Frances Burney – “The Journal and Letters” (excerpt)

In this letter from Bath Burney describes her encounter with a young lady she meets (I assume in the Assembly Rooms or in some other public place). The conversation soon turns serious and the girl says she is very happy she can confide in Burney, whom she admires. Burney is cast in this conversation very much in the role of the older mentor, although she is really only twenty-eight, but already the famous author of Evelina. The girl is an eighteenth-century emo kid: all women are unhappy and all men are bad and “sensualists”. The only enjoyment she can think of is sex (well, she doesn’t put it this way, but that’s obviously what she means) but she has no taste for intrigue. She thinks that is the reason why men are happier than women, because they can enjoy sex. She dreams about meeting somebody worthy of her love, but she is sure such a person doesn’t exist. But she hopes she can attract a least a like-minded friend of either sex, and if she ever met such a person, she would immediately go to live with them and commit suicide if they die before her. Burney is shocked and asks her what gave her the idea, and the girl says she doesn’t believe in the immortal soul. The shocked Burney asks her whether she’s read any “infidel writers”, and the girl admits she’s read Hume (whose Essays, published after his death, included the ones he didn’t dare to publish in his lifetime, one defending suicide, and the other doubting the immortality of soul). She also read Bolingbroke, more of a deist than an atheist, as far as I can tell. Burney recommends some reading to counter the bad effect of those books and makes to herself some observations about the potentially dire future of this girl. Now of course I am dying to know who this girl was, but since Burney hid her identity under “Miss W”, we’ll probably never know.


John Bunyan – “The Pilgrim’s Progress” – “The River of Death and the Celestial City”

Before the start of the passage, Christian picked up two other pilgrim buddies, Hopeful and Ignorance, but Ignorance is lame (literally) and is left behind. Now their journey is near the end and the pilgrims are nearing the Celestial City, but it shines so much in the sun, its walls being made of pure gold, that they can’t look at it directly. They are approached by two men whose faces and clothes shine like the sun and the men ask them who they are and where they are coming from. After hearing the answers, they tell them two more obstacles on their way before they get to the Celestial City, but they have to overcome them on their own. They lead them to a deep river and tell them they have to cross it by themselves, as nobody except for Enoch and Elijah was spared crossing it and nobody ever will until the end of the world. The river is also of varied depth, depending on your faith you may find it deep or shallow. And indeed, when they step into it, Hopeful can hold his head above the water, while Christian is sinking. This is the allegory of the moment of death, where even pious Christians (as plenty of historical testimonies show) were oppressed not only by physical pain, but also psychological torment of doubting their own salvation, especially Calvinists, who could never be certain whether they were among “the elect”. Christian is not only sinking, but also sees the visions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, and in general he is sure he won’t make it to the other bank. Hopeful keeps his head above the water and tries to comfort him. When he reminds Christian about the promise of salvation made by Jesus, Christian finally regains his hope and immediately finds the ground under his feet. When they are on the firm ground, they are greeted by angels and taken to the city where they are asked to produce their certificates. The King reads the certificates and tells them to open the gates for them. Then they are given harps, crowns, general rejoicing etc. Then comes the real gloomy punchline: Ignorance comes hobbling late, and he gets through the river without any problems because he finds a ferryman called Vain Hope. But when he gets on the shore and the angels ask him to produce his certificate, he can’t find any, and he is thrown bound into a hole that leads to hell. “So I awoke”, ends Bunyan’s narrator blithely, completely accepting that somebody who is aware of Christian doctrine (because Ignorance says “I have eat and drank in the presence of the King”) and went through the journey can be still damned if he doesn’t know the right sort of Christianity and is not among the elect.

John Bunyan – “The Pilgrim’s Progress” – “Vanity Fair”

Probably the most famous episode of The Pilgrim’s Progress, if only because it gave the name to a certain magazine. The pilgrims on their way to the Celestial City have to go through a town called Vanity, where an all-year-round fair is held (as opposed to the usual fairs, which were an annual occasion). At this point obviously Bunyan has to quote Ecclesiasticus (sorry, the authors of the New International Version, but “meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless” just does not sound as well). At the fair you can buy everything people care about in their lives: riches, job promotions, mistresses, spouses, children etc. Just like in regular fairs (and you can sometimes see the traces of it in the names of the streets in some historical towns) each nation has its own street, so there is the German Row, the French Row, but the most popular is the one dealing with the ware of Rome (meaning the Roman Catholic Church). The fair was established by devils when they realized all pilgrims had to pass through the town, all the better to tempt them. Also Jesus went through this town during his temptation in the desert. When the pilgrims come to town, they make a sensation because they dress and speak differently, so a lot of people mock them (just like Puritans were often mocked for their dress and what others perceived as affectation in speech). They also refuse to buy any of the goods on display. They are led to the governor of the town and although they tell him they mean no offense to the town, they just don’t want to buy anything, they are put in a cage where they can be taunted publicly.

John Bunyan – “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (fragments – “The Slough of Despond”)

As Christian is running away, many of his neighbours come out to see what is going on or cry after him to return. The biblical reference to Jeremiah sends us to a dark passage in which the prophet complains about how his friends conspire against him. Two of his neighbours, Obstinate and Pliable follow him and when they catch up with him, they try to make him come back. He tells them that his town is bound to be destroyed and he is in search for eternal life and reward. Obstinate makes fun of it, but Pliable is convinced and decides to follow him. But on their way they reach a big marsh called the Slough of Despond. Pliable becomes quickly discouraged, because that’s not how he imagined the promised reward. He says to Christian “You can keep all the promised happiness to yourself”, manages to make his way to the bank closest to his house and goes home. Christian manages to reach the opposite bank, but the burden on his back is too big and he can’t get out. Fortunately he meets a man named Help who asks him what he is doing in there. Christian says he went in search of the wicker gate and fell into the bog. Help asks him why he didn’t look for the steps and Christian answers that he was running so fast because of his fear he didn’t look the out. Help then, true to his name, helps him to get out from the bog on the solid ground. The narrator (the man who has the dream, not Christian) asks Help why the road is not repaired if that’s the only way from the City of Destruction to the gate. Help explains that “it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run”; in other words the experience of conversion is inextricably connected with the realization of the grossness of one’s sins and the resulting depression.

John Bunyan – “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (fragments)

After Samuel Pepys comes a man who in many respects is Pepys’s polar opposite: working-class, spent a big part of the Restoration years in jail, with apparently no time for theatres, chasing women or caring about his home decorations. But as we could see in the previous post, Pepys was in his own way a sincerely religious man, even though his flesh was notoriously weak. And only because Buyan did not describe his every hook-up in as much detail as Pepys did, can we assume he led a spotless life? Although taking into account how much time he spent in prison, he simply may not have had as much opportunity for sin. And Bunyan called himself “the chief of sinners” in the title of his autobiography, although that’s what every Puritan would have done, so we can’t really rely on that.

One characteristic feature of Bunyan’s writing is that he gives you book, chapter, verse for almost everything he writes. I don’t see that kind of intimacy with the Bible often nowadays outside of The Watchtower. Bunyan’s use of biblical allusions is also quite interesting: sometimes he just indicates where he lifted whole expressions from the Bible and put it in a different contexts, sometimes his text is like an illustration of the biblical passage, like when Christian is fleeing his sinful family and the biblical siglum sends us to the line in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tells his disciples you have to hate your father and your mother to be his disciple.

But from the start: the text is a throwback to the classical medieval dream vision, which begins with the narrator falling asleep and relating to the readers the contents of his dream. He sees a man reading a book, with a burden on his back and a book in his hand. What he reads in the book apparently disconcerts him, because he sarts to cry and ask “What shall I do?” He goes home and tries to hide his sorrow from his family, but finally he can’t contain it any longer and he tells them he has it on good authority that their town is going to be destroyed and they together with it. They first think he is just “tired and emotional” and tell him to go to bed, but when the next day he doesn’t change his views, they start to make fun of him or ignore him. During one of his solitary walks in the fields he meets “a man named Evangelist” who asks his about the reasons of his distress. He tells him that he has learnt from the book that he is doomed to die and then come to judgment, and he is neither willing to do the former or able to do the latter. Evangelist asks him why he is not willing to die, and the yet nameless man (later identified as Christian) tells him that he is afraid that the burden upon his back is going to drag him to hell. Evangelist asks him whether he sees a wicket gate but he can’t. Evangelist then asks him whether he can see a shining light, and when answered in the affirmative, he tells him to follow the light which should lead him to the wicker gate, and there he will be told what to do next. So the man runs toward it, putting his fingers in his ears so that he can’t hear the cries of his wife and children.

John Dryden – “A Song for St Cecilia’s Day”

If you have about fifty minutes to spare, you can’t spend them in a better way than listening to Handel’s musical setting for this poem. This is one of the poems commissioned annually by the Musical Society in London for, yes, St Cecilia’s Day celebrations. The music was originally written by a guy called Dreghi, but Handel’s music really makes every word shine. Dryden starts with portraying music as the creative force that created order from the primordial chaos, cumulating in the creation of man. Then he goes through all the feelings which music can inspire in listeners and the respective instruments best suited for this (again, go to Handel’s piece to listen how wonderfully they match). Jubal, the biblical inventor of music, made such an impression on his brothers when he first struck the chords of his tortoise-shell lyre that they fell down on their faces, believing it comes from a divine being. Trumpets and drums are used for giving valour to soldiers; the plaintive flute expresses “the woes of hopeless lovers”; violins are used for expressing jealousy and the organ, of course, inspires religious awe. The mythical Orpheus could tame animals and move rocks, but St Cecilia goes one better, because her organ (of which she was believed to be the inventor) and her voice brought down an angel from above. The poem is bookended with the grand chorus, which again reminds us about the role of music in creation of the world – it was music which set the spheres in motion and it is music which shall be heard at the end of the world, when the trumpet of Last Judgement shall sound. I am not quite sure about the last line “and Music shall untune the sky”. Does it mean there will be no music in the thousand-year reign? Surely Dryden cannot mean that, because that’s not the world I would like to live in. Maybe he means only that’s the end of the music of the spheres, because the universe (as he imagined it) will be dismantled. But this minor quibble aside, I really loved this poem, although I am not sure if I would love it so much without Felicity Lott’s soaring soprano. In the post-post-modern ironic world we struggle with the notion of the sublime, but Dryden’s poem and Handel’s music make us feel what transcendence is.

John Milton – “Paradise Lost” Book 12 (the end!)

Adam says he can now look forward to the future with hope and he knows he only needs to have faith in God, love him and fear him and he knows now that death is only the gate to the eternal life. Michael says that he is right and that is what he should be really interested in, not presumptuous interest in science and knowledge (Milton really did have an anti-intellectual bent.) Now it’s time to get down and wake up Eve, who has also been sent some consoling dreams in her sleep. It’s up to Adam to decide what he wants to tell her about his visions and when. (Grrr.) When they descend from the hill, Eve is already awake and says that in her dreams she learnt something about how from her seed the Redeemer is going to be born, so she is now quite humbled and will gladly follow Adam anywhere because without him no place is Paradise for her. The Cherubim are already gathering like mist in the fields in the evening (the last epic simile of the poem) and Michael has to grab both humans by the hands and run with them out of Paradise because the fiery sword the guarding angel is holding is not a regular-sized sword used by humans (as usually depicted in art) but more like a huge comet which already starts to heat the air and turn Paradise into a desert. Then he disappears without saying so much as goodbye. Adam and Eve look back, but they can only see the shut gate with “dreadful faces thronged”. They shed a few tears, but wipe them away and hand in had, they start to look for their new resting place, “through Eden took their solitary way” (the famous last line).

And so that’s it! I’ve read it and survived. On the whole, Milton won’t become my favourite poet, I’m afraid. There are many fine pieces like the intriguing figure of Satan or the descriptions of Paradise in bloom. Milton can be also awfully prosy, and don’t get me started about the long lists of obscure place-names, or the general treatment of Eve. I’m glad I’ve made my way through it, but I’m also glad it’s over.

William Blake (Wikimedia Commons)