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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Augustine Birrell (1850–1933)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THOSE to whom the discovery of a relishing new literary flavor means the permanent annexation of a new tract of enjoyment have not forgotten what happened in 1885. A slender 16mo volume entitled ‘Obiter Dicta,’ containing seven short literary and biographic essays, came out in that year, anonymous and unheralded, to make such way as it might among a book-whelmed generation. It had no novelty of subject to help it to a hearing; the themes were largely the most written-out, in all seeming, that could have been selected,—a few great orthodox names on which opinion was closed and analysis exhausted. Browning, Carlyle, Charles Lamb, and John Henry Newman are indeed very beacons to warn off the sated bookman. A paper on Benvenuto Cellini, one on Actors, and one on Falstaff (by another hand) closed the list. Yet a few weeks made it the literary event of the day. Among epicures of good reading the word swiftly passed along that here was a new sensation of unusually satisfying charm and freshness. It was a tour de force like the ‘Innocents Abroad,’ a journey full of new sights over the most staled and beaten of tracks. The triumph was all the author’s own.  1
  Two years later came another volume as a ‘Second Series,’ of the same general character but superior to the first. Among the subjects of its eleven papers were Milton, Pope, Johnson, Burke, Lamb again, and Emerson; with some general essays, including that on ‘The Office of Literature,’ given below.  2
  In 1892 appeared ‘Res Judicatæ,’ really a third volume of the same series, and perhaps even richer in matter and more acute and original in thought. Its first two articles, prepared as lectures on Samuel Richardson and Edward Gibbon, are indeed his high-water mark in both substance and style. Cowper, George Borrow, Newman again, Lamb a third time (and fresh as ever), Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold, and Sainte-Beuve are brought in, and some excellent literary miscellanea.  3
  A companion volume called ‘Men, Women, and Books’ is disappointing because composed wholly of short newspaper articles: Mr. Birrell’s special quality needs space to make itself felt. He needs a little time to get up steam, a little room to unpack his wares; he is no pastel writer, who can say his say in a paragraph and runs dry in two. Hence these snippy editorials do him no justice: he is obliged to stop every time just as he is getting ready to say something worth while. They are his, and therefore readable and judicious; but they give no idea of his best powers.  4
  He has also written a life of Charlotte Brontë. But he holds his place in the front rank of recent essayists by the three ‘Obiter Dicta’ and ‘Res Judicatæ’ volumes of manly, luminous, penetrating essays, full of racy humor and sudden wit; of a generous appreciativeness that seeks always for the vital principle which gave the writer his hold on men; still more, of a warm humanity and a sure instinct for all the higher and finer things of the spirit which never fail to strike chords in the heart as well as the brain. No writer’s work leaves a better taste in the mouth; he makes us think better of the world, of righteousness, of ourselves. Yet no writer is less of a Puritan or a Philistine; none writes with less of pragmatic purpose or a less obtrusive load of positive fact. He scorns such overladen pedantry, and never loses a chance to lash it. He tells us that he has “never been inside the reading-room of the British Museum,” and “expounds no theory save the unworthy one that literature ought to please.” He says the one question about a book which is to be part of literature is, “Does it read?” that “no one is under any obligation to read any one else’s book,” and therefore it is a writer’s business to make himself welcome to readers; that he does not care whether an author was happy or not, he wants the author to make him happy. He puts his theory in practice: he makes himself welcome as a companion at once stimulating and restful, of humane spirit and elevated ideals, of digested knowledge and original thought, of an insight which is rarely other than kindly and a deep humor which never lapses into cynicism.  5
  Mr. Birrell helps to justify Walter Bagehot’s dictum that the only man who can write books well is one who knows practical life well; but still there are congruities in all things, and one feels a certain shock of incongruity in finding that this man of books and purveyor of light genial book-talk, who can hardly write a line without giving it a quality of real literary savor, is a prominent lawyer and member of Parliament, and has written a law book which ranks among recognized legal authorities. This is a series of lectures delivered in 1896, and collected into a volume on ‘The Duties and Liabilities of Trustees.’ But some of the surprise vanishes on reading the book: even as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ shows on every page the work of a logician trained to use words precisely and criticize their misuse, so in exactly the opposite way this book is full of the shrewd judgment, the knowledge of life, and even the delightful humor which form so much of Birrell’s best equipment for a man of letters.  6
  Mr. Birrell’s work is not merely good reading, but is a mental clarifier and tonic. We are much better critics of other writers through his criticisms on his selected subjects. After every reading of ‘Obiter Dicta’ we feel ashamed of crass and petty prejudice, in the face of his lessons in disregarding surface mannerisms for the sake of vital qualities. Only in one case does he lose his impartiality: he so objects to treating Emerson with fairness that he even goes out of his way to berate his idol Matthew Arnold for setting Emerson aloft. But what he says of George Borrow is vastly more true of himself: he is one of the writers we cannot afford to be angry with.  7
 
 
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