1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Steevens

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 28:360-66.



GEORGE STEEVENS, a celebrated commentator on the works of Shakspeare, was the only son of George Steevens, esq. of Stepney, many years an East India captain, and afterwards a director of the East India company, who died in 1768. He was born at Stepney, May 10, 1736, and was admitted of King's college, Cambridge, about 1751 or 1752. He seems to have left the university without taking a degree, although not without accumulating a considerable degree of classical knowledge, and exhibiting that general acuteness and taste which he afterwards more fully, displayed, particularly on subjects of ancient English literature. His attention, probably very early in life, was by some means attracted to the works of our great dramatic bard Shakspeare, who furnished Mr. Steevens throughout the whole of his life with constant employment. Shakspeare was the property which he thought himself bound to cultivate, improve, protect, and display to the best advantage; and it must be allowed that in illustrating this author, he stands unrivalled. His first appearance as an editor of Shakspeare was in 1766, when he was about thirty years old. At this time he published twenty of Shakspeare's plays in 4 vols. 8vo, about a year after Dr. Johnson's edition of the whole works had appeared. In this edition Mr. Steevens performed chiefly the office of a collator of these twenty plays with the quarto and subsequent editions; but about the same time he published, in the newspapers, and probably otherwise, a circular address, announcing his intention of an edition of all the plays with notes and illustrations. In this address, which we believe is not now generally known, he requests assistance from the public, which he says "is not desired with a lucrative view to the editor, but to engage the attention of the literary world. He will no more trust to his own single judgment in the choice of the notes he shall admit or reject, than he would undertake the work in confidence of his own abilities. These shall in their turn be subjected to other eyes and other opinions; and he has reason to hope, from such precautions, that he shall bid fairer for success than from any single reliance. He is happy to have permission to enumerate Mr. Garrick among those who will take such a trouble on themselves; and is no less desirous to see him attempt to transmit some part of that knowledge of Shakspeare to posterity, without which, he can be his best commentator no longer than he lives."

He then proceeds to assure those who may think proper to assist him, that their contributions shall appear with or without their names, as they shall direct; and that he will gladly pay those whose situation in life will not admit of their making presents of their labours, in such proportion as Mr. Tonson (his bookseller) shall think to be adequate to their merits. What follows is the language of a man who knew not himself, or who concealed his real character and intent, and who was at no very distant period to prove himself, unquestionably a most acute, yet at the same time a most arrogant, supercilious, and malignant critic on his fellow-labourers.

"The characters of living or dead commentators," says Mr. Steevens in his present real or assumed humility, "shall not be wantonly traduced, and no greater freedom of language be made use of, than is necessary to convince, without any attempts to render those ridiculous, whose assertions may seem to demand a confutation. An error in a quotation, or accidental misrepresentation of a fact, shall not be treated with the severity due to a moral, crime, nor as the breach of any other laws than those of literature, lest the reputation of the critic should be obtained at the expence of humanity, justice, and good manners and by multiplying notes on notes we should be reduced at last, 'to fight for a spot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause.' The ostentation of bringing in the commentaries of others, merely to declare their futility, shall be avoided; and none be introduced here, but such as tend to the illustration of the author." — He concludes with signing his name, and requesting that letters may be addressed to him at Mr. Tonson's, About the same time he opened a kind of correspondence in the St. James's Chronicle, then the principal literary newspaper, the object of which was to obtain hints and remarks on any passages of Shakspeare which individuals might, think themselves able to illustrate.

What returns were made to these applications, we know not, but it appears that he became acquainted about this time with Dr. Johnson, and in 1770 they were both employed in that edition of the whole of Shakspeare's plays which was first called "Johnson and Steevens's edition," and which was published in 1773, 10 vols. 8vo. In 1778 it was again reprinted, with the same names, but entirely under the care and with the improvements of Mr. Steevens; and again in 1785, when he availed himself of the assistance of Mr. Isaac Reed, although merely as superintendant of the press. It was a work of which Mr. Steevens would never surrender the entire care to any one, and his jealousy, as an editor of Shakspeare, was the cause of those many splenetic effusions for which he has been so justly blamed, and his character disgraced. This kind of hostility, in which Mr. Steevens unfortunately delighted, was not confined to the commentators on Shakspeare. He had from the earliest period that can be remembered a disposition to display his talents for ridicule at the expence of those who were, or whom he thought, inferior to himself. He was never more gratified than when he could irritate their feelings by anonymous attacks in the public journals, which he would, in their presence, affect to lament with all the ardour of friendship. Nor was he content to amuse himself with the sufferings of those who were candidates for literary fame, a species of inhumanity in which he had some contemporaries, and has had many successors, but would even intrude into the privacies of domestic life, and has been often, we fear too justly, accused of disturbing the happiness of families, by secret written insinuations, the consequences of which he could not always know, and must therefore have enjoyed only in imagination. But as such artifices long practised could not escape detection, his character for mischievous duplicity became known, and not long after the publication of the second edition of his Shakspeare, in conjunction with Dr. Johnson, he lived, in the language of that great man, "the life of an outlaw." He was scarcely respected even by those who tasted his bounty (for he could at times be bountiful), and was dreaded as a man of great talents and great powers both of pen and tongue, with whom nevertheless it was more dangerous to live in friendship than in hostility.

Previous to the publication of the edition of 1778, he had become acquainted with Mr. Malone, a gentleman who had either formed for himself, or had adopted from Mr. Steevens that system of criticism and illustration by which alone the text of Shakspeare could be improved, and Mr. Steevens very soon discovered that Mr. Malone might be a very useful coadjutor. A friendship took place which appeared so sincere on the part of Mr. Steevens, that having formed a design of quitting the office of editor, he most liberally made a present to Mr. Malone of his valuable collection of old plays; and probably this friendly intercourse might have continued, if Mr. Malone could have been content to be the future editor of "Johnson and Steevens's Shakspeare," and to have contributed his aid as the junior partner in the firm. But unfortunately for their friendship, Mr. Malone thought himself qualified to become ostensible editor, and his first offence seems to have been the publication, in 1780, of two supplementary volumes to the edition of 1778; and having entered on the same course of reading our ancient English authors, which Mr. Steevens had pursued with so much benefit in the illustration of Shakspeare, he determined to appear before the public as an editor in form. To this design Steevens alludes with characteristic humour, in a letter to Mr. Warton, dated April 16, 1783: "Whatever the vegetable spring may produce, the critical one will be prolific enough. No less than six editions of Shakspeare (including Capell's notes, with Collins's prolegomena) are now in the mash-tub. I have thrown up my licence. Reed is to occupy the old red lattice, and Malone intends to froth and lime at a little snug booth of his own construction. Ritson will advertise sour ale against his wild." In this notice of Mr. Malone there is nothing very offensive; but the final breach between them was occasioned by a request on the part of Mr. Steevens which cannot easily be justified. To the edition of Shakspeare, published in 1785, Mr. Malone had contributed some notes in which Mr. Steevens's opinions were occasionally controverted. These Mr. Steevens now desired he would retain in his new edition, exactly as they stood before, that he might answer them; and Mr. Malone refusing what was so unreasonable (see MALONE), the other declared that all communication on the subject of Shakspeare was at an end between them. Malone's edition appeared in 1790, and Mr. Steevens's being reprinted in 1793, 15 vols. 8vo, he at once availed himself of Mr. Malone's labours, and took every opportunity to treat his opinions with most sarcastic contempt. This edition of 1793, however, has always been reckoned the most complete extant, and although it has been twice reprinted, with some additions which Mr. Steevens bequeathed to Mr. Reed, the demand for the 1793 is still eager with the collectors, partly, we presume, on account of its being the last which Mr. Steevens superintended; partly on account of the accuracy of the printing, in which he had the assistance of Mr. Reed and Mr. Harris, librarian of the Royal Institution; and partly because the additions to the subsequent one are not thought of sufficient value to induce the possessors to part with a monument to Mr. Steevens's merit erected by his own hands.

In preparing this edition, it is said "he gave an instance of editorial activity and perseverance which is without example. To this work he devoted solely, and exclusively of all other attentions, a period of eighteen months; and during that time, he left his house every morning at one o'clock with the Hampstead patrole, and proceeding without any consideration of the weather or the season, called tip the compositor and woke all his devils:

Him late from Hampstead journeying to his book
Aurora oft for Cephalus mistook:
What time he brush'd the dews with hasty pace,
To meet the printer's dev'let face to face.

"At the chambers of Mr. Reed, where he was allowed to admit himself, with a sheet of the Shakspeare letter-press ready for correction, and found a room prepared to receive him, there was every book which he might wish to consult: and on Mr. Reed's pillow he could apply, on any doubt or sudden suggestion, to a knowledge of English literature, perhaps equal to his own. This nocturnal toil greatly accelerated the printing of the work, as, while the printers slept, the editor was awake; and thus, in less than twenty months, he completed his edition."

The latter years of his life he passed chiefly at his house at Hampstead, neither visited nor visiting. That cynic temper which he had so much indulged all his life at the expence of others, became his own tormentor in his last days; and be died without the consolations of religion or the comforts of friendship, Jan. 22, 1800. He was buried in the chapel at Poplar, where, in the north aile there is a monument to his memory by Flaxman, and some encomiastic verses by Mr. Hayley, the truth of which may be questioned. Let us hear, however, what has been advanced in his favour:

"Though Mr. Steevens," says an eulogist, "is known rather as a commentator, than as an original writer, yet, when the works which he illustrated, the learning, sagacity, taste, and general knowledge which he brought to the task, and the success which crowned his labours, are considered, it would be an act of injustice to refuse him a place among the first literary characters of the age. Mr. Steevens possessed that knowledge which qualified him, in a superior degree, for the illustration of Shakspeare; and without which the utmost critical acumen would have proved abortive. He had, in short, studied the age of Shakspeare, and bad employed his persevering industry in becoming acquainted with the writings, manners, and laws of that period, as well as the provincial, peculiarities, whether of language or custom, which prevailed in different parts of the kingdom, but more particularly in those where Shakspeare passed the early years of his life. This store of knowledge he was continually encreasing, by the acquisition of the rare and obsolete publications of a former age, which he spared no expence to obtain; while his critical sagacity and acute observation were employed incessantly in calling forth the hidden meanings of the great dramatic bard, from their covert; and consequently enlarging the display of his beauties.

"Mr. Steevens was a classical scholar of the first order. He was equally acquainted with the belles lettres of Europe. He had studied history, ancient and modern, but particularly that of his own country. He possessed a strong original genius, and an abundant wit; his imagination was of every colour, and his sentiments were enlivened with the most brilliant expressions. His colloquial powers surpassed those of other men. In argument he was uncommonly eloquent; and his eloquence was equally logical and animated. His descriptions were so true to nature, his figures were so finely sketched, of such curious selection and so happily grouped, that he might be considered as a speaking Hogarth. He would frequently, in his sportive and almost boyish humours, condescend to a degree of ribaldry but little above O'Keefe — with him, however, it lost all its coarseness, and assumed the air of classical vivacity. He was indeed too apt to catch the ridiculous, both in characters and things, and indulge an indiscreet animation wherever he found it. He scattered his wit and his humour, his gibes and his jeers, too freely around him, and they were not lost for want of gathering. Mr. Steevens possessed a very handsome fortune, which he managed with discretion, and was enabled by it to gratify his wishes, which he did without any regard to expence, in forming his distinguished collections of classical learning, literary antiquity, and the arts connected with it. His generosity also was equal to his fortune; and though he was not seen to give eleemosynary sixpences to sturdy beggars or sweepers of the crossings, few persons distributed bank-notes with more liberality; and some of his acts of pecuniary kindness might be named, which could only proceed from a mind adorned with the noblest sentiments of humanity. He possessed all the grace of exterior accomplishment, acquired at a period when civility and politeness were characteristics of a gentleman."

Some other particulars of Mr. Steevens's character, and respecting the sale of his library, &c. may be seen in our authorities.