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The Life of John Bunyan

Chapter 7
Mr. Green has observed that Bunyan "found compensation for the narrow
bounds of his prison in the wonderful activity of his pen. Tracts, controversial
treatises, poems, meditations, his 'Grace Abounding,' and his 'Holy War,'
followed each other in quick succession." Bunyan's literary fertility in the earlier
half of his imprisonment was indeed amazing. Even if, as seems almost certain,
we have been hitherto in error in assigning the First Part of "The Pilgrim's
Progress" to this period, while the "Holy War" certainly belongs to a later, the
works which had their birth in Bedford Gaol during the first six years of his
confinement, are of themselves sufficient to make the reputation of any ordinary
writer. As has been already remarked, for some unexplained cause, Bunyan's
gifts as an author were much more sparingly called into exercise during the
second half of his captivity. Only two works appear to have been written between
1666 and his release in 1672.
Mr. Green has spoken of "poems" as among the products of Bunyan's pen during
this period. The compositions in verse belonging to this epoch, of which there are
several, hardly deserve to be dignified with so high a title. At no part of his life
had Bunyan much title to be called a poet. He did not aspire beyond the rank of a
versifier, who clothed his thoughts in rhyme or metre instead of the more
congenial prose, partly for the pleasure of the exercise, partly because he knew
by experience that the lessons he wished to inculcate were more likely to be
remembered in that form. Mr. Froude, who takes a higher estimate of Bunyan's
verse than is commonly held, remarks that though it is the fashion to apply the
epithet of "doggerel" to it, the "sincere and rational meaning" which pervades his
compositions renders such an epithet improper. "His ear for rhythm," he
continues, "though less true than in his prose, is seldom wholly at fault, and
whether in prose or verse, he had the superlative merit that he could never write
nonsense." Bunyan's earliest prison work, entitled "Profitable Meditations," was in
verse, and neither this nor his later metrical ventures before his release - his
"Four Last Things," his "Ebal and Gerizim," and his "Prison Meditations" - can be
said to show much poetical power. At best he is a mere rhymester, to whom
rhyme and metre, even when self-chosen, were as uncongenial accoutrements
"as Saul's armour was to David." The first-named book, which is entitled a
"Conference between Christ and a Sinner," in the form of a poetical dialogue,
according to Dr. Brown has "small literary merit of any sort." The others do not
deserve much higher commendation. There is an individuality about the "Prison
Meditations" which imparts to it a personal interest, which is entirely wanting in
the other two works, which may be characterized as metrical sermons, couched
in verse of the Sternhold and Hopkins type. A specimen or two will suffice. The
"Four Last Things" thus opens:-
 
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