Augustine Birrell.

Obiter dicta : first and second series, complete online

. (page 1 of 22)
Online LibraryAugustine BirrellObiter dicta : first and second series, complete → online text (page 1 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook










Uniform with this Volume

H. Belloc
AVRIL : Essays on the Poetry of the French

Augustine Birrell

George Bourne

Stopford a. Brooke
STUDIES IN POETRY : Essays on Blake, Scott,
Shelley, Keats, etc.

W. Everett

John Galsworthy

W. H. Hudson
GREEN MANSIONS : A Romance of the Tropical

Richard Jefferies
BEVIS : The Story of a Boy

Joseph McCabe

H. W. Nevinson

Sir Leslie Stephen


Two Volumes.

Two Volumes.

Dr. Carl Wxtte







First and Second Series issued in one volutne in
' The Readers'' Library,^ igio





POETRY - . - . -


ACTORS - - -

A rogue's MEMOIRS - - - .

THE VIA MEDIA - - - - -





















THE accomplishments of our race have of late be-
come so varied, that it is often no easy task to
assign him whom we would judge to his proper station
among men ; and yet, until this has been done, the
guns of our criticism cannot be accurately levelled,
and as a consequence the greater part of our fire must
remain futile. He, for example, who would essay to
take account of Mr. Gladstone, must read much else
besides Hansard ; he must brush up his Homer, and
set himself to acquire some theology. The place of
Greece in the providential order of the world, and of
laymen in the Church of England, must be considered,
together with a host of other subjects of much appar-
ent irrelevance to a statesman's life. So too in the
case of his distinguished rival, whose death eclipsed
the gaiety of politics and banished epigram from
Parliament : keen must be the critical faculty which
can nicely discern where the novelist ended and the
statesman began in Benjamin Disraeli.

Happily, no such difficulty is now before us.
Thomas Carlyle was a writer of books, and he was


nothing else. Beneath this judgment he would have
winced, but have remained silent, for the facts are so.
Little men sometimes, though not perhaps so often
as is taken for granted, complain of their destiny, and
think they have been hardly treated, in that they have
been allowed to remain so undeniably small ; but
great men, with hardly an exception, nauseate their
greatness, for not being of the particular sort they
most fancy. The poet Gray was passionately fond,
so his biographers tell us, of military history ; but he
took no Quebec. General Wolfe took Quebec, and
whilst he was taking it, recorded the fact that he
would sooner have written Gray's ' Elegy ' ; and so
Carlyle — who panted for action, who hated eloquence,
whose heroes were Cromwell and Wellington, Ark-
wright and the ' rugged Brindley,' who beheld with
pride and no ignoble envy the bridge at Auldgarth his
mason-father had helped to build half a century before,
and then exclaimed, * A noble craft, that of a mason ;
a good building will last longer than most books —
than one book in a million ' ; who despised men of
letters, and abhorred the ' reading public ' ; whose
gospel was Silence and Action — spent his life in talk-
ing and writing ; and his legacy to the world is thirty-
four volumes octavo.

There is a familiar melancholy in this ; but the
critic has no need to grow sentimental. We must
have men of thought as well as men of action : poets
as much as generals ; authors no less than artizans ;
libraries at least as much as militia ; and therefore we
may accept and proceed critically to examine Carlyle's
thirty-four volumes, remaining somewhat indifferent


to the fact that had he had the fashioning of his own
destiny, we should have had at his hands blow^s instead
of books.

Taking him, then, as he was — a man of letters —
perhaps the best type of such since Dr. Johnson died
in Fleet Street, what are we to say of his thirty-four
volumes ?

In them are to be found criticism, biography, history,
politics, poetry, and religion. I mention this variety
because of a foolish notion, at one time often found
suitably lodged in heads otherwise empty, that Carlyle
was a passionate old man, dominated by two or three
extravagant ideas, to which he was for ever giving
utterance in language of equal extravagance. The
thirty-four volumes octavo render this opinion un-
tenable by those who can read. Carlyle cannot be
killed by an epigram, nor can the many influences
that moulded him be referred to any single source.
The rich banquet his genius has spread for us is of
many courses. The fire and fury of the Latter-Day
pamphlets may be disregarded by the peaceful soul,
and the preference given to the ' Past ' of ' Past and
Present,' which, with its intense and sympathetic
mediaevalism, might have been written by a Tractarian.
The ' Life of Sterling ' is the favourite book of many
who would sooner pick oakum than read ' Frederick
the Great' all through; whilst the mere student of
belles lettves may attach importance to the essays on
Johnson, Burns, and Scott, on Voltaire and Diderot^
on Goethe and Novalis, and yet remain blankly in-
different to ' Sartor Resartus ' and the ' French Revolu-


But true as this is, it is none the less true that,
excepting possibly the ' Life of Schiller,' Carlyle wrote
nothing not clearly recognisable as his. All his books
are his very own — bone of his bone, and flesh of his
flesh. They are not stolen goods, nor elegant exhibi-
tions of recently and hastily acquired wares.

This being so, it may be as well if, before proceed-
ing any further, I attempt, with a scrupulous regard
to brevity, to state what I take to be the invariable
indications of Mr. Carlyle's literary handiwork — the
tokens of his presence — ' Thomas Carlyle, his mark.'

First of all, it may be stated, without a shadow of a
doubt, that he is one of those who would sooner be
wrong with Plato than right with Aristotle ; in one
word, he is a mystic. What he says of Novalis may
with equal truth be said of himself : ' He belongs to
that class of persons who do not recognise the syllo-
gistic method as the chief organ for investigating
truth, or feel themselves bound at all times to stop
short where its light fails them. Many of his opinions
he would despair of proving in the most patient court
of law, and would remain well content that they should
be disbelieved there.' In philosophy we shall not be
very far wrong if we rank Carlyle as an idealist.
' Matter,' says he, ' exists only spiritually, and to re-
present some idea, and body it forth. Heaven and
Earth are but the time- vesture of the Eternal. The
Universe is but one vast symbol of God ; nay, if thou
wilt have it, what is man himself but a symbol of
God ? Is not all that he does symbolical, a revelation
to sense of the mystic God-given force that is in him ?
— a gospel of Freedom, which he, the *' Messias of


Nature," preaches as he can by act and word.' ' Yes,
Friends,' he elsewhere observes, ' not our logical
mensurative faculty, but our imaginative one, is King
over us, I might say Priest and Prophet, to lead us
heavenward, or magician and wizard to lead us hell-
ward. The understanding is indeed thy window — too
clear thou canst not make it ; but phantasy is thy eye,
with its colour-giving retina, healthy or diseased.' It
would be easy to multiply instances of this, the most
obvious and interesting trait of Mr. Carlyle's writing ;
but I must bring my remarks upon it to a close by
reminding you of his two favourite quotations, which
have both significance. One from Shakespeare's

Tempest :

' We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep ' ;

the Other, the exclamation of the Earth-spirit, in
Goethe's Faust:

' 'Tis thus at the roaring loom of Time I ply,
And weave for God the garment thou seest Him by."

But this is but one side of Carlyle. There is another
as strongly marked, which is his second note ; and
that is what he somewhere calls ' his stubborn realism.'
The combination of the two is as charming as it is
rare. No one at all acquainted with his writings can
fail to remember his almost excessive love of detail ;
his lively taste for facts, simply as facts. Imaginary
joys and sorrows may extort from him nothing but
grunts and snorts ; but let him only worry out for
himself, from that great dust-heap called 'history,
some undoubted fact of human and tender interest,


and, however small it may be, relating possibly to
some one hardly known, and playing but a small part
in the events he is recording, and he will wax amaz-
ingly sentimental, and perhaps shed as many real tears
as Sterne or Dickens do sham ones over their fig-
ments. This realism of Carlyle's gives a great charm
to his histories and biographies. The amount he tells
you is something astonishing — no platitudes, no rigma-
role, no common-form, articles which are the staple of
most biography, but, instead of them, all the facts and
features of the case — pedigree, birth, father and mother,
brothers and sisters, education, physiognomy, personal
habits, dress, mode of speech ; nothing escapes him.
It was a characteristic criticism of his, on one of Miss
Martineau's American books, that the story of the
way Daniel Webster used to stand before the fire
with his hands in his pockets was worth all the
politics, philosophy, political economy, and sociology
to be found in other portions of the good lady's
. writings. Carlyle's eye was indeed a terrible organ :
he saw everything. Emerson, writing to him, says :
' I think you see as pictures every street, church,
Parliament-house, barracks, baker's shop, mutton-
stall, forge, wharf, and ship, and whatever stands,
creeps, rolls, or swims thereabout, and make all your
own.' He crosses over, one rough day, to Dublin;
and he jots down in his diary the personal appearance
of some unhappy creatures he never saw before or
expected to see again ; how men laughed, cried, swore,
were all of huge interest to Carlyle. Give him a fact,
he loaded you with thanks ; propound a theory, you
were rewarded with the most vivid abuse.


This intense love for, and faculty of perceiving,
what one may call the 'concrete picturesque,' accounts
for his many hard sayings about fiction and poetry.
He could not understand people being at the trouble
of inventing characters and situations when history
was full of men and women ; when streets were
crowded, and continents were being peopled under
their very noses. Emerson's sphinx-like utterances
irritated him at times, as they well might ; his orations
and the like. ' I long,' he says, * to see some concrete
thing, some Event — Man's Life, American Forest, or
piece of Creation which this Emerson loves and
wonders at, well Emersonized, depicted by Emerson —
filled with the life of Emerson, and cast forth from
him then to live by itself.'* But Carlyle forgot the
sluggishness of the ordinary imagination, and, for the
moment, the stupendous dulness of the ordinary his-
torian. It cannot be matter for surprise that people
prefer Smollett's ' Humphrey Clinker ' to his * History
of England.'

The third and last mark to which I call attention is
his humour. Nowhere, surely, in the whole field of

* One need scarcely add, nothing of the sort ever proceeded
from Emerson. How should it ? Where was it to come from ?
When, to employ language of Mr. Arnold's own, ' any poor child
of nature ' overhears the author of ' Essays in Criticism ' telling
two worlds that Emerson's ' Essays ' are the most valuable prose
contributions to the literature of the century, his soul is indeed
filled ' with an unutterable sense of lamentation and mourning
and woe.' Mr. Arnold's silence was once felt to be provoking.
Wordsworth's lines kept occurring to one's mind —

' Poor Matthew, all his frolics o'er,
Is silent as a standing pool.'

But it was better so. [I leave this note as I wrote it, but it is
melancholy reading now, 1899].


English literature, Shakespeare excepted, do you come
upon a more abundant vein of humour than Carlyle's,
though I admit that the quality of the ore is not of
the finest. His every production is bathed in humour.
This must never be, though it often has been, forgotten.
He is not to be taken literally. He is always a
humourist, not unfrequently a writer of burlesque,
and occasionally a buffoon.

Although the spectacle of Mr. Swinburne taking
Mr. Carlyle to task, as he recently did, for indelicacy,
has an oddity all its own, so far as I am concerned
I cannot but concur with this critic in thinking that
Carlyle has laid himself open, particularly in his
* Frederick the Great,' to the charge one usually asso-
ciates with the great and terrible name of Dean Swift ;
but it is the Dean with a difference, and the difference
is all in Carlyle's favour. The former deliberately
pelts you with dirt, as did in old days gentlemen
electors their parliamentary candidates ; the latter
only occasionally splashes you, as does a public
vehicle pursuing on a wet day its uproarious course.

These, then, I take to be Carlyle's three principal
marks or notes : mysticism in thought, realism in
description, and humour in both.

To proceed now to his actual literary work.

First, then, I would record the fact that he was a
great critic, and this at a time when our literary
criticism was a scandal. He more than any other
has purged our vision and widened our horizons in
this great matter. He taught us there was no sort of
finality, but only nonsense, in that kind of criticism
which was content with laying down some foreign


masterpiece with the observation that it was not
suited for the EngHsh taste. He was, if not the first,
almost the first critic, who pursued in his criticism
the historical method, and sought to make us under-
stand what we were required to judge. It has been
said that Carlyle's criticisms are not final, and that
he has not said the last word about Voltaire, Diderot,
Richter, and Goethe. I can well believe it. But re-
serving * last words ' for the use of the last man (to
whom they would appear to belong), it is surely
something to have said the first sensible words uttered
in English on these important subjects. We ought
not to forget the early days of the Foveigii and Quarterly
Review. We have critics now, quieter, more reposeful
souls, taking their ease on Zion, who have entered
upon a world ready to welcome them, whose keen
rapiers may cut velvet better than did the two-handed
broadsword of Carlyle, and whose later date may
enable them to discern what their forerunner failed
to perceive ; but when the critics of this century come
to be criticized by the critics of the next, an honour-
able, if not the highest place will be awarded to

Turn we now to the historian and biographer.
History and biography much resemble one another
in the pages of Carlyle, and occupy more than half
his thirty-four volumes : nor is this to be wondered
at, since they afford him fullest scope for his three
strong points — his love of the wonderful ; his love of
telling a story, as the children say, ' from the very
beginning ;' and his humour. His view of history is
sufficiently lofty. History, says he, is the true epic


poem, a universal divine scripture whose plenary
inspiration no one out of Bedlam shall bring into
question. Nor is he quite at one with the ordinary
historian as to the true historical method. ' The time
seems coming when he who sees no world but that of
courts and camps, and writes only how soldiers were
drilled and shot, and how this ministerial conjurer
out-conjured that other, and then guided, or at least
held, something which he called the rudder of
Government, but which was rather the spigot of
Taxation, wherewith in place of steering he could
tax, will pass for a more or less instructive Gazetteer,
but will no longer be called an Historian.'

Nor does the philosophical method of writing
history please him any better :

'Truly if History is Philosophy teaching by ex-
amples, the writer fitted to compose history is hitherto
an unknown man. Better were it that mere earthly
historians should lower such pretensions, more suit-
able for omniscience than for human science, and
aiming only at some picture of the things acted, which
picture itself will be a poor approximation, leave the
inscrutable purport of them an acknowledged secret —
or at most, in reverent faith, pause over the mysterious
vestiges of Him whose path is in the great deep of
Time, whom History indeed reveals, but only all
History and in Eternity will clearly reveal.'

This same transcendental way of looking at things
is very noticeable in the following view of Biography :
* For, as the highest gospel was a Biography, so is
the life of every good man still an indubitable gospel,
and preaches to the eye and heart and whole man,


so that devils even must believe and tremble, these
gladdest tidings. Man is heaven-born — not the thrall
of circumstances, of necessity, but the victorious
subduer thereof.' These, then, being his views, what
are we to say of his works ? His three principal
historical works are, as everyone knows, ' Cromwell,'
' The French Revolution,' and ' Frederick the Great,'
though there is a very considerable amount of other
historical writing scattered up and down his works.
But what are we to say of these three ? Is he, by
virtue of them, entitled to the rank and influence of a
great historian ? What have we a right to demand
of an historian ? First, surely, stern veracity, which
implies not merely knowledge but honesty. An
historian stands in a fiduciary position towards his
readers, and if he withholds from them important
facts likely to influence their judgment, he is guilty
of fraud, and, when justice is done in this world, will
be condemned to refund all moneys he has made by his
false professions, with compound interest. This sort
of fraud is unknown to the law, but to nobody else.
' Let me know the facts !' may well be the agonized
cry of the student who finds himself floating down
what Arnold has called ' the vast Mississippi of false-
hood. History.' Secondly, comes a catholic temper
and way of looking at things. The historian should
be a gentleman and possess a moral breadth of
temperament. There should be no bitter protesting
spirit about him. He should remember the world he
has taken upon himself to write about is a large place,
and that nobody set him up over us. Thirdly, he
must be born a story-teller. If he is not this, he


has mistaken his vocation. He may be a great
philosopher, a useful editor, a profound scholar, and
anything else his friends like to call him, except a
great historian. How does Carlyle meet these re-
quirements ? His veracity, that is, his laborious
accuracy, is admitted by the only persons competent
to form an opinion, namely, independent investigators
who have followed in his track; but what may be
called the internal evidence of the case also supplies
a strong proof of it. Carlyle was, as everyone knows,
a hero-worshipper. It is part of his mysticism. With
him man, as well as God, is a spirit, either of good or
evil, and as such should be either worshipped or
reviled. He is never himself till he has discovered
or invented a hero ; and, when he has got him, he
tosses and dandles himi as a mother her babe. This
is a terrible temptation to put in the way of an
historian, and few there be who are found able to
resist it. How easy to keep back an ugly fact, sure
to be a stumbling-block in the way of weak brethren !
Carlyle is above suspicion in this respect. He knows
no reticence. Nothing restrains him ; not even the
so-called proprieties of history. He may, after his
boisterous fashion, pour scorn upon you for looking
grave, as you read in his vivid pages of the reckless
manner in which too many of his heroes drove
coaches-and-six through the Ten Commandments.
As likely as not he will call you a blockhead, and
tell you to close your wide mouth and cease shrieking.
But, dear me ! hard words break no bones, and it
is an amazing comfort to know the facts. Is he
writing of Cromwell ? — down goes everything — letters,


speeches, as they were written, as they were de-
livered. Few great men are edited after this fashion.
Were they to be so — Luther, for example— many
eyes would be opened very wide. Nor does Carlyle
fail in comment. If the Protector makes a somewhat
distant allusion to the Barbadoes, Carlyle is at your
elbow to tell you it means his selling people to work
as slaves in the West Indies. As for Mirabeau, ' our
wild Gabriel Honore,' well ! we are told all about
him ; nor is Frederick let off a single absurdity or
atrocity. But when we have admitted the veracity,
what are we to say of the catholic temper, the breadth
of temperament, the wide Shakespearian tolerance ?
Carlyle ought to have them all. By nature he was
tolerant enough ; so true a humourist could never be
a bigot. When his war-paint is not on, a child might
lead him. His judgments are gracious, chivalrous,
tinged with a kindly melancholy and divine pity.
But this mood is never for long. Some gadfly stings
him : he seizes his tomahawk and is off on the trail.
It must sorrowfully be admitted that a long life of
opposition and indigestion, of fierce warfare with
cooks and Philistines, spoilt his temper, never of the
best, and made him too often contemptuous, savage,
unjust. His language then becomes unreasonable,
unbearable, bad. Literature takes care of herself.
You disobey her rules ; well and good, she shuts her
door in your face : you plead your genius : she replies,
' Your temper,' and bolts it. Carlyle has deliberately
destroyed, by his own wilfulness, the value of a great
deal he has written. It can never become classical.
Alas ! that this should be true of too many eminent


Englishmen of our time. Language such as was,
at one time, almost habitual with Mr. Ruskin, is a
national humiliation, giving point to the Frenchman's
sneer as to our distinguishing literary characteristic
being ' la brutalite.^ In Carlyle's case much must be
allowed for his rhetoric and humour. In slang phrase,
he always ' piles it on.' Does a bookseller misdirect
a parcel, he exclaims, ' My malison on all Block-
headisms and Torpid Infidelities of which this world
is full.' Still, all allowances made, it is a thousand
pities ; and one's thoughts turn away from this stormy
old man and take refuge in the quiet haven of the
Oratory at Birmingham, with his great Protagonist, who,
throughout an equally long life spent in painful con-
troversy, and wielding weapons as terrible as Carlyle's
own, has rarely forgotten to be urbane, and whose
every sentence is a 'thing of beauty.' It must, then,
be owned that too many of Carlyle's literary achieve-
ments 'lack a gracious somewhat.' By force of his
genius he ' smites the rock and spreads the water ;'
but then, like Moses, ' he desecrates, belike, the deed
in doing.'

Our third requirement was, it may be remembered,
the gift of the story-teller. Here one is on firm
ground. Where is the equal of the man who has told
us the story of ' The Diamond Necklace '?

It is the vogue, nowadays, to sneer at picturesque
writing. Professor Seeley, for reasons of his own,
appears to think that whilst politics, and, I presume,
religion, may be made as interesting as you please,
history should be as dull as possible. This, surely, is
a jaundiced view. If there is one thing it is legitimate


to make more interesting than another, it is the varied

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryAugustine BirrellObiter dicta : first and second series, complete → online text (page 1 of 22)