Friday, 20 February 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

John Bunnion (November 1628 – 31 August 1688)

Yes, it’s that most quintessentially English of all Englishmen and the one famed for penning the religious allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress: John Bunyan. Though, for someone much given to sermonising on the virtues of a life of simple abstemiousness, he does look like the sort of fellow who enjoyed a hearty breakfast, a sturdy luncheon and second helpings come dinner time, does he not? Fleshpots aside, he was, even by his own admission, something of a wrong ‘un, calling his autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. An odd title, seeing he appears to be claiming simultaneously that, when it came to delinquent reprobates, he was the Daddy of ‘em all (thus we can add pride and boastfulness to his list of misdemeanours) but, at the same time, despite such a failing, as far as goodwill and favour were concerned, his cup runneth over. No doubt it did. Though perhaps, of course, by Grace, he was simply referring to all those times that he would have had to sit in front of a steaming plateful listening to the familiar words: “For what we are about to receive, let’s get stuck straight into before the gravy gets cold.”

Bunyan’s actual birthday remains unknown, though the parish register records the baptism of “John the sonne of Thomas Bunnion Junior, the 30 November 1628,” meaning he would have been born a few days earlier. The spelling of Bunyan was variable (thirty four different versions appear in the Bedfordshire Record Office alone), though its origins lie in the Norman-French name Buignon (bang goes his Englishness), the ancestors having come over from there around 1199. His parents resided in Bunyan’s End, Elstow, in a cottage where the family had lived for generations, the last house on a dead-end lane, thus giving the place its name. The dad, Thomas, who described himself as a brazier (he was actually a tinker who went all over mending pots and pans), had been named after his own father (hence the Junior mentioned earlier), who had himself been a chapman (a dealer, the “chap” meaning deal, from which we get “cheap”, originally a good (favourable) deal, and also chap – as in a fellow – meaning customer), so Tommy Junior spared his own son the usual infliction of the paternal name. The mother, Margaret Bentley, on the other hand, was from a family of some substance and status, so she evidently married somewhat “beneath herself.” In Abounding Grace, Bunyan describes his home as, “of that rank that is meanest and most despised in the country,” though this turns out to be a bit of a lie (meaning we can add fibbing and ingratitude to the growing inventory of iniquities) and little more than our man bigging up the story of his rags-to-riches rise. It was from his dad that he learned his deplorable habit of swearing and, as he delights in informing us, he had few equals for his years “for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God.”
We used to think peccadillo was an armour-plated anteater until we discovered John Bunyan …

The Bunyans weren’t nearly so badly off as our John liked to make out. They owned their home so paid no rent, and they also had a small farm and an orchard, which meant there was always a veritable plenitude of meat and dairy, fruit and veg on which a stout young fellow might develop his growing predisposition for gormandising. Naturally enough, his folks wanted him educated or, as Bunyan’s puts it, “It pleased God to put it into their hearts to put me to school, to learn me both to read and write.” Though where he was the day they covered grammar remains unclear. The only book he is known to have read at this time was the Life of Sir Bevis of Southampton, in the form of a cheap pamphlet known as a chapbook (from the same root as earlier, meaning they were dealt in by itinerant salesmen) printed on low quality paper, usually a single folded sheet, that would later be recycled as wrapping for food or (forgive the term, we beg) bum fodder, your seventeenth century Andrex, as it were. This was an ancient and grisly adventure story involving murder, betrayal, vengeance and imprisonment, and its very perusal would provide young Bunyan with grounds for much repentance later – he had nightmares.

Even with the lying, cursing and blaspheming, he had not yet reached nadir and it was around this time, aged about ten, that Bunyan turned his attentions to yet another vice, that of bell-ringing. Put whatever gloss on it you like but the fact remains that there he was pulling on the ropes like a rabid dervish and revelling in every last sordid moment of it, the beast. Not only that, but he wasn’t at all shy when it came to indulging in a spot of dancing either, or enjoying games such as tip-cat on the Sabbath, in what Bunyan called his “delight to be taken captive by the devil at his will, being filled with all unrighteousness,” though his world was about to come crashing down around his ears. What happened, in all probability (and given a generous pinch of salt to help swallow it), was that the good reverend parson was sitting there in his study, trying vainly to come up with an idea for his next sermon, when he turned instead to divine inspiration, thinking to himself, “I’ll look out of the window and the first thing I see shall be the subject of my text. Unless it’s those two wretched dogs again, of course.” Which is precisely what he did, at which he exclaimed in astonishment and outrage, “By thunder, what is this I see before mine eye but some vile young urchins tipping a cat on the village green, and upon the Sabbath day at that.” Obviously, this wasn’t what happened at all, seeing that tip-cat merely involved hitting one small piece of wood with another larger one but, nonetheless, the very next Sunday Bunyan finds the irate clergyman thundering a broadside of fire and brimstone from the pulpit straight in his direction about the iniquities of pleasures enjoyed on the Sabbath. A message young Bunyan rather took to heart. Though not enough to prevent his taking part in another round of tip-cat that very afternoon. Which is when he heard the voices: “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to Heaven? Or have thy sins, and go to Hell?” Which was a shame, seeing he’d just made a particularly good shot. Too late for all that now, however, as the church had done its holy work and filled his soul full of guilt and remorse, not to mention livening up his nightmares with visions of the “fearful torments of hell-fire.”

For Bunyan it was the turning point. He gave up games altogether, packed in swearing and even tried to turn his back on bell-ringing but (and let this be a salient lesson to us all not to dabble, thinking we can control the habit), even though he forsook the actual rope-pulling, such were the intoxicating attractions of this forbidden pleasure that he could not resist going along to watch his erstwhile mates having a go at it and to hear the bells. “I would go to the steeple-house and look on, though I durst not ring,” but then came the inevitable prick of conscience at such sin: “How if one of the bells should fall?” So then he took to crouching beneath a beam for protection, just in case, but then, “What if a falling bell might break the beam and crush me?” So he decides to watch from the safety of the steeple door, only to find himself asking, “How if the steeple itself should fall?” Yes, and from there it’s only a short step to asking What if a herd of demented badgers, enraged by the constant clanging of bells, should stampede through Elstow and reduce it to naught save rubble? No, the message was clear: if you indulge in bell-ringing in any form whatsoever, divine retribution will get you in the end.

Then, in the summer of 1644, disaster struck: he lost both his sister, Margaret, and his mother in quick succession, a situation not helped by the fact that within two months the dad had married again, which was either a case of him being lively on his toes or else already having a replacement standing by, something young Bunyan took great exception to and they had a falling out over it. So when the Parliamentarian Army came to Bedford looking for recruits to help out with giving the King what for, he thought “that’ll do me,” and enlisted. He was not yet sixteen. Little is known about the three years he spent soldiering, although he did recount one story about how he had been selected to go besieging somewhere or other and, just as he was about to march off, “one of the company desired to go in my room, to which, when I had consented, he took my place; and coming to the siege, as he stood Sentinel, he was shot into the head with a Musket bullet and died.” Bunyan took this to be evidence of the grace of God towards him, though it’s hard to see why the Almighty would take such a benign view when Bunyan filled his Army days doing what all soldiers do and even putting his Bragging Hat on once again to claim that, “I was the very ringleader of all the Youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness.”

1647 and it was back to Elstow and the tinkering trade he’d learned from his father. (His actual anvil, stamped with his name and 1647, turned up in 1905 amongst a pile of rubbish in St Neots). Nothing like the sprint finish of his old man, of course, but pretty soon he was married, though what the lady concerned was called (apart from Mrs Bunyan, that is) our man entirely neglects to mention. She was said to be pious, however, and, whilst she brought “not a dish nor a spoon” into the union, she did come armed with a couple of weighty tomes, The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety, which went a long way to bringing down the curtain on Bunyan’s career in turpitude, though not quite enough to prevent him from fathering four children: Mary (born 1650 and blind), Elizabeth, Thomas and John.

Whilst he was out and about at his tinkering, somewhere around 1653 time, Bunyan chanced to hear some women (founding members of the Bedford Free Meeting, as it goes) talking about spiritual matters and was so impressed he immediately thought, “That’ll do me,” and joined up. It seems that, when it came to preaching, our man was something of a natural so he was strongly encouraged to give it full welly, which he did, speaking extemporaneously and with so much passion and fervour that within two years he had been chosen to be deacon. Which is when he began to let the tinkering side of things slide rather, in order to give the sermonising his best attention. Not long later, in 1656, he published his first book, Gospel Truths Opened, which was basically Bunyan having a pop at the Quakers, who naturally enough hit right back, causing our man to come out with his follow-up, A Vindication of Some Gospel Truths Opened, his way of saying Actually, I Was Right All Along, though it did display something of a shortcoming of his when it came to the matter of thinking up snappy titles, especially seeing his next effort (following in hot pursuit in 1658) would be called A Few Sighs from Hell, or the Groans of a Damned Soul; by that poor and contemptible servant of Jesus Christ, John Bunyan.

Little did he suspect but that very year of 1658 he was headed inexorably in the direction of the Slough of Despond: his wife died. Though he then took a leaf out of his old man’s book and within a year was remarried, this time to a woman with an actual name, Elizabeth, who was eighteen to his thirty. Not that it did him much good, seeing that it wouldn’t be long before Charles II would be heading Englandward to stage his Return of the Stuarts show, during which he would take time enough off from his Merry Monarching to put a stop to religious tolerance once and for all. Bad news for Bunyan. Despite the fact that Charles’ chief pastimes included the fathering of illegitimate children (fourteen at least) and inflicting his mistresses upon his own wife as a ladies-in-waiting, he did draw the line at unlicensed preaching and so a warrant was issued for Bunyan’s arrest. Rather than picking up his anvil and legging it pronto, Bunyan went right on with his sermon and was still at it when they came for him.

They gave him three months in Bedford Gaol, which probably gave our man time enough to reflect upon the rich irony of the fact that, for all the heinous sinnery he’d got up to in his ill-spent youth, not a single steeple had collapsed on him and yet, the very second he turns to doing honest Christian service, they fling him in clink for it. The three months would eventually become twelve years, despite the best efforts of his wife to secure his release – she suffered terribly, having been pregnant at the time of Bunyan’s arrest, later giving birth to a still-born infant, and having his four children to care for, including blind Mary – because Bunyan flatly refused to jack in the preaching game, saying: “O I saw in this condition I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his Wife and Children; yet thought I, I must do it.” He said he would rather remain in prison until moss grew on his eyelids than fail to do what God commanded.

Whilst he was getting his eyelids nicely mossy, a second daughter, Sarah, was born, which is a tad unusual, to say the least. How did he manage that, then? After all, it was him that was the one that was supposed to be banged up, wasn’t it? It turns out that, even though Bedford Gaol was every bit as bad a stinkhole as any other prison of that time, and despite the fact that on the outside you could get locked up for preaching, inside it was a different matter altogether and the jailers simply let him get on with what he was best at: rattling out rollicking good off-the-cuff sermons to audiences of forty and more (most of whom were also doing time for that very offence). Not only that, but they sometimes let him out to do more of the same and there was even a period of a few weeks’ freedom in 1666 (A-ha!). Having come up with some real beauts sermonwise, he would then write them down and work them up into tracts and even books, which brought in a little cash, though the main source of income was still the “many hundred gross of long tagg'd [shoe] laces” he turned out during his confinement. It was here that he penned Abounding Grace (published 1666) and he may even have started to conceive his most famous work around this time.

By 1672, Charles II had mellowed – Nell Gwynn, the self-styled “Protestant Whore” was keeping him entertained – and decided that he’d let the Non-conformists off, so Bunyan at last went free and even received a royal authority to preach. He went back to Bedford (but not to tinkering) and was soon enjoying prosperity and reputation, with great crowds turning out to witness him in action. Thanks to his habit of going visiting every place he could get to in Bedfordshire and the adjoining counties, folk took to referring to him, in kindly jest, as Bishop Bunyan, a (rather worldly) title he seems to have enjoyed every bit as much as a nice drop of steak and kidney. Possibly, however, the monarch was starting to have his nose ever so slightly put out of joint (and there was certainly plenty of that to do a decent job on) by the fact that Bunyan was now more popular than him – Nell Gwynn was more popular than him – so, in 1676, our man found himself back in prison again, either for not attending church, or for preaching stuff that wasn’t strictly C of E enough, or any old trumped-up charge that would get him out the way for a bit. They stuck him in a tiny one-room cell on a bridge over the Ouse (it’s the one you see in all the etchings) for six months to teach him a little humility. Only he got his own back big-time. This is what he came up with:

“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.”

Thus begins The Pilgrim’s Progress – well, Bunyan’s title was actually The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream – which stars a tinker, of course, and it was an instant smash hit when it was published in February 1678, one that has never been out of print since, has been translated into over two hundred languages and is the best-selling book (bar the Bible) in publishing history. The book also contains a line spoken by Mr Cruelty:

“Hanging is too good for him.”

So now you know where that phrase came from.

In 1680, Bunyan brought out The Life and Death of Mr Badman, intended as the counterpart of The Pilgrim's Progress but, with a name like that, you kind of get the feeling things aren’t going to turn out all that well for the eponymous hero, and thus it went the way of most other sequels. In all, Bunyan completed fifty eight published titles, but The Pilgrim’s Progress was (and remains) the masterpiece of the lot. He did have one other string to his bow: he wrote a hymn. And it’s a surefire certainty that every single one of you out there now has not only heard of it but has actually sung it at one time or another, seeing it’s called He Who Would Valiant Be, though it’s probably better known as To Be A Pilgrim. (Bunyan obviously thought it well worth sticking to the Pilgrim motif and it certainly paid off). Mind you, the high-up Anglicans tended to blench rather at the mention of “hobgoblins” and “foul fiends” so, in 1906, a certain Percy Dearmer took it upon himself to change the words. Rather extensively. And, about the same time, Ralph Vaughan Williams thought it could do with a new tune to go with it too. Apart from that, it’s all Bunyan’s own work.

In 1688, heading for London, Bunyan was called out on detour to resolve a quarrel between father and son, just the kind of caper he loved to sort out, only he was caught in a storm and fell ill with a fever and, on the morning of 31 August, he died. A great loss to the world of literature. And a crying shame for the man himself – it was always a good lunch on a Tuesday …

Bunyan Portrait: [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Bunyan’s Cottage: By ReeseM at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Sir Bevis of Southampton: By F. Tayler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tip Cat: By Isaiah Thomas (A Little Pretty Pocket-book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bell Ringing:
Naseby: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Merry Monarch: By John Michael Wright or studio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons In Bedford Gaol: By Brian0324 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons 

Nell Gwynn: Simon Pietersz. Verelst (1644–1710/1717) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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