Christian Allegory in the Seventeenth Century:
A Comparison of George Herbert and John Bunyan

Rebecca Branham Dimon
Delivered at the Conference on Christianity and Literature
Baylor University
October 1983

The purpose of this paper is to study the characteristics of Christian allegory in seventeenth-century poetry and prose by examining selections from George Herbert and John Bunyan. In comparing the allegorical works of these two men, I will concentrate primarily on their characters as personified abstractions or as metonymic representations -- that is, the name of one thing for something associated with it -- by examining their uses of dialogue and the pilgrimage motif to create the images of their characters.

Angus Fletcher describes metonymy in allegories in his book Allegory.

Our earlier view was that all agents in allegory are becoming so fixed in sense that they begin to constitute images (that was indeed how they were introduced into the poem, for a personified abstraction is necessarily a sort of image).

This remark is further explained in a footnote as follows:

The intermediate stage between an image and an agent is a name, i. e., a metonymy. To fix the agent into a name is to bring it from motion to rest.

Fletcher further points out a classical source of substituting the name of one thing for something associated with it:

When [the ancient Romans] made gods and goddesses out of Luck, Force, Success in Love, Success in War, and the like, they were employing these metonymic terms in the same way a primitive employes the metonymic objects of his cult.

Continuing this religious significance, medieval art also shows the allegorical concepts adhered to by the Church as an incentive for the parishes to follow a strict code of behavior. The Church's desire to keep a tight rein on its followers resulted in an excessive use of the applications of allegories. Percy Houston suggests that this had a deadening effect on man's intellectual development:

And indeed allegory hung like a pall over the literature of the [Middle Ages], its indirect interpretation of nearly everything through the personification of abstractions preventing men from getting to close grips with reality.

This understandable popularity of allegory as a literary form spread through the Renaissance with Dante and Spenser and into the seventeenth century. Throughout most of the period allegory maintained a respectable level of appeal. Jack Lindsay theorizes that the medieval "popular pulpit" was responsible for the allegorical traditions that emerged in the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He states that "the trick of personifying sins and virtues and states of mind was common to the whole period."

The emphasis of the Christian allegory, however, was primarily moral, supposedly "thought to convey the wisdom of the ancients." George Herbert and John Bunyan were both involved in church-related vocations. While Herbert was Anglican, Bunyan became a Dissenting Puritan. Both men felt a deep devotion to God and spent their lives in His service. When these men began to turn to literature, it is not surprising that the aim of their works would be religious in nature. George Herbert's devotion to God led him to use allegory in his devotional poetry. His imagery and metaphors also give much emotion to his works, although he was quite an intellectual. In his poems "Jordan [1]" and "Jordan [2]," Herbert applauds the simple language of expresssion. This is not to say that Herbert used no figurative language. On the contrary, F. E. Hutchinson writes:

His command of imagery serves him well. The experiences of the soul are not communicable by bare statement; they can only be conveyed to other minds by a large use of comparison, metaphorical language, and pictoral imagery.

In Herbert's poems "Time," "The Quip," and "The World," his pictoral imagery and metaphorical language show a variation of allegorical characterization. However, as his imagery develops, his use of dialogue diminishes: from one simple personification and extensive dialogue in "Time," through several tempting personalities and a good bit of dialogue in "The Quip," and finally to a world of personified abstractions but no dialogue whatsoever in "The World."

In "Time" Time meets with the persona of the first poem to listen to his argument almost without comment, displaying little characterization of the abstraction, and where there is some development, it is very simple. This debate revolves around the idea of hastening Christ's second coming to earth in order to usher in eternity. Time observes that most people want him to slow down to give them more time on earth. Irony is involved in that this persona wants his "more time" in the form of eternity, while Time becomes impatient because eternity is his enemy since Time will cease at Christ's return. At any rate, the poem's allegorical form is quite simple: there is little personality developed; it is mostly argument.

A more developed allegorical use of abstractions and dialogue is seen in "The Quip." There are several negative personalities involved in this poem, each of them tempting the persona to leave his religious devotion to God and follow after him. Beauty sneakily forms herself into a rose -- "crept" much like Satan's disguise in Paradise Lost -- but the persona refuses to pick the rose because his hands belong to God, as the refrain, "But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me," implies. The second tempter is Money, who jingles his tune without success because the man's ears belong to God. With an echo of Polonius in Hamlet, Wit-and-Conversation come next to appel to the persona's reason, but again they are rejected as the persona clings to God without leaning to his own understanding. The final stanza contains the "quip" in the statement, "say, I am thine." The double entendre is the answer since the persona belongs to God, and thus God belongs to the persona. In reference to this poem, T. S. Eliot quotes from L. C. Knight's book, Exploration: Essays in Literary Criticism as follows:

the personifications here have nothing in common with Spenser's allegorical figures or with the capitalised abstractions of the eighteenth century: "brave Glorie puffing by in silks that whistled" might have come straight from The Pilgrim's Progress.

This type of characterization goes beyond mere personification to the novelistic detail that B. Ifor Evans praises in Bunyan:

Bunyan was endowed with a gift for detail and anecdote, for the description of scenery and the invention of conversation. This he combined with his allegory, so that his narrative, despite all its spiritual meanings, is a realistic story, contemporary and authentic.

To compare Herbert's poetry with Bunyan's prose is a difficult task. Bunyan was only five years old when Herbert died, and there is little chance that his work was affected by Herbert. And while Herbert uses allegory often in his poems, John Bunyan was the master. Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress does not merely contain allegory, as Herbert's poems contain it. It is allegory, even though the story does break down at times.

Bunyan, too, was extremely sincere in his religious conversion. Although he was neither an intellectual nor a literary genius, in his allegories Bunyan has excelled where none of his contemporaries, including Herbert, succeeded. Bunyan's work is unique in its communicative power, as Rev. George B. Cheever points out:

Bunyan was as great a master of Allegory as Edwards was of Logic and Metaphysics; but not artificially so, not designedly so, not as a matter of study . . . . It is not like the allegorical friezes of Spenser or of Dante, or like those on a Grecian Temple, . . . . Bunyan's Allegory is a universal language.

In The Pilgrim's Progress Bunyan has created a very complex work. His use of dialogue between the abstractions and personified characters is vital to his work. T. R. Glover remarks that the dialogue "is one of the most charming features of his allegories." More recently, in The Pilgrim's Progress: Critical and Historical Views, edited by Vincent Newey, David Seed discusses the abundance of Bunyan's dialogue. He begins his article, "Dialogue and Debate in The Pilgrim's Progress with the following:

Dialogue accounts for most of both parts of The Pilgrim's Progress in terms of sheer bulk. It is surprising that it has not received more critical attention . . . . In fact, Bunyan's use of dialogue shows an extremely sophisicated awareness of different levels of discourse and considerable skill at characterization . . . . His regional colloquialisms suggest that he wrote directly from life, but it is essential also to insist on his artistry.

The use of dialogue in a book given to Bunyan by his father-in-law became a great source of inspiration to him in his own writings. Roger Sharrock comments on this book in the following passage:

The most outstanding example of [the use of dialogue] was Arthur Dent's The Plaine Man's Path-way to Heaven (1601), which was one of the two books Bunyan's first wife brought him as her marriage portion . . . . but the dialogue form clearly influenced Bunyan in these conversations [in Pilgrim's Progress] and later in Mr. Badman.

I will now read an excerpt from a dialogue in Part II of The Pilgrim's Progress as an example of the metonymic personification Bunyan gives even to a minor character. In this portion Great-heart is descrining to Old Honest anoter pilgrim, Mr. Fearing, who had earlier been described as one who had a "Slough of Despond in his mind."

But when he was come to the entrance of the Valley of the shadow of death, I thought I should have lost my man; not for that he had any inclination to go back, that he always abhorred, but he was ready to died for fear. "O, the hobgoblins will have me, the hobgoblins will have me," he cried; and I could not beat him out on't. He made such a noise, and such an outcry here, that had they but heard him, 'twas enough to encourage them to come and fall upon us.

This use of personified abstractions is secondary to Bunyan's use of metonymic personifications. The use of these abstract forms in The Pilgrim's Progress seems to delineate negative characters, while in Part II of the book, Old Honest particularly insists that his name is not in the abstract, but in the adjective form. Taking the name of one thing for something associated with it, similar to taking the part to represent the whole, Bunyan names his "good" characters with good qualities. In the same way, we can see in the scene at Faithful's trial in Vanity Fair, the negative characters are the witnesses against Faithful: Envy, Superstition, and Pickthank, whi mentions anothr group of abstractions: Lord Old Man -- referring to the fallen nature of man, Lord Carnal Delight, Lord Luxurious, Lod Desire of Vain-glory, Lord Lechery, and Sir Having-Greedy. Bunyan again insists these are abstraction rather than adjective names.

One warning given by Roger Sharrock compliments Bunyan's ability with his characterization of abstractions. Sharrock submits:

The modern reader who reads [The Pilgrim's Progress] after a thousand novels about "real people" must remember that the many personages whom Christian meets along the road stand for states of mind, however much Bunyan's skill at sketching in features and manners, and reproducing salty colloquial speech, has turned them into lively minor characters.

The lively characters in Herbert's poem "The World" are involved as personified abstractions interacting upon the allegorical house of a human being. Love built the house, possibly referring to God's creation of man. Fortune spread fantasies around, and Pleasure added Balconies and Terraces that weakened the house, but Wisdom, Laws and a Proclamation were able to compensate for this damage by forced "menaces" of controlled behavior and temperance. When Sin is not able to infiltrate the house alone, it combines with Death in an attempt to "raze" the house. Again we have irony in the word "raze." Herbert intended both the meaning of demolishing the house and also the meaning of resurrection. To continue this idea of resurrection, Herbert's last stanza combines Love, Grace, and Glory to combat Sin and Death. They do not simply repair or clean out the old house, but they completely regenerate the man and build a perfect Palace -- a soul transformed into perfection after death.

Even though there is no dialogue involved in this poem, the abstractions are performing simple tasks which characterize them in the allegorical style. Here Herbert's narrative form concentrates on description rather than dialogue, as Herbert seems unable to combine the two as artistically as Bunyan. Fletcher's theory of metonymic abstractions that I mentioned earlier continues in application to The Pilgrim's Progress when he states that "especially with Bunyan, major allegorical heroes can have a range of human weakness and strength. They may live through many adventures, in which, different trials occur." My understanding of these principles leads me to conclude that Bunyan's characters are not mere abstractions whom a main character addresses in conversations, as Herbert's appear to be, but Bunyan takes an abstract name and identifies a character by a particular trait. Fletcher goes on to speculate that "the more the allegorist can circumscribe the attributes, metonymic and synecdochic, of his personae, the better he can shape their fictional destiny."

The pilgrimage motif used by Bunyan and Herbert gives the fictional destiny of their characters a direction. John Steadman generalizes that "The majority of allegorical representations of the world, in fact, are not concerned with its proportions, but with its moral significance . . . ." Both Herbert and Bunyan adhered to high moral behavior, and the rejection each shows toward "worldly" things in his work is strong. John MacQueen describes the role of the pilgrimage as follows:

The action [of extended narrative] came to turn not so much on the battle as on the objective for which the battle was fought. That objective inevitably was salvation, and, almost equally inevitably, the dominant narrative device came to be the pilgrimage or quest -- the Pilgrim's Progress from this world to that which is to come, as John Bunyan still put it in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Where common humanity received the greater allegorical emphasis, . . . the metaphor of the pilgrimage dominated.

The archetype of a pilgrimage has filtered through the Middle Ages, though Bunyan's work remains unique as T. R. Glover describes:

Many allegories of pilgrimages are now known to have existed before his day, but it is supremely unlikely that [Bunyan] could ever have heard of many of them . . . . No allegory known to Europe has any hint of such life as those of Bunyan . . . . And the mode enabled him to give the fullest expression to the whole of himself, gaiety and seriousness at once.

Herbert's poem "The Pilgrimage" again uses this archetypal journey pattern, often employing the allegory he used in "The World." Traveling on the road of life, the persona is looking for a particular hill, Gladsome Hill. He has come a long way past the Cave of Desperation and the Rock of Pride without much trouble, but we do not know from whence his journey began. Herbert uses the in medias res technique possibly to signify the idea that our consciousness of life as a journey may not always surface when we are young. At any rate, danger confronts the persona as he progresses from Fancy's Meadow (compare Fortune's fancies in "The World"), through Care's Copse, to the Wild of Passion (compare Pleasure of "The World"). When he arrives at a hill, he is initially deceived into thinking he has arrived, but he soon realizes he must press on.

He hears a warning of certain death, and rejoices that his hill will bring ease from his journey, fulfilling his hopes. Herbert's persona, however, never actually reaches Gladsome Hill in the poem.

In Bunyan's book, the story of Christian begins at the time of his awareness of the problem: he is living in the City of Destruction and feels a great need to "Fly from the wrath to come." It is not until much later that Christian learns of the Celestial City, while Herbert's persona has a definite goal. Eventually Christian sets out to arrive at the city, and his adventures along the way, much like those of Herbert's persona, are hazardous: he falls into a Slough of Despond, Herbert's Cave of Desperation; climbs the Hill of Difficulty, Herbert's mistaken hill; and passes through the River of Death before he can enter the Celestial City, Herbert's cry, "None goes that way and lives." The major difference between the two is that in Herbert's poem the persona neither has an allegorical name, nor does he meet any other allegorial characters, as he did in "The World," whereas Christian's story is permeated with both.

The obvious differences between poetry and prose determine to what extent allegory may be used in a work. While Herbert was naturally limited by his genre, Bunyan used his advantage to great lengths. Instead of merely creating abstract personages, Bunyan used metonymic personification to transcribe a dominant feature of a character as the particular name by which the character is identified -- representing something associated with it, adjective rather than abstraction, showing perhaps that all good comes from God, and there is no good other than in God.

Christian Allegory in the Seventeenth Century:
A Comparison of George Herbert and John Bunyan

Rebecca Branham Dimon
Delivered at the Conference on Christianity and Literature
Baylor University
October 1983

(c) Copyright Rebecca Branham

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