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SOUTHEY'S LIFE OF JOHN BUNYAN.
[The Pilgrim's Progress, with a Life of John Bunyan.
By Robert SOUTHEY, Esq. LL.D.- Quarterly Re. view, 1830.]
It has been the boast of our ancestors to improve the constitution of their country by the address with which they have infused a new spirit into old institutions, like the skilful architect who contrives to make the turrets of a feudal castle subservient to the accommodations of modern hospitality. Thus it is, that although Gibbon had, with good reason, stigmatized the nature of the task imposed on the poets laureate during the reign of George III. and his predecessors, as the establishment of a stipendiary bard, who every year, and under all circumstances, was bound to furnish a certain measure of praise and verse such as might be sung in presence of the monarch, the taste of our late amiable sovereign preferred, to the total abolition of the office, substituting for its old routine of drudgery the occasional exercise of varied talent and unequalled erudition in illustrating the antiquities and peculiarities of our national literature. Nor could Mr Southey have chosen a more interesting point for illustration, than the circumstances under which John Bunyan, in spite of a clownish and vulgar education, rose into a degree of popularity scarce equalled by any English writer.
This “ Spenser of the people," as Mr D’Israeli happily calls him, was born at Elstow, near Bedford, in the year 1628. His parents were the meanest, according to his own expression, of all families in the land. They were workers in brass, or, in common parlance, tinkers, whose profession bore to that of a brazier the same relation which the cobbler's does to the shoemaker's. It was not followed, however, by Bunyan's father as an itinerant calling, which leads Mr Southey to wonder why it should have come to be esteemed so mean. We believe the reason to be that the tinkers' craft is, in Great Britain, commonly practised by gipsies; and we surmise the probability that Bunyan's own family, though reclaimed and settled, might have sprung from this caste of vagabonds; that they were not, at all events, originally English, would seem the most natural explanation of young John's asking his father, whether he was not of Jewish extraction? (expecting thereby to found on the promises made in the Old Testament to the seed of Abra, ham).
Of gipsy descent or otherwise, Bunyan was bred up with, and speedily forgot, the slender proportion of schooling then accessible to the children of the poor in England. He was by nature of enthusiastic feelings, and so soon as the subject of religion began to fix his attention, his mind appears to have been agonized with the retrospect of a mispent youth. A quick and powerful imagination was at work on a tender conscience ; for it would appear that his worst excesses fell far short of that utter reprobation to which he conceived them entitled. The young tinker, in the wildest period of his life, had never been addicted to intemperance, or to unlawful intercourse with women. He seems to have wrought for his family as an honest and industrious man, and early became the affectionate husband of 'a deserving wife. His looser habits, in short, seem only to have been those which every ignorant and careless young fellow, of the lowest ranks, falls into ; and, probably, profane swearing, sabbath-breaking, and a mind addicted to the games and idle sports of Vanity Fair, were the most important stains upon the character of his youth:as Mr Southey sums it up, John Bunyan had been a blackguard. Repentance, however, in proportion to the imaginative power of the mind which it agitates, regards past offences with a microscopic eye ; nor can we wonder that such an ardent spirit, speaking, in his own energetic language, of his youthful faults, should paint them in blacker colours than the truth authorized. Bunyan had practised none of those debaucheries by which the heart of the epicurean is hardened against all feelings save
those which can tend to his own gratification; and if he had lost the valuable time for instruction afforded by the Christian Sabbath, the hours bad been given to folly rather than to vice. far, indeed, from desiring to treat these errors with indifference, they are those with which crime almost always begins its career. But it is interesting to discover the exact amount of transgression for which this strong mind was afflicted with the deepest agonies of remorse.
When it pleased Heaven to awaken this remarkable man to a sense of his own iniquities, the great Civil War was fast approaching ; "the land was burning." The nation was divided at once respecting the best form of government for their protection on this side time, and the surest means by which they might obtain felicity hereafter. Of John Bunyan's politics we know nothing, except that he was enrolled for a short time in the Parliamentary army-of his spiritual experience he has left an ample record. A few pious persons, with whom he became acquainted, were of the sect called Baptists, and were esteemed by the new convert, who heard them talk of the mysteries of our religion with joy, hope, and comfort, as a species of saints whose confidence and serenity argued the security of their calling and election ; while, on his own condition and prospects, he could look only with a sensation resembling despair.
Such views, natural to an ardent and enthusiastic mind, upon the first awakening of the feelings of conscience, were encouraged by the strict ideas of Calvinistic predestination, which formed the foundation of the creed of Bunyan's sectarian friends. He has described at length the wild tumult of his thoughts, when endeavouring to determine a point which all the schoolmen on earth must be inadequate to solve, and in the course of this fearful state of mind Mr Southey traces the germ of the Pilgrim's Progress. In a species of vision or waking reverie, he compared his own anxious condition with the sanctified repose of the members of the little Baptist congregation which he had joined. "" I saw,' he says,
as if they were on the sunny side of some high mountain, there refreshing themselves with the pleasant beams of the suo, while I was shivering and shrinking in the cold, afflicted with frost, snow, and dark clouds. Methought also betwixt me and them, I saw a wall that did compass about tbis mountain; now through this wall my soul did greatly desire to pass ; concluding that if I could, I would even go into the very midst of them, and there also comfort myself with the heat of their sun. About this wall I th ught myself to go again and again, still prying as I went to see if I could find some way or passage, by which I might enter therein; but none could I find for some time. At the last I saw, as it were, a narrow gap, like a little doorway in the wall, through which I attempted to pass. Now the passage being very strait and narrow I made many offers to get in, but all in vain, even until I was wellnigh quite beat out hy striving to get in. At last with great striving methought I at first did get in my head; and after that, by a sideling striving, my shoulders, and my whole body: then was I exceeding glad, went and sat down in the midst of them, and so was comforted with the light and heat of their sun. Now the mountain and wall, &c., were thus made out to me. The mountain signified the Church of the living God; the sun that shone thereon, the comfortable shining of his merciful face on them that were within : the wall, I thought, was the word, that did make separation be'tween the Christians and the world ; and the gap which was in the wall, I thought, was Jesus Christ, who is in the way to God