Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Bunyan and Things: A Book for Boys and Girls

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Bunyan and Things: A Book for Boys and Girls

Article excerpt

Bunyan's A Book for Boys and Girls; or, Country Rhimesfor Children (1686) was re-issued after his death several times: changing titles, from A Book for Boys and Girls, Or Temporal Things Spiritualised (1701), to Divine Emblems: Or Temporal Things Spiritualised, Fitted for the use of Boys and Girls (1724). These eighteenth-century editions reduced the number of poems from seventy-six to forty-nine, a practice not rectified until 1928. This essay follows the 1686 version, without speculating on why later editions missed out some poems.1 The 1724 title stressed exclusively one aspect of the Book: that it contains emblems. This edition added woodcuts, which, appearing above the title of the poem they illustrate, act like pictorial emblems in an emblem-book. There is, as the 1701 and 1724 titles imply, a movement in these later editions from the sharply observed realism of the poems, emphasising their country nature, towards spiritualising such realism, allegorising it, emphasising its place in relation to the emblem book.

That was the form which Alciati (1531) in Italy, and Geoffrey Whitney (1586) in Britain, had made famous: examples continuing with such figures as Thomas Jenner (1626), George Wither (1635) and Francis Quarles (1635).2 Emblems are typically a combination of motto, picture, and a verse-exposition of these two, often with a riddling aspect to it, and the actual images formed a visual culture which could be called upon, and could be read, through to the nineteenth century.3 Even in 1819, Keats was transcribing in a letter a pun he had heard, and adding 'theres a page of Wit for you, to put John Bunyan's emblems out of countenance'.4 Keats was responding to the riddling quality of the emblems, which is part of their allegorical structure; enigmas, riddles, being considered allegories.5 Bunyan's Book relates back to the emblem tradition, but is motivated also by a contemporary interest, which the author shared, in education, which links it to the Second Part of The Pilgrim 's Progress with its instruction for Christiana's children.6 By 1724, other writings for children had appeared, especially Isaac Watts' Divine and Moral Songs (1715).7 In that eighteenth-century format, of poem and woodcut, its pervasive influence upon Blake can be seen, most distinctly in the sixteen emblems plus frontispiece and inscriptions that made up the book For Children: The Gates of Paradise (1793), revised as For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise (1818), with a Prologue and a poem, 'The Keys of the Gates' and an epilogue.8 Bunyan's poems work with the force of irony, making them, despite their teaching tone, more complex in judgments than, for example, the writings for children of Watts, which Blake's Songs critique, rendering Bunyan less liable to Blake's criticism.9

Whereas symbolism is often thought of as finding a 'natural' link between what is symbolised and the image chosen, allegory, and especially emblem-allegory, is usually considered differently, as using arbitrarily chosen elements or things to illustrate a quality, or state of being, or condition of life which needs to be commented on. Rosemary Freeman says that 'simplification is the basic principle of allegory', and she notes an increasing simplification of the mode through the seventeenth century, from Spenser simplifying as a philosopher, to Bunyan simplifying as a preacher.10 This may be so, but it misses the point that the allegorical image is unstable, never conveying a single meaning, always ambiguous, and this is particularly the case with poems which work within an emblematic tradition, using it, often surprisingly, as in the poetry of George Herbert." If the allegorical image simplifies, what does it simplify?

The emblem is a thing which becomes a concept, when read allegorically, and Bunyan's Book is inherently concerned with things as emblems. But a thing is not an unambiguous, and certainly not a simple concept. Though I will only consider such points warily, and would like to lay them out for the reader to compare with Bunyan rather than to assert a relationship, it is worth recalling that the twentieth century saw the development of 'thing theory'. …

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