To enter, at any length, into the events of the busy life of this celebrated nobleman would, in this place, be totally superfluous. We must, therefore, rest satisfied with a few dates, and with a few observations on his principal productions.
He was born in the year 1694, and, having finished his education in Trinity-hall, Cambridge, he entered upon his travels through the continent. On his return, he commenced his political career as a member of the House of Commons. Succeeding, however, on the death of his father in 1726, to his title and estates, he soon insinuated himself into the particular favour of George the Second, by whom he was made high steward of the household and a knight of the garter. He was advanced to the Lieutenancy of Ireland in 1745, an office which he held for about three years; and, after a life of much celebrity and activity, he expired in the year 1773.
"In public stations," remarks a periodical critic, "Lord Chesterfield's conduct ever met with deserved plaudits; in private life, his brilliant wit, his exquisite humour, and his invariable politeness rendered him the constant delight of his friends; — and in the tender domestic relations, he was not only irreproachable but exemplary. In fine, a more amiable man scarce ever graced a court, or adorned the peaceful scenes of retirement."
How much is it to be regretted, that in enumerating the literary labours of Lord Chesterfield, one should be found which throws upon a character like this a stain not only deep but indelible!
The works of Lord Chesterfield may be classed as Poems, Letters, Political Papers, and Periodical Essays. Of these, the first are merely temporary effusions, the trifles of elegant leisure; the Letters form the bulk of our author's works, and are addressed to his natural son, and to his numerous friends; they exhibit much literary merit, and many acute observations on human life and manners; but, singular as it may appear, the tendency of those written to his son, is, but too evidently, to inculcate a system of duplicity and vice! The Political Papers, consisting of speeches, letters, pamphlets, characters, &c. though reflecting much credit on his Lordship's sagacity and eloquence, we shall, for obvious reasons, pass over, and hasten to notice what, in our opinion, are the most valuable productions of his pen, the Periodical Essays.
Lord Chesterfield first appeared as an Essayist in Fog's, originally called Mist's Journal, to which he contributed three papers. During the subsequent year (1737) he wrote seventeen essays of considerable merit, on subjects connected with manners and taste, for the paper entitled Common Sense, and in the year 1743 he composed the first and third numbers of Old England, or the Constitutional Journal.
It is in the World, however, that he appears to most advantage as a periodical essayist. From his intimacy at this period with the follies and fashions of high life; from his propriety of taste, poignancy of wit, and elegant facility of composition, he was admirably calculated for the office which he undertook; and his papers in the World are, therefore, among the very best of the collection; superior to those which Moore has written, and inferior to none that his coadjutors have produced. Of the rapidity with which his ideas flowed, and of his skill in immediately clothing them in appropriate language, Mr. Maty has recorded a singular instance. In a conversation with General Irwine, at Bath, on one of the latest published Worlds, his Lordship was requested by the General, as one best qualified for the subject; to devote his next essay in the World to the discrimination of civility and good-breeding. This Lord Chesterfield at first begged leave to decline; but being earnestly pressed to yield, he, at length, complied, and, borrowing the General's ink and paper, immediately produced, without blotting a line, No. 148, which, from the circumstances attending the composition, was usually distinguished by the title of General Irwine's paper.
The consequences which resulted from two of his Lordship's essays, Nos. 100 and 101, we have already related in the Life of Johnson. That, independent of the peculiar purpose which they were meant to answer, they possess considerable merit, cannot be denied; the first is elegantly complimentary, and the second abounds with humour. After years of continued neglect, however, on the part of Lord Chesterfield, Johnson had some reason to be offended at the period chosen for their production.
The important share which Lord Chesterfield took in the World had nearly been lost, from the delay that attended the introduction of the first paper which he sent to the publisher; it had been hastily perused, and laid by on account of its length; and had not Lord Lyttelton, by accidentally seeing it at Dodsley's, recognised the handwriting, and informed Moore whence it originated, no Second contribution from this nobleman, to the great injury of the editor and his work, would have followed.
To the sparkling wit and delicate humour which many of the essays of his Lordship so copiously display, great praise is assuredly due; especially as, contrary to the tenor of some of his former writings, their tendency is unexceptionably pure. No. 189, on Decorum, and No. 196, on Passion, are, both in point of style and matter, truly valuable; and, as specimens of broader humour, Nos. 90 and 91, descriptive of a Drinking Club and its Members, will not easily be surpassed: the immediately subsequent number also, may be pointed out as a just and happy moralization of the preceding scenes.