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SIR RICHARD STEELE

(1672-1729)

“If Steele is not our friend, he is nothing. He is by no means the most brilliant of wits nor the deepest of thinkers; but he is our friend: we love him as children love their love with an A, because he is amiable."

- THACKERAY.

Thackeray spoke truly when he called Steele "our friend." With Goldsmith, he is one of the most lovable of English authors. He had his weaknesses, although they have been greatly exaggerated; but they were the faults of a warm-hearted, heedless nature, essentially high-minded and noble, and full of a sincere humility of spirit. It is easy to love Steele, but men are just beginning to see more clearly how great a work this man did for England, careless and easy-going as he seems, and to know that there is something in him that not only wins our love, but commands our respect and admiration.

Steele's Life. — Richard Steele, or “Dick" Steele, as his friends called him, was born in Dublin in 1672, the year of the birth of Addison, the great writer whose name was to be so closely associated with his own. When he was very young he was left an orphan, and was cared for by an uncle, who secured his admission to the Charterhouse School in London. In one of his essays Steele tells of the impression his father's death made upon his childish mind. He was then too young to realize what had happened, but some vague "instinct of sorrow” reached him through his mother's grief; this, he writes, “seized my very soul and has made pity the weakness of my heart ever since.”

From the Charterhouse, where he began his long friendship with Addison, Steele went to Oxford; but he left, before taking his degree, to enlist in the Horse Guards. By 1700 he was Captain Steele, he had published verses, and had made the acquaintance of some of the wits of the town. The life was full of temptations, especially for a young officer of an improvident and emotional disposition and high spirits, and these temptations Steele did not always successfully resist. His life in truth was far better than that of many of the men about him; and, unlike many others, he was quick to repent of a fault, and ready to confess it with a singular frankness. So, he tells us," he writ for his own private use, a little book called the Christian Hero, with a design principally to fix upon his own Mind a strong Impression of Virtue and Religion, in opposition to a stronger Propensity towards unwarrantable Pleasures." Steele next wrote several comedies, in which he set himself to purify the thoughts and correct the vulgarity and wickedness of his age. Steele's lifelong purpose was to separate wit from immorality, and to show that it is possible to be decent without being dull. Since the accession of William and Mary, the better side of the English nature had been fighting against the moral corruption which had disfigured society after the Restoration: associations had been formed for the Reformation of Manners, and Jeremy Collier had filed a sweeping indictment against the stage. But now vice and folly were to be arrested by two writers whose weapons were to prove more effective than the angriest invective, writers whose playful humor could make frivolity ridiculous, whose kindly satire provoked no resentment, and insensibly enlisted the reader's sympathies on the side of virtue.

Periodicals. The Tatler.

The Tatler. — In 1709 Steele began the publication of a periodical which he called the Tatler, an event which marks the beginning of a new era in English prose. Before this time there had been a number of papers and periodicals in England, but Steele's was the first to gain a wide-spread influence. The paper consisted of but one folio sheet, with double columns; and was sold for a penny. It was published three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the days when the mail left London for the country. It aimed not so much to print the news as to entertain, by its familiar style and its broad human spirit, the masses of English men and women, in town and country, who would not read more learned books; and while entertaining them, to lead them to a more worthy life morally and mentally. Under the pen-name of Isaac Bickerstaff, and in the character of an elderly, goodhumored, and fastidious gentleman, Steele set himself up as the chief authority in the town on proper behavior and dress. He criticized and condemned, always in a quiet and gentlemanly way, the extremes of fashion, such as the wearing of “blue and red stockings in mourning,” the fopperies of “smart fellows" about town, the vices of gaming, the absurdity of duels, and of the code of honor that made them possible. “If a fine lady thinks fit to giggle at church,” he wrote, “or a great beau come in drunk to a play, either shall be sure to hear of it in my ensuing paper.” He gave his readers the latest topics “of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment,” talked of at White's Chocolate-house; the discussions at Will's Coffee-house of poetry and of the latest play; and the “foreign and domestic news,' from St. James's. He promises them that “when a Toast or Wit is first pronounced such” by the town, they

" All

shall have the first advice of the fact. With ready humor he describes such typical characters as the Pretty Fellow, the Very Pretty Fellow, the Rake, and the Coquette; and throughout his papers shows a chivalrous consideration for women. Thackeray says, women especially are bound to be grateful to Steele. ... It was Steele who first began to pay a manly homage to their goodness and understanding as well as to their tenderness and beauty."

The wit, elegance, vivacity, truth of observation, and delicate raillery found in these sketches made the Tatler a success from the first. Queen Anne read it at the breakfast table; and it was said to have attracted more customers to the coffee-houses “than all the other News Papers put together.” Before long Steele's old friend Addison began to write for the Tatler, and after it had run for about a year and half became a regular contributor. Thus the two greatest essayists and reformers of the day, sharing the same high purpose, and united by an almost life-long friendship, came to work side by side. The Tatler was discontinued January second, 1711; and on the first of the following March, Addison and Steele started a yet more famous periodical, the Spectator, which appeared every day except Sunday.

Political Activity. — But Steele was not only an essayist; he was a busy politician as well. An ardent Whig, he stoutly defended the succession of the House of Hanover. In 1715, when George I of Hanover came to the throne, Steele was knighted, and rewarded with several lucrative offices. But as he was sanguine, careless, and improvident, he found himself constantly involved in money difficulties, and he struggled with debts even to the end.

Retirement and Death. In 1724 Steele left London

and retired to a country-place in Wales, broken in health. Since he had left Oxford some thirty years before, he had lived in the thick of the contest, playing his part in that world of the capital, in which the activities of the whole nation were focused. He had been soldier, dramatist, government-official, editor, politician, and theatrical manager; he had been intimate with the greatest Englishmen of his time; he had known success and disappointment, praise and abuse, and he had fought a brave fight. He had not always been wise or prudent, but he had held true, on the whole, to high ideals; and in some wonderful way he had kept his hopeful spirit and kind heart through it all. He died in 1729.

Character. — In Steele's writings, and especially in his letters, we see the man as he was. He wrote frankly and carelessly, and he was transparently honest and direct. His unaffected goodness, his large-hearted human sympathy, shine out through his works. We see in them a man of a sincerely religious nature, who loved his fellows, who was tender towards suffering, devoted to his wife and children, loyal to his friends. His was perhaps the largest, most generous, and most human spirit of his time. In an age of literary bickerings, jealousies, and personal abuse, Steele maintained a wholesome tolerance and sweetness in his relations with the world.

Steele's Work. --- Steele's writings are unequal, and every one agrees that they lack the peculiar charm and finish of Addison's; but their purpose is as high, their pathos at times warmer and deeper. It was Steele, moreover, who led the way in which Addison followed, who originated what Addison brought to perfection. We may then respect Steele, knowing what he did and what he was. As for my labours," he writes, "if

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