Obiter Dicta: Second Series

Transcribed from the 1896 Elliot Stock edition by David Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org

OBITER DICTA.
second series.

by
AUGUSTINE BIRRELL.

Cheap Edition.

london:
elliot stock, 62, paternoster row.
1896.

PREFACE.

I am sorry not to have been able to persuade my old friend, George Radford, who wrote the paper on ‘Falstaff’ in the former volume, to contribute anything to the second series of Obiter Dicta.  In order to enjoy the pleasure of reading your own books over and over again, it is essential that they should be written either wholly or in part by somebody else.

Critics will probably be found ready to assert that this little book has no right to exist, since it exhibits nothing worthy of the name of research, being written by one who has never been inside the reading-room of the British Museum.  Neither does it expound any theory, save the unworthy one that literature ought to please; nor does it so much as introduce any new name or forgotten author to the attention of what is facetiously called ‘the reading public.’

But I shall be satisfied with a mere de facto existence for the book, if only it prove a little interesting to men and women who, called upon to pursue, somewhat too rigorously for their liking, their daily duties, are glad, every now and again, when their feet are on the fender, and they are surrounded by such small luxuries as their theories of life will allow them to enjoy, to be reminded of things they once knew more familiarly than now, of books they once had by heart, and of authors they must ever love.

The first two papers are here printed for the first time; the others have been so treated before, and now reappear, pulled about a little, with the kind permission of the proper parties.

3, New Square, Lincoln’s Inn.
April, 1887.

JOHN MILTON.

It is now more than sixty years ago since Mr. Carlyle took occasion to observe, in his Life of Schiller, that, except the Newgate Calendar, there was no more sickening reading than the biographies of authors.

Allowing for the vivacity of the comparison, and only remarking, with reference to the Newgate Calendar, that its compilers have usually been very inferior wits, in fact attorneys, it must be owned that great creative and inventive genius, the most brilliant gifts of bright fancy and happy expression, and a glorious imagination, well-nigh seeming as if it must be inspired, have too often been found most unsuitably lodged in ill-living and scandalous mortals.  Though few things, even in what is called Literature, are more disgusting than to hear small critics, who earn their bite and sup by acting as the self-appointed showmen of the works of their betters, heaping terms of moral opprobrium upon those whose genius is, if not exactly a lamp unto our feet, at all events a joy to our hearts,—still, not even genius can repeal the Decalogue, or re-write the sentence of doom, ‘He which is filthy, let him be filthy still.’  It is therefore permissible to wish that some of our great authors had been better men.

It is possible to dislike John Milton.  Men have been found able to do so, and women too; amongst these latter his daughters, or one of them at least, must even be included.  But there is nothing sickening about his biography, for it is the life of one who early consecrated himself to the service of the highest Muses, who took labour and intent study as his portion, who aspired himself to be a noble poem, who, Republican though he became, is what Carlyle called him, the moral king of English literature.

Milton was born in Bread Street, Cheapside, on the 9th of December, 1608.  This is most satisfactory, though indeed what might have been expected.  There is a notable disposition nowadays, amongst the meaner-minded provincials, to carp and gird at the claims of London to be considered the mother-city of the Anglo-Saxon race, to regret her pre-eminence, and sneer at her fame.  In the matters of municipal government, gas, water, fog, and snow, much can be alleged and proved against the English capital, but in the domain of poetry, which I take to be a nation’s best guaranteed stock, it may safely be said that there are but two shrines in England whither it is necessary for the literary pilgrim to carry his cockle hat and shoon—London, the birthplace of Chaucer, Spenser, Ben Jonson, Milton, Herrick, Pope, Gray, Blake, Keats, and Browning, and Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare.  Of English poets it may be said generally they are either born in London or remote country places.  The large provincial towns know them not.  Indeed, nothing is more pathetic than the way in which these dim, destitute places hug the memory of any puny whipster of a poet who may have been born within their statutory boundaries.  This has its advantages, for it keeps alive in certain localities fames that would otherwise have utterly perished.  Parnassus has forgotten all about poor Henry Kirke White, but the lace manufacturers of Nottingham still name him with whatever degree of reverence they may respectively consider to be the due of letters.  Manchester is yet mindful of Dr. John Byrom.  Liverpool clings to Roscoe.

Milton remained faithful to his birth-city, though, like many another Londoner, when he was persecuted in one house he fled into another.  From Bread Street he moved to St. Bride’s Churchyard, Fleet Street; from Fleet Street to Aldersgate Street; from Aldersgate Street to the Barbican; from the Barbican to the south side of Holborn; from the south side of Holborn to what is now called York Street, Westminster; from York Street, Westminster, to the north side of Holborn; from the north side of Holborn to Jewin Street; from Jewin Street to his last abode in Bunhill Fields.  These are not vain repetitions if they serve to remind a single reader how all the enchantments of association lie about him.  Englishwomen have been found searching about Florence for the street where George Eliot represents Romola as having lived, who have admitted never having been to Jewin Street, where the author of Lycidas and Paradise Lost did in fact live.

Milton’s father was the right kind of father, amiable, accomplished, and well-to-do.  He was by business what was then called a scrivener, a term which has received judicial interpretation, and imported a person who arranged loans on mortgage, receiving a commission for so doing.  The poet’s mother, whose baptismal name was Sarah (his father was, like himself, John), was a lady of good extraction, and approved excellence and virtue.  We do not know very much about her, for the poet was one of those rare men of genius who are prepared to do justice to their fathers.  Though Sarah Milton did not die till 1637, she only knew her son as the author of Comus, though it is surely a duty to believe that no son would have poems like L’Allegro and Il Penseroso in his desk, and not at least once produce them and read them aloud to his mother.  These poems, though not published till 1645, were certainly composed in his mother’s life.  She died before the troubles began, the strife and contention in which her well-graced son, the poet, the dreamer of all things beautiful and cultured, the author of the glancing, tripping measure—

‘Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful jollity’—

was destined to take a part, so eager and so fierce, and for which he was to sacrifice twenty years of a poet’s life.

The poet was sent to St. Paul’s School, where he had excellent teaching of a humane and expanding character, and he early became, what he remained until his sight left him, a strenuous reader and a late student.

‘Or let my lamp at midnight hour
Be seen on some high, lonely tower,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear.’

Whether the maid who was told off by the elder Milton to sit up till twelve or one o’clock in the morning for this wonderful Pauline realized that she was a kind of doorkeeper in the house of genius, and blessed accordingly, is not known, and may be doubted.  When sixteen years old Milton proceeded to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where his memory is still cherished; and a mulberry-tree, supposed in some way to be his, rather unkindly kept alive.  Milton was not a submissive pupil; in fact, he was never a submissive anything, for there is point in Dr. Johnson’s malicious remark, that man in Milton’s opinion was born to be a rebel, and woman a slave.

But in most cases, at all events, the rebel did well to be rebellious, and perhaps he was never so entirely in the right as when he protested against the slavish traditions of Cambridge educational methods in 1625.

Universities must, however, at all times prove disappointing places to the young and ingenuous soul, who goes up to them eager for literature, seeing in every don a devotee to intellectual beauty, and hoping that lectures will, by some occult process—the genius loci—initiate him into the mysteries of taste and the storehouses of culture.  And then the improving conversation, the flashing wit, the friction of mind with mind,—these are looked for, but hardly found; and the young scholar groans in spirit, and perhaps does as Milton did—quarrels with his tutor.  But if he is wise he will, as Milton also did, make it up again, and get the most that he can from his stony-hearted stepmother before the time comes for him to bid her his Vale vale et æternum vale.

Milton remained seven years at Cambridge—from 1625 to 1632—from his seventeenth to his twenty-fourth year.  Any intention or thought he ever may have had of taking orders he seems early to have rejected with a characteristic scorn.  He considered a state of subscription to articles a state of slavery, and Milton was always determined, whatever else he was or might become, to be his own man.  Though never in sympathy with the governing tone of the place, there is no reason to suppose that Milton (any more than others) found this lack seriously to interfere with a fair amount of good solid enjoyment from day to day.  He had friends who courted his society, and pursuits both grave and gay to occupy his hours of study and relaxation.  He was called the ‘Lady’ of his college, on account of his personal beauty and the purity and daintiness of his life and conversation.

After leaving Cambridge Milton began his life, so attractive to one’s thoughts, at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, where his father had a house in which his mother was living.  Here, for five years, from his twenty-fourth to his twenty-ninth year—a period often stormy in the lives of poets—he continued his work of self-education.  Some of his Cambridge friends appear to have grown a little anxious, on seeing one who had distinction stamped upon his brow, doing what the world calls nothing; and Milton himself was watchful, and even suspicious.  His second sonnet records this state of feeling:

‘How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.’

And yet no poet had ever a more beautiful springtide, though it was restless, as spring should be, with the promise of greater things and ‘high midsummer pomps.’  These latter it was that were postponed almost too long.

Milton at Horton made up his mind to be a great poet—neither more nor less; and with that end in view he toiled unceasingly.  A more solemn dedication of a man by himself to the poetical office cannot be imagined.  Everything about him became, as it were, pontifical, almost sacramental.  A poet’s soul must contain the perfect shape of all things good, wise, and just.  His body must be spotless and without blemish, his life pure, his thoughts high, his studies intense.  There was no drinking at the ‘Mermaid’ for John Milton.  His thoughts, like his joys, were not those that

‘are in widest commonalty spread.’

When in his walks he met the Hodge of his period, he is more likely to have thought of a line in Virgil than of stopping to have a chat with the poor fellow.  He became a student of the Italian language, and writes to a friend: ‘I who certainly have not merely wetted the tip of my lips in the stream of these (the classical) languages, but in proportion to my years have swallowed the most copious draughts, can yet