1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Steevens

Etoniensis, in Gentleman's Magazine 70 (February 1800) 178-80.



If, as Dr. Johnson has observed, the chief glory of every people arises from its authors; from those who have extended the boundaries of learning, and advanced the interests of science; it may be considered as an act of public duty, as well as of private friendship to attend, with the regret of the patriot as well as the sensibility of the friend, the closing scene of those men, whose superior genius has improved, extended, or adorned, the literature of their country. Mr. Geo. Steevens may be said to have possessed a pre-eminent claim to this character; and, though he is known rather as a commentator than as an original writer, yet, when we consider 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, it would not only be an act of injustice, but a most glaring proof of obstinacy and ignorance, to refuse him a place among the first literary characters of the age in which we live. The early editors of Shakspeare looked to little more than verbal accuracy; and even Warburton consigned the sagacity of his mighty mind to the restoring certain readings, and explaining dubious passages. Johnson, who possessed more of the knowledge necessary to an editor of Shakspeare than those who had preceded him in that character, was found wanting; and his first edition of Shakspeare's Plays, which had been expected with much impatience, brought disappointment along with it. In a subsequent edition, he accepted the assistance of Mr. Steevens; and consented that the name of that gentleman should be in editorial conjunction with his own. Mr. Steevens possessed that knowledge which qualified him in a superior degree for the illustration of our divine Poet, and without which the utmost critical acumen would abortive. He had, in short, studied the age of Shakspeare, and had 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 increasing 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 our great dramatic Bard from their covert, and, consequently, enlarging the display of his beauties. This advantage is evident from his last edition of Shakspeare, which contains so large a portion of new, interesting, and accumulated illustration.

It is to his own indefatigable industry, and the exertions of his printer, that we are indebted for the most perfect edition of our immortal Bard that ever came from the English press. In the preparation of it for the printer, 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 18 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 up 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. The nocturnal toil greatly accelerated the printing of the work as, while the printers slept, the editor was awake: and thus, in less than 20 months, he completed his last splendid edition of Shakspeare, in 15 large 8vo volumes; an almost incredible labour, which proved the astonishing energy and persevering powers of his mind. That he contented himself with being a commentator, arose probably from the habits of his life, and his devotion to the name with which his own will descend to the latest posterity. It is probable that may of his jeux-d'esprit might be collected; but I am not acquainted with any single production of his pen but a poem of a few stanzas in Dodsley's Annual Register, under the title of "The Frantic Lover;" which is superior to any similar production in the English language. Mr. Steevens was a classical scholar of the first order. He was equally acquainted with the Belles Lettres of Europe. He had studied History, antient and modern, but particularly that of his own country. How far his knowledge of the sciences extended, I cannot tell, whether it was merely elementary or profound; but when any application was made to them in conversation, he always spoke of, and drew his comparisons from, them with the easy familiarity of intimate acquaintance. 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. With these qualities, I need not add that 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 I have sometimes considered him as a speaking Hogarth. He would frequently, in his sportive and almost boyish humours, condescend to a degree of ribaldry but little above O'Keeffe: 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 character and things, and to indulge rather an indiscreet animation wherever he found it. It must be acknowledged, that 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. This disposition made him many enemies, and attached an opinion of malignity to his character which it did not in reality possess. But there are many who would rather receive a serious injury than be the object of a joke, or at least of such jokes as were uttered by Steevens, which were remembered by all who heard them, and repeated by all who remembered them. A characteristic "bon mot" is a kind of oral caricature, copies of which are multiplied by every tongue which utters it; and it is much less injurious or mortifying to be the object of a satirical work, which is seldom read but once, and is often thought of no more, than to he hitched into a sarcastic couplet, or condensed into a stinging epithet, which will be equally treasured up by good-humour or ill-nature, for the different purposes of mirth or resentment. Mr. Steevens loved what is called fun; a disposition which has, I fear, a tendency to mischief. It is a hobby horse, which, while it curvets and prances merely to frighten a timorous rider, will sometimes unintentionally throw him in the dirt. Some open charges of a malignant disposition have been made against him; and, in the Preface to the works of a distinguished literary character, he is accused, while in the habits of intimate friendship and daily intercourse ,with that gentleman of writing calumniating paragraphs in the newspapers against him. But these paragraphs Mr. Steevens did not write; and the late Mr. Seward assured me, that Mr. Bicknell, the author of a poem, called The Dying Negro, acknowledged to him, that he was the author of them. It is impossible to pass by, even in such a cursory account of Mr. Steevens as this, the very severe note, in the Pursuits of Literature, which was written to be applied to him. I am a sanguine admirer of that work; at the same time I have ever regretted, that the partialities and resentments of its author should have occasionally led him into a wantonness of praise and of censure. I think the censure of Mr. Steevens, as well as the praise of Mr. Samuel Lysons (and I am not singular in my opinion), are equally ridiculous, and without foundation. 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, and probably among many others that are not known, which could only proceed from a mind adorned with the noblest sentiments of humanity. He possessed all the grace of exterior accomplishment, acquired in a period when civility and politeness were the characteristicks of a gentleman; — a mortifying contrast to the manners of our present young men of fashion, which would have disgraced the servants' halls of their grandfathers. Mr. Steevens received the first part of his education at Kingston upon Thames; he went thence to Eton, and was afterwards a fellow-commoner of King's college, Cambridge. He also accepted a commission in the Essex militia on its first establishment. The latter years of his life he chiefly passed at Hampstead in unvisitable retirement, and seldom mixed with society but in bookseller's shops, or the Shakspeare Gallery, or the morning converzazione of Sir Joseph Banks. I have heard of his caprices, of the fickleness of friendships, and the sudden transition of his regards. These, however, I cannot censure for I know not his motives: nor shall I attempt to analyse his sensibilities. But, whatever may have been his failings, I not fear contradiction when I assert, that George Steevens, was a man of extraordinary talents, erudition, and attainments; and that he was an honour to the literature of his country. When Death, by one stroke, and in one moment, makes such a dispersion of knowledge and intellect — when such a man is carried to his grave — the mind can feel but one emotion: we consider the vanity of every thing beneath the sun — we perceive what shadows we are — and what shadows we pursue.