On birrelling, Blessed John Henry Newman & the Bodleian.
“Colleges, like ancient homesteads, unless they are yours, never quite welcome you, though ready enough to receive with civility your tendered meed of admiration,” wrote Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary for Ireland under the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. He was also an essayist with a humorous style known as “birrelling.” The Manchester Literary Club defines birrelling as a gentle art: “[it] is to literature what caroling is to music.” Kenneth Clark, wrote that Birrell was “the most genial wit I have ever met,” and we hear an echo of Birrell in Clark’s remark that his reception into the Catholic Church would be like accessioning a painting into the Louvre: “It would find itself in some pretty queer company, but at least it would be sure that it had a soul.” In an ecumenical gesture, in two separate essays the Cantabrigian and nonconformist Birrell praises two Oxonian treasures: Blessed John Henry Newman and the venerable Bodleian Library. Now join this brief birrelling revival in search of Newman within the library that now houses so much of his work.
“Whenever the lover of all things that are quiet, and gentle, and true in life, and literature, visits Oxford, he will find himself wondering whether snap-dragon still grows outside the windows of the rooms in Trinity, where once lived the author of the Apologia,” Birrell writes in an essay in Scribner’s Magazine entitled “Cardinal Newman.” Compare our politicians’ bland, ghostwritten books to Birrell, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Education (1905–07), on Newman:
Had he led the secular life, and adopted a Parliamentary career, he would have been simply terrific, for his weapons of offense are both numerous and deadly. His sentences stab—his invective destroys. The pompous high placed imbecile mouthing his platitudes, the wordy sophister with his oven full of half-baked thoughts, the ill-bred rhetorician with his tawdry aphorisms, the heartless hate-producing satirist, would have gone down before his sword and spear. But God was merciful to these sinners: Newman became a Priest and they Privy Councillors.
Birrell admits that Newman’s Grammar of Assent (1870) is a beautiful book but, in his essay, the former skims over the “illative sense.” This is Newman’s term for our “power of judging and concluding,” an “inward faculty” that guides us through our often ineffable path through natural inference towards assent. Critics, elevating theory over experience and common sense, have dismissed it as a logical fallacy, but this is like accusing an explorer back from circumnavigating the globe of circular reasoning. The illative sense, Newman says, is the way by which “inquirers from all points of the compass” arrive at the truth about God and man, even if inquirers like us may lack Newman’s pellucid style. G. K. Chesterton popularized the illative sense and other Newmanian ideas in Orthodoxy (1908): “Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, ‘Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?’ he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, ‘Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” If asked, I would add the Bodleian Library.
The Bodleian Library has preserved “many queer things besides books and strangely written manuscripts in old tongues; queerer things even than crocodiles, whales, and mummies—I mean the librarians and sub-librarians, janitors, and servants.”
The Bodleian Library has preserved, Birrell writes in “In the Name of the Bodleian,” published in The Outlook magazine, “many queer things besides books and strangely written manuscripts in old tongues; queerer things even than crocodiles, whales, and mummies—I mean the librarians and sub-librarians, janitors, and servants. . . . Honest old Jacobites, non-jurors, primitive thinkers, as well as scandalously lazy drunkards and illiterate dogs.” One of those honest old Jacobites was Thomas Hearne, an amusing diarist, whom Birrell discusses at length. Hearne graduated from Oxford in 1699 and was made the assistant keeper of the Bodleian Library, where he worked on its book catalogue. In 1712, he was promoted to sub-librarian and in 1715 was elected Architypographus and Esquire Bedell at the university. In 1716, an Act of Parliament imposed a fine of £500 upon public officeholders who refused the oath of allegiance to the Hanoverians, and Hearne was removed from his position. “But he shared with his King over the water the satisfaction of accounting himself still de jure, and though he lived until 1735, he never failed each half-year to enter his salary and fees as sub-librarian as being still unpaid,” Birrell writes.
One forebear of the Bodleian was Bishop Thomas Cobham’s collection, Oxford’s first open library, established in the beginning of the fifteenth century. Before the English Reformation, Cobham’s librarian in Holy Orders was authorized by the University to offer masses for the souls of dead book donors. We have instruction from the highest teaching authority that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but Dr. Robert Plot of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, asserted “that ’twas a Rule amongst Antiquaries to receive, and never to restore.” When a manuscript was returned intact, Hearne offered a prayer, not of supplication, but of circulation:
O most gracious and merciful Lord God, wonderful in Thy Providence, I return all possible thanks to Thee for the care Thou hast always taken of me. I continually meet with most signal instances of this Thy Providence, and one act yesterday, when I unexpectedly met with three old manuscripts, for which in a particular manner I return my thanks, beseeching Thee to continue the same protection to me, a poor helpless sinner.
While Hearne was grateful for the return of the books, as a deterrent to future pilferers he admired the ancient custom of adding anathemas to the end of books cursing book thievery (and pedantry). Thus at the end of a Paraphrase on the Psalms in the Bodleian, one finds this warning: “Quicunque alienaverit anathema sit./ Qui culpat carmen sit maledicus. Amen.” [If anyone steal it, let him be anathema./ Whoever finds fault with it, let him be accursed. Amen.]
As Hearne looked to antiquity, in his 1864 Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman paid tribute to Sir Walter Scott, “who turned men’s minds to the direction of the middle ages.” The former Vice President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Scott displays his knowledge of Jacobite history in several historical novels and in his 1808 Life of John Dryden. It was Hearne who first received and entered into the Bodleian catalogue Dryden’s English translation of Exposition of the Doctrine of the Catholick Church in Matters of Controversie by Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the court preacher to Louis XIV. Scott cites Hearne’s Bodleian catalogue entry, which notes that Dryden was “then only a Poet, afterwards a Papist, and may be so before, tho’ not known.”
Hearne in his diary expresses sympathy for a “Mr. Westley, a Beneficed Minister in Lincolnshire” and a Jacobite jailed on the pretext of small debts accumulated due to the “smallness of his Income and the numerousness of his Family.” He admires Thomas Lydiatt, who starved himself to buy more books. He mourns news from Virginia that the library designed by the Oxonian Christopher Wren at the College of William and Mary was burned down accidentally. Hearne rejects superstition but cannot explain why his dreams were disturbed violently by “apprehensions of fire” on two separate nights, coincidentally during the fires in the libraries in Exeter College and Edmund Hall.
Today the Bodleian houses more than 72,000 books and scholarly articles related to Newman.
A perfect gentleman himself, in The Idea of a University (1852) Newman describes an ideal gentleman: “He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.” With an alternative view from his librarian’s desk, Hearne records the foibles of Newman’s imperfect clerical predecessors. William Lancaster, D.D., the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford from 1706 to 1710, was marked as “Old Smoothboots” for his “wonderful ambition” and “extreme desire to be a bishop.” One new ordinand still under the influence of the previous night’s celebration took the pulpit the next morning and led the congregation confidently in Evening Prayer. Another new minister, barely literate, frequently confused ordination and confirmation, yet his blatant ignorance did not prevent his bishop from heaping praise upon him and introducing him as a distinguished scholar. A parson was tried and found guilty of forgery. He misbehaved so indecently at court that he was thought insane. Hearne punctuates the diary entry, “He was educated at Cambridge.”
Oxford’s motto is “Dominus illuminatio mea,” and today the Bodleian houses more than 72,000 books and scholarly articles related to Newman. They were once guarded by the warning to visitors recorded by Charles Dickens in his dictionary entry on the Bodleian: “Touch what you like with the eyes, but do not see with the fingers.” As the author of Lead, Kindly Light moves closer to canonization, we join Augustine Birrell in celebrating the life and work of Cardinal Newman. If we now see in a glass darkly, through his illative sense we hope for ever greater illumination.
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