A Book That Brings Solace and Cheer

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]

Pilgrims Progress


One of my friends had a mania for Bunyan once upon a time, and, although he has now abandoned that fad for the more fashionable passion of Napoleonana, he still exhibits with evident pride the many editions of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” he gathered together years ago.  I have frequently besought him to give me one of his copies, which has a curious frontispiece illustrating the dangers besetting the traveler from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.  This frontispiece, which is prettily illuminated, occurs in Virtue’s edition of the “Pilgrim’s Progress”; the book itself is not rare, but it is hardly procurable in perfect condition, for the reason that the colored plate is so pleasing to the eye that few have been able to resist the temptation to make away with it.

For similar reasons it is seldom that we meet with a perfect edition of Quarles’ “Emblems”; indeed, an “Emblems” of early publication that does not lack the title-page is a great rarity.  In the “good old days,” when juvenile books were few, the works of Bunyan and of Quarles were vastly popular with the little folk, and little fingers wrought sad havoc with the title-pages and the pictures that with their extravagant and vivid suggestions appealed so directly and powerfully to the youthful fancy.

Coleridge says of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” that it is the best summary of evangelical Christianity ever produced by a writer not miraculously inspired.  Froude declares that it has for two centuries affected the spiritual opinions of the English race in every part of the world more powerfully than any other book, except the Bible.  “It is,” says Macaulay, “perhaps the only book about which, after the lapse of a hundred years, the educated minority has come over to the opinion of the common people.”

Whether or not Bunyan is, as Disraeli has called him, the Spenser of the people, and  whether or not his work is the poetry of Puritanism, the best evidence of the merit of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” appears, as Dr. Johnson has shrewdly pointed out, in the general and continued approbation of mankind.  Southey has critically observed that to his natural style Bunyan is in some degree beholden for his general popularity, his language being everywhere level to the most ignorant reader and to the meanest capacity; “there is a homely reality about it—a nursery tale is not more intelligible, in its manner of narration, to a child.”

Another cause of his popularity, says Southey, is that he taxes the imagination as little as the understanding.  “The vividness of his own, which, as history shows, sometimes could not distinguish ideal impressions from actual ones, occasioned this.  He saw the things of which he was writing as distinctly with his mind’s eye as if they were, indeed, passing before him in a dream.”

It is clear to me that in his youth Bunyan would have endeared himself to me had I lived at that time, for his fancy was of that kind and of such intensity as I delight to find in youth.  “My sins,” he tells us, “did so offend the Lord that even in my childhood He did scare and affright me with fearful dreams and did terrify me with dreadful visions.  I have been in my bed greatly afflicted, while asleep, with apprehensions of devils and wicked spirits, who still, as I then thought, labored to draw me away with them, of which I could never be rid.”

It is quite likely that Bunyan overestimated his viciousness.  One of his ardent, intense temperament having once been touched of the saving grace could hardly help recognizing in himself the most miserable of sinners.  It is related that upon one occasion he was going somewhere disguised as a wagoner, when he was overtaken by a constable who had a warrant for his arrest.

“Do you know that devil of a fellow Bunyan?” asked the constable.

“Know him?” cried Bunyan.  “You might call him a devil indeed, if you knew him as well as I once did!”

This was not the only time his wit served him to good purpose.  On another occasion a certain Cambridge student, who was filled with a sense of his own importance, undertook to prove to him what a divine thing reason was, and he capped his argument with the declaration that reason was the chief glory of man which distinguished him from a beast.  To this Bunyan calmly made answer:  “Sin distinguishes man from beast; is sin divine?”

Frederick Saunders observes that, like Milton in his blindness, Bunyan in his imprisonment had his spiritual perception made all the brighter by his exclusion from the glare of the outside world.  And of the great debt of gratitude we all owe to “the wicked tinker of Elstow” Dean Stanley has spoken so truly that I am fain to quote his words:  “We all need to be cheered by the help of Greatheart and Standfast and Valiant-for-the-Truth, and good old Honesty!  Some of us have been in Doubting Castle, some in the Slough of Despond.  Some have experienced the temptations of Vanity Fair; all of us have to climb the Hill of Difficulty; all of us need to be instructed by the Interpreter in the House Beautiful; all of us bear the same burden; all of us need the same armor in our fight with Apollyon; all of us have to pass through the Wicket Gate—to pass through the dark river, and for all of us (if God so will) there wait the shining ones at the gates of the Celestial City!  Who does not love to linger over the life story of the ‘immortal dreamer’ as one of those characters for whom man has done so little and God so much?”

About my favorite copy of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” many a pleasant reminiscence lingers, for it was one of the books my grandmother gave my father when he left home to engage in the great battle of life; when my father died this thick, dumpy little volume, with its rude cuts and poorly printed pages, came into my possession.  I do not know what part this book played in my father’s life, but I can say for myself that it has brought me solace and cheer a many times.

The only occasion upon which I felt bitterly toward Dr. O’Rell was when that personage observed in my hearing one day that Bunyan was a dyspeptic, and that had he not been one he would doubtless never have written the “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

I took issue with the doctor on this point; whereupon he cited those visions and dreams, which, according to the light of science as it now shines, demonstrate that Bunyan’s digestion must have been morbid.  And, forthwith, he overwhelmed me with learned instances from Galen and Hippocrates, from Spurzheim and Binns, from Locke and Beattie, from Malebranche and Bertholini, from Darwin and Descartes, from Charlevoix and Berkeley, from Heraclitus and Blumenbach, from Priestley and Abercrombie; in fact, forsooth, he quoted me so many authorities that it verily seemed to me as though the whole world were against me!

I did not know until then that Dr. O’Rell had made a special study of dreams, of their causes and of their signification.  I had always supposed that astrology was his particular hobby, in which science I will concede him to be deeply learned, even though he has never yet proved to my entire satisfaction that the reason why my copy of Justinian has faded from a royal purple to a  pale blue is, first, because the binding was renewed at the wane of the moon and when Sirius was in the ascendant, and, secondly, because (as Dr. O’Rell has discovered) my binder was born at a moment fifty-six years ago when Mercury was in the fourth house and Herschel and Saturn were aspected in conjunction, with Sol at his northern declination.

Dr. O’Rell has frequently expressed surprise that I have never wearied of and drifted away from the book-friendships of my earlier years.  Other people, he says, find, as time elapses, that they no longer discover those charms in certain books which attracted them so powerfully in youth.  “We have in our earlier days,” argues the doctor, “friendships so dear to us that we would repel with horror the suggestion that we could ever become heedless or forgetful of them; yet, alas, as we grow older we gradually become indifferent to these first friends, and we are weaned from them by other friendships; there even comes a time when we actually wonder how it were possible for us to be on terms of intimacy with  such or such a person.  We grow away from people, and in like manner and for similar reasons we grow away from books.”

Is it indeed possible for one to become indifferent to an object he has once loved?  I can hardly believe so.  At least it is not so with me, and, even though the time may come when I shall no longer be able to enjoy the uses of these dear old friends with the old-time enthusiasm, I should still regard them with that tender reverence which in his age the poet Longfellow expressed when looking round upon his beloved books:

Sadly as some old mediaeval knight
Gazed at the arms he could no longer wield—
The sword two-handed and the shining shield
Suspended in the hall and full in sight,
While secret longings for the lost delight
Of tourney or adventure in the field
Came over him, and tears but half concealed
Trembled and fell upon his beard of white;
So I behold these books upon their shelf
My ornaments and arms of other days;
Not wholly useless, though no longer used,
For they remind me of my other self
Younger and stronger, and the pleasant ways
In which I walked, now clouded and confused.

If my friend O’Rell’s theory be true, how barren would be Age!  Lord Bacon tells us in his “Apothegms” that Alonzo of Aragon was wont to say, in commendation of Age, that Age appeared to be best in four things:  Old wood best to burn; old wine to drink; old friends to trust; and old authors to read.  Sir John Davys recalls that “a French writer (whom I love well) speaks of three kinds of companions:  Men, women and books,” and my revered and beloved poet-friend, Richard Henry Stoddard, has wrought out this sentiment in a poem of exceeding beauty, of which the concluding stanza runs in this wise:

Better than men and women, friend,
That are dust, though dear in our joy and pain,
Are the books their cunning hands have penned,
For they depart, but the books remain;
Through these they speak to us what was best
In the loving heart and the noble mind;
All their royal souls possessed
Belongs forever to all mankind!
When others fail him, the wise man looks
To the sure companionship of books.

If ever, O honest friends of mine, I should forget you or weary of your companionship,  whither would depart the memories and the associations with which each of you is hallowed!  Would ever the modest flowers of spring-time, budding in pathways where I no longer wander, recall to my failing sight the vernal beauty of the Puritan maid, Captivity?  In what reverie of summer-time should I feel again the graciousness of thy presence, Yseult?

And Fanchonette—sweet, timid little Fanchonette! would ever thy ghost come back from out those years away off yonder? Be hushed, my Beranger, for a moment; another song hath awakened softly responsive echoes in my heart! It is a song of Fanchonette:

In vain, in vain; we meet no more,
Nor dream what fates befall;
And long upon the stranger’s shore
My voice on thee may call,
When years have clothed the line in moss
That tells thy name and days,
And withered, on thy simple cross,
The wreaths of Pere la Chaise!



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