Wednesday 25 July 2018

Samuel Johnson's Favourite Books... Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Samuel Johnson was obviously a huge book fan. As a child his favourite books were what he called 'romantick fictions'
Hester Thrale Piozzi said;

“The three books of which he never tired, said Mrs. Thrale, were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, and Don Quixote "Alas," he would say, "how few books there are of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page;" and "Was there ever yet any thing written by mere man" that one could wish longer than these three books? He would have gone on reading them, he would never exhaust them, because here—as in no other works—his identification was almost complete. These three wanderers—one a castaway, one a pilgrim, and one on an impossible quest—were prototypes of what he felt to be his own life.”

I read two of them so far this year (and will be reading the third with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle). So, I thought I’d start by looking at the one connected with my Bedford trip.

I had long written off The Pilgrim’s Progress as a paper-thin allegory whose Christian subtext was worn so heavily that it couldn’t be read as a story. It was QD Leavis’ in her ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’ who led me to believe it was of greater psychological depth than I expected. Added to the fact that it was also one of Samuel Johnson’s favourite books - I was ready to read it. Now having visited Bunyan's Church in Bedford, it seems time to talk about it.

I was drawn in by the poem at the beginning and got to the first line; ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.’ Aside from being a beautiful line, it is very similar to the beginning of the revolutionary call-to-arms, Piers Ploughman. I was intrigued by Christian’s pain and burden and wanted him to get to the Celestial City.

There were areas that worked very well for me, particularly the giant Despair who locks Christian and Hopeful in his dungeon. I imagined the frequently depressed Samuel Johnson thinking on the suicidal discussion and ideation. I was also very interested by the water around the Celestial City that has a depth depending on faith. 

I have to say, that I was very tired whenever Christian met a new person. I thought ‘not another one’ as he repeats the same adventures we have already seen to the Evangelist and the Interpreter, and the actions of the Interpreter to Faithful, and all of it again to Hopeful. While I was pleased that Hopeful’s flaws and successes come from his hopefulness - I did find the characters to be on-the-nose caricatures and they tired me. 

Add to that, Christian and his fellow journeymen utterly speak to each other in allegory and the whole thing, while presenting ideas about bravery and persistence, I found ultimately tiring.   

When it comes to the sequel, Christiana definitely has it easier. The presence of Great-Heart nullifies the difficulties and problems of the pilgrims. That said, the book does manage to address how weaker pilgrims can make their journey and the gentler pace does allow the characters to have more in-depth (and interesting) discussions on religious matters than the earlier book

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