1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Richard Steele

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:602-06.



The credit of commencing this branch of literature [essayists] is due to SIR RICHARD STEELE, a gentleman of English parentage, born in Ireland while his father acted as secretary to the Duke of Ormond, Lord-Lieutenant of that kingdom. Through the dukes influence, Steele was placed at the Charter-house school in London, where a warm and long-continued friendship between him and Addison took its rise. He thence removed, in 1692, to Merton college, Oxford; but after spending several years in desultory study, became so enamoured of the military profession, that, in spite of the dissuasion of his friends, and his failure to procure an appointment, he enlisted as a private soldier in the horse-guards. In this step, by which the succession to a relation's estate in Wexford was lost, he gave a striking manifestation of that recklessness which unfortunately distinguished him through life. In the army, his wit, vivacity, and good humour, speedily rendered him such a favourite, that the officers of his regiment, desirous to have him among themselves, procured for him the rank of an ensign. Thus situated, he plunged deeply into the fashionable follies and vices of the age, enlarging, however, by such conduct, that knowledge of life and character which proved so useful to him h the composition of his works. During this course of dissipation, being sometimes visited by qualms of conscience, he drew up, for the purpose of self-admonition, a small treatise entitled "The Christian Hero," and afterwards published it as a still more powerful check upon his irregular passions. Yet it does not appear that even the attention thus drawn to his conduct, and the ridicule excited by the contrast between his principles and practice, led to any perceptible improvement. In order to enliven his character, and so diminish the occasion of mirth to his comrades, he produced, in 1701, a comedy entitled "The Funeral, or Grief-a-la-mode," in which, with much humour, there is combined a moral tendency superior to that of most of the dramatic pieces of the time. Steele, though personally too much a rake, made it a principle to employ his literary talents only in the service of virtue. In 1703, he sent forth another successful comedy, called "The Tender Husband, or The Accomplished Fools;" and in the year following was represented his third, entitled "The Lying Lover," the strain of which proved too serious for the public taste. The ill success which it experienced deterred him from again appearing as a dramatist till 1722, when his admirable comedy, "The Conscious Lovers," was brought out with unbounded applause. "The great, the appropriate praise of Steele," says Dr Drake, "is to have been the first who, after the licentious age of Charles II., endeavoured to introduce the Virtues on the stage. He clothed them with the brilliancy of genius; he placed them in situations the most interesting to the human heart; and he taught his audience not to laugh at, but to execrate vice, to despise the lewd fool and the witty rake, to applaud the efforts of the good, and to rejoice in the punishment of the wicked."

After the failure of "The Lying Lover," which, he says, "was damned for its piety," Steele conceived the idea of attacking the vices and foibles of the age through the medium of a lively periodical paper. Accordingly, on the 12th of April 1709, he commenced the publication of the "Tatler," a small sheet designed to appear three times a-week, "to expose," as the author stated, "the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation, and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behaviour." Steele, who had then reached his thirty-eighth year, was qualified for his task by a knowledge of the world, acquired in free converse with it, and by a large fund of natural humour; his sketches, anecdotes, and remarks, are accordingly very entertaining. To conciliate the ordinary readers of news, a part of each paper was devoted to public and political intelligence; and the price of each number was one penny. At first, the author endeavoured to conceal himself under the fictitious name of Isaac Bickerstaff, which he borrowed from a pamphlet by Swift; but his real name soon became known, and his friend Addison then began to assist him with a few papers upon more serious subjects than he himself was able or inclined to discuss, and also with various articles of a humorous character. When the work had extended to the 271st number, which was published on the 2d of January 1711, the editor was induced, by a consideration of the inconvenience of writing such a work without personal concealment, to give it up, and to commence a publication nearly similar in plan, and in which he might assume a new disguise. This was the more celebrated Spectator, of which the first number appeared on the 1st of March 1711. The "Spectator" was published daily, and each number was invariably a complete essay, without any admixture of politics. Steele and Addison were conjunct in this work from its commencement, and they obtained considerable assistance from a few other writers, of whom the chief were Thomas Tickell, and a gentleman named Budgell. The greater part of the light and humorous sketches are by Steele; while Addison contributed most of the articles in which there is any grave reflection or elevated feeling. In the course of the work, several fictitious persons were introduced as friends of the supposed editor, partly far amusement, and partly for the purpose of quoting them on occasions where their opinions might be supposed appropriate. Thus, a country gentleman was described under the name of Sir Roger de Coverley, to whom reference was made when matters connected with rural affairs were in question. A Captain Sentry stood up for the army; Will Honeycomb gave law on all things concerning the gay world; and Sir Andrew Freeport represented the commercial interest. Of these characters, Sir Roger was by far the most happily delineated: it is understood that he was entirely a being of Addison's imagination; and certainly, in the whole round of English fiction, there is no character delineated with more masterly strokes of humour and tenderness. The "Spectator," which extended to six hundred and thirty-five numbers, or eight volumes, is not only much superior to the "Tatler," but stands at the head of all the works of the same kind that have since been produced; and, as a miscellany of polite literature, is not surpassed by any book whatever. All that regards the smaller morals and decencies of life, elegance or justness of taste, and the improvement of domestic society, is touched upon in this paper with the happiest combination of seriousness and ridicule: it is also entitled to the praise of having corrected the existing style of writing and speaking on common topics, which was much vitiated by slang phraseology and profane swearing. The "Spectator" appeared every morning in the shape of a single leaf, and was received at the breakfast tables of most persons of taste then living in the metropolis, and had a large sale.

During the year 1713, while this publication of the "Spectator" was temporarily suspended, Steele, with the same assistance, published the "Guardian," which was also issued daily, and extended to a hundred end seventy-five numbers, or two volumes. It ranks in merit between the "Spectator" and "Tatler," and is enriched by contributions of Pope, Berkeley, and Budgell. Addison's papers occur almost exclusively in the second volume, where they are more numerous than those of Steele himself. Of two hundred and seventy-one papers of which the "Tatler" is composed, Steele wrote one hundred and eighty-eight, Addison forty-two, and both conjointly thirty-six. Of six hundred and thirty-five "Spectators," Addison wrote two hundred and seventy-four, and Steele two hundred and forty. And of one hundred and seventy-six "Guardians," Steele wrote eighty-two, and Addison fifty-three.

The beneficial influence of these publications on the morality, piety, manners, and intelligence of the British people, has been extensive and permanent. When the "Tatler" first appeared, the ignorance and immorality of the great mass of society in England were gross and disgusting. By the generality of fashionable persons of both sexes, literary and scientific attainments were despised as pedantic and vulgar. "That general knowledge which now circulates in common talk, was then rarely to be found. Men not professing learning were not ashamed of ignorance; and in the female world, any acquaintance with books was distinguished only to be censured." Politics formed almost the sole topic of conversation among the gentlemen, end scandal among the ladies swearing and indecency were fashionable vices gaming and drunkenness abounded; and the practice of duelling was carried to a most irrational excess. In the theatre, as well as in society, the corruption of Charles II.'s reign continued to prevail; and men of the highest rank were the habitual encouragers of the coarse amusements of bull-baiting, bear-baiting, and prizefighting. To the amelioration , of this wretched state of public taste and manners did Steele and Addison apply themselves with equal zeal and success, operating by the means thus stated in the Spectator: — "I shall endeavour to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality, that my readers may, if possible, both ways find their account in the speculation of the day. And to the end that their virtue and discretion may not be short, transient, intermittent starts of thought, I have resolved to refresh their memories from day to day, till I have recovered them out of that desperate state of vice and folly into which the age is fallen. The mind that lies fallow but a single day, sprouts up in follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture. It was said of Socrates, that he brought philosophy down from heaven to inhabit among men; I shall be ambitions to have it said of me, that I have brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffeehouses."

Of the excellent effects produced by the essays of Steele and Addison, we possess the evidence not only of the improved state of society and literature which has since prevailed, but likewise of writers contemporary with the authors themselves. All speak of a decided and marked improvement in society and manners.

"The acquisition," says Dr Drake, "of a popular relish for elegant literature, may be dated, indeed, from the period of the publication of the 'Tatler;' to the progress of this new-formed desire, the 'Spectator' and 'Guardian' gave fresh acceleration; nor has the impulse which was thus received for a moment ceased to spread and propagate its influence through every rank of British society. To these papers, in the department of polite letters, we may ascribe the following great and never-to-be-forgotten obligations. They, it may be affirmed, first pointed out, in a popular way, and with insinuating address, the best authors of classical antiquity and of modern times, and infused into the public mind an enthusiasm for their beauties; they, calling to their aid the colouring of humour and imagination, effectually detected the sources of bad writing, and exposed to never-dying ridicule the puerilities and meretricious decorations of false wit and bloated composition; they first rendered criticism familiar and pleasing to the general taste, and excited that curiosity, that acuteness and precision, which have since enabled so many classes of readers to enjoy, and to appreciate with judgment, the various productions of genius and learning.

"To the essays of Addison, in particular, are we likewise indebted for the formation of a style beyond all former precedent pure, fascinating, and correct, that may be said to have effected a revolution in our language and literature, and which, notwithstanding all the refinements of modern criticism, is still entitled to the praise of a just and legitimate model.

"In the 'Spectator,' moreover, was the public first presented with a specimen of acute analysis in the papers on the sources and pleasures of the imagination; they form a disquisition which, while it instructed and delighted the unlearned reader, led the way, though the arrogance of the literati of the present day may disclaim the debt, to what has been termed by modern ostentation philosophical criticism.

"To the circulation of these volumes also may be ascribed the commencement of a just taste in the fields of fancy and picturesque beauty. The critique on Milton, the inimitable ridicule on the Gothic style of gardening, and the vivid descriptions of rural elegance, the creations either of nature or of art, which are dispersed through the pages of the 'Tatler,' 'Spectator, and 'Guardian,' soon disseminated more correct ideas of simplicity in the formation of landscape, and more attractive views of sublimity and beauty in the loftier regions of true poetry.

"In fact, from the perusal of these essays, that large body of the people included in the middle class of society first derived their capability of judging of the merits and the graces of a refined writer; and the nation at large gradually, from this epoch, became entitled to the distinguished appellations of literary and critical. The readers of the "Spectator" had been thoroughly imbued with the fine enthusiasm for literature which characterised the genius of Addison; they had felt and admired the delicacy, the amenity, and the purity of his composition, and were soon able to balance and adjust by comparison the pretensions of succeeding candidates for fame. * *

"If in taste and literature such numerous benefits were conferred upon the people through the medium of these papers, of still greater importance were the services which they derived from them in the department of manners and morals. Both public and private virtue and decorum, indeed, received a firmer tone and finer polish from their precepts and examples; the acrimony and malevolence that had hitherto attended the discussion of political opinion were in a short time greatly mitigated; and the talents which had been almost exclusively occupied by controversy, were diverted into channels where elegance and learning mutually assisted in refining and purifying the passions."

The success and utility of the "Tatler," "Spectator," and "Guardian," led to the appearance, throughout the eighteenth century, of many works similar in form and purpose; but of these, with the exception of the Rambler, Adventurer, Idler, World, Connoisseur, Mirror, and Lounger, none can be said to have obtained a place in the standard literature of our country. Of the productions just named, an account will be given when we come to speak of the authors principally concerned in them; and with respect to the others, it is sufficient to remark, that so slender is their general merit, that from forty-one of the best among them, Dr. Drake has been able to compile only four volumes of papers above mediocrity.

Notwithstanding the high excellence which must be attributed to the "British Essayists," as this class of writings is usually called, it cannot be concealed, that since the beginning of the present century, their popularity has undergone a considerable decline. This, we think, may easily be accounted for. All that relates in them to temporary fashions and absurdities, is now, for the most part, out of date; while many of the vices and rudenesses which they attack, have either been expelled from good society by their own influence, or are now fallen into such general discredit, that any formal exposure of them appears tedious and unnecessary. Add to this, that innumerable popular works of distinguished excellence, on the same class of subjects, have appeared in later times, so that the essayists are no longer in undisputed possession of the field which they originally and so honourably occupied. Since the age of Queen Anne, moreover, there has come into request a more vigorous, straightforward, and exciting style of writing than that of Steele, or even of Addison, so that the public taste now demands to be stimulated by something more lively and piquant than what seemed to our grandmothers the ne plus ultra of agreeable writing. Yet, after making every abatement, it is certain that there are in these collections so many admirably written essays on subjects of abiding interest and importance — on characters, virtues, vices, and manners, which will chequer society while the human race endures — that a judicious selection can never fail to present indescribable charms to the man of taste, piety, philanthropy, and refinement. In particular, the humorous productions of Addison, which to this day have never been surpassed, will probably maintain a popularity coexistent with our language itself.

But to return to the biography of Sir Richard Steele. While conducting the "Tatler," and for some years previously to its commencement, he occupied the post of Gazette writer under the Whig ministry; and for the support which he gave them in the political department of that work, he was rewarded in 1710 with an appointment as one of the commissioners of the Stamp-office. When the Tories the same year came into power, an attempt was made to win over his services, by allowing him to retain office, and holding out hopes of farther preferment; but Steele, true to his principles, preserved silence on politics for several years, till at length, in the "Guardian" of 28th April 1713, he entered into a controversy with a famous Tory paper called the "Examiner," in which Dr. Swift at that time wrote with great force and virulence. In this step, the patriotism of Steele prevailed over his interest, for he shortly afterwards, in a manly letter to Lord Oxford, resigned the emoluments which he derived from government. Thus freed from trammels, he entered with the utmost alacrity into political warfare, to which he was excited by the danger that seemed, towards the close of Queen Anne's reign, to threaten the Protestant succession. Not content with wielding the pen, he procured a seat in parliament; from which, however, he was speedily expelled, in consequence of the freedom with which he commented on public affairs in one of his pamphlets. For these efforts against the Tory party, he was, on the accession of George I., rewarded with the post of surveyor to the royal stables at Hampton court, he obtained once more a seat in parliament., was knighted by the king, and in 1717 visited Edinburgh as one of the commissioners of forfeited estates. While in the northern metropolis, he made a hopeless attempt to bring about a union of the English and Scotch churches; and also furnished a proof of his humorous disposition, by giving a splendid entertainment to a multitude of beggars and decayed tradesmen, collected from the streets. Two years afterwards, he offended the ministry by strenuously opposing a bill which aimed at fixing permanently the number of peers, and prohibiting the king from creating any, except for the purpose of replacing extinct families. By this proceeding he not only lost a profitable theatrical patent which he had enjoyed for some years, but became embroiled in a quarrel with his old friend Addison, which arose during a war of pamphlets, in which Addison took the side of the ministry. That eminent person forgot his dignity so far as to speak of Steele as Little Dicky, whose trade it was to write pamphlets; and it is highly creditable to Steele, that notwithstanding so gross an insult, he retained both the feeling and the language of respect for his antagonist, and was content with administering a mild reproof through the medium of a quotation from the tragedy of Cato. "Every reader," says Dr. Johnson 'surely must regret that those two illustrious friends, after so many years passed, in confidence and endearment, in unity of interest, conformity of opinion, and fellowship of study, should finally part in acrimonious opposition. Such a controversy was 'bellum plusquam civile,' as Lucan expresses it. Why could not faction find other advocates? But among the uncertainties of the human state, we are doomed to number the instabilities of friendship." During his long intercourse with Addison, Steele, though completely eclipsed by his friend, never evinced towards him the slightest symptom of envy or jealousy, but, on the contrary, seems to have looked up to him with uniform admiration and respect.

Though Steele realised considerable sums by his writings, as well as by his places under government, and the theatrical patent, and farther increased his resources by marrying a lady of fortune in South Wales, he was always at a loss for money, which, it may be said, he could neither want nor keep. With many amiable features of character — such as good. nature, vivacity, candour, urbanity, and affection — and with a high admiration of virtue in the abstract, his conduct, as we have seen, was frequently inconsistent with this rules of propriety — a circumstance which is attributed in part to his pecuniary embarrassments. Being once reproached by Whiston, a strange but disinterested enthusiast in religion, for giving a vote in parliament contrary to his former professed opinions, he replied, "Mr. Whiston, you can walk on foot, but I cannot;" a sentiment which, if serious, certainly lays him open to the severest censure. But on various trying occasions, his political virtue stood firm; and it is only justice to mention, that when his affairs became involved shortly before his death, he retired into Wales solely for the purpose of doing justice to his creditors, at a time when he had the fairest prospect of satisfying their claims to the uttermost farthing. He died at Llangunnor, near Caermarthen, in 1729. By the publication of his private correspondence in 1787, from the originals in the British Museum, his character has been exhibited in a very amiable light; and it would be difficult to point out any productions more imbued with tender feeling than the letters written to his wife, both before and after marriage.

In manner as well as matter, the writings of Steele are inferior to those of Addison. He aimed only at giving his papers "an air of common speech;" and though improved by the example of Addison, his style never attained to accuracy or grace. Vivacity and ease are the highest qualities of his composition. He had however, great fertility of invention, both as respects incident and character. His personages are drawn with dramatic spirit, and with a liveliness and airy facility, that blinds the reader to his defects. The Spectator Club, with its fine portraits of Sir Roger de Coverley, Sir Andrew Freeport, Will Honeycomb, &c., will ever remain a monument of the felicity of his fancy, and his power of seizing upon the shades and peculiarities of character, if Addison heightened the humour and interest of the different scenes, to Steele belongs the merit of the original design, and the first conception of the actors.

We have already spoken of the prose style of Addison, and Dr Johnson's eulogium on it has almost passed into a proverb in the history of our literature, "Whoever wishes," says the critic and moralist, "to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison." There he will find a rich but chaste vein of humour and satire — lessons of morality and religion divested of all austerity and gloom — criticism at once pleasing and profound — and pictures of national character and manners that must ever charm from their vivacity and truth. The mind of Addison was so happily constituted, that all its faculties appear to have been in healthy vigour and due proportion, and to have been under this control of correct taste and principles. Greater energy of character, or a more determined hatred of vice and tyranny, would have curtailed his usefulness as a public censor. He led the nation gently and insensibly to a love of virtue and constitutional freedom, to a purer taste in morals and literature, and to the importance of those everlasting truths which so warmly engaged his heart and imagination. Besides his inimitable essays, Addison wrote "Remarks on Several Parts of Italy in the years 1701, 1702, 1703," in which he has considered the passages of the ancient poets that have any relation to the places and curiosities he saw. The style of this early work is remarkable for its order and simplicity, but seldom rises into eloquence. He published also "Dialogues on the Usefulness of Ancient Medals, especially in relation to the Latin and Greek Poets," a treatise uniting patient research and originality of thought and conception. Pope addressed some beautiful lines to Addison on these Dialogues, in which he has complimented him with his usual felicity and grace:—

Touched by thy hand, again Rome's glories shine;
Her gods and godlike heroes rise to view,
And all her faded garlands bloom anew.
Nor blush these studies thy regard engage:
These pleased the fathers of poetic rage;
The verse and sculpture bore an equal part,
And art reflected images to art.

The learning of Addison is otherwise displayed in his unfinished treatise on the "Evidences of The Christian Religion," in which he reviews the heathen philosophers and historians who advert to the spread of Christianity, and also touches on a part of the subject now more fully illustrated — the fulfilment of the Scripture prophecies. The "Whig Examiners" of Addison are clever, witty, party productions. He ridicules his opponents without bitterness or malice, yet with a success that far outstripped competition. When we consider that this great ornament of our literature died at the age of forty-seven, and that the greater part of his manhood was spent in the discharge of important official duties, we are equally surprised at this extant of his learning and the variety and versatility of his genius.