Dec 12, 2012

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Red Booth Notes: T.B. Macaulay and John Bunyan

Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay was as a prominent a literary lion as the early Victorian era produced. From the time he published his critically acclaimed essay on Milton—while still in his twenties—until his untimely death in 1859, few wielded a pen that so powerfully shaped literary opinion.

Macaulay was as famous for his literary censures as he was for critical praise. His September 1831 review of J.W. Croker’s edition of The Life of Samuel Johnson injured Johnson’s reputation for many years (to say nothing of the harm it inflicted on Croker’s). Macaulay’s rhetorical arsenal was on full display from the first paragraph on. “I fully expected,” he began,

 a valuable addition to English literature; [a book that] would contain many curious facts, and many judicious remarks; that the style of the notes would be neat, clear, and precise; and that the typographical execution would be, as in new editions of classical works it ought to be, almost faultless. [I am] sorry to be obliged to say that the merits of Mr. Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr. Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be ‘as bad as bad could be, ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed.’ This edition is ill compiled, ill arranged, ill written, and ill printed.[1]

Macaulay did not suffer lesser literary mortals gladly. Few could thunder ex cathedra as he did. This was unfortunate for Johnson and for Croker—in Johnson’s case it was more than that, it was unjust—but ironically, Macaulay’s reputation as a demanding critic boded well for John Bunyan and The Pilgrim’s Progress. For it was in 1831 that Macaulay also published a celebrated Edinburgh Review essay on the Poet Laureate Robert Southey’s edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress.[2]

Facsimile edition of Pilgrim’s Progress (1895)

In a word, Macaulay conceived a great appreciation for Bunyan’s masterwork—going so far as to pen a critical essay that did as much good to Bunyan’s reputation in the nineteenth century as it did harm to Johnson’s.

Macaulay’s admiration for The Pilgrim’s Progress was multifaceted. “It is the only work of its kind,” he wrote, “which possesses a strong human interest.” Other allegories, he said. “amuse the fancy [but] the allegory of Bunyan has been read by many thousands with tears.” He then compared Bunyan to Edmund Spenser, according the literary palm to Bunyan. Even so, he could not resist damning Dr. Johnson once again with faint praise:

 Even Spenser himself, though assuredly one of the greatest poets that ever lived, could not succeed in the attempt to make allegory interesting. It was in vain that he lavished the riches of his mind on the House of Pride and the House of Temperance. One unpardonable fault, the fault of tediousness, pervades the whole of the Fairy Queen. We become sick of cardinal virtues and deadly sins, and long for the society of plain men and women. Of the persons who read the first canto, not one in ten reaches the end of the first book, and not one in a hundred perseveres to the end of the poem. Very few and very weary are those who are in at the death of the Blatant Beast. If the last six books, which are said to have been destroyed in Ireland, had been preserved, we doubt whether any heart less stout than that of a commentator would have held out to the end.

It is not so with the Pilgrim’s Progress. That wonderful book, while it obtains admiration from the most fastidious critics, is loved by those who are too simple to admire it. Doctor Johnson…whose studies were [all] desultory, and who hated, as he said, to read books through, made an exception in favour of The Pilgrim’s Progress. That work was one of [only] two or three works which he wished longer.[3]

Macaulay then discussed “miracles of genius,” and the ways in which The Pilgrim’s Progress was a prodigy of that kind. “In every nursery,” he wrote,

 “The Pilgrim’s Progress is a greater favourite than Jack the Giant-killer. Every reader knows the straight and narrow path as well as he knows a road in which he has gone backward and forward a hundred times. This is the highest miracle of genius, that things which are not should be as though they were, that the imaginations of one mind should become the personal recollections of another.

And this miracle the tinker has wrought. There is no ascent, no declivity, no resting-place, no turn-stile, with which we are not perfectly acquainted. The wicket gate, and the desolate swamp which separates it from the City of Destruction, the long line of road, as straight as a rule can make it, the Interpreter’s house and all its fair shows, the prisoner in the iron cage, the palace, at the doors of which armed men kept guard, and on the battlements of which walked persons clothed all in gold, the cross and the sepulchre, the steep hill and the pleasant harbour, the stately front of the House Beautiful by the wayside, the chained lions crouching in the porch, the low green valley of Humiliation, rich with grass and covered with flocks—all are as well known to us as the sights of our own street.[4]

Bunyan’s signature (from Brown’s John Bunyan 1888)

The imaginative landscape Bunyan created in The Pilgrim’s Progress was, in Macaulay’s opinion, an artistic tour de force—and one he had often traversed. Like Robert Louis Stevenson in a later generation, Bunyan’s world was one Macaulay had known from his youth. Recalling scenes from The Pilgrim’s Progress summoned Macaulay’s best powers of description, as in this discussion of Christian’s fight with Apollyon:

 Then we come to the narrow place where Apollyon strode right across the whole breadth of the way, to stop the journey of Christian, and where afterwards the pillar was set up to testify how bravely the pilgrim had fought the good fight.

As we advance, the valley becomes deeper and deeper. The shade of the precipices on both sides falls blacker and blacker. The clouds gather overhead. Doleful voices, the clanking of chains, and the rushing of many feet to and fro, are heard through the darkness. The way, hardly discernible in gloom, runs close by the mouth of the burning pit, which sends forth its flames, its noisome smoke, and its hideous shapes, to terrify the adventurer. Thence he goes on, amidst the snares and pitfalls, with the mangled bodies of those who have perished lying in the ditch by his side. At the end of the long dark valley he passes the dens in which the old giants dwelt, amidst the bones of those whom they had slain.[5]

So admiring of Bunyan was Macaulay, that the former may be said to have bearded the literary lion in his den. Macaulay, however censorious he could be at times, was an acknowledged master of prose. In writing about Bunyan, he recognized a collection of gifts superior to his own. This was readily apparent, for example, in his discussion of Bunyan’s gifts of characterization in The Pilgrim’s Progress. “All the stages of the journey,” he began,

 all the forms which cross or overtake the pilgrims—giants, and hobgoblins, ill-favoured ones, and shining ones, the tall, comely, swarthy Madam Bubble, with her great purse by her side, and her fingers playing with the money, the black man in the bright vesture, Mr. Worldly Wiseman and my Lord Hategood, Mr. Talkative, and Mrs. Timorous—all are actually existing beings to us….Bunyan is almost the only writer who ever gave to the abstract the interest of the concrete. In the works of many celebrated authors, men are mere personifications. We have not a jealous man, but jealousy, not a traitor, but perfidy; not a patriot, but patriotism. The mind of Bunyan, on the contrary, was so imaginative that personifications, when he dealt with them, became men. A dialogue between two qualities, in his dream, has more dramatic effect than a dialogue between two human beings in most plays.[6]

Following this tribute, Macaulay entered the lists against writers whom he believed had treated Bunyan unfairly. There was no mistaking his meaning. “By most of his biographers,” he stated, Bunyan “has been treated with gross injustice.”[7] One writer in particular drew down his ire: the Rev. Joseph Ivimey, pastor of the Eagle Street church, Red Lion Square, in London. In 1809, Ivimey had published a life of Bunyan which many considered authoritative. It was a book Macaulay heartily detested.

Ivimey’s literary sins, in Macaulay’s view, were legion. Ivimey had called Bunyan “depraved,” and “the wicked tinker of Elstow.” His reading of Bunyan’s life, Macaulay felt, was superficial and undiscerning. “Surely Mr. Ivimey,” he wrote:

 ought to have been too familiar with the bitter accusations which the most pious people are in the habit of bringing against themselves, to understand literally all the strong expressions which are to be found in [Bunyan’s autobiography] Grace Abounding. It is quite clear, as Mr. Southey most justly remarks, that Bunyan never was a vicious man…He was a blackguard no otherwise than as every labouring man that ever lived has been a blackguard.[8]

After castigating Ivimey, Macaulay abruptly changed course and brought his considerable critical powers to bear on the inner struggles, the turmoil of mind that Bunyan had faced in early life. In this Macaulay showed much discernment and feeling—all the more remarkable because he was not a man known for displays of literary sympathy or empathy. What followed were some of the finest lines to be found in any of his essays. “Those horrible internal conflicts,” he wrote:

 which Bunyan has described with so much power of language prove, not that he was a worse man than his neighbours, but that his mind was constantly occupied by religious considerations, that his fervour exceeded his knowledge, and that his imagination exercised despotic power over his body and mind. He heard voices from heaven. He saw strange visions of distant hills, pleasant and sunny as his own Delectable Mountains. From those abodes he was shut out, and placed in a dark and horrible wilderness, where he wandered through ice and snow, striving to make his way into the happy region of light.[9]

And what was the result of all this? Grace—sovereign and merciful—had all the while been at work. And this Macaulay believed he understood. “The only trace,” he wrote, “which [Bunyan’s] cruel sufferings and temptations seemed to have left behind them was an affectionate compassion for those who were still in the state in which he had once been.”[10]

This fed directly into Macaulay’s admiration of The Pilgrim’s Progress. “Religion,” he said, “has scarcely ever worn a form so calm and soothing as in [Bunyan’s] allegory. The feeling which predominates through the whole book is a feeling of tenderness for weak, timid, and harassed minds.”[11] This, Macaulay was saying, were easy to prove:

 The character of Mr. Fearing, of Mr. Feeble-Mind, of Mr. Despondency and his daughter Miss Much-afraid, the account of poor Little-faith who was robbed by the three thieves, of his spending money, the description of Christian’s terror in the dungeons of Giant Despair and in his passage through the river, all clearly show how strong a sympathy Bunyan felt, after his own mind had become clear and cheerful, for persons afflicted with religious melancholy.[12]

Grace brought Bunyan, at the last, to the happy region of light. And it is Macaulay, perhaps a very unlikely admirer, whose finely rendered reflections deepen our appreciation of the many facets of Bunyan’s pilgrimage.

 



[1] See issue of the Edinburgh Review for August-December 1831. Macaulay’s review is contained therein.

[2] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), pp. 399-410. See also pages 558-570 of T.B. Macaulay, Critical, Historical, and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems, Volume 1, (Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1887).

[3] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), p. 401.

[4] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), pp. 401-402.

[5] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), p. 402.

[6] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), pp. 402-403.

[7] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), p. 405.

[8] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), pp. 405-406.

[9] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), p. 406.

[10] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), p. 407.

[11] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), pp. 407-408.

[12] T.B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, Volume Two of the Everyman’s Library edition, newly arranged by A.J. Grieve, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1919), p. 408.

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