Tuesday, August 05, 2014

`Endowed with the Strength of a Coal-Heaver'

Thanks to a useful comment from Dave Lull on Sunday’s post, I’ve been investigating a writer once ubiquitous in English letters and politics whose reputation seems to have evaporated so thoroughly that casual readers might be excused for doubting he ever existed. In literary matters, Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) specialized in appreciation. He tended to write about writers he admired and, as a result, earned the happy distinction of seeing his surname turned into a verb and adjective. To birrell, the OED reports, was to treat a subject in “Birrell’s easy and discursive style.” The Dictionary quotes G. W. E. Russell writing in 1898: “To `birrell’ is now a verb as firmly established as to ‘boycott’, and it signifies a style, light, easy, playful, pretty, rather discursive, perhaps a little superficial. Its characteristic note is grace.” Not the worst of reputations to acquire. In an 1887 essay, “Dr. Johnson” (The Collected Essays and Addresses of the Rt. Hon. Augustine Birrell, three vols., 1932), Birrell writes:  

“Johnson was a man of strong passions, unbending spirit, violent temper, as poor as a church-mouse, and as proud as the proudest of church dignitaries; endowed with the strength of a coal-heaver, the courage of a lion, and the tongue of Dean Swift, he could knock down booksellers and silence bargees; he was melancholy almost to madness, `radically wretched,’ indolent, blinded, diseased. Poverty was long his portion; not that genteel poverty that is sometimes behindhand with its rent, but that hungry poverty that does not know where to look for its dinner.” 

Clearly, Johnson was an abiding interest. In “Confirmed Readers” (1906), Birrell calls him “perhaps our best example of a confirmed reader,” and goes to recount the story of the Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone’s visit to the great man’s quarters, where he finds him roasting apples and reading a history of Birmingham. “This staggered even Malone,” writes Birrell, “who was himself somewhat a far-gone reader.” Malone asks the lexicographer if he doesn’t find the Birmingham volume rather dull, and Johnson admits it is. Then Malone enquires after Johnson’s health, thinking illness may account for the apples. “`'Why, no,’ said Johnson; `I believe they are only there because I wanted something to do. I have been confined to the house for a week, and so you find me roasting apples and reading the history of Birmingham.’” Birrell comments: “This anecdote pleasingly illustrates the habits of the confirmed reader. Nor let the worldling sneer. Happy is the man who, in the hours of solitude and depression, can read a history of Birmingham.” 

In “The Gospel According to Dr. Johnson” (1894), nominally a review of George Birkbeck Hill’s Johnsonian Miscellanies, Birrell writes: 

“It is a good thing every now and again to get rid of Boswell. It is a little ungrateful, but we have Johnson’s authority for the statement that we hate our benefactors. After all, even had there been no Boswell, there would have been a Johnson.” 

And in “The Johnsonian Legend” (1906), Birrell, who edited an edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, writes: 

“The solitary Johnson, perturbed, tortured, oppressed, in distress of body and of mind, full of alarms for the future both in this world and the next, teased by importunate and perplexing thoughts, harassed by morbid infirmities, vexed by idle yet constantly recurring scruples, with an inherited melancholy and a threatened sanity, is a gloomy and even a terrible picture, and forms a striking contrast to the social hero, the triumphant dialectician of Boswell, Mrs. Thrale, and Madame D'Arblay. Yet it is relieved by its inherent humanity, its fellowship and feeling. Dr. Johnson's piety is delightfully full of human nature.” 

Birrell understands that Johnson was a better man and writer than most of us, burdened with the same limitations, could ever hope to be. You and I would be crushed by our suffering and self-pity. Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations, Birrell writes, “contains more piety than 10,000 religious biographies. Nor must the evidence it contains of weakness be exaggerated. Beset with infirmities, a lazy dog, as he often declared himself to be, he yet managed to do a thing or two.”

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