« AnteriorContinuar »
THE Eighteenth-Century Essayists, even in the compact editions of Chalmers and Berguer, occupy some forty or fifty volumes. These, again, are only a part of those whose names are given in the laborious list compiled by Dr. Nathan Drake. To compress any representative selection from such a mass of literature within the limits of the "Parchment Library is clearly out of the question; and it must therefore be distinctly explained that we are here concerned only with a particular division of the subject. That grave and portentous production the essay "critical," metaphysical," "moral," which so impressed our forefathers, has become to us a little lengthy- a little wearisome. Much of it is old-fashioned; something is obsolete. With the march of time philosophy has taken fresh directions; a new apparatus criticus has displaced the old; and if we are didactic now, we are didactic with a difference. But the sketches of social life and character still retain their freshness, because the types are eternal. Le jour va passer; mais les badauds ne passeront pas! As the frivolous chatter of the Syracusan ladies in Theocritus is still to be heard at every Hyde-Park review, as the Crispinus and Suffenus of Horace and Catullus still haunt our clubs and streets, as the personages of Chaucer and Molière and La Bruyère and
Shakespeare still live and move in our midst, so the Will Wimbles" and "Ned Softlys," the "Beau Tibbs's" and the "Men in Black," are as familiar to us now as they were to the bewigged and be-powdered readers of the " Spectator" and the "Citizen of the World." We laugh at them; but we sympathize with them too; and find them, on the whole, more enduringly diverting than dissertations on the "Nonlocality of Happiness or the "Position of the Pineal Gland."
In the conviction, therefore, that the majority of the graver essays have lost their interest for the general public, the present gathering is mainly confined to sketches of character and manners, and those chiefly of the humorous kind. The examples chosen will speak so plainly for themselves that any lengthy introduction would only needlessly occupy space; but a few rapid indications with respect to the earlier collections and the succession of the leading writers, will not be superfluous. Setting aside for the moment the "Scandal Club " of Defoe's "Review," the Eighteenth-Century Essay proper may be said to begin with the "Tatler by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq."- the first number of which is dated "Tuesday, April 12, 1709." In appearance it was a modest-looking sheet enough, and not entirely free from the imputations of "tobacco-paper and 66 scurvy letter" cast upon it by an injured correspondent.* Its price was a penny; and it was issued three times a week. To the first and many subsequent papers was prefixed that well-worn "Quicquid agunt homines" which has recently entered upon a new career of usefulness with Lord Beaconsfield's 66 Endymion "; and its "general purpose," as discovered in the "Pref
*"Tatler," No. 161.
ace to vol. i., was "to expose the false arts of life; to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation; and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behavior." Steele's first idea seems to have been to combine the latest news (for which his position as 99 "Gazetteer gave him exceptional facilities) with familiar sketches and dramatic and literary notes. But after eighty numbers had appeared, he was permanently joined by Addison, and the essay began to assume the definite form which it retained for a century, namely, that of a short paper, generally on one subject, and headed with a Greek or Latin motto. Then, in January, 1711, the "Tatler” came to an end. Its place was filled, in the following March, by the more famous "Spectator," which ran its course until December, 1712. After this, in 1713, came the "Guardian"; and in 1714 an eighth volume of the "Spectator" was issued by Addison alone. He was also the sole author of the "Freeholder," 1715, which contains the admirable sketch of the "Tory Foxhunter." Steele, on his side, followed up the "Guardian" by the "Lover," the "Reader," and half a dozen abortive efforts; but his real successes, as well as those of Addison, were in the three great collections for which they worked together.
Any comparison of these two masters of the Eighteenth-Century Essay is as futile as it will probably be perpetual. While people continue to pit Fielding against Smollett, and Thackeray against Dickens, there will always be a party for Addison and a party for Steele. The adherents of the former will draw conviction from Lord Macaulay's famous defiance in the "Edinburgh à propos of Aikin's "Life "; those of the latter from that vigorous counterblast which (after
ten years' meditation) Mr. Forster sounded in the Quarterly.' But the real lovers of literature will be content to enjoy the delightfully distinctive characteristics of both. For them Steele's frank and genial humor, his chivalrous attitude to women, and the engaging warmth and generosity of his nature, will retain their attraction, in spite of his literary inequalities and structural negligence; while the occasional coldness and restraint of Addison's manner will not prevent those who study his work from admiring his unfailing good taste, the archness of his wit, his charming sub-humorous gravity, and the perfect keeping of his character-painting. It is needless to particularize the examples here selected from these writers, for they are all masterpieces.
About four fifths of the "Tatler," " Spectator," and "Guardian" was written by Addison and Steele alone. The work of their coadjutors was consequently limited in extent, and, as a rule, unimportant. Budgell, Addison's cousin, whose memory survives chiefly by his tragic end, and a malignant couplet of Pope, was one of the most regular. Once, working on Addison's lines, and aided, it may be, by Addison's refining pen, he made a respectable addition to the "Coverley" series, which is here reprinted; but we have not cared to preserve any further examples of his style. From Hughes, again, another frequent writer, and an amiable man, whose contributions were for the most part in the form of letters, nothing has been taken. Next, by the amount of his assistance, comes the Bishop of Cloyne and the author of "Tarthe great and good Dr. Berkeley. Excellent as they are, however, his papers in the 66 Guardian 99 against Collins and the Freethinkers do not come within our scheme.
Among the remaining "occasionals" were several eminent hands." These, though they may have graced the board, did not add materially to the feast. Pope, who has a couple of papers in the "Spectator" and eight in the "Guardian," is not at his best as an essayist. His satire on 66 Dedications,"* and his sidelaugh at Bossu in the "Receipt to make an Epick Poem," are the happiest of his efforts. His well-known ironic parallel between the pastorals of Ambrose Philips and his own ‡ is admirably ingenious; but, unfortunately, we have come to think the one as artificial as the other. The "City Shower "§ of Swift scarcely ranks as an essay at all, and his only remaining paper of importance is a letter on Slang." This, like Pope's pieces, is too exclusively literary for our purpose. Of Congreve, Gay, Tickell, Parnell, and the long list of obscurer writers, there is nothing that seems to merit the honors of revival.
Between the "Guardian" of 1713 and the "Rambler" of 1750-2, there were a number of periodical essayists of varying merit. It is scarcely necessary to recall the names of these now forgotten "Intelligencers," "Moderators," "Remembrancers," and the like, the bulk of which were political. Fielding places one of them, the "Freethinker" of Philips, nearly on a level with "those great originals, the 'Tatlers' and 'Spectators ; but the initial chapters to the different books of "Tom Jones" attract us more forcibly to the author's own "Champion," written in conjunction with the Ralph who "makes Night hideous" in the "Dunciad.” Those utterances, however, which can with any