1764 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Richard Steele

David Erskine Baker, in Companion to the Play-House (1764) 2:Sigs Gg-Gg3.



SIR RICHARD STEELE was born about the year 1676, in Ireland, in which Kingdom one Branch of the Family was possessed of a considerable Estate in the County of Wexford. — His Father, a Counsellor at law in Dublin, was private Secretary to James Duke of Ormond, but he was of English Extraction; and his Son, while very young, being carried to London, he put him to School at the Charter-house, whence he was removed to Merton College, in Oxford, where he was admitted a Post-Master in 1692. His Inclination and Genius being turned to Polite Literature, he commenced Author during his Residence in the University, and actually finished a Comedy; which, however, he thought fit to suppress, as unworthy of his Genius. — Mr. Steele was well beloved and respected by the whole Society, and had a good Interest with them after he left the University, which he did without taking any Degree, in the firm Resolution to enter into the Army. — This Step was highly displeasing to his Friends; but the Ardour of his Passion for a military Life rendered him deaf to any other Proposal. — Not being able to procure a better Station, he entered as a private Gentleman in the Horse-Guards, notwithstanding he thereby lost the Succession to his Irish Estate. However, as he had a Flow of Good-Nature, a generous Openness and Frankness of Spirit, and a sparkling Vivacity of wit, — these Qualities rendered him the Delight of the Soldiery, and procured him an ensign's Commission in the Guards. — In the mean Time, as he had made Choice of a Profession which set him free from all the ordinary Restraints on Youth, he spared not to indulge his Inclinations in the wildest Excesses. — Yet his Gaieties and Revels did not pass without some cool Hours of Reflection, and in these it was that he drew up his little Treatise, entitled The Christian Hero, with a Design, if we may believe himself, to be a Check upon his Passions. — For this Use and Purpose it had lain some Time by him, when he printed it in 1701, with a Dedication to Lord Cutts, who had not only appointed him his private Secretary, but procured for him a Company in Lord Lucas's Regiment of Fusileers. — The whole Plan and Tenour of our Author's Book was such a flat Contradiction to the general Course of his Life, that it became a Subject of much Mirth and Raillery: But these Shafts had no Effect; he persevered invariably in the same Contradiction, and, though he had no Power to change his Heart, yet his Pen was never prostituted to his Follies. — Under the Influence of that good Sense, he wrote his Comedy, called, The Funeral. This Play procured him the Regard of King William, who resolved to give him some essential Marks of his favour; and though, upon that Prince's Death, his Hopes ever disappointed, yet, in the Beginning of Queen Anne's Reign, he was appointed to the profitable Place of Gazetteer. — He owed this Post to the Friendship of Lord Halifax and the Earl of Sunderland, to whom he had been recommended by his School-Fellow Mr. Addison. — That Gentleman also lent him an helping Hand in promoting the Comedy, called The Tender Husband, which was acted in 1701, with great Success. — But his next Play, The Lying Lover, found a very different Fate. Upon this Rebuff from the Stage, he turned the same humorous Current into another Channel; and, early in the Year 1709, he began to publish The Tatler; which admirable Paper was undertaken in Concert with Dr. Swift. — His Reputation was perfectly established by this Work; and, during the Course of it, he was made a Commissioner of the Stamp-Duties, in 1710. — Upon the Change of the Ministry the same Year, he sided with the Duke of Marlborough, who had several Years entertained a Friendship for him; and, upon his Grace's Dismission from all Employments, in 1711, Mr. Steele addressed a Letter of Thanks to him for the Services done to his Country. — However, as our Author still continued to hold his Place in the Stamp-Office under the new Administration, he forbore entering with his Pen upon political Subjects. — But, adhering more closely to Mr. Addison, he dropt The Tatler; and afterwards, by the Assistance chiefly of that steady Friend, he carried on the same Plan, under the Title of The Spectator. The Success of this paper was equal to that of the Former, which encouraged him, before the Close of it, to proceed upon the same Design in the Character of The Guardian. This was opened in the Beginning of the year 1713, and was laid down in October the same Year. But, in the Course of it, his thoughts took a stronger Turn to Politics; he engaged with great Warmth against the Ministry, and, being determined to prosecute his Views that Way, by procuring a Seat in the House of Commons, he immediately removed all Obstacles thereto. — For that Purpose, he took Care to prevent a forcible Dismission from his Post in the Stamp-Office, by a timely Resignation of it to the Earl of Oxford; and, at the same Time, gave up a Pension, which had been, till this Time, paid him by the Queen, as a Servant to the late Prince George of Denmark. — This done, he wrote the famous Guardian, upon the Demolition of Dunkirk, which was published August 7, 1713; and the Parliament being dissolved the next Day, the Guardian was soon followed by several other warm political Tracts against the Administration. — Upon the Meeting of the new Parliament, Mr. Steele having been returned a Member for the Borough of Stockbridge, in Hampshire, took his Seat accordingly in the House of Commons, but was expelled thence in a few Days after, for writing several Seditious and scandalous Libels, as he had been indeed forewarned by the Author of a Periodical Paper, called The Examiner. — Presently after his Expulsion, he published Proposals for writing the History of the Duke of Marlborough. — At the same Time he also wrote The Spinster; and set up a Paper, called The Reader. He also continued publishing several other Things in the same Spirit, until the Death of the Queen. — Immediately after which, as a Reward for these Services, he was taken into Favour by her Successor to the Throne, K. George I. and appointed Surveyor to the Royal Stables of Hampton Court, and put into the Commission of the Peace for the County of Middlesex; and, having procured a License for chief Manager of the Royal Company of Comedians, he easily obtained it to be changed the same Year, 1714, into a Patent from His Majesty, appointing him Governor of the said Company during his Life; and to his Executors, Administrators, or Assigns, for the Space of three Years afterwards. — He was also chosen one of the Representatives for Boroughbridge, in Yorkshire, in the first Parliament of that King, who conferred the Honour of Knighthood upon him, April 28, 1715; and, in August following, he received five hundred Pounds from Sir Robert Walpole, for special Services. — Thus highly encouraged, he triumphed over his Opponents in several Pamphlets, written in this and the following Year. — In 1717 he was appointed one of the Commissioners for inquiring into the Estates forfeited by the late Rebellion in Scotland. — This carried him into that Part of the united Kingdom, where, how unwelcome a Guest soever he might be to the Generality, yet he received from several of the Nobility and Gentry the most distinguishing Marks of Respect. — In 1718 he buried his second Wife, who had brought him a handsome Fortune, and a good Estate in Wales; but neither that, nor the ample Additions lately made to his Income, were sufficient to answer his Demands. — The thoughtless Vivacity of his Spirit often reduced him to little Shifts of Wit for its Support; and the Project of The Fish Pool this Year owed its Birth chiefly to the Projector's Necessities. — The following Year he opposed the remarkable Peerage Bill in the House of Commons and, during the Course of his Opposition to the Court, his License for acting Plays was revoked, and his Patent rendered ineffectual, at the Instance of the Lord Chamberlain. — He did his Utmost to prevent so great a Loss, and, finding every direct Avenue of Approach to his Royal Master effectually barred against him by his powerful Adversary, he had Recourse to the Method of applying to the Public, in Hopes that his Complaints would reach the Ear of his Sovereign, though in an indirect Course, by that Canal. — In this Spirit he formed the Plan of a Periodical Paper, to be published twice a Week, under the title of The Theatre; the first Number of which came out on the 2d of January 1719-20. — In the mean Time, the Misfortune of being out of Favour at Court, like other Misfortunes, drew after it a train of More. — During the Course of this Paper, in which he had assumed the feigned Name of Sir John Edgar, he was outrageously attacked by Mr. Dennis, the notable Critic, in a very abusive Pamphlet, entitled The Character and Conduct of Sir John Edgar. — To this Insult our Author made a proper Reply in The Theatre.

While he was struggling, with all his Might, to save himself from Ruin, he found Time to turn his Pen against the mischievous South Sea Scheme, which had nearly brought the Nation to Ruin, in 1720. — And the next Year he was restored to his Office and Authority in the Playhouse in Drury-Lane. — Of this it was not long before he made up additional Advantage, by bringing his celebrated Comedy, called The Conscious Lovers, upon that Stage, where it was acted with prodigious Success; so that the Receipt there must have been very considerable, besides the Profits accruing by the Sale of the Copy, and a Purse of five hundred Pounds given to him by the King, to whom he dedicated it. — Yet, notwithstanding these ample Recruits, about the Year following, being reduced to the utmost extremity, he sold his Share in the Play-House, and soon after commenced a Law-suit with the Managers, which, in 1726, was determined to his disadvantage. — Having now again, for the last Time, brought his Fortune, by the most heedless Profusion, into a desperate Condition, he was rendered altogether incapable of retrieving the Loss, by being seized with a paralytic Disorder, which greatly impaired his Understanding. — In these unhappy Circumstances, he retired to his Seat at Langunnor, near Carmarthen in Wales; where he paid the last Debt to Nature, on the 21st of September 1729, and was privately interred, according to his own Desire, in the Church of Carmarthen. — Among his Papers were found the Manuscripts of two Plays; one called the Gentleman, founded upon the Eunuch of Terence; and the other entitled the School of Action, both nearly finished.

Of three Children which Sir Richard had by his second Wife, Elizabeth, being the only one then living, was married young, in 1731, to the Honourable John Trevor, then one of the Welsh Judges, afterwards Baron Trevor, of Bromham. — Sir Richard was a Man of undissembled and extensive Benevolence, a Friend to the Friendless, and, as far as his Circumstances would permit, the Father of every Orphan. — His Works are chaste and manly. — He was a Stranger to the most distant Appearance of Envy or Malevolence; never jealous of any Man's growing Reputation, and so far from arrogating any Praise to himself from his Conjunction with Mr. Addison, that he was the first who desired him to distinguish his Papers. — His greatest Error was want of Economy. However, he was certainly the most agreeable, and (if we may be allowed the Expression) the most innocent Rake, that ever trod the Rounds of Indulgence.