« ZurückWeiter »
after which, of course, even in that age, they could not show themselves in the theatre.
Party spirit was as abandoned as the raging profligacy of private morals. The women were as furious in their partisanship as the men. These female supporters of the respective parties patched on different sides of their faces; so that the feminine Whigs could be distinguished from the feminine Tories.
At that time England could scarcely be said to have a polite literature. There were learned folios for scholars, and there were the dramas then being performed for the fashionable people. But there was no literature for the many. The great ladies of the age of Elizabeth had their minds higbly cultivated, and the shopkeepers and artizans of the same period could fill the benches of the theatres, and enjoy a real English drama. Besides, both the high and low in the Elizabethan age were religious, and no Protestant people, who have their Bibles and their books of devotion, can have their minds entirely brutalised. They have always thoughts and contemplations above the gross materialism of the world.
All this was changed in the period now under our consideration. A lady who could read anything but the loose effusions of gallantry and the new comedy, was ridiculed. The common people had nothing to read. The Church neglected them, the rich despised them. It would have been well if, when there was so little real religion, there had been as little bigotry; but at no time were the English so bigoted, and at no time were they so irreligious. The Ministry that was in power during the time The SPECTATOR was published, had come into office by being considered the champions of Dr. Sacheverell; the most brilliant leader of this High Church party was Henry St. John, the libertine, the infidel, the knave.
These facts must be borne in mind if we would appreciate in any de. gree the immense debt which we owe to The Spectator. English literature is now pure. The exertions of successive generations of authors, aided by an unfettered press, have put us now in a position from which we may look back with a kind of patronising contempt on The Spectator's daily Essays. But nothing could be more unjust or unwise. With all our progress, real and imaginary, many of those little Essays must ever remain as perfect and as interesting as on the day when they were first laid upon the breakfast-tables of their three thousand patrons. Mighty changes have, indeed, since then occurred. England is no longer the
England of the last years of Queen Anne's reign. We have become. greater, and it is to be hoped wiser. Yet these delightful Essays are thoroughly imbned with the English spirit, and it is this English spirit that has converted the England of 1711 into the England of 1853. When we read the Vision of Public Credit, we naturally compare the public credit of England at that time with her credit in the middle of this century. When we accompany The SPECTATOR to the Royal Exchange, and exult with him in the flourishing commerce of his day, we are irresistibly induced to compare the commerce of England then, with her commerce now, and thus our exultation is greatly increased. When we follow Sir Roger and his friend to the coffee-house, the play, and Vauxhall, we get a glimpse of the amusements of the Londoners in the reign of Queen Anne, and can compare them with the entertainments enjoyed by the Londoners in the reign of Queen Victoria. When we go with The SPECTATOR to Sir Roger de Coverley's seat, and there see English country life as it was a century and a half ago, we can compare it with the English country life in our own time, and then determine whether we have become more generous, more hospitable, more humane, and more tolerant. When we walk with the little short-faced gentleman from coffee-house to coffee-house, and listen to the various opinions of their enlightened politicians on the report of Louis the Fourteenth's death, we are reminded of the many great politicians of our own day, and of the equally contradictory and unhesitating affirmations. When we see the follies of our great-great-grandmothers so plainly brought before us, we have the means of estimating the superiority of our own wives and sisters. When we study the papers of criticism, and observe the critical code then followed by an Addison, we can most instructively compare it with the critical doctrines now professed by literary gentlemen, and we can thus understand what is real, and what is only conventional.
The first SPECTATOR was published on the 1st of March, in the year 1711. It continued daily, to December the 6th, 1712, when Steele gave an account of his contributors, acknowledged all his obligations, and gracefully took his leave. A year and a half after this time, The SPECTATOR was recommenced by Addison, who, for a considerable period, was the sole contributor. Eighty papers were then added to the 555 already published, and The Spectator finally concluded on the 20th of December, 1714.
The first paper, in which The Spectator sketches his own character,
was written by Addison, and, notwithstanding its imaginary nature, all discriminating critics have discerned in the silent short-faced philosopher, some features of resemblance to his accomplished delineator.
THE SPECTATOR is a gentleman who has always been distinguished from his cradle by a remarkable gravity. He threw away his rattle before he was two months old, and would not play with his coral until it had been dirested of its bells. At school, and more especially at college, he was erer silent and studious, and before he had finished his academical career, had applied himself so diligently, that there were very few books, either in the ancient or modern languages, with which he was unacquainted. His thirst after knowledge then induced him to visit all European countries, but his greatest achievement was a visit to Grand Cairo for the purpose of measuring a pyramid. His maturer years are spent in London ; he is among men ; but not of them: for though he is seen everywhere, he is known but to a very small and select circle of friends. The coffeehouses are his frequent resort. He is seen thrusting his head among the poets at Wills's, smoking his pipe among the parsons at Child's; on Sunday nights is invariably seen at the Fountain Head at St. James's; his face is well known even at the Cocoa Tree and the Grecian. He visits the theatres in Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and even passes occasionally for a Jew among the stockbrokers at Jonathan's. Thus he lives in the world, a looker on, but not an actor. He is, in short, one to whom Adam Smith's definition of a philosopher may be well applied. He speculates apon everything and does nothing. He is a speculative statesman, a speculative merchant, a speculative soldier, a speculative artisan, a speculative husband, a speculative father, a speculative everything but a speculative partisan. He resolves to publish a sheet full of thoughts every morning, that he may at least print himself out before he dies, contribute to the improvement and amusement of his country, and thus feel the satisfaction of not having lived in vain.
Such is THE SPECTATOR. His friends in the next chapter were sketched by Steele; but it is obvious that Addison, in the progress of the publication, gave them all their colouring and vivacity. To be convinced of this, it is only necessary to observe that the characters he did not touch much upon, remain as they were in the second paper, mere outlines, while Will Honeycomb and Sir Roger de Coverley, two portraitures to which he devoted himself, are great artistical productions which may be compared with the finest delineations in English literature. Yet there is a curious
want of harmony in the ideas of Steele and Addison, in regard to Sir Roger's character.
In the first rude sketch of the knight, in Steele's first contribution to The Spectator, Sir Roger is said to be in his fifty-sixth year. But no person can read Addison's papers about Sir Roger without perceiving that the character so beautifully exhibited is some years older. We always imagine Sir Roger to be a grey-headed country gentleman. All his servants are like himself in this respect. The butler is grey-headed, the groom one of the gravest men, and the coachman like a privy coun. cillor. There is an old house-dog and a grey pad that is carefully tended, although it has been useless for many years. When Sir Roger arrives at his house, the eyes of all the servants glisten with pleasure at the sight of their old master. He goes amongst them, and inquires kindly after everybody; in his intercourse with his dependents there is a mix. ture of the master and the father. When he coughs, or betrays the least infirmity of age, the countenances of the servants express real
This is evidently the picture of a gentleman who is beyond his fiftysixth year. His chaplain, we are also told, has lived in his house for more than thirty years. This clergyman came to Sir Roger on the recommendation of a friend at the university, whom the knight had desired to procure him a chaplain of plain sense, good aspect, clear voice, and sociable temper, and one who could perhaps play a little at backgammon. All these qualifications were united in this minister, and he was also a man of learning. When he arrived at Sir Roger's, his patron presented him with all the good English sermons, and desired him to preach one of them every Sunday. Now, if Steele's account of Sir Roger's age was to be followed, the old gentleman could not have been more than two or three and twenty when he is thus represented as a judicious patron of sense and piety. But this is inconsistent with Sir Roger's being, before his disappointment in love, a fine gentleman who supped with Lord Rochester and Sir George Etherege, fought a duel upon his first coming to town, and kicked bully Dawson for calling him “ a youngster.” It could scarcely be maintained that Sir Roger was in love with the widow before he was out of his teens, nor do fashionable young men at two or three and twenty, whatever romance writers may suppose, retire brokenhearted to their country seats, for the loss of any young lady's love, and especially for that of a young widow. This discrepancy between the
ideas of Steele and Addison, on the greatest character in The SpecTATOR, may be traced throughout all the papers in which the knight is introduced.
In the passage just quoted from Steele's paper, Sir Roger is said to Łare fought a duel on first coming to town; but Addison speaks of Sir Roger being in London when he was a stripling, and of his having been called a prick-eared cur by the Tories for asking the way to Anne's Lane, and a popish dog by the Whigs for inquiring after St. Anne's Lane. This adventure, it is expressly said, happened to Sir Roger when he was a school-boy. Addison seldom introduces Sir Roger without speaking of him as the “ old knight,” or the “ old man,” and very frequently alludes to infirmities which were natural to a person at Sir Roger's time of life. Yet a country squire at fifty-six, who had a strong constitution, and been accustomed to active exertions as a sportsman, could not be repre. sented as a venerable old man. The exquisite delicacy and purity of Addison's descriptions, of which Steele and Tickell seem not to have had the slightest perception, are evidently characteristic of an older man than Addison's fellow contributors imagined. This may account for the offence against propriety which was made in the 410th paper, and which displeased Addison so much that he is said to have declared he would kill Sir Roger, lest any one else should murder him. It was not at all in keeping with the age and character of Addison's Sir Roger, that he should be in the streets at night with Will Honeycomb, and eating and drinking with a prostitute.
If this reasoning be not sufficient to establish this curious fact in literary history, and which may not be less true because has escaped the notice of generations of sagacious critics, a comparison of Steele's account of the knight's first meeting with the widow to whom he continued so long devoted, with the paper in which Addison gives an account of the knight's death will put this disagreement of the two authors beyond dispute. Steele's having said in No. 2, that Sir Roger was in his fifty. sixth year, represents the knight, in No. 113, telling his friend that he came to his estate in his twenty-second year, and first met the widow a year afterwards at the assizes, when he was sheriff of the county. But Addison, in No. 517, on Sir Roger's death expressly says, that the knight had made love to the widow for “ the last forty years of his life.” Now had he inade love to the widow for forty years, and was then but fiftysix, be must have been enamoured before he was sixteen, have been