Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Centring Bunyan: Macaulay, Froude, Hale White

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Centring Bunyan: Macaulay, Froude, Hale White

Article excerpt

Publication of Robert Southey's edition of The Pilgrim's Progress in 1830 was quickly followed by reviews in two leading journals. Sir Walter Scott in The Quarterly Review offers solid fare.1 Thomas Babington Macaulay's subtler response in The Edinburgh Review constitutes a landmark in the appreciation of Bunyan's genius and importance.2 James Anthony Froude's monograph of 1880 for the 'English Men of Letters' series and William Hale White's book-length study of 1905 each in its distinctive manner consolidates and builds upon the gains made by Macaulay's seminal essay. Taken together, these four texts represent a process whereby Bunyan was brought over from the periphery into the mainstream of literary figures. Their discussions of his work, moreover, are bound up in significant ways with contemporary intellectual debate and the currents of social and cultural change in Victorian England.

Bunyan's reputation prior to Macaulay becomes at one point Hale White's subject.3 Dr Johnson catches the eye with his comment on the 'great merit' of The Pilgrim 's Progress 'for invention, imagination, and the conduct of the story'.4 This, however, proves an exception in a catalogue of generally low esteem where the representative attitude is that of the essayist in The Whig Examiner who complained disdainfully that 'Bunyan and Quarles [...] please as many readers as Dry den and Tillotson'.5 Quotidian popularity is no guarantee of status with arbiters of taste. Hale White's reckoning of the situation is broadly accurate but in need of some adjustment. For one thing, he overlooks the groundswell of interest in Bunyan during the Romantic period, though we should remember that this emerged in letters, strands of unacknowledged influence, and other incidental contexts rather than formal recognition.6 Even Coleridge's famous characterization of the 'admirable Allegory' in which 'the Bunyan of Parnassus had the better of the Bunyan of the Conventicle' comes from a set of private notes.7 Hale White's other omission lies in his failure to acknowledge the one unreserved celebration of Bunyan's qualities that did find circulation in the half century before Southey's edition - William Cowper's lines in Tirocinium; or, A Review of Schools (1784) on the one whose book he read as a child and 'can ne'er forget':

Ingenious dreamer, in whose well-told tale

Sweet fiction and sweet truth alike prevail;

Whose hum'rous vein, strong sense, and simple style,

May teach the gayest, make the gravest smile;

Witty, and well employ'd, and, like thy Lord,

Speaking in parables his slighted word;

I name thee not, lest so despis'd a name

Should move a sneer at thy deserved fame;

Yet e'en in transitory life's late day,

That mingles all my brown with sober gray,

Revere the man, whose PILGRIM marks the road,

And guides the PROGRESS of the soul to God.8

Hale White quotes only the opening two words and fourth couplet (HW, 224), which support his case for countering a strong vein of contempt in the history of Bunyan's reputation. Yet Cowper is himself already Bunyan's champion. The devout poet emphasizes that blend of instruction and pleasure in the service of religion which brought The Pilgrim 's Progress a wide readership, but the terms in which he bears personal witness to the work's appeal, implying its power to instil ideas and images lasting from childhood into old age, signal a deeper response and new horizons. Macaulay mentions Cowper's tribute in his review and may well have been prompted by it when appraising the place of Bunyan's imagined world in the mental life of others.

Between Cowper and Macaulay lie Southey and Scott, who register a transitional phase in Bunyan's standing. The editorial attention of the Poet Laureate, supported by a substantial introductory 'Life' and illustrations from no less an artist than John Martin, is in itself a mark of increased respect.9 Scott, though, fears that, for all Southey's endorsement of The Pilgrim's Progress, the barrier to Bunyan's acceptance by 'the upper classes' may prove insuperable because he is bound in some measure to offend against 'taste':

[A]s, however, it contains many passages eminently faulty in point of taste, (as, indeed, from the origin and situation of the author, was naturally to be expected,) we should not be surprised if it were more coldly accepted than its merits deserve. …

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