“Dick” Steele, more than anyone else, marks the literary transition from the Restoration to Queen Anne. His youth had all the qualities of a Restoration roisterer: born in Dublin, son of a notary; educated at Charterhouse School and Oxford; impressionable, excitable, generous; instead of taking his degree he joined the government army in Ireland. He drank like a sieve, fought a duel, and nearly killed his antagonist. The experience sobered him transiently; he began a campaign against dueling, and wrote an essay,The Christian Hero (1701), in which he argued that a man might be a gentleman while remaining a Christian. He described the corruption of the age, called his readers back to the Bible as the source of true faith and pure morality, and appealed to men to respect the charm and chastity of women.
He was now twenty-nine years old. Finding that even the middle class, to which he belonged, looked upon him as a tiresome preacher, he decided to put his message into plays. He applauded Jeremy Collier’s denunciation of theatrical obscenity, and in a succession of comedies he championed virtue and punished his villains decisively. These productions were failures. They contained some lively scenes and wit, but the audiences were skeptical of his denouements, and demanded entertainment at whatever cost to the Ten Commandments; while those solid Londoners who might have seconded his sentiments were seldom seen at the theater. How to reach these people?
He decided to try a medium that would find them in the coffeehouses. On April 12, 1709, taking a leaf from Defoe’s Review, he issued the first number of a triweekly periodical, The Tatler, editing it, and writing most of it, under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff. He aimed it at the coffeehouses by announcing:
All accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment shall be under the article [be dated from] White’s chocolate house; poetry, under that of Will’s coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestic news you will have from St. James’s coffeehouse; and what else I shall on any subject offer shall be dated from my own apartment.
It was a clever scheme: it aroused the interest of the coffeehouse frequenters, it took news and topics from the discussions there, and it allowed Steele to express his views without interruption or dispute. So, in Number 25 (June 7, 1709), he told of receiving a letter “from a young lady . . . wherein she laments the misfortune of . . . her lover, who was lately wounded in a duel”; and he went on to show the absurdity of a custom by which an injured gentleman must invite the offender to add murder to insult; for what does a challenge mean but:
“Sir, your extraordinary behaviour last night, and the liberty you were pleased to take with me, makes me this morning give you this, to tell you, because you are an illbred puppy, I will meet you in Hyde Park, an hour hence. . . . I desire you would come with a pistol in your hand. . . . and endeavour to shoot me through the head, to teach you more manners.”
Here was the voice of the middle class laughing at the aristocracy; and it was chiefly the middle class that filled the coffeehouses.
In further essays Steele made fun of aristocratic luxury, expletives, affectations, ornaments, and dress. He begged women to dress simply, and to avoid jewelry: “The cluster of diamonds upon the breast can add no beauty to the fair chest of ivory that supports it.”68 His tenderness for women rivaled his affection for alcohol. He insisted that they had intelligence as well as texture, but he lauded most of all their modesty and purity—qualities not recognized in Restoration comedy. Of one woman he said that “to have loved her was a liberal education”—which Thackeray considered “the finest compliment to a woman that perhaps ever was offered.” 69 Steele described with emotion the joys of family life, the pleasant patter of children’s feet, the gratitude of a husband to his aging wife:
She gives me every day pleasure beyond what I ever knew in the possession of her beauty when I was in the vigour of youth. Every moment of her life brings me fresh instances of her complacency to my inclinations, and her prudence in regard to my fortune. Her face is to me much more beautiful than when I first saw it; there is no decay in any feature which I cannot trace from the very instant it was occasioned by some anxious concern for my welfare and interests. . . . The love of a wife is as much above the idle passion commonly called by that name, as the loud laughter of buffoons is inferior to the elegant mirth of gentlemen. 70
When Steele wrote this he had been twice married. His letters to his second wife are models of devotion, though they soon include excuses for not coming home to dinner. He failed to be the good bourgeois that he held up as the model of life. He drank too much, spent too much, borrowed too much. He walked in side streets to avoid the friends who had lent him money; he went in hiding to elude his creditors; finally he was jailed for debt. Readers of The Tatler contrasted his preaching with his practice. John Dennis issued an unfeeling satire on Steele’s sentiments. Subscribers fell away, and on January 2, 1711, The Tatler expired. Its place in the history of English literature remains, for in its pages the new morality began to express itself, the short story took its modern form, and Addison developed—as in The Spectator he would perfect—the modern essay.
Addison and Steele, both born in 1672, had been friends since their days together in Charterhouse School. Joseph’s father was an Anglican minister, who gave him an inoculation of piety that resisted all Restoration infections. At Oxford his proficiency in Latin won him a scholarship. At twenty-two his talents so impressed Halifax that the Earl persuaded the head of Magdalen College to divert the youth from the ministry to the service of the government. “I am called an enemy of the Church,” said Halifax, “but I will never do it any other injury than keeping Mr. Addison out of it.” 71 As the prodigy in Latin was destitute of French, and a knowledge of French was required of diplomats, Halifax secured for him an annual pension of three hundred pounds to finance a stay on the Continent. For two years Addison wandered leisurely through France, Italy, and Switzerland.
While he was in Geneva the accession of Anne removed his friends from office and cut off his pension. Reduced to his own slender income, he engaged himself as tutor to a young English traveler, and with him toured Switzerland, Germany, and the United Provinces. This employment ending, he returned to London (1703), and for a time lived in genteel poverty. But he was a magnet for good fortune. When Marlborough won the battle of Blenheim (August 13, 1704), Godolphin, lord treasurer, looked around for someone to celebrate the victory in verse. Halifax recommended Addison; the scholar responded with a resounding poem, The Campaign; it was published on the very day of Marlborough’s triumphant entry into the capital, and its success helped to reconcile England to continuing the war. It was Addison’s highest poetic flight, which George Washington favored above all other poems. Hear the famous lines:
But, O my Muse! what numbers wilt thou find
To sing the furious troops in battle join’d?
Methinks I hear the drum’s tumultuous sound
The victor’s shouts and dying groans confound;
The dreadful burst of cannon rend the skies,
And all the thunder of the battle rise.
‘Twas then great Marlborough’s mighty soul was proved,
That, in the shock of charging hosts unmoved,
Amidst confusion, horror, and despair,
Examined all the dreadful scenes of war:
In peaceful thought the field of death surveyed,
To fainting squadrons sent the timely aid,
Inspired repulsed battalions to engage,
And taught the doubtful battle where to rage.
So when an angel, by divine command,
With rising tempests shakes a guilty land
(Such as of late o’er pale Britannia passed),
Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleased the Almighty’s orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm.
That last line and angelic simile wafted Addison safely back into government pay, where he remained for the next ten years. In 1705 he was appointed commissioner of appeals, replacing John Locke; in 1706 he was undersecretary of state; in 1707 he was attached to the mission of Halifax to Hanover, which prepared for the accession of that house to the throne of England; in 1708 he took his seat in Parliament, and, by virtue of his offices, held it till his death; in 1709 he became chief secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In 1711 he was affluent enough to buy a ten-thousand-pound estate near Rugby.
In his prosperity he did not forget Steele. He chided his sins, got him a place in the government, lent him considerable sums, and in one case sued him for repayment. 72 When the anonymous Tatler appeared he noticed in it a remark on Virgil which he had made to Steele; in “Isaac Bickerstaff” he recognized his high-living, impecunious friend; and soon he was contributing to the journal. In 1710 the Whigs fell, Steele lost his governmental post, and Addison lost all his offices except as commissioner of appeals. The Tatlercelebrated the new year by expiring. Steele and Addison pooled their misfortunes and hopes, and on March 1, 1711, they sent forth the first number of the most famous periodical in English literary history.
The Spectator appeared daily except Sunday, in a folded sheet of four or six pages. Instead of dating the articles from various centers, the anonymous editor invented an imaginary club whose members would represent different sectors of the English world: Sir Roger de Coverley as the English country gentleman; Sir Andrew Freeport representing the merchant class; Captain Sentry speaking for the army; Will Honeycomb the man of fashion; a lawyer of the Inner Temple standing for the world of learning; and Mr. Spectator himself, who brings all their views together in a spirit of genial humor and witty courtesy that won him entry into the homes and hearts of England. In the first number the Spectator described himself, and set the clubs and coffeehouses guessing at his identity.
I have passed my latter years in this city, where I am frequently seen in most public places, though there are not above half a dozen of my select friends that know me; of whom my next paper shall give a more particular account. There is no place of general resort wherein I do not often make my appearance; sometimes I am seen thrusting my head into a round of politicians at Will’s, and listening with great attention to the narratives that are made in those circular audiences. Sometimes I smoke a pipe at Child’s, and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Postman, overhear the conversation of every table in the room. I appear on Sunday nights at St. James’s coffee-house, and sometimes join the little committee of politics in the inner-room as one who comes there to hear and improve. My face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa-tree, and in the theatres both of Drury-lane and Hay-market. I have been taken for a merchant upon the Exchange for above these ten years, and sometimes pass for a Jew in the assembly of stockjobbers at Jonathan’s. In short, wherever I see a cluster of people, I always mix with them, though I never open my lips but in my own club.
Thus I live in the world rather as a Spectator of mankind, than as one of the species, by which means I have made myself a speculative statesman, soldier, merchant and artisan, without ever meddling with any practical part in life. I am very well versed in the theory of a husband, or a father, and can discern the errors in the economy, business, and diversion of others, better than those who are engaged in them; as standers-by discover blots which are apt to escape those who are in the game. I never espoused any party with violence, and am resolved to observe an exact neutrality between the Whigs and Tories, unless I shall be forced to declare myself by the hostilities of either side. In short, I have acted in all the parts of my life as a looker-on, which is the character I intend to preserve in this paper.
As the enterprise proceeded, The Spectator mingled social gossip, and studies of manners and character, with literary criticism and theatrical reviews. Addison wrote a series of essays on Milton, in which he astonished England by ranking Paradise Lost above theIliad and the Aeneid. The discussions avoided politics, as leading to enmities and vicissitudes, but they stressed—and Addison willingly joined in—Steele’s plea for moral reform. Something of the Puritan spirit, chastened by adversity, returned in reaction against the Restoration reaction; but now it was no long-faced theological preoccupation with Satan and damnation, but a call to moderation and decency, cheered with optimism and coated with wit. So Number 10 began:
It is with much satisfaction that I hear this great city inquiring day by day after these my papers, and receiving my morning lectures with a becoming seriousness and attention. My publisher tells me, that there are already three thousand of them distributed every day: so that if I allow twenty readers to every paper, which I look upon as a modest computation, I may reckon about three score thousand disciples in London and Westminster, who I hope will take care to distinguish themselves from the thoughtless herd of their ignorant and unattentive brethren. Since I have raised to myself so great an audience, I shall spare no pains to make their instruction agreeable, and their diversion useful. For which reason 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, intermitting 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; and I shall be ambitious 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 coffee-houses.
I would therefore in a very particular manner recommend these my speculations to all well-regulated families, that set apart an hour in every morning for tea and bread and butter; and would earnestly advise them for their good to order this paper to be punctually served up, and to be looked upon as a part of the tea-equipage.
The Spectator addressed itself to women as well as men, proposed to deal with love and sex, and to make “falsehood in love bear a blacker aspect than . . . infidelity in friendship, or villainy in business.” 73 “I shall take it for the greatest glory of my work,” wrote the Spectator, “if among reasonable women this paper may furnish tea-table talk.” 74 Letters were invited and printed, and Steele ran a series of lovelorn epistles, some of them his own to his ladies, some invented by the editors in quite modern style. The journal joined religion with love, and provided a genial theology for a generation beginning to wonder what the decline of religious belief in the upper classes was doing to morality. It counseled science to mind its business and let the Church alone as the wise and experienced guardian of morals; the rights of feeling and the needs of order are beyond the comprehension of individual reason, always adolescent. It is better for morals and happiness to accept the old religion humbly, attend its services, observe its holydays, and help to establish in each parish the wholesome atmosphere of a quiet and worshipful Sabbath.
I am always very well pleased with a country Sunday, and think, if keeping holy the seventh day were only a human institution, it would be the best method that could have been thought of for the polishing and civilising of mankind. It is certain the country people would soon degenerate into a kind of savages and barbarians were there not such frequent returns of a stated time in which the whole village meet together with their best faces, and in their cleanliest habits, to converse with one another upon indifferent subjects, hear their duties explained to them, and join together in adoration of the Supreme Being. Sunday clears away the rust of the whole week, not only as it refreshes in their minds the notions of religion, but as it puts both the sexes upon appearing in their most agreeable forms. 75
Now literature, which for forty years had served licentiousness, moved to the side of morality and faith; The Spectator shared in the revolution of manners and style that in the reign of Anne anticipated by a century the mid-Victorian spirit, making respectability respectable, and changing the English concept of the gentleman from a titled philanderer to a wellbred citizen. The virtues of the middle class found in The Spectator an urbane and polished defense. Prudence and thrift were more precious to society than lace and wit; merchants were the ambassadors of civilization to backward peoples; and the profits of commerce and industry were the sinews of the state.
For a year The Spectator enjoyed a succès d’estime unparalleled in English journalism. Its circulation was small, rarely exceeding four thousand, but its influence was immense. Its bound volumes sold some nine thousand copies annually, 76 as if England already recognized it to be literature. But in time the novelty wore off; the characters of the “club” began to repeat themselves; the verve of the weary authors waned; their sermons grew tiresome; the circulation declined. The stamp tax of 1712 increased costs beyond revenues, and on December 16, 1712, The Spectator gave up the ghost. Steele resumed the struggle with The Guardian, and Addison revived The Spectator, in 1714. Both journals were short-lived, for by that time Addison had become a successful dramatist and had been restored to his posts and emoluments in the government.
On April 14, 1713, the Drury Lane Theatre produced Addison’s Cato. His friend Pope wrote for it a prologue bristling with Popal epigrams and heavy with Bullish patriotism. Steele undertook to pack the house with ardent Whigs; he did not quite succeed, but the Tories joined the Whigs in applauding Cato’s last stand for Roman liberty (46 B.C.); and the Tory Examiner rivaled Steele’s Guardian in ecstatic praise. For an entire month the tragedy played to overflowing audiences. “Cato,” said Pope, “was not so much the wonder of Rome in his days as he is of Britain in ours.” 77 On the Continent Cato was rated the finest tragic drama in the English language. Voltaire admired its adherence to the unities, and marveled that England could tolerate Shakespeare after seeing Addison’s play. 78 Critics now deride it as vapid declamation, but one reader has found his attention held to the end by a well-constructed plot, and a love story skillfully integrated into the larger war.
Addison was now so popular that “I believe,” said Swift, “if he had a mind to be chosen king he would hardly be refused.” 79 But Addison, always a model of moderation, contented himself with being appointed secretary to the government, presently chief secretary for Ireland, then a lord commissioner of trade. He was persona gratissima at the clubs, for his hard drinking kept him from being the “faultless monster whom the world ne’er” loves. To crown his glory he married (1716) a countess, and lived unhappily with the proud lady at Holland House in London. In 1717 he was again a secretary of state; but his competence was questioned, and he soon resigned, with a pension of £ 1,500 a year. Despite his patience and good manners he slipped into quarrels with his friends, including Steele and Pope—who satirized him as a prig wont to “damn with faint praise,” and,
Like Cato, give his little senate laws,
And sit attentive to his own applause. 80
Steele came to a less stately end. He was elected to Parliament in 1713, but the Tory majority expelled him on a charge of seditious language. The triumph of the Whigs a year later consoled him with several lucrative places in the administration, and for a time his income equaled his expenditures. Then his debts won the race, his creditors pursued him, and he retired to his wife’s estate in Wales. There he died, September 1, 1729, ten years after his collaborator. Together, Steele with originality and verve, Addison with polished artistry, they had raised the short story and the essay to new excellence, had shared in the moral regeneration of the age, and had set the tone and forms of English literature for a century—except for the most powerful and bitter genius of the age.