the jury-box Mr. True-Heart, Mr.  Upright, Mr. Hate-Bad, Mr. See-Truth, and other  amiable persons. His witnesses were Mr. Know-All,  Mr. Tell-True, Mr. Hate-Lies, Mr. Vouch-Truth, Mr.  Did-See. His Town Clerk was Mr. Do-Right, the  Recorder was Mr. Conscience, the gaoler was Mr.  True-Man, Lord Understanding was on the bench,  and the Judge hears the dainty name of the " Golden-headed  Prince."
    Bunyan's adversaries are always a bad set. They  live in Villain's Lane, in Blackmouth Street, or  Blasphemer's Row, or Drunkard's Alley, or Rascal's  Corner. They are the sons of one Beastly, whose  mother bore them in Flesh Square : they live at the  house of one Shameless, at the sign of the Reprobate,  next door to the Descent into the Pit, whose retainers  are Mr. Flatter, Mr. Impiety, Mr. False-Peace, Mr.  Covetousness, who are housed by one Mr. Simple, in  Folly's Yard.
    Bunyan had a perfect wealth of sectarian scurrility  at his command. His epithets are at times unquotable  and ferocious. When, however, his friends are  at the bar, the witnesses against them comprise the  choicest scoundrels of all time - Mr. Envy, Mr. Pickthank,  and others, whose friends are Lord Carnal-Delight, Lord Luxurious, Lord Lechery, Sir Having Greedy, and similar villanous people of quality. The [-237-] Judge's name is now Lord Hate-Good. The Jury  consist of Mr. No-Good, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-Lust,  Mr. Live-Loose, Mr. Heady, Mr. Hate-Light, Mr.  Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, and Mr. Implacable,  with Mr. Blindman for Foreman.
    Never was such an infamous gang impanelled. Rancour and rage and vindictiveness, and every  passion awakened in the breasts of the strong by  local insolence and legal injustice, is supplied by  Bunyan with epithets of immense retaliative force.  He is the greatest name-maker among authors. He  was a spiritual Comanche. He prayed like a savage.  He said himself, when describing the art of the religious  rhetorician - an art of which he was the greatest master of his time :-

You see the ways the fisherman doth take
To catch the fish; what engines doth he make!
Behold ! how he engageth all his wits,
Also his snares, lines, angles, hooks, and nets;
Yet fish there be that neither hook nor line,
Nor snare, nor net, nor engine can make thine;
They must be grop'd for, and be tickled too,
Or they will not be catch'd, whate'er you do.

Bunyan never tickled the sinner. It was not his way. He carried a prong. He pricked the erring.  He published a pamphlet to suggest what ought to be  done to holy pedestrians, whose difficulties lay rearward.  He put detonating balls under their feet which  exploded as they stepped and alarmed them along.  He lined the celestial road with horrors. If they [-238-] turned their heads they saw a fiend worse than Lot's  wife who was merely changed into a pillar of sweet  all-preserving salt. Bunyan's unfortunate converts  who looked back fell into a pit filled with fire, where  they howled and burnt for evermore.
    Ah ! with what pleasure must the great Bedfordshire  artist have contemplated his masterly pages as  day by day he added to them the portrait of some  new scoundrel, or painted with dexterous and loving  hand the wholesome outlines of some honest man, or  devised some new phrase which like a new note or  new colour would delight singer or painter for generations  yet to come. He must have strode proudly  along his cell as he put his praise and his scorn into  imperishable similes.
    But Bunyan had never been great had he been  merely disagreeable. He had infinite wit in him. It  was his carnal genius that saved him. He wrote sixty  books, and two of them - the "Siege of the Town of  Mansoul" and the " Pilgrim's Progress" - exceed all  ever written for creative swiftness of imagination,  racy English speech, sentences of literary art, cunning.  ness in dialogue, satire, ridicule, and surpassing knowledge  of the picturesque ways of the obscure minds of  common men. In his pages men rise out of the  ground - they always come up on an open space so  that they can be seen. They talk naturally, so that  you know them at once ; and they act without delay, [-239-] so that you never forget them. They surprise you,  delight you, they interest you, they instruct you, and  disappear. They never linger, they never weary you.  Incidents new and strange arise at every step in his  story. The scene changes like the men and their adventures.  Now it is field or morass, plain or bypath,  bog or volcano, castle or cottage, sandy scorching  desert or cold river; the smoke of the bottomless pit  or bright, verdant, delectable mountains and enchanted  lands where there are no bishops, no gaols, and no  tinkers ; where aboundeth grapes, calico, brides, eternal  conversation, and trumpets. The great magician's  genius forsakes him when he comes to the unknown  regions, and he knoweth no more than the rest of us.  But while his foot is on the earth he steps like a king  among writers. His Christian is no fool. He is  cunning of fence, suspicious, sagacious, witty, satirical,  abounding in invective, and broad, bold, delicious insolence.  Bye-Ends is a subtle, evasive knave drawn  with infinite skill
    Had Bunyan merely preached the Gospel he had  no more been remembered than thousands of his day  who are gratefully forgotten - had he prayed to this  time he had won no statue; but his literary genius  lives when the preacher is very dead.
    He saw with such vividness that the very passions  and wayward moods of men stood apart and distinct  in his sight, and he gave names to them and endowed [-240-] them with their natural speech. He created new men  out of characteristics of mind, and sent them into the  world in shapes so defined and palpable that men  know them for evermore. It was the way of his age  for writers to give names to their adversaries. Bunyan  imitated this in his life of Mr. Badman. Others did  this, but Bunyan did it better than any man. His  invention was marvellous, and he had besides the  faculty of the dramatist.
    If any man wrote the adventures of a Co-operator,  he would have to tell of his meeting with Mr.Obstinate,  who will not listen to him, and wants to pull him  back. We all get the company of Mr. Pliable, who is  persuaded without being convinced, who at the first  splash into difficulty crawls out and turns back with  a cowardly adroitness. We have all encountered the  stupidity of Mr. Ignorance, which nothing can  enlighten. We know Mr. Turnaway, who comes  from the town of Apostacy, whose face we cannot  perfectly see. Others merely gave names, he drew  characters, he made the qualities of his men speak;  you knew them by their minds better than by their  dress. That is why succeeding ages have read the  " Pilgrim's Progress," because the same people who  met that extraordinary traveller are always turning  up in the way of every man who has a separate and a  high purpose, and is bent upon carrying it out.  Manners change, but humanity has still its old [-241-] ways. It is because Bunyan painted these that his  writing lasts like :a picture by one of the old masters  who painted for all time.
    Such is an outline of the paper, which was interesting  from its associations, and only spoilt by the  cough. We had had Bunyan in pretty well every  shape possible during the last few weeks. Certainly  one of the most original is this which presents the  man of unbounded faith in the light of utter  scepticism.

source: Charles Maurice Davies, Mystic London, 1875