Lord Chesterfield's letters were published in 1774 to great acclaim — and not a little derision. Chesterfield, who has been discussing his son's Latin exercises, has no time for archaisms: "I might now write to you in the language of Chaucer and Spenser, and assert that I wrote English, because it was English in their days; but I should be a most affected puppy if I did so, and you would not understand three words of my letter." Not seen.
Annual Register: "notwithstanding the high opinion we entertain of Lord Chesterfield's Letters and plan of education, in which we are justified by the public voice, we must confess that throughout there is some appearance of a selfish principle, even in his morality. There is little or nothing of dignity of sentiment, good-nature, or generosity: a man finished on his plan, however perfectly, will be but too much a man of the world, in which his own interest will always be the predominant part. This is the principle fault, and it is no small one in the system: in every other part the work deserves the highest commendation" (1774) 238.
John Wilson: "Spenser — who was a gentleman too — not merely of the king's but of God's creating — tells us that 'the general end of all the Booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.' Perhaps — though we hope not — you may have read Lord Chesterfield. It was the 'general end' of all his book too, 'to fashion a gentleman or noble person.' But how? 'In vertuous and gentle discipline?' In folly by falsehood — and for behoof of his own son — the accomplished cub or hero of his romance of real life" Blackwood's Magazine 36 (1834) 409-10.
Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "Lord Chesterfield was one day walking through Pall Mall, in London, when a black sweeper touched his hat. Chesterfield raised his own, bowed, and passed on. A gentleman who was with him said, 'What! salute a negro?' — 'Sir,' answered the peer, 'I am not willing to be outdone in politeness even by a negro'" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 2:137n.
Edmund Gosse: "It has been the misfortune of Chesterfield to be seen through the coloured glass of a much greater man's anger. Few now read the letters, but every one knows that Johnson said that 'they teach the morals of a —, and the manners of a dancing master,' and of their author, 'This man, I thought, had been a lord among wits, but I find he is only a wit among lords.' It was on the 7th of February 1755 that Johnson addressed to Chesterfield his terrible and celebrated invective about the Dictionary. The Letters, however, were read with eagerness, and deserved to be read. If they were Machiavellian, they were full of good sense expressed in pure English, and full also of unaffected grace and fine breeding. It is curious that the man who in all England desired most, during his lifetime, to be considered polite, is mainly remembered for one breach of manners, which was very probably due to the neglect of a servant" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 280.
Henry Craik: "Shakespeare had scarcely any existence for him; Milton, he avows, is not favourite; and in Dante he finds nothing but laborious and misty obscurity. These are failures that lie on the very surface. The real defect, and that of which Chesterfield would most have resented the imputation, is the absolute weight of conventionality under which he is borne down. His chief aim was the attainment of a sort of cynical independence of life: as a fact he tied himself hand and foot in a very neat network of conventionality and routine" English Prose (1895) 4:81.
Oliver Elton: "As a prose writer, Chesterfield learnt what the age of Anne could give him, and he has the weight of mind that we miss in Addison, his admired master. Bolingbroke is also said to have been his model; but he does not emulate the periods of the Patriot King. He resembles, rather, his maternal grandfather, Halifax; practising the epistle, the essay, and the 'character,' and best satisfied when he has reduced his idea to the atom of prose, the 'detached thought,' which is the natural medium of wit. In the World, inquiring 'who made these people of fashion?', he says, 'I give this short and plain answer: they made one another.' He writes to a bishop: 'Has your son taken either orders or a wife yet? Both these blessings are indelible.' And of a notorious person: 'With submission to my Lord Rochester, God made Dodington the coxcomb he is; mere human means could never have brought it about'" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 1:9.
H. T. Swedenberg: "He tells the boy that there are only two [epic poets] worth his reading: Ariosto and Tasso.... Homer puts him to sleep, Virgil forces him to take an unwonted amount of snuff, and Milton is beyond him. He declares that he enjoys the Henriade [by Voltaire], and is of the opinion that it is an epic" Theory of the Epic in England (1944) 95-96.
I have received your Latin Lecture upon War, which, though it is not exactly the same Latin that Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid spoke, is, however, as good Latin as the erudite Germans speak or write. I have always observed, that the most learned people, that is those who have read the most Latin, write the worst; and this distinguishes the Latin of a Gentleman scholar from that of a Pedant. A Gentleman has, probably, read no other Latin than that of the Augustan age; and therefore can write no other: whereas the Pedant has read much more Latin than good; and consequently writes so too. He looks upon the best classical books, as books for school-boys, and consequently below him; but pores over fragments of obscure authors, treasures up the obsolete words which he meets with there, and uses them upon all occasions, to show his reading, at the expence of his judgment. Plautus is his favourite author, not for the sake of the wit and the vis comica of his comedies; but upon account of the many obsolete words, and the cant of low characters, which are to be met with no where else. He will rather use "olli" than "illi," "optume" than "optime," and any bad word, rather than any good one, provided he can but prove, that, strictly speaking, it is Latin; that is, that it was written by a Roman. By this rule, I might now write to you in the language of Chaucer and Spenser, and assert that I wrote English, because it was English in their days; but I should be a most affected puppy if I did so, and you would not understand three words of my letter. All these, and suchlike affected peculiarities, are the characteristics of learned coxcombs and pedants, and are carefully avoided by all men of sense. . . .