1780 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Richard Steele

John Nichols, in Select Collection of Poems with Notes Biographical and Historical (1780-82) 4:1-8.



This distinguished writer, who was a native of Dublin (his father being private secretary to James duke of Ormond), was educated with Mr. Addison at the Charter-house. His inclination taking a military turn, he entered into the guards, where he soon obtained an ensign's commission; and in that station commenced author, by writing his Christian Hero, printed in 1701, and inscribed to the lord Cutts, under whom he served; and followed in the next year by The Funeral, a comedy; which recommended him to the notice of king William, but too late in that monarch's life to be of any use to Mr. Steele. In 1703 his Tender Husband was acted; as was The Lying Lovers in 1704. His next appearance as a writer was, in his own words, "in the quality of the lowest minister of state, as gazetteer"; an office he owed to Mr. Addison's introducing him to the earls of Halifax and Sunderland. In 1709 he began The Tatler; and was soon after made one of the commissioners of the stamp-office. When he laid down this paper, we are told by Mr. Gay,

"his disappearing seemed to be bewailed as some general calamity: every one wanted so agreeable an amusement: and the coffee-houses began to be sensible that the Esquire's lucubrations alone had brought them more customers than all their other new-papers put together. It must indeed be confessed, that never man threw up his pen under stronger temptations to have employed it longer; his reputation was at a greater height than, I believe, ever any living author's was before him. It is reasonable to suppose that his gains were proportionably considerable; every one read him with pleasure and good-will; and the Tories, in respect to his other good qualities, had almost forgiven his unaccountable imprudence in declaring against them. Lastly, it was highly improbable, if he threw off a character, the ideas of which were so strongly impressed in every one's mind, however firmly he might write in any new form, that he should meet with the same reception. To give you my own thoughts of this gentleman's writings, I shall in the first place observe, that there is this noble difference between him and the rest of our polite and gallant authors: the latter have endeavoured to please the age by falling-in with them in their fashionable vices, and false notions of things. It would have been a jest some time since, for a man to have asserted that any thing witty could be said in praise of a married state; or that devotion and virtue were any way necessary to the character of a fine gentleman. Bickerstaff ventured to tell the town, that they were a parcel of fops, fools, and vain coquettes; but in such a manner, as even pleased them, and made them more than half-inclined to believe that he spoke truth. Instead of complying with the false sentiments or vicious tastes of the age, either in morality, criticism, or good-breeding; he has boldly assured them, that they were altogether in the wrong, and commanded them, with an authority which perfectly well became him, to surrender themselves to his arguments for virtue and good-sense. It is incredible to conceive the effect his writings have had on the town; how many thousand follies they have either quite banished, or given a very great check to; how much countenance they have added to virtue and religion; how many people they have rendered happy, by shewing them it was their own fault if they were not so; and, lastly, how entirely they have convinced our fops and young fellows of the value and advantages of learning. He has indeed rescued it out of the hands of pedants and fools, and discovered the true method of making it amiable and lovely to all mankind. In the dress he gives it, it is a most welcome guest at tea-tables and assemblies, and is relished and caressed by the merchants on The Change; accordingly there is not one lady at court, nor a banker in Lombard-street, who is not verily persuaded, that Captain Steele is the greatest scholar and best casuist of any man in England."

In 1710-11, in concert with Mr. Addison, he set up The Spectator; a work, which, as Dr. Johnson observes, "comprizes precepts of criticism, sallies of invention, descriptions of life, and lectures of virtue; it employs wit in the cause of truth, and makes elegance subservient to piety: it has now for more than half a century supplied the English nation, in a great measure, with principles of speculation, and rules of practice; and given Addison a claim to be numbered among the benefactors of mankind." In 1712-13, Mr. Steele began The Guardian; and in 1713, The Englishman, under which latter title he began a second collection in 1725. In 1713 he was chosen member for Stockbridge; but was expelled March 15, 1713, for some libellous paragraphs in The Englishman. — "I am in a thousand troubles for poor Dick, (says Mr. Addison, in a letter to Mr. Hughes, October 12, 1713), and with that his zeal for the publick may not be ruinous to himself; but he has sent me word, that he is determined to go on; and that any advice I can give him in this particular will have no weight with him." Mr. Addison (as the event shewed) was too true a prophet. — In the eighth number of The Englishman, Oct. 22, 1713, Mr. Steele inserted a letter, giving notice that The Crisis was then ready for the press; and concluding with these words: "The price of this discourse will be but one shilling; and persons who are willing to subscribe for numbers of them, are desired to leave their names and such numbers with Mr. Samuel Buckley, at the Dolphin in Little Britain. I beg the favour of you to insert this in your very next paper; for I shall govern myself in the number I print according to the number of subscriptions." After the subscription had continued open for more than two months, The Englishman, Number 26, Dec. 26, acquainted the public, that, "at the desire of several ladies of quality, the publication of The Crisis is put off till the female world have expressed their zeal for the publick, by a subscription as large as that among the other sex." This pamphlet at length appeared on the 19th of January, 1714. In the revisal and correction of it, he was assisted by Bishop Hoadly, Mr. Addison, Mr. Lechmere, and Mr. Minshall. — At the end of 1713, Mr. Steele began The Lover; and in 1714, The Reader. In this year he appeared as editor of a volume of Miscellaneous Poems; and wrote The Romish Ecclesiasticall History of late Years; and in 1715, An Account of the State of the Roman Catholic Religion throughout the World. In April that year, he was knighted by King George I; who had before appointed him surveyor of the royal stables at Hampton Court, and governor of the royal company of comedians. In the same year he collected several of his pieces into a volume, under the title of Political Writings; and published a paper called The Town Talk; in 1718, An Account of the Fish Pool; in 1719, The Spinster, and A Letter to the Earl of Oxford concerning the Bill of Peerage: and, January 2, 1719-20, began The Theatre; a task which seems to have been soon laid aside. In the twenty-eighth number the author observed, that this paper "was not the product of a mind at ease, but written by a man neither out of pain in body or mind; yet forced to suspend the anguish of both with the addition of powerful men soliciting his ruin, shy looks from his acquaintance, surly behaviour from his domesticks, with all the train of public and private calamity." He took leave of the town with a promise of "printing a new comedy called Sir John Edgar;" and at the same time solicited support in a design by which might be divided "above ten per cent. six times a year." Sir Richard was smartly attacked for The Theatre by Mr. Dennis, when he had published six numbers, in a pamphlet called The Character and Conduct of Sir John Edgar, the name he had assumed in that publication. (This latter paper, The Town Talk, and The Spinster, have not yet been collected into volumes.) — On the 23rd of that month, his patent of governor of the royal comedians was revoked; on which he printed a state of the case between the lord chamberlain and himself, computing his loss at almost 10,000. He published The Crisis of Property, Jan. 31, 1719-20; and, A Nation a Family; being the Sequel of The Crisis of Property; or a Plan for the Improvement of the South-Sea Proposal, Feb. 24. — The Conscious Lovers was acted with great success in 1722; and the king, to whom it was dedicated, gave him 500. Some years before his death, he grew paralytic, and retired to his seat at Llangunner near Caermarthen in Wales; where he died, September 1, 1729. He had been twice married; and his great esteem for his second lady is testified in a dedication to The Ladies Library. — It appears by his Reader, May 3, 1714, that he had materials for a History of the war in Flanders; which he proposed to print in folio, but did not execute. These papers afterwards came into the hands of Mr. Mallet; to whom 500 was bequeathed by the duchess of Marlborough, to write the life of her deceased lord. It was intended by the duchess to have been performed jointly by Mr. Glover and Mr. Mallet, under the immediate inspection of lord Chesterfield: but Mr. Glover resigned the undertaking; and although it is probably that his colleague had the papers directed by the duchess delivered to him, and it is certain was several years employed about the work (which, he informed the duke of Marlborough in a dedication to his poems, 1762, was so far executed, that he hoped soon to present it to him); yet it is said, at the time of Mr. Mallet's death, in April 1765, he had made but small progress in it. — Sir Richard was one of the last eminent men who entertained hopes of being successful in the pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone; a circumstance alluded to in the following couple of The British Censor, a satire levelled at Steele, in 1712:

A Chemist now, whose vain projection broke,
Was not his sense in part dissolv'd in smoke?

His Laboratory was at Poplar, near London; and is now converted into a garden-house.