Augustine Birrell

Augustine Birrell, KC, on Literature

From the Whitefriars Journal, [vol. I] no. 4, March 1901, pp. 1-9.

The annual dinner of the Whitefriars Club was held at the Trocadero Restaurant on Saturday, February 16th, 1901, under the presidency of Friar F. Carruthers Gould. The vice-chairman were Friars Riochard Whiteing, Kenric B. Murray, R. Lee Campbell smf J. Bloundell Burton.

Mr Herbert W. Paul, in giving the toast of ‘Literature’ said that he rose for the first time to propose such a toast under rather embarrassing circumstances. No epic of importance had been produced during the present month, and the literature upon  which he personally was engaged, if it deserved the name, was of the kind which perished in the using, while it was often used for purposes, not unconnected with packing, for which it was never designed. He had noticed that the word ‘literature’ was now principally employed in one of two senses. It meant either the gratuitous pamphlet of a proselytising society or the mural decorations of a political campaign.

They all knew that when William Wordsworth and James Hogg met in the Border Country, Hogg pointed out to Wordsworth a large bonfire which he said had been lighted to commemorate the meeting of the poets. Wordsworth said ‘Poets?’ in an interrogative tone, laying stress upon the plural and he said no more. Well, he thought that now they had reversed that state of things. He hardly knew a man of letters who thought that there was more than one person living who could write English prose, but so far from suffering from a deficiency of poetry, scarcely had our beloved Sovereign passed away than they found that they were a nest of singing birds. From the Poet Laureate upwards – (laughter) – everyone, except the humble individual who was addressing them, burst into song. The Secretary of the National Reform Union became metrical without ceasing to be grammatical, and Mr George Meredith was exalted so far above measure or rather above his own measures that he wrote verses which anybody could understand. (‘Hear, hear.’)

But there was at least no deficiency in novels. They had novels of every kind – the compendium of useful information like Mr. Blake of Newmarket, the scientific analysis of romantic passion like Eleanor, and they had what they all must regard as a delightful combination of amusement with instruction in the gospel according to Number 5, John-street. (Applause.) If any criticism could be passed upon biography, which flourished so much amongst them, it might be that it sometimes was a little too long. They had had, for instance, the life of an amiable archbishop told with a tendency to diffusiveness which would have been a little excessive in the case of Napoleon or Wellington, and we may perhaps some times have been inclined to echo the remark of the great Lord Halifax that men in those days were not so much proud of being able to write as sorry that they were able to read. At any rate the White Friars and all Friars had one great and admirable poet who had the advantage of writing when there was a good deal of warfare in the world, but when warfare involved less loss of blood than now, and he sang in lines which you will recall,

‘Drink and sing and eat and laugh,
and so go forth to battle,
for the top of a skull and the end of a staff
do make a ghostly rattle.’

Certainly it was true that all Friars, like all men ho loved good fiction and good poetry, hard not forgotten the name of Thomas Love Peacock. Of course he had not failed to observe that the response to the toast was to come from his distinguished friend Mr Augustine Birrell. The titles of his books were sometimes disguised in the decent obscurity of a learned language, but the moment one opened the pages one found oneself rollicking in racy vernacular. Swift said that there were some men who treated books as they treated lords – they learned their titles and they boasted of their acquaintance. Mr Birrell’s mode of treating books was exactly the opposite. It was not perhaps a suitable time for passing any criticism upon him, and therefore he would not say that perhaps Mr Birrell sometimes encouraged his readers to undue familiarity with the illustrious dead. But his books were full of the two greatest qualities of literature – they were full of imagination, and they were full of humour. (‘Hear, hear.’) Humour he supposed was universal. He remembered how angry Mr Lowell was if one talked about ‘American humour’. How could humour be American ? And if one put a geographical adjective belonging to a country before a substantive, it seemed to denote something unreal – such as German silver, Dutch courage, and French leave. But if it might not be American, might it not he English? If one were to single out a characteristic of Mr Birrell’s writing more prominent than any other, one would say that he was the most thoroughly English of all contemporary writers, and he ventured to utter that sentiment in Mr Birrell’s presence, although he believed he would be told that one of his grandfathers reposed in a Scottish churchyard. Perhaps, however, Mr Birrell would not be so much inclined to lay stress on that point since he had ceased to represent a Scottish constituency. Where did English humour come from? Mr Birrell was not the author of his own ‘Obiter Dictum’ on Shakespeare, but it was as characteristic as any of his writings, and he had often been tempted in reading it to think that he had some connection which he was not prepared to explain with the author of Henry the Fourth. His humour had something of Sir John Falstaff without his grossness and something of Prince Hal without his contempt for the law. Contempt for the law! Why, when searching that very afternoon for one of Mr Birrell’s books in the catalogue of the library of a London club he found that Mr Birrell was only known to that institution as the author of some learned and exhaustive lectures upon the liability of employers. (Laughter.) Such was fame! Yet what was really the source of humour? He hoped he would not be accused of either insular prejudice or vulgar profanity if he were to say that humour, all true humour, comes through Shakespeare from Almighty God, and in reading Mr Birrell’s essays one could see – and that was not the least of the pleasures which one derived from reading him – that he had been a close student of that inexplicable genius to whom the book of nature and the heart of man were an open scroll, who had perfect charity because he had perfect knowledge, who could feel for the lowest because he was above the highest, whose tenderness, like his humour, was infinite, and whose: mercy was over all his works. (Cheers.)

Mr Augustine Birrell, KC, in responding, said : Friars – white, black, piebald –and fellow guests, I rise to respond to this toast with much perturbation, and I can only fling myself upon your tenderness and mercy. While my old friend Mr Paul was speaking, though I thought I could detect in some of his eloquent periods a sarcastic note, I felt sorry that he should be driven to exercising his critical art upon myself in the shape of a few remarks which I should certainly judge to be a flaw upon his taste, did I not know that they proceeded from the affection of many years.

Concluding, as he did, with a splendid eulogium upon the greatest possession of the British Empire – our immortal Shakespeare – I was for the time entirely under his influence, and fully aware of the significance of the toast which he submitted to your consideration. But he had not been long seated, and the strains of music – sounds, charming, I have no doubt, in themselves, but to which I was hardly able to listen – had not long been heard, before I began to feel within me the symptoms of a dreadful disease, from which, I am about to confess, I suffer terribly. It is a disease which numbs the heart, stupefies the  faculties, and renders all public manifestation of feeling almost impossible – a disease which I would not for the life of me confess to, were I not here in Bohemia, the land of truth. I am, I know, in Bohemia – I can almost hear the waves of the Shakespearean sea of Bohemia lapping round me, and therefore I am able to speak the truth. It can only be described, I suppose, as the disease of Reaction. I do not know whether any of you suffer from it, but I suffer from it very badly. I am ashamed of it. If any of you know of a remedy, I trust that no respect for a guest will prevent you coming to me after dinner, and telling me of it. I somehow can never remain under any particular influence for any time, but I begin to resent it. If I am over long at my devotions some tricksy demon whispers blasphemies in my ear. I am never long at worship at any shrine, but 1 leap to my feet and seek another influence. To hit your idols over the head is one of the symptoms of this abominable ailment.

I never listen to the praises of literature but I begin to feel a certain resentment, and could almost wish that my life-long tastes had been of another kind. I sometimes feel a positive hatred of books, and then so confirmed are the habits of my life that at such times I find myself ransacking my memory for quotations from authors (even now I am wondering which of half-a-dozen quotations would be most apt) to express my horror of books. There are men and women so literary in their tastes that they take more pleasure in the literary presentment of a thing than they do in the thing itself; and even I, alive as I am to the infamy of this, am not sure that in sundry moods I don’t prefer a page of Ruskin, describing the glories of the sunrise in the Alps to actually seeing the rosy fingers of the dawn lighting up the pale crest of the Matterhorn. These people prefer the portrait of a pretty woman to the natural living woman at their side. This is a state of mind which I deplore, and yet, for God’s sake, do not treat my remarks too seriously, do not applaud them, for if you do the reaction will set in against you. I shall once more go back to my old books as to my friends, and assert their authority over everything else. So lamentable is the strife of contending emotions!

One of our greatest men of letters, Macaulay – and I have wondered as I have read innumerable pages of his splendid writings how far he was sincere – entirely extolled the company of books. I have very little doubt that he was sincere. A passage occurs to me – you will all remember it – he speaks of his old friends, the books which never wear new faces; they care not for obscurity, or for wealth, or for poverty. Cervantes is never dull or tedious; Dante never stays too long; Demosthenes speaks for himself; no political differences can estrange you from Cicero; no heresy prevents you from sharing the company of Bossuet. You can shut them up whenever you like; you can lay down Bossuet and take up the WestminsterGazette. All these things no doubt are true, but still, when attacked by my old complaint, I often wonder what part books and the love of books really plays in our lives.

How far is the consolation of Literature genuine? Almost all the tributes to authors are composed by authors themselves. You are all producers! Where are the consumers? They do not speak. They carry to their graves their secret with them. How far do they care a ‘twopenny damn’ – to borrow the famous language of the Duke of Wellington – for the books upon their shelves? How far have you authors really soothed a single sorrow, how far have even the best of you ever spoken to your readers with anything like the clearness and truth of a pipe of tobacco or a glass of wine? These things we shall never know. Perhaps it is just as well. How that may be I really cannot take upon myself to say.

I was reading this afternoon in a club library, not a book about employers’ liability, which seems to be the staple of the library where my friend Mr Paul seeks information; I was, I say, reading this afternoon the souvenirs of Renan, the distinguished French scholar, in which. After reviewing a life devoted to the purposes of literature and to the elucidation of the history of the stubborn race of Israel, he says – or at least he gives us half to understand – that had he his life to live over again he would lead a vicious life. Renan was a Frenchman, speaking whimsically, and I am the last man to take an author quite seriously; still it does indicate that even when an author is allied to the real glories of literature he begins to wonder whether he had not better have lived instead of having written. But I no sooner say this than I see how absurd it is. How absurd to live a life of pleasure! Better it is to be a classic than a debauchee. And yet let us always place life above literature.

Some people find in literature their vocation, some their avocation; others find it a solace and a satisfaction, but after all it is not the Whole of life. It is better to see things as they really are than as they are in books. It is better to feel emotions than to read of them even in the pages of Shakespeare. And yet we are all proud to belong in the humblest sense to literature, and, despite Mr Paul’s kindly criticism, know that I am but a door-keeper in the house of literature – one hardly worthy to be called a man of letters. Allow me to know this. If you question it I shall have to question your knowledge of the great authors of our language, whose shoe-latchets I am not worthy to touch.

I am proud to respond in this society of men who do occasionally, though I do not know how often, derive great joy, infinite satisfaction, from the great books of the world. I am proud in this assembly to thank you for having permitted this toast to be associated with my name, and although at the moment I place life far above literature, none the less, among the satisfactions of this life, among the emotions that swell our breasts, among all the passions which pursue us, this sense of Literature takes its place. I thank you very much for associating my name with this toast.

Just now we are not required to bow the knee before any great King of Literature; still, I think that the man must be blind to the signs of the times, and indifferent to the import of what is going on around him, if he doubts that before long in the general spread of education, of cultivation, of the increased circulation of great books, great days will dawn, and that ere long authors will arise who will carry on the name and fame of our literature, and that in far off summers, in distant springs, English men and women will see in the literature of their own times something not unworthy to rank and to hold its own with the glorious literature of the past. (Cheers.)

The Chairman, proposing ‘’Our Guests’, said that even if in that Club they played at being Friars, they were all the better for it. May be, ere long, they would see the millennium, though exactly what the millennium was he really could never understand; but he fancied that, however much they thirsted for it, they would admit that the world, as it stood, was a good world if they knew how to make good use of it. Did they in that Club keep up all the traditions of the old religious orders ? (‘Yes.’) He thought that if there was an inquisition into their claims for existence they could point to the guests around their table, and say, Si argumentum quaeris circumspice. The Carmelites claimed to trace back their existence to Elijah. They, the Friars, however, did not depend upon the casual Providence of ravens: they brought their guests to the Trocadero. They had not given the guests a Lucullian feast, but they had given them a hearty welcome. He associated with the toast the name of Mr Sidney Lee, who had done such good service to History by recording the lives of our great men. (Applause.)

Mr Sidney Lee felt with his fellow-guests the great honour of coming to the festive gathering. He made no doubt that in a future dictionary of national biography they would find the orthodox reference, ‘Gould, F. Carruthers, 1860-1960’. Nobody would think he was born before ’60, and they all wished him to be a hundred. Last summer, he (the speaker) was invited to accompany the Club to a pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon. He believed in the virtues of the pilgrimage; such a pilgrimage enabled one to see the birthplace of Shakespeare without being troubled by some of the unfortunate features of the place – the vendors of alleged relics, etc. His host that evening was Friar Lacy, who had the distinguished honour of owning a Shakespeare first folio, a literary treasure of the world. Might he long keep it. (‘Hear, hear.’)

Mr Max Pemberton, in proposing ‘Our Club’, said that the task of proposing the toast of the Club was the most distinguished honour which could fall to the lot of any Friar. Yet it was a task which needed no great eloquence of his. They were a society which met once a week and discussed dinners and the infinitely less solemn function of deciding the affairs of the world. They had great arguments about and about, as the great Omar said, and they certainly tried to go out by the same door by which they entered in. Fidelity and devotion to the Whitefriars Club was the first article of belief. With regard to those gloomy abodes of whispering melancholy in Pall Mall, described by an American as the places to which men resort for silence and buttered toast, they had nothing in common with them. Yet they did entertain a very warm affection and regard for that little nest of theirs in Fleet-street. There was only one who could do justice to the indefatigable secretary, Mr. Arthur Spurgeon, their keystone, their arch, their three acres and a cow. He alone could they were. Years ago they were entirely Bohemian. None of them would have quarrelled with the cry of the little street boy ‘There’s ’air’. They had a contempt for society; they did not soar above velveteen. But he was sure that now they at least sought to preserve all that was good  in the old Bohemianism. Every old Bohemian was a splendid fellow. Today they were Bohemians in the spirit rather than in the letter. If they would come to their little Friday dinners they would find that they were not disciples of plain living and high thinking, but, in the game season at any rate, of rather high living and plain thinking. Once a year they entertained ladies. They had no programme for them. They did not say, with the doctors of Norwich, that a resolution should now be passed that all women shall become medical men. They entertained great men; every Friar was a guest before he became a member. They did not call each other names. He had never been compared to Bunyan or Rabelais. (Laughter.) He coupled with the toast the name of Friar Whiteing.

Friar Richard Whiteing, in responding, said: I have a very easy task to-night to respond for the Club; it is easy because I think this table in a measure responds for it. If one considers what has been said here to-night, and how well it has been said, one has a sort of apology for the existence of the Whitefriars Club. Our aim is the feast of reason and the flow of soul. We are of the clubs with a purpose and our purpose is to promote good after-dinner talk. We are not one of those institutions just described in which men-glare at their neighbours, and pass long lives in learning how not to speak to one another. Both here and in Paris the Club with a purpose of recreation is becoming more and more in vogue. I have, for instance, in my mind the French Club nicknamed the ‘Mirlitons’, in which there is always something going on. It is a mixed club of artists, musicians, dramatists. The artists-show their works, the musicians give a concert, the letters and the dramatists get up an amateur performance. We aim at the middle point between this and the mere dining club. We set a subject of conversation, and, to keep it in that note, there is a time limit. We invite the best men to make the pace for us; we keep up with them as best we can. I am not quite sure that we were ever so Bohemian as several of the younger members seem to imagine. ‘Bohemians if you like,’ said Friar Archer, ‘but only the clean shirt under difficulties, and the clean shirt all the same.’ It was never the Bohemian of Mürger, who has been quoted to-night. And how well he bears quoting! In relation to the circumstances of the moment in that newspaper world to which so many of us belong, I am fain to remember his hero who, on entering a new lodging with his all too scanty furniture, gives the concierge instructions to tell him every morning, through the keyhole, the day of the week, the day of the month, the moon’s quarter, and ‘the Government under which we live’. I have been tempted of late to give instructions that, on receiving my hot water, I should also learn the name of the new Editor of the DailyNews. (Laughter.) Mr Birrell has touched, but only touched, in his lucid and delightful speech, on a topic that might furnish a discussion for one of our meetings, and, if I might venture to say so in the name of the Club, it would be a great happiness to us if he would come down and speak upon it. It is the great subject of the difference as between the commerce of men and the commerce of books, and of the natural longing of the bookish man to throw his books into the sea, and to see life for himself. Mr Birrell was in the mood of reaction, so he generously gave us the courage to differ from him. I am, therefore, tempted to ask how much of this famous commerce with men is necessary for the equipment of the writer. I think the estimate is enormously exaggerated. The writer must trust chiefly to his inner self. A very little seeing with the outer eye will do, if only he makes the best use of it. The man of the world who has been everywhere and seen everything often brings very little back with him. Those who have seen a little, but seen it whole, will do. A’Kempis was no rover, and has been all over the Continent. Take the case of the Brontés. Never, perhaps, in all literature, has any other seen so little, in the ordinary sense, as they. One of them knew of nothing but her moors, and her parsonage; and when she sat down to write her immortal book, her scheme was only a sort of glorified next door. But she saw it with the intensity of a single impression. Even her more famous sister saw but little else. Brought up in the parsonage she went over to a Brussels school to perfect her French as half pupil, half governess, and with that little world added to the worldlet she had left, she produced a universe. Before sitting down, I venture to repeat my invitation to Mr Birrell to come and talk to us on a subject of such importance to all of our craft. (Cheers.)

The following from the WhitefriarsJournal, vol. VI, no. 3, May 1923, p. 133.

Mr Birrel declares that the most embarrassing position in which he ever found himself was in a third-class railway carriage some years ago. Jumping in as the train was moving he sat down hurriedly next to a little girl in a shawl. He glanced at her after a minute or two and noticed that she was unhappy and regarding him with no great favour. Then it dawned on him that he was sitting upon her newspaper. ‘Here my dear,’ said the kindly Mr Birrell at once, pulling it from under him. ‘I’m sorry,’

Still the child did not seem satisfied; but she said nothing till the train stopped, when rising to get out, she asked meekly, ‘Please sir, may I have my fried fish?’


1Edward Herbert Cooper, Mr Blake of Newmarket (London: Heinemann, 1897); Mrs Humphry Ward, Eleanor (London: Smith, Elder, 1900); Friar Richard Whiteing, Number 5, John-street (London: Grant Richards, 1899).

2 From Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian.