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Obiter Dicta by Augustine Birrell

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.


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