In a recent book, Tom Paulin—The Secret Life of Poems: A Poetry Primer (London: Faber and Faber, 2008)—discusses John Bunyan’s “He who would valiant be” (pages 31-35) in terms of its poetic merit, its thought and its historical context. Paulin judges it to be “one of the finest English hymns” (p.31-32), a “simple and austere puritan lyric,” that is deeply indebted to Shakespeare in spots (p.32). The phrase “come hither,” for example, Paulin reckons to be taken from the Stratford bard’s As You Like It (p.32-33).
Paulin relates portions of the hymn to Bunyan’s own writings, especially The Pilgrim’s Progress and the vicious historical context of the persecution by the Stuart regime. He notes that 8,000 Dissenters died as a result of goal fever in this time. I do not recall having seen such a figure. Nor does Paulin give his source for it. But it drives home the difficulties of that day.
In sum, Paulin writes that “this short, beautiful lyric is packed with great historical and personal suffering—and with unyielding courage and conviction” (p.35)—high praise indeed.
P.S. Incidentally, at the 2nd annual Andrew Fuller Center conference, held this past week at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a number of papers dealt with this theme of persecution: the plenary session by Austin Walker on Benjamin Keach, and two parallel sessions on Abraham Cheare and Thomas Hardcastle by Jeff Robinson and Peter Beck respectively.
For the audio of these, see The English Baptists of the 17th Century, August 25-26, 2008.