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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Office of Literature

By Augustine Birrell (1850–1933)

From ‘Obiter Dicta’

DR. JOHN BROWN’S pleasant story has become well known, of the countryman who, being asked to account for the gravity of his dog, replied, “Oh, sir! life is full of sairiousness to him—he can just never get eneugh o’ fechtin’.” Something of the spirit of this saddened dog seems lately to have entered into the very people who ought to be freest from it,—our men of letters. They are all very serious and very quarrelsome. To some of them it is dangerous even to allude. Many are wedded to a theory or period, and are the most uxorious of husbands—ever ready to resent an affront to their lady. This devotion makes them very grave, and possibly very happy after a pedantic fashion. One remembers what Hazlitt, who was neither happy nor pedantic, has said about pedantry:—

“The power of attaching an interest to the most trifling or painful pursuits is one of the greatest happinesses of our nature. The common soldier mounts the breach with joy, the miser deliberately starves himself to death, the mathematician sets about extracting the cube-root with a feeling of enthusiasm, and the lawyer sheds tears of delight over ‘Coke upon Lyttleton.’ He who is not in some measure a pedant, though he may be a wise, cannot be a very happy man.”

Possibly not; but then we are surely not content that our authors should be pedants in order that they may be happy and devoted. As one of the great class for whose sole use and behalf literature exists,—the class of readers,—I protest that it is to me a matter of indifference whether an author is happy or not. I want him to make me happy. That is his office. Let him discharge it.

I recognize in this connection the corresponding truth of what Sydney Smith makes his Peter Plymley say about the private virtues of Mr. Perceval, the Prime Minister:—

“You spend a great deal of ink about the character of the present Prime Minister. Grant all that you write—I say, I fear that he will ruin Ireland, and pursue a line of policy destructive to the true interests of his country; and then you tell me that he is faithful to Mrs. Perceval and kind to the Master Percevals. I should prefer that he whipped his boys and saved his country.”

We should never confuse functions or apply wrong tests. What can books do for us? Dr. Johnson, the least pedantic of men, put the whole matter into a nut-shell (a cocoa-nut shell, if you will—Heaven forbid that I should seek to compress the great Doctor within any narrower limits than my metaphor requires) when he wrote that a book should teach us either to enjoy life or endure it. “Give us enjoyment!” “Teach us endurance!” Hearken to the ceaseless demand and the perpetual prayer of an ever unsatisfied and always suffering humanity!

How is a book to answer the ceaseless demand?

Self-forgetfulness is the essence of enjoyment, and the author who would confer pleasure must possess the art, or know the trick, of destroying for the time the reader’s own personality. Undoubtedly the easiest way of doing this is by the creation of a host of rival personalities—hence the number and the popularity of novels. Whenever a novelist fails, his book is said to flag; that is, the reader suddenly (as in skating) comes bump down upon his own personality, and curses the unskillful author. No lack of characters, and continual motion, is the easiest recipe for a novel, which like a beggar should always be kept “moving on.” Nobody knew this better than Fielding, whose novels, like most good ones, are full of inns.

When those who are addicted to what is called “improving reading” inquire of you petulantly why you cannot find change of company and scene in books of travel, you should answer cautiously that when books of travel are full of inns, atmosphere, and motion, they are as good as any novel; nor is there any reason in the nature of things why they should not always be so, though experience proves the contrary.

The truth or falsehood of a book is immaterial. George Borrow’s ‘Bible in Spain’ is, I suppose, true; though now that I come to think of it in what is to me a new light, one remembers that it contains some odd things. But was not Borrow the accredited agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society? Did he not travel (and he had a free hand) at their charges? Was he not befriended by our minister at Madrid, Mr. Villiers, subsequently Earl of Clarendon in the peerage of England? It must be true: and yet at this moment I would as lief read a chapter of the ‘Bible in Spain’ as I would ‘Gil Blas’; nay, I positively would give the preference to Señor Giorgio. Nobody can sit down to read Borrow’s books without as completely forgetting himself as if he were a boy in the forest with Gurth and Wamba.

Borrow is provoking and has his full share of faults, and though the owner of a style, is capable of excruciating offences. His habitual use of the odious word “individual” as a noun-substantive (seven times in three pages of ‘The Romany Rye’) elicits the frequent groan, and he is certainly once guilty of calling fish the “finny tribe.” He believed himself to be animated by an intense hatred of the Church of Rome, and disfigures many of his pages by Lawrence-Boythorn-like tirades against that institution; but no Catholic of sense need on this account deny himself the pleasure of reading Borrow, whose one dominating passion was camaraderie, and who hob-a-nobbed in the friendliest spirit with priest and gipsy in a fashion as far beyond praise as it is beyond description by any pen other than his own. Hail to thee, George Borrow! Cervantes himself, ‘Gil Blas,’ do not more effectually carry their readers into the land of the Cid than does this miraculous agent of the Bible Society, by favor of whose pleasantness we can, any hour of the week, enter Villafranca by night, or ride into Galicia on an Andalusian stallion (which proved to be a foolish thing to do), without costing anybody a peseta, and at no risk whatever to our necks—be they long or short.

Cooks, warriors, and authors must be judged by the effects they produce: toothsome dishes, glorious victories, pleasant books—these are our demands. We have nothing to do with ingredients, tactics, or methods. We have no desire to be admitted into the kitchen, the council, or the study. The cook may clean her saucepans how she pleases—the warrior place his men as he likes—the author handle his material or weave his plot as best he can—when the dish is served we only ask, Is it good? when the battle has been fought, Who won? when the book comes out, Does it read?

Authors ought not to be above being reminded that it is their first duty to write agreeably; some very disagreeable ones have succeeded in doing so, and there is therefore no need for any one to despair. Every author, be he grave or gay, should try to make his book as ingratiating as possible. Reading is not a duty, and has consequently no business to be made disagreeable. Nobody is under any obligation to read any other man’s book.

Literature exists to please,—to lighten the burden of men’s lives; to make them for a short while forget their sorrows and their sins, their silenced hearths, their disappointed hopes, their grim futures—and those men of letters are the best loved who have best performed literature’s truest office. Their name is happily legion, and I will conclude these disjointed remarks by quoting from one of them, as honest a parson as ever took tithe or voted for the Tory candidate, the Rev. George Crabbe. Hear him in ‘The Frank Courtship’:—

  • “I must be loved,” said Sybil; “I must see
  • The man in terrors, who aspires to me:
  • At my forbidding frown his heart must ache,
  • His tongue must falter, and his frame must shake;
  • And if I grant him at my feet to kneel,
  • What trembling fearful pleasure must he feel!
  • Nay, such the rapture that my smiles inspire
  • That reason’s self must for a time retire.”
  • “Alas! for good Josiah,” said the dame,
  • “These wicked thoughts would fill his soul with shame;
  • He kneel and tremble at a thing of dust!
  • He cannot, child:”—the child replied, “He must.”
  • Were an office to be opened for the insurance of literary reputations, no critic at all likely to be in the society’s service would refuse the life of a poet who could write like Crabbe. Cardinal Newman, Mr. Leslie Stephen, Mr. Swinburne, are not always of the same way of thinking, but all three hold the one true faith about Crabbe.

    But even were Crabbe now left unread, which is very far from being the case, his would be an enviable fame—for was he not one of the favored poets of Walter Scott, and whenever the closing scene of the great magician’s life is read in the pages of Lockhart, must not Crabbe’s name be brought upon the reader’s quivering lip?

    To soothe the sorrow of the soothers of sorrow, to bring tears to the eyes and smiles to the cheeks of the lords of human smiles and tears, is no mean ministry, and it is Crabbe’s.