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:-
"These lines I at this time present To all that will them heed, Wherein I show to what intent God saith, 'Convert with speed.' For these four things come on apace, Which we should know full well, Both death and judgment, and, in place Next to them, heaven and hell."
The following lines are from "Ebal and Gerizim":-
"Thou art like one that hangeth by a thread Over the mouth of hell, as one half dead; And oh, how soon this thread may broken be, Or cut by death, is yet unknown to thee. But sure it is if all the weight of sin, And all that Satan too hath doing been Or yet can do, can break this crazy thread, 'Twill not be long before among the dead Thou tumble do, as linked fast in chains, With them to wait in fear for future pains."
The poetical effusion entitled "Prison Meditations" does not in any way rise above the prosaic level of its predecessors. But it can be read with less weariness from the picture it presents of Bunyan's prison life, and of the courageous faith which sustained him. Some unnamed friend, it would appear, fearing he might flinch, had written him a letter counselling him to keep "his head above the flood." Bunyan replied in seventy stanzas in ballad measure, thanking his correspondent for his good advice, of which he confesses he stood in need, and which he takes it kindly of him to send, even though his feet stand upon Mount Zion, and the gaol is to him like a hill from which he could see beyond this world, and take his fill of the blessedness of that which remains for the Christian. Though in bonds his mind is free, and can wander where it will.
"For though men keep my outward man Within their locks and bars, Yet by the faith of Christ, I can Mount higher than the stars."
Meanwhile his captivity is sweetened by the thought of what it was that brought him there:-
"I here am very much refreshed To think, when I was out, I preached life, and peace, and rest, To sinners round about.
My business then was souls to save By preaching grace and faith, Of which the comfort now I have And have it shall till death.
That was the work I was about When hands on me they laid. 'Twas this for which they plucked me out And vilely to me said,
'You heretic, deceiver, come, To prison you must go, You preach abroad, and keep not home, You are the Church's foe.'
Wherefore to prison they me sent, Where to this day I lie, And can with very much content For my profession die.
The prison very sweet to me Hath been since I came here, And so would also hanging be If God would there appear.
To them that here for evil lie The place is comfortless; But not to me, because that I Lie here for righteousness.
The truth and I were both here cast Together, and we do Lie arm in arm, and so hold fast Each other, this is true.
Who now dare say we throw away Our goods or liberty, When God's most holy Word doth say We gain thus much thereby?"