Throughout his many books John Bunyan produced a considerable amount of verse. It would be too much to assert that it is true poetry, though it is fair to say that he had a better idea of verse structure than many over-praised poets writing today. Southey thought that the practice of writing verse was inspired by reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in which there is some verse. Even where his verse is little more than doggerel it contains original thought, and some of his lines are memorable. Verse was not his natural medium, but with the fine imagination shown in his great allegories he had a faculty which, with more education and knowledge of literature, might have made him a poet indeed. There is a poet’s touch in the lines in his Book for Boys and Girls beginning:—
“A comely sight indeed it is to see
A world of blossom on an apple tree”
reminiscent of W.H. Davies.
The Oxford Book of Verse includes his “Christiana’s song”:
Blest be the day that I began
A pilgrim for to be,
And blessed also be that man
That thereto moved me.
‘Tis true, ’twas long ere I began
To seek to live for ever:
But now I run fast as I can:
‘Tis better late than never.
Another of his pilgrim songs, much loved though sadly altered in some hymn-books, was sung most appropriately at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill:
Who would true valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.
Who so beset him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
But he will have a right
To be a pilgrim.
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit;
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.
Some have seen in this an echo of the song in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act 2, scene 5—”Who doth ambition shun.” There is no evidence that Bunyan was acquainted with Shakespeare’s plays, and the metrical schemes of his verses and those of Shakespeare are very different.
Mr Greatheart heard with much enjoyment the song of the shepherd boy, and so do we:
He that is down needs fear no fall,
He that is low no pride;
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide.
I am content with what I have,
Little be it or much;
Lord, contentment still I crave
Because thou savest such.
Fulness to such a burden is
That go on pilgrimage;
Here little, and hereafter bliss
Is best from age to age.
One of Bunyan’s first literary works from prison, entitled Prison Meditations, was in verse, published in 1665. It begins:
Friend, I salute thee in the Lord,
And wish thou may’st abound
In faith, and have a good regard
To keep on holy ground.
It consists of seventy four-line stanzas.
I am, indeed, in prison now
In body, but my mind
Is free to study Christ, and how
Unto me He is kind.
Here dwells good conscience, also peace
Here be my garments white;
Here, though in bonds, I have release
From guilt, which else would bite.
He turns on his persecutors:
For all your spirits are so stout,
For matters that are vain;
Your sin besets you round about,
You are in Satan’s chain.
On the other hand God’s people conquer and are blessed.
Also from prison he issued One Thing Is Needful, meditations on Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell (1664) in no less than 296 rhymed quatrains. This was followed by Ebal and Gerizim, a long doctrinal treatise in rhymed couplets, unlikely to grip readers today.
After this John gave up writing verse for a considerable time, perhaps discouraged by the comments of some of his more learned fellow-prisoners. But in The Pilgrim’s Progress he reverts to it, and we are glad he did. “The Author’s Apology for his Book” is in rhymed couplets:
When at the first I took my pen in hand,
Thus for to write; I did not understand
That I at all should make a little book
In such a mode; Nay, I had undertook
To make another, which when almost done,
Before I was aware, I this begun.
And thus it was: I writing of the way
And race of Saints, in this our Gospel-day,
Fell suddenly into an Allegory
About their journey, and the way to Glory,
In more than twenty things, which I set down;
This done, I twenty more had in my crown,
And they again began to multiply,
Like sparks that from the coals of fire do fly…
Later on he says,
This book will make a traveller of thee,
If by its counsel thou wilt ruled be;
It will direct thee to the Holy Land,
If thou wilt its directions understand:
Yea, it will make the slothful, active be;
The blind also, delightful things to see.
and he concludes what by any standards is a remarkable prologue-
Would’st thou be in a Dream, and yet not sleep?
Or wouldest thou in a moment laugh, and weep?
Wouldest thou loose thyself, and catch no harm?
And find thyself again without a charm?
Would’st read thyself, and read thou know’st not what
And yet know whether thou art blest or not,
By reading the same lines? 0 then come hither,
And lay my Book, thy Head, and Heart together.
Christian, when his burden is taken off, goes on singing:
Thus far did I come loaden with my sin;
Nor could ought ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither: What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss!
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest Cross! Blest Sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me.
Going up the narrow way over Hill Difficulty he says,
This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend,
For I perceive the way to life lies here;
Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear:
Better, though difficult, th’right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.
Passing the cave where Giants Pope and Pagan dwell, Christian bursts into song:
O world of wonders! (I can say no less)
That I should be preserv’d in that distress
That I have met with here! 0 blessed be
That hand that from it hath delivered me!
Dangers in darkness, devils, hell and sin,
Did compass me, while I this vale was in:
Yea, snares and pits and traps, and nets did lie
My path about, that worthless silly I
Might have been cach’t, intangled, and cast down:
But since I live, let Jesus wear the Crown.
Commenting on the shepherds on the Delectable mountains, whose names were Knowledge, Experience, Watchful and Sincere, he says:
Thus by the shepherds, secrets are revealed,
Which from all other men are kept conceal’d:
Come to the shepherds, then, if you would see
Things deep, things hid, and that mysterious be.
He writes a conclusion to the First Part of The Pilgrim Progress, in which he urges his readers to
Put by the curtains, look within my vail;
Turn up my metaphors and do not fail
There, if thou seekest them, such things to find,
As will be helpful to an honest mind.
Part Two of the great book begins with a long introduction in rhymed couplets in which he introduces some of the characters, in order to whet the appetites of those who have read the First Part.
Go, now my little Book, to every place
Where my first Pilgrim has but shown his face:
Call at their door:If any say, who’s there?
Then answer thou, Christiana is here.
If they bid thee come in, then enter thou
With all thy boys
When the women leave the Interpreter’s House they sing.
This place has been our second stage, Here we have heard and seen
Those good things that from age to age, To others hid have been
To move me for to watch and pray, To strive to be sincere,
To take my cross up day by day, And serve the Lord wiith fear.
Other verses of varying merit are scattered throughout the book.
The Book for Boys and Girls, or Country Rhimes for Children in verse on seventy-four things, was published in May 1686. Subsequently the title was changed to Divine Emblems, or Temporal Things Spiritualised. In 1635 Francis Quarles had published his Emblems, paraphrases in verse from the Scriptures, and John may well have read this, perhaps in the bookshop of Matthias Cowley. His own book is a collection of whimsical verse, meditations upon an egg, a bee, a candle, a whipping top, a penny loaf, a looking glass, a frog, a snail etc. Although probably not to the taste of children today they no doubt lightened the Sabbath for many a little Puritan. One of the best poems in the collection is “The Child with the bird:
My little bird, how canst thou sit
And sing amidst so many thorns?
Let me a hold upon thee get,
My love with honour thee adorns.
Thou art at present little worth;
Five farthings none will give for thee;
But prythee, little bird, come forth;
Thou of more value art to me.
‘Tis true, it is sunshine today;
Tomorrow birds will have a storm.
My pretty one, come thou away;
My bosom then shall keep thee warm.
Thou subject art to cold o’nights
When darkness is thy covering;
At days thy danger’s great by kites;
How canst thou then sit there and sing?
Thy food is scarce and scanty, too;
‘Tis worms and trash which thou dost eat;
Thy present state I pity do;
Come, I’ll provide thee better meat.
I’ll feed thee with white bread and milk
And sugar plums, if them thou crave;
I’ll cover thee with finest silk,
That from the cold I may thee save.
I’ll keep thee safe from cat and cur;
No manner o’harm shall come to thee;
Yea, I will be thy succourer,
My bosom shall thy cabin be.
But lo, behold, the bird is gone;
These charmings would not make her yield;
The child’s left at the bush alone;
The bird flies yonder o’er the field.
There is quite a vivid description in the clash between the fly and the candle:
To clash at light? Away, thou silly fly!
Thus, doing thou wilt burn thy wings and die.
But ’tis a folly her advice to give;
She’ll kill the candle, or she will not live.
Slap, says she, at it! Then she makes retreat,
So wheels about, and doth her blows repeat!
A country scene suggests The Lark and the Fowler which has all the simplicity of a true parable:
Thou simple bird, what makes thee here to play?
Look, there’s the fowler! prythee come away.
Dost not behold the net? Look there, ’tis spread;
Venture a little further, thou art dead.
Is there not room enough in all the field
For thee to play in, but thou needs must yield
To the deceitful glitt’ring of a glass,
Placed betwixt nets to bring thy death to pass?
Bird, if thou art so much for dazzling light,
Look, there’s the sun above thee; dart upright!
Thy nature is to soar up to the sky:
Why wilt thou come down to the nets and die?
The emblem upon the beggar points a moral:
He wants, he asks, he pleads his poverty.
They within doors do him an alms deny.
He doth repeat and aggravate his grief;
But they repulse him, give him no relief.
He begs: they say ‘Begone!’ he will not hear,
He coughs and sighs, to show he still is there;
They disregard him, he repeats his groans;
They still say ‘Nay’ and he himself bemoans.
They call him ‘Vagrant’, and more rugged grow;
He cries the shriller; trumpets out his woe.
At last, when they perceive he’ll take no nay,
An alms they give him, without more delay.
The beggar doth resemble them that pray
To God for mercy, and will take no nay;
But wait, and count that all His hard gainsays
Are nothing else but fatherly delays;
Then imitate him, praying souls, and cry,
There’s nothing like to importunity.
His “Meditations upon an Egg” is also full of similes:
The egg’s no chick by falling from a hen,
Nor man’s a Christian till he’s born again;
The egg’s at first contained in the shell,
Men afore grace in sin and darkness dwell;
The egg, when laid, by warmth is made a chicken,
And Christ by grace the dead in sin doth quicken;
The egg when first a chick the shell’s its prison,
So flesh to soul who yet with Christ is risen
Of a swallow he writes:
This pretty bird! Oh, how she flies and sings;
But could she do so if she had not wings?
Her wings bespeake my faith, her songs my peace;
When I believe and sing, my doubtings cease.
His “Meditations upon a Candle” is quite a long poetical effort, and he draws many parallels between candles and Christians. Here is the first verse:
A man’s like a candle in a candlestick,
Made up of tallow and a little wick;
For what the candle is, before its lighted,
Just such be they who are in sin benighted.
Nor can a man his soul with grace inspire,
More than the candles set themselves on fire.
Candles receive their light from what they are not;
Men grace from Him, for whom at first they care not.
We manage candles when they take the fire;
God men, when He with grace doth them inspire.
His book of verses for children is a kind and loving book, with great understanding of a child’s interests, and only once does he sound a stern note in “The Disobedient Child.”
They snap and snarl, if Parents them controul,
Tho but in things most hurtful to the soul.
They reckon they are Masters, and that we
Who parents are, should to them subjects be!
They’ll by wrong doings, under parents, gather
And say, it is no sin to rob a father.
They’ll jostle parents out of place and power,
They’ll make themselves the Head, and them devour.
In his preface to The Holy War, written in verse, Bunyan says,
I saw the prince’s armed men come down
By troops, by thousands, to besiege the town.
I saw the captains, heard the trumpets sound,
And how his forces covered all the ground.
Yea, how they set themselves in battle-‘ray
I shall remember to my dying day.
Here, surely is a reminiscence of his days as a soldier under Fairfax, perhaps even of the Battle of Naseby.
Although John Bunyan was no poet there is much value in many of his best verses. Typical of these are his versifying of the Christian’s armour as set forth in Ephesians 6:
This is the man death cannot kill,
For he hath put on arms;
Him sin nor Satan hath not skill
To hurt with all their charms.
A helmet on his head doth stand,
A breastplate on his heart;
A shield also is in his hand,
That blunteth every dart.
Truth girds him round the reins,
also His sword is on his thigh;
His feet in shoes of peace do go
The ways of purity.
His heart it groaneth to the Lord,
Who hears him at his call,
And doth him help and strength afford
Wherwith he conquers all.
Thus fortified he keeps the fields
While Death is gone and fled;
And then lies down upon his shield
Till Christ doth raise the dead.