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Essayists Addison And Steele

23 SEPTEMBER 1882, Page 20

THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ESSAYISTS.*

THE art of Essay-writing seemed to reach its perfection in the .1 i,st century. It was an at which afforded the opportunity of writing pleasantly about nothing. No subject was too slight for a paper in the Totter or Spectator. In one a lady is censured for painting her face, another describes the effects of coquetry on a young gentleman, a third gives a recipe for a lap-dog, and deplores the bad-taste of a "celebrated toast," who, in the pre- sence of her admirers, will give " a torrent of kisses to her cat, any one of which a Christian would be glad of." The young lady in Pope's Rope of the Lock whose dressing-table is covered

" Puffs, powders, patches, Bib]es, lpillet.doux,"

ig a character that figures frequently in the breakfast-table literature provided for the delectation of readers in the reign of Queen Anne. Addison, like Dr. Johnson after him, sometimes wrote an essay as serious as it was beautiful, and his Saturday meditations will bear a comparison, as Macaulay said, with the finest passages of Massillon. Steele also had an exquisite sense of pathos, as in Nos. 114 and 181 of the Tatter, both of which Mr. Dobson has transferred to his selection. But ag we have intimated, the general character both of the Totter and Spectator—which in charm of style and worth of matter are greatly superior even to the best periodical essays that followed in their wake—is humorous and lively, 4' Eighteenth Century Essays. Seicatcd and Annctlited by Austin Dobson. London : Kogan Paul and Co. 1882.

The Worha of Henry Fielding. Vol. VI. " Eesaye and Legal CMOs:* Smitb, Elder, and Co. 1682.

&sails of Oliver Goldsmith, M.D. Selected and Edi4ecl, with Introduction and Notes, by C. D. Yoage, M.A. Macmillan and Co. 1882.

dealing with the amusements, the fashions, and the follies of the day. Steele and his friend are kind censors, their laugh is a kindly laugh, their satire, unlike Pope's, injures no man, their humour is never immoral, their wit stabs no reputation, but they touch light subjects with a light pen and with a charm of manner that is sometimes irresistible. The fault, if fault it be in these writings, is not one that would have occurred to the essayists' contemporaries. We write essays in these days weighty in thought, let us say, and polished in style ; but essays which, if the truth must be told, are too solid to be lively. The earlicr essay writers of the last age, for we cannot include Johnson in the number, give us creams and custards, wine and grapes, instead of solid meat and pudding. Such food, however, is not always to be despised, even by beef-eating Englishmen ; and a man will not haye much to complain of, if he be forced to dine occasionally on the fare provided by the British Essayists.

These old. favourites are always fresh, and always genial. Steele, "the sprightly father of the English Essay," was by no means so inferior to Addison as Macaulay would have us believe. That famous writer was prone to depress one author in order that he might exalt another; and when, with his wonted exaggeration, he asserts that Addison's worst essay is as good as the best essay of any of his coadjutors, the reader will smile and remember that this is Ma,caulay's way. Steele, to whom just now we confine our attention, is not an accomplished artist like Addison, and he is sometimes a slovenly writer ; but Steele, though far less careful, is often more lively, and in some respects he had a larger inventive faculty. It was he who conceived the plan of the Tatter, and carried on that delightful publication for a long time without Addison's help ; and if Addison's name is for ever associated with that of Sir Roger de Coverley, it should be remembered that the birth of that immortal knight was due to Richard Steele. Mr. Dobson considers thrit there will always be a party for Addison and a party for Steele, but he adds, and most justly, that the real lovere of literature "will be content to enjoy the delightfully distinctive character of both." His selection, while containing some of the choicest papers, is not wide enough in scope to enable him to do so thoroughly. Were it not that the volume is of necessity a small one, we should be inclined to say that Mr. Dobson had not used his materials with sufficient liberality. Any good selection from the Tatter would give a better notion of Steele's genius than the seven papers chosen for this volume, and the selections from Addison in the Clarendon Press Series give a more comprehensive notion of the genius of that author. But we arc reminded that the editor's purpose is to include some of the famous pieces of other essayists, and the reader must be difficult to please who will not 'welcome the papers by Lord Chesterfield chosen from the World ; the essay upon "Country Congregations," written in his youthful days by Cowper ; and the selections from Budgell, Johnson, Goldsmith, and Mackenzie. Mr. Dobson's notes are brief, but they are singularly pertinent, and the little book will form a pleasant pocket companion for summer travellers who know how to appreciate fine literature, in those half-hours of enforced idle- ness from which even the most active tourist finds it impossible to escape.

Oliver Goldsmith is the only essayist of the last century who can compete with the greatest of his predecessors. And his workmanship seldom, if ever, reaches the perfection attained by Addison. We yield to no one in our admiration of this incom- parable writer. It becomes a mere platitude to repeat that whatever he touched he adorned. As is dramatist, as a poet, as the author of the loveliest novelette we possess in the language, he deserves all the fame lie has received. He said once that the French were such good cooks, that they could make soup out of nettletops ; he is himself so good a writer that, like Swift, he could write well upon a broomstick. In the Citizen, of the World, he chose an attractive subject, and treated it with admirable skill ; but his miscellaneous essays, of which Mr. Yonge makes much use, do not strike us as characteristic of the author, or as remarkable in themselves. His critical papers on poetry are uninteresting, and may even be pro- nounced tedious; his allegories belong more to the age than to the writer. Probably, Goldsmith is most successful in light sketches o' character, and " Beau Tibbs," for which Mr. Dobson flnds space and Mr. Yonge does not, may be pronounced a masterpiece. His inferiority, however, to Addison as an essayist is as conspicuous as his vast superiority as a poet ; and though it is scarcely fair to judge of an author from his treatment of a particular subject, the student may be recom- mended to compare the "Westminster Abbey" of Addison— a composition alike exquisite in thought and style—with the essay on the same subject by Oliver Goldsmith.

Mr. Yonge's faults are, however, not wholly those of omission. He makes blunders that are inexcusable in a school class- book, and. shows little aptitude for his task. Strange to say, he seems never to have heard of Washington Irving or of John Forster as biographers of Goldsmith, and all his facts appear to be taken from the pages of Mr. Prior, as he invariably terms that respectable, but some- what obsolete biographer. Sir James Prior, however, though a dull writer, is not, we believe, often inaccurate, and assuredly he never made the blunder of saying that Carlyle's

acquaintance, Basil Montague, who died. in 1851, was sent to Goldsmith by the Government of the day to offer him carte blanche, if he would write in support of the Administration,

Other inaccuracies of quotation and allusion might readily be noted, mistakes that show that the editor has done his work carelessly. Johnson, for example, does not state that of Shen-

stone's poems, "ho cannot think any excellent." That expres- sion is used, and not without an exception, with regard to the lyric poems, but he observes that Shenstone's Pastoral Ballad demands particular notice ; and then two passages are quoted, to which he adds, "If any mind denies its sympathy, it has no acquaintance with love or nature." Nor is this all the praise awarded. by Johnson, for he writes of The Schoolmistress as "the most pleasing of Shenstone's performances ;" so that Mr. Yonge's quotation conveys a wholly false impression. Again, we do not see how Milton, in his earlier works, of which one of the first worth noting was written in 1030, can be said, save by

a large poetical licence, to belong to the age of Elizabeth. The young reader, for whom the notes are intended, would be assuredly misled by such a statement. But to. show the careless way in which Mr. You go has undertaken to edit a school classic, it will suffice to transcribe the editor's method of quoting two passages from Pope, premising that these are far from being the only instances, although they are the most glaring instances, of blundering quotation. Indeed, on the first page of the notes a couplet of Pope's is given inaccurately, but the following mis- quotations are more glaring :—

"Let Ireland tell how wit upheld her cause, Her trade supported, and supplied her laws, And leave on Swift this grateful verso engrav'd, The Right's a court attach'd, a portrait saved."

The reader will observe that the line we have marked in italics contains three blunders, and so also, according to the best editions of Pope, does the following :—

" Earless, on high, stood unablish'd Defoe,

And Tntehin, fragrant from the scourge below ; There Redpath, Roper, cudgell'd, you might view."

Goldsmith, too, has his own quotations from the poets, and even these Mr. Youge will not always allow to be accurately reprinted, for instead of Addison's familiar couplet,—

" For though in dreadful whirls we hung High on the broken wave,"

he compels us to read,—

" For though in dreadful worlds we hung."

An. editor who cannot quote 'accurately is liable to be inaccurate with regard to his facts ; but it seems strange, notwithstand-

ing, that the author of a Constitutional History of Great Britain should confound the first Earl of Shaftesbury with the third.

"Evil books," says the author of Toot Jones, " aorritpt at once both our manners and our taste ;" and despite the licen- tiousness of that masterly novel, he said it, we do not doubt, in g"4-faitil. One remembers what Coleridge, with Richardson in his mind, has asserted in Fielding's favour; but the fact re-

mains that his coarse representations of mere sexual love- making have banished this great novelist from the place he might jastly hold, by the side of Scott and Thackeray. As an essayist, Fielding, though sometimes extremely coarse, is free from this defect; but, unfortunately, he gives also few iudica- tions of the genius which inspired him as a novelist. In the

Covent Garden Journal, with some important exceptions, he conveys the impression of labouring unsuccessfully to say fine things. Sometimes he writes as a severe moralist,

and Archbishop %lately would have loved him for saying

that giving money to beggars is a crime against the public, as well as for his general remarks upon unwise and fruitless charity. Practical sagacity marks many of the papers, and perhaps there never was a man who knew better how to advise other people than Fielding. His sound sense is indisputable, but with regard to his own affairs, he generally forgot to exercise it. The evils of the age are dwelt upon with much unction in "The True Patriot," and the evils incident to humanity are also dwelt upou in his essays. Coming from the author of Jonathan Wild and Joseph Andrews, the essay " On the Remedy of Affliction for the

Loss of Our Friends" is a remarkable production. More curious still is an essay on conversation, that contains advice about good-breeding which either shows that the age must have been ill-bred, or that Fielding was teaching a• society lower than the one he lived in. The paper, like some others, occasionally throws light on the customs of society. Thus this Mentor advises a host how to act when 'dinner is on the table, and. the ladies have taken their places.

The gentlemen are then to be introduced, "with as much seem-

ing indifference as possible." The lady who presides is told to.clis- tribute her favours impartially, and not to let "a haunch of veni-

son lose all its fat before half the table had tasted it." Fielding does not approve of bard drinking when the ladies have retired ; but the master of the house is to see "that the bottle circulate

sufficient to afford everybody present a: moderate quantity of wine, if he chooses it." When the guest desires to go, "there should be no assertions.that he shan't go yet," no laying on violent hands, no private orders to servants to delay the pro- viding the horses or the vehicles. He touches, too, on the follies of the beau and of the fine woman in society, but not with the delicate art of Addison. " If dress," he writes, "is their only title, sure evbn the monkey, if as well dressed, is on as high a footing as the beau;" and. he adds,— " I have myself seen a little female thing which they have called 'My Lady,' of no greater dignity in the order of beings than a cat, and of no more use in society than a butterfly, whose mien would not give

even the idea of a gentlewoman With a mind as empty of ideals as an opera, and a body fuller of diseases than an hospital, I have seen this thing express contempt for a woman who was an honor to her sex and an ornament to the creation."

Fielding won no fame in this department of literature, but it is inevitable that in a complete and splendid edition of his works these papers, should be included. Our British Essayists is a tempting and a fruitful theme.

There is no pleasanter reading in idle hours than the "Queen Anne" essay, which is sometimes a model of composition, some- times a delicious piece of humour, sometimes a vivid description of bygone customs and manners. Too short over to be weari- some, full of freshness and vivacity, and free from all acerbity, the Essayists of the eighteenth century are the best moralists of

a coarse age, its wisest because its most genial teachers. Since the time of Pope, more than one hundred essayists have at- tempted to excel or to equal the Tatler and Spectator. One

alone, in a few of his best efforts, may be said to have rivalled. them, and he is Washington living; one only has surpassed them, namely, the incomparable " Elia."


The Spectator, a periodical published in London by the essayists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison from March 1, 1711, to Dec. 6, 1712 (appearing daily), and subsequently revived by Addison in 1714 (for 80 numbers). It succeeded The Tatler, which Steele had launched in 1709. In its aim to “enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality,” The Spectator adopted a fictional method of presentation through a “Spectator Club,” whose imaginary members extolled the authors’ own ideas about society. These “members” included representatives of commerce, the army, the town (respectively, Sir Andrew Freeport, Captain Sentry, and Will Honeycomb), and of the country gentry (Sir Roger de Coverley). The papers were ostensibly written by Mr. Spectator, an “observer” of the London scene. The conversations that The Spectator reported were often imagined to take place in coffeehouses, which was also where many copies of the publication were distributed and read.

Though Whiggish in tone, The Spectator generally avoided party-political controversy. An important aspect of its success was its notion that urbanity and taste were values that transcended political differences. Almost immediately it was hugely admired; Mr. Spectator had, observed the poet and dramatist John Gay, “come on like a Torrent and swept all before him.”

Because of its fictional framework, The Spectator is sometimes said to have heralded the rise of the English novel in the 18th century. This is perhaps an overstatement, since the fictional framework, once adopted, ceased to be of primary importance and served instead as a social microcosm within which a tone at once grave, good-humoured, and flexible could be sounded. The real authors of the essays were free to consider whatever topics they pleased, with reference to the fictional framework (as in Steele’s account of Sir Roger’s views on marriage, which appeared in issue no. 113) or without it (as in Addison’s critical papers on Paradise Lost,John Milton’s epic poem, which appeared in issues no. 267, 273, and others).

Given the success of The Spectator in promoting an ideal of polite sociability, the correspondence of its supposed readers was an important feature of the publication. These letters may or may not, on occasion, have been composed by the editors.

In addition to Addison and Steele themselves, contributors included Alexander Pope, Thomas Tickell, and Ambrose Philips. Addison’s reputation as an essayist has surpassed that of Steele, but their individual contributions to the success of The Spectator are less to the point than their collaborative efforts: Steele’s friendly tone was a perfect balance and support for the more dispassionate style of Addison. Their joint achievement was to lift serious discussion from the realms of religious and political partisanship and to make it instead a normal pastime of the leisured class. Together they set the pattern and established the vogue for the periodical throughout the rest of the century and helped to create a receptive public for the novelists, ensuring that the new kind of prose writing—however entertaining—should be essentially serious.

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