Queen Anne Prose
From George Saintsbury’s Short History of English Literature (1907):
(From BOOK VIII - THE AUGUSTAN AGES )
CHAPTER IV: QUEEN ANNE PROSE
Swift—His life—His verse—His prose—His quality and achievement—The Essayists—Steele—His plays—Addison’s life—His miscellaneous work—His and Steele’s Essays—Bentley—Middleton—Arbuthnot—Atterbury—Bolingbroke—Butler and other divines—Shaftesbury—Mandeville—Berkeley—Excellence of his style—Defoe.
JOHN DUNTON, the eccentric bookseller mentioned at the close of the last chapter, refers to a certain "scoffing Tubman," with whose identity neither he, extensive and peculiar as was his knowledge of literary London, nor almost any one else, was then acquainted. The reference is, of course, to the Tale of a Tub, published anonymously in 1704—the first great book, either in prose or verse, of the eighteenth century, and in more ways than one the herald and champion of its special achievements in literature. Jonathan Swift,1 its author, one of the very greatest names in English literature, was, like his connections Dryden and Herrick, a plant of no very early development. He had been born as far back as 1667, and his earlier literary productions had been confined to wretched Pindaric odes, some of them contributed to Dunton’s own papers, and drawing down upon him that traditional and variously quoted sentence of his great relative, "Cousin Swift, you will never be a [Pindaric] poet," which is said to have occasioned certain ill-natured retorts on Dryden later. Swift’s origin, like his character and genius, was purely English, but an accident caused him to be born in Dublin, and other accidents brought about his education in Ireland. His father died before his birth, and his mother was very poor: but his paternal uncle paid for his education at Kilkenny Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin. He entered Trinity very early, in 1682, and seems to have been neither happy nor successful there, though there may have been less disgrace than has sometimes been thought in his graduation speciali gratia, and not by the ordinary way of right, in 1686.
He was still under twenty, and for some years found no better connection than a secretaryship in the house of his distant connection, Sir William Temple. In 1694 he went to Ireland, was ordained, and received a small living, but in two years returned to Temple, in whose house he met "Stella," Esther Johnson, his lifelong friend and, as seems most probable, latterly his wife. Temple died in 1699, leaving Swift a small legacy and his literary executorship. He once more returned to Ireland, acted as secretary to Lord-Deputy Berkeley, received some more small preferments, though not such as he wanted, and spent the first decade of the century at Laracor, his chief benefice, and London, where he was a sort of agent for the Archbishop of Dublin. He had all this time been a kind of Whig in politics, but with a strong dislike to Whig anti-clericalism and some other differences; and about 1710 he joined the new Tory party under Harley and St. John, and carried on vigorous war against the Whigs in The Examiner, though he did not break personal friendship with Addison and others. His inestimable services during the four last years of Queen Anne were rewarded only with the Deanery of Dublin—it is said owing to the Queen’s pious horror of the Tale of a Tub. Swift lived chiefly in Dublin, but with occasional visits to his friends in England, for more than thirty years longer, and the events of his life, the contests of "Vanessa" and "Stella" for his hand, or at least his heart, his interference with Irish politics, his bodily sufferings, and the end which, after five terrible years of madness, painful or lethargic, came in October 1745, are always interesting and sometimes mysterious. But we cannot dwell on them here, though they have more to do with his actual literary characteristics than is often the case. His dependency in youth, his long sojourn in lettered leisure, though in bitterness of spirit, with a household the master of which was a dilettante but a distinctly remarkable man of letters, his suppressed but evidently ardent affections, his disappointment when at last he reached fame and the chance of power, and his long residence, with failing health, in a country which he hated—all these things must be taken into account, though cautiously, in considering his work.
This [His work] is of very great bulk, and in parts of rather uncertain genuineness, for Swift was strangely careless of literary reputation, published for the most part anonymously, and, intense as is his idiosyncrasy, contrived to impress it on one or two of his intimate friends, notably on Arbuthnot. It consists of both verse and prose, but the former is rarely poetry and is at its best in easy vers de société, such as Cadenus and Vanessa (the record of his passion or fancy for Esther Vanhomrigh), "Vanbrugh’s House," the pieces to Harley and others, and above all, the lines on his own death; or else in sheer burlesque or grotesque, where he has seldom been equalled, as in the famous "Mrs. Harris’s Petition," and a hundred trifles, long and short, of the same general kind. Poetry, in the strict and rare sense, Swift seldom or never touches; his chief example of it—an example not absolutely authenticated, seeing that we only possess it as quoted by Lord Chesterfield—is a magnificent fragment about the Last Judgment. Here, and perhaps only here in verse, his characteristic indignation rises to poetic heat. Elsewhere he is infinitely ingenious and humorous in fanciful whim, and, sometimes at least, infinitely happy in expression of it, the pains which, do doubt partly owing to Temple’s influence and example, he spent upon correct prose-writing being here extended and reflected in verse. For Swift, although not pedantically, or in the sense of manuals of composition, a correct writer, is so in the higher and better sense to a very unusual degree; and we know that he was better sense to a very unusual degree; and we know that he was so deliberately. Several passages, especially one in the Tatler,2 express his views on the point, and his dislike at once of the other luxuriance which it was impossible for a man of his time to relish, and of the inroad of slovenly colloquialism which we have noticed in the last chapter.
Yet if Swift had been, like his patron, and perhaps in some sort exemplar, Temple, nothing more, or little more, than a master of form in prose, his prosition in literature would be very different from that which he actually holds. His first published prose piece, the Dissenssions of Athens and Rome (an application, according to the way of the times, to contempoarary politics), contains, except in point of style, nothing very noticeable. But the anonymous volume of 1704 is compact of very different stuff. The Battle of the Books, a contribution to the "Ancient and Modern" debate on Temple’s side and in Temple’s honour, is not supreme, though very clever, admirably written and arranged, and such as no Englishman recently living, save Butler and Dryden, could have written, while Butler would have done it with more clumsiness of form, and Dryden with less lightness of fancy. The Tale of a Tub has supremacy. It may be peremptorily asserted that irreligion is neither intended nor involved in it. For nearly two centuries the ferocious controversies, first between Rome and Protestantism, then between different bodies of Protestants, had entirely blinded men to the extreme danger that the rough handling which they bestowed upon their enemies would recoil on the religion which underlay those enemies’ beliefs as well as their own. Adn this, as well as the other danger of the excessive condemnation of "enthusiasm," was not seen till long after Swift’s death. But the satire on Peter (Rome), Jack (Calvinism, or rather the extremer Protestant sects generally), and Martin (Lutheranism and Anglicanism) displays an all-pervading irony of thought, and a felicity of expressing that irony, which had never been seen in English prose before. The irony, it must be added, goes, as far as things human are concerned, very deep and very wide, and its zigzag glances at politics, philosophy, manners, the hopes and desires and pursuits and pleasures and pains of man, leave very little unscathed. There is a famous and not necessarily false story that Swift, in his sad latter days, once exclaimed, in reference to the Tale, "What a genius I had when I wrote that book!" The exclamation, if made, was amply justified. The Tale of a Tub is one of the very greatest books of the world, one of those in which a great drift of universal thought receives consummate literary form.
The decade of his Whiggery (or, as it has been more accurately described, of his neutral state with Whig leanings) saw no great bulk of work, but some exquisite examples of this same irony in a lighter kind. This was the time of the charming Argument against Abolishing Christianity (1708) and of Swift’s contributions to the Tatler, which periodical indeed owed him a great deal more than the mere borrowing of the nom de guerre—Isaac Bickerstaffe—which he had used in a seris of ingenious persecutions of the almanack-maker, Partridge. The shorter period of Tory domination was very much more prolific in bulk of work, but except in the wonderful Journal to Stella (1710-13), which was never intended for any eye but hers (and the faithful "Dingley’s"), the literary interest is a littel inferior. The Examiners are of extraordinary force and vigour; the Remarks on the Barrier Treaty (1712), the Public Spirit of the Whigs (1714), and above all the Conduct of the Allies (1711), which Johnson so strangely decried, are masterly specimens of the political pamphlet. The largest work of this time, the History of the Four Last Years of Queen Anne, is sometimes regarded as doubtfully genuine, though there is no conclusive reason for ruling it out.
His very greatest prose work, however, dates from the last thirty years of his life, and especially from the third, fourth and firth lustres of this time, for the last was darkened by his final agony, and in the first decade he was too marked a man to venture on writing what might have brought upon him the exile of Atterbury or the prison of Harley and Prior. He began at once, however, a curious kind of Irish patriotism, which was in fact nothing but an English Fronde. In 1724 some jobbery about a new copper coinage in Ireland gave him a subject, and he availed himself of this in the Drapier’s Letters with almost miraculous skill; while two years later came the greatest of all his books, greater for method, range, and quiet mastery than even the Tale, that is to say Gulliver’s Travels. The short but consummate Modest Proposal for eating Irish children, the pair to the Argument against Abolishing Christianity, as a short example of the Swiftian irony, came in 1729; and the chief of his important works later were the delightful Polite Conversation (1738), probably written or at least begun much earlier, in which the ways and speeches of ordinary good society are reproduced with infinite humour and spirit, and the Directions to Servants, almost as witty, but more marked with Swift’s ugliest fault, a coarseness of idea and language, which seems rather the result of positive and individual disease than the survival of Restoration license.
His quality and achievement
There is no doubt that on the whole Swift’s peculiar powers, temper, and style are shown in his one generally known book as well as anywhere else. The absence of the fresher, more whimsical, and perhaps even deeper, irony and pessimism of the Tale of a Tub, and the loss of self-control indicated in the savage misanthropy of the Hoyhnhnms finale, are compensated by a more methodical and intelligible scheme, by the charm of narrative, by range and variety of subject, and by the abundance of little lively touches which that narrative suggests and facilitates. The mere question of the originality of the scheme is, as usual, one of the very slightest importance. Swift had predecessors, if he had not patterns, in Lucian and in scores of other writers down to and beyond Cyrano de Bergerac. The idea, indeed, of combining the interest and novelty of foreign travel with an obvious satire on "travellers’ tales," and a somewhat less obvious one on the follies, vices, and contrasted foibles of mankind, is not beyond tthe range of an extremely moderate intellect, and could never be regarded as the property or copyright even of the greatest. It is the astonishing vigour and variety of Swift’s dealing with this public stuff that craves notice: and twenty times the space here available would be too little to do justice to that. The versatility with which the picture—it can hardly even at its worst be called the caricature—of mankind is adjusted to the different meridians of the little people the giants, the pedants, the unhappy inmortals, and the horses—the dexterous relief of the satirists’ lash with the mere tickling of the humourist—the wonderful prodigality of power and the more wonderful economy of words and mere decorations—all these things deserve the most careful study, and the most careful study will not in the least intefere with, but will only enhance, the perpetual enjoyment of them.
It only remains to point out very briefly the suitableness of the style to the work. Swift’s style is extremely unadorned, though the unfailing spirit of irony prevents it from being, exept to the most poor and unhappy tastes, in the very least degree flat. Though not free from grammatical licenses, it is on the whole corret enough, and is perfectly straightforward and clear. There may be a very different meaning lurking by way of innuendo behind Swift’s literal and grammatical sense, but that sense itself can never be mistaken. Further, he has—unless he deliberately assumes them as the costumes of a part he is playing—absolutely no distinguishing tricks or manners, no catchwords, and in especial no unusual phrases or vocables either imitated or invented. In objecting to neologisms, as he did very strongly, he was perhaps critically in the wrong; for a language which ceases to grow dies. But, like some, though by no means all, similar objectors, he has justified his theory by his practice. In fact, if intellectual genius and literary art be taken together, no prose-writer, who is a prose-writer mainly, is Swift’s superior, and a man might be hard put to it to say who among such writers in the plainer English can be pronounced his equal.
It has been sid that it is hard to settle the credit of the invention of the Queen Anne Essay, in which the characteristic of the later Augustan period was chiefly shown. For years before it appeared, the essay-writers, from Bacon to Temple on the one hand, and the journalists, of whom the most remarkable were mentioned at the close of the last chapter, on the other, had been bearing down nearr and nearer to this particular point. The actual starting is usually assigned to the Review of a greater than any of these journalists, Daniel Defoe, who will, however, find a more suitable place later in this chapter. And it is noteworthy that Swift, whose fertility in ideas was no less remarkable than the nonchalance with which he abandoned them or sugggested them to his friends, was most intimate with Steele and Addison just at the time of the appearance of the Tatler, lent it a nom de guerre, wrote for it, and may in different metaphors be said to have given it inspiration, atmosphere, motive power, launch. But it was undoubtedly set agoing under the management of another person, Steele, and he need not be deprived of the honour.
Richard Steele was born in Dublin in March 1672, but he had little to do with Ireland afterwards. His school was the Charterhouse, and from it he went to Merton College at Oxford, where he was postmaster. But though he made some stay at the University he took no degree, and left it for the army, beginning as a cadet or gentlemen volunteer in the second Life Guards, whence he passed as an ensign to the Coldstreams and as a captain to Lucas’s foot. He became Gazetteer in 1707, and a little later engaged, with more zeal than discretion, in Whig politics, being expelled from the House of Commons in the turbulent last years of Anne. The success of the Hanoverians restored him to fortune, or the chance of it, and he was knighted and made patentee of Drury Lane. But he was always a spendthrift and a speculator, and in his later years he had to retire to an estate which his second wife (an heiress in Wales as the first had been in the West Indies) had brougth him near Caermarthen. He died there in 1729. His letters and even his regular works tell us a great deal about his personality, which, especially as contrasted with that of Addison, has occasioned much writing.
Steele’s desertion of the University for the army might not seem to argue a devotion to the Muses. But he began3 while still a soldier by a book of devotion, The Christian Hero (1701), and it was not in him, whatever it might have been in another, at all inconsistent to turn to play-writing, in which occupation he observed, though not excessively, the warnings of Jeremy Collier. The Tatler (1709) opened his true vein, and in it, in the Spectator, in the Guardian, in the Englishman, Lover, and other periodicals, he displayed a faculty for miscellany more engaging, though much less accomplished, than Addison’s own. In the political articles of this series, and still more in his political pamphlets, he is at his worst, for he had no argumentative faculty, and was utterly at the mercy of such an opponent as Swift. The Conscious Lovers, his most famous play, was late (1722) and is distinguished, amid the poor plays between Farquhar and Sheriden, for its mixture of briskness and amiability. There was a third ingredient, sentimentality, which is indeed sufficiently prominent in Steele’s earlier comedies, The Funeral (1701), The Lying Lover (1703), and The Tender Husband (1705), and by no means absent from his essays. But, with a little allowance, it adds to these latter a charm which, though it may be less perceptible to later generations than it was to those who had sickened at the ineffable brutality of the time immediately preceding, can still be felt.
Of the plays, though all endeavor to carry out Collier’s principles, The Conscious Lovers is the only one which deserves Fielding’s raillery, through Parson Adams, as to its being "as good as a sermon," which Hazlitt has rather unfairly extended to all. Even The Conscious Lovers contains, in the scenes between Tom and Phyllis, pictures of flirtation belowstaires shich, with all Steele’s tenderness and good feeling, have nearly as much vivacity as any between the most brazen varlets and baggages of the Restoration dramatists. The Lying Lover, an adaptation of Le Menteur, is of no great merit, perhaps because it also has a slight tendency to sermonising. But The Funeral, though very unnatural in plot and decidedly unequal in character, contains a famous passage of farcical comedy between an undertaker and his mates, and a good though rascally lawyer. The most uniformly amusing of the four is The Tender Husband, though the appropriateness of the title is open to question. The pair of innocents, the romantic heiress Biddy Tipkin and the clumsy heir Humphry Gubbin, are really diverting, and in the first case to no small extent original; while they have furnished hints to no less successors than Fielding, Goldsmith, Sheridan, and Miss Austen. The lawyer and the gallant are also distinctly good, and the aunt has again furnished hints for Mrs. Malaprop, as Biddy has for Lydia. Steele, who always confessed, and probably as a rule exaggerated, his debts to Addison, acknowledges them here; and there is a certain Addisonian tone about some of the humours, though Steele was quite able to have supplied them. Fond as he was of the theatre, however, and familiar with it, he had little notion of constructing a play, and his morals constantly tripped up his art. The essay, not the drama, was his real field.
The almost inextricable entanglement of the work of Steele with Addison’s, and the close connection of the two in life, have always occasioned a set of comparison, not to the advantage of one, now to that of the other, in literary history; and there is probably more loss than gain in the endeavour to separate them sternly. We may therefore best give Addison’s life, and such short sketch of his books as is possible now, and then consider together the work, still in parts not very clearly attributable to one more than to the other, which gives them, and must always give them, an exalted place in English literature.
Joseph Addison4 was born, like Steele, in 1672, but in May instead of March. His father, Lancelot Addison, was a divine of parts and position, who became Dean of Lichfield. His mother’s name was Jane Gulston. After experience of some country schools, at one of which he is said to have shared in a "barring-out," he, like Steele, went to the Charterhouse and then to Oxford, where he was first at Queen’s then at Magdalen, holding a demyship, taking his Master’s degree in 1693, and being elected to a Fellowship in 1697, at the latter college, where "Addison’s Walk" preserves his name. He made early acquaintance with Dryden, but adopted Whig politics; and, by the influence of Montague, obtained in 1699 a travelling pension of £300 a year. He discharged the obligation loyally, remaining four years abroad, visiting most parts of the Continent, and preparing, if not finishing, his only prose works of bulk, the Remarks on Italy (1704) and the Dialogues on Medals, not published till later. But when he came back in 1703, Halifax was out of favour, his pension was stopped, and, having broken off his University career by his failure to take orders, he was for some time in doubtful prospects. But his poem of The Campaign, in which he celebrated Blenheim (1704), with one fine passage and a good deal of platitude, gained high reputation in the dearth of poetical accomplishment, and the short summer of favour for men of letters, which followed Dryden’s death; and he was made a Commissioner of Excise.
This was the first of a long series of appointments, official and diplomatic, which was not, thanks to Swift, entirely interrupted even during the Tory triumph, and which enabled Addison, who had been in 1703 nearly penniless, to lay out, in 1711, £10,000 on an estate in Warwickshire. It culminated in 1717, after the Hanoverian triumph, by his being appointed Secretary of State, which office he held but a short time, resigning it for a large pension. He had a year before married the Countess Dowager of Warwick, and he died of dropsy at Holland House in 1719, aged only forty-seven. His character has been discussed, not with acrimony, for no one can dislike Addison, but with some heat. He had none of the numerous foibles of which Steele was guilty, except a rather too great devotion to wine. But the famous and magnificent "Character of Atticus," by Pope, is generally supposed by all but partisans to be at best a poisoned dart, which hit true. His correct morality —the Bohemian philosopher Mandeville called him "a parson in a tie-wig"—has been set down to cold-bloodedness, and there has even been noticeable dissension about the relative amount of literary genius in him and in Steele.
His miscellaneous work
As noticed already, Addison’s literary work outside periodicals is by no means small. His early Latin poems are very clever, and very happy in their artificial way. Of his English verse nothing has survived, except his really beautiful hymns, where the combination of sincere religious feelings (of the sincerity of Addison’s religion there is absolutely no doubt, though it was of a kind now out of fashion) and of critical restraint produced things of real, though modest and quiet, excellence. "The Lord my pasture shall prepare," "The spacious firmament on high," and "How are thy servants blest! O Lord," may lack the mystical inspiration of the greatest hymns, but their cheerful piety, their graceful use of images, which, though common, are never mean, their finish and even, for the time, their fervour make them singularly pleasant. The man who wrote them may have had foibles and shortcomings, but he can have had no very grave faults, as the authors of more hysterical and glowing compositions easily might.
The two principal prose works are little read now, but they are worth reading. They show respectable learning (with limitations admitted by such a well-qualified and well-affected critic as Macaulay), they are excellent examples (though not so excellent as the Essays) of Addison’s justly famous prose, and they exhibit, in the opening of the Medals and in all the descriptive passages of the Italy, the curious insensibility of the time to natural beauty, or else its almost more curious inability to express what it felt, save in the merest generalities and commonplaces.
The three plays at least indicate Addison’s possession, though in a much less degree, of his master Dryden’s general faculty of literary craftsmanship. The opera of Rosamond is, indeed, clearly modelled on Dryden in its serious parts, but is no great success there. The lighter and more whimsical quality of Addison’s humour enabled him to do better in the farcical passages, which, especially in the speeches of Sir Trusty, sometimes have a singularly modern and almost Gilbertian quality to them. The comedy of The Drummer, where a Wiltshire tradition is used to make a play on a theme not entirely different from Steele’s Funeral (in each a husband is thought to be dead when he is not), contains, like Steele’s own pieces, some smart "words," but no very good dramatic situation or handling. It is, also like Steele’s, an attempt to write Restoration drama in the fear of Jeremy Collier. Cato, the most famous, is at this time of day by far the least interesting. Its universally known stock-pieces give almost all that it has of merit in versification and style; as a drama it has an uninteresting plot, wooden characters, and a great absence of life and idiosyncrasy.
His and Steele’s Essays
It is very different when we turn to the Essays. The so-called Essay which Steele launched in the Tatler, which was taken up and perfected in the Spectator, which had numerous immediate followers, and a succession of the greatest importance at intervals throughout the century, and which at once expressed and influenced the tone and thought of that century after a fashion rarely paralleled, was not originally started in quite the form which it soon assumed, and never, for the greater part of a hundred years, wholly lost. Naturally enough, Steele at first endeavoured to make it a newspaper, as well as a miscellany and review. But by degrees, and before very long, news was dropped, and comment, in the form of special essays, of "letters to the editor," sometimes real, oftener manufactured, of tales and articles of all the various kinds which have subsisted with no such great change till the present day, reigned alone. As Addison’s hand prevailed—though literature, religion, and even politics now and then, the theatre very often, and other things were not neglected—the main feature of the two papers, and especially of the Spectator, became a kind of light but distinctlyfirm censorship of manners, especially the part of them nearest to morals, and of morals, especially the part of them nearest to manners. Steele, always zealous and always generous, but a little wanting in criticism, not infrequently diverged into sentimentality. Addison’s
tendency, though he, too, was unflinchingly on virtue’s side, was rather towards a very mellow and not unindulgent but still quite distinctly cynical cynicism—a smile too demure ever to be a grin, but sometimes, except on religious subjects, faintly and distantly approaching a sneer. This appears even in the most elaborate and kindly of the imaginative creations of the double series, Sir Roger de Coverley, whom Steele indeed seems to have invented, but whom Addison adopted, perfected, and (some, perhaps without reason, say) even killed out of kindness, lest a less delicate touch should take the bloom out of him. This great creation, which comes nearer than anything out of prose fiction or drama to the masterpieces of the novelists and dramatists, is accompanied by others hardly less masterly; while Addison is constantly, and Steele not seldom, has sketches or touches as perfect in their way, though less elaborate. It is scarcely too much to say that these papers, and especially the Spectator, taught the eighteenth century ho it should, and especially how it should not, behave in public places, from churches to theatres; what books it should like, and how it should like them; how it should treat its lovers, mistresses, husbands, wives, parents, and friends; that it might politely sneer at operas, and must not take any art except literature too seriously; that a moderate and refined devotion to the Protestant religion and the Hanoverian succession was the duty, though not the whole duty, of a gentleman.It is still a little astonishing to find with what docility the century obeyed and learnt its lesson. Addison died a little before, Steele not much after, its first quarter closed; et in the lighter work of sixty or seventy years later we shall find, with the slightest differences of external fashion, the laws of the Spectator held still by "the town" with hardly a murmur, by the country without the slightest hesitation. In particular, those papers taught the century how to write; and the lesson was accepted on this point with almost more unhesitating obedience than on any other. The magnificent eulogy of Johnson, who had himself deviated not a little, though perhaps unconsciously, from Addisonian practice, would have been disputed by hardly any one who reached manhood in England between the Peace of Utrecht and the French Revolution; and, abating its exclusiveness a little, it remains true still.
Steele, though he has some rarer flights than his friend, is much less correct, and much less polished; while, though he had started with equal chances, his rambling life had stored him with far less learning than Addison possessed. The latter, while he never reached the massive strength and fiery force of Swift, did even more than Swift himself to lift English prose out of the rut, or rather quagmire, of colloquialism and slovenliness in which, as we have seen, it was sinking. He could even though he rarely did, rise to a certain solemnity—caught, it may be, from Temple, who must have had much influence on him. But, like Temple’s, though with a more modern, as well as a more varied and completely polished, touch, his style was chiefly devoted to the "middle" subjects and manners. He very rarely attempts sheer whimsical fooling. But he can treat all the subjects that come within the purview and interests of a well-bred man of this world, who by no means forgets the next, in a style quite inimitable in its golden mediocrity—well-informed, without being in the least pedantic; moral, without direct preaching (unless he gives forewarning); slightly superior, but with no provoking condescensioin in it; polite, without being frivolous or finicking; neat, but not overdressed; easy, but, as Johnson justly states, never familiar in any offensive degree. It is easier to feel enthusiasm about Steele, who had so much, than about Addison, who at any rate shows so little; and on the character, the genius, the originality, of the two there may always be room for dispute. But it seems incredible that any one should deny to Addison the credit of being by far the greater artist, and of having brought his own rather special, rather limited, but peculiar and admirable division of art to a perfection seldom elsewhere attained in letters. These three greatest writers were surrounded by others hardly less than great. Arbuthnot, Atterbury, Bentley, Bolingbroke, Mandeville, the younger Shaftesbury, Berkeley, Butler, Middleton, were all either actual contributors to the great periodical series, or intimately connected with those who wrote these, or (which is of equal importance to us) at any rate exponents of the extremely plain prose style, which required the exquisite concinnity of Addison, the volcanic and Titanic force and fire of Swift, or the more than Attic stateliness and grace of Berkeley, to sabe it from being too plain. The order in which they are to be mentioned is unimportant, and few can have more than very brief space, but none must pass unnoticed.
Richard Bentley, a very great classical scholar, and no mean writer of English, was a Yorkshire man, born in 1662, and educated at Wakefield. He went early to St. John’s College, Cambridge, was taken as a private tutor into the household of Stillingfleet, took orders not very early, was made King’s Librarian in 1694, engaged, and was completely victorious, in the Ancient and Modern Controversy, especially in reference to the Epistles of Phalaris; was made Master of Trinity in 1699, and passed nearly the whole of his more than forty years of mastership, till his death in 1742, in a desperate struggle with his college, wherein, if his adversaries were unscrupulous, he was no less so, while the right was on the whole rather against him, though his bull-dog tenacity has won most commentators on the matter to his side. There is at any rate no doubt of his learning, his logical power, and his very real, though gruff and horseplayful, humour. To merely English literature he stands6 in two very different relations. His almost incredibly absurd emendations on Milton would, if the thing were not totally alien from the spirit of the man, seem like a designed parody on classical scholarship itself. But his writing, especially in the famous Phalaris dissertation, and in the remarks of the Deist Collins, is extraordinarily vigorous and vivid. His birth-date, probably even more than a design to avoid the reproach of pedantry, made him colloquial, homely, and familiar down to the very level from which Swift and Addison tried to lift, and to a great extent succeeded in lifting prose; but his native force and his wide learning save him, though sometimes with difficulty, from the merely vulgar.
Conyers Middleton, Bentley’s most deadly enemy, was, like Bentley, a Yorkshireman, but was much younger, having been born at Richmond in 1683. He went to Trinity young, and was not only a Fellow thereof, but connected throughout his life with Cambridge, by his tenure of the offices of University Librarian from 1722 onwards, and Woodwardian Professor of Geology for a time. He was a man of property, was thrice married, and held several livings till his death in 1750, though his orthodoxy was, in his own times and afterwards, seriously impugned.
This does not concern us here, though it may be observed that Middleton may be cleared from anything but a rather advanced stage of the latitudinarianism and dislike of "enthusiasm" which was generally felt by the men of his time, and which invited—indeed necessitated—the Evangelical and Methodist revolt. So, too, we need not busy ourselves much with the question whether he directly plagiarised, or only rather breely borrowed from the Scotch Latinist, Bellenden, in his longest and most famous prose work, the Life of Cicero (1741). Besides this, he wrote two controversial works of length—ostensibly directed against Popery, certainly against extreme supernaturalism, and, as his enemies will have it, covertly against Christianity—entitled A Letter from Rome, showing an exact Conformity between Popery and Paganism (1729), and A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have existed in the Christian Church (1748); with a large number of small pamphlets on a variety of subjects, in treating which he showed wide culture and intelligence. His place here, however, is that of the most distinguished representative of the absolutely plain style—not colloquial and vernacular like Bentley’s, but on the other hand attempting none of the graces which Addison and Berkeley in their different ways achieved—a style more like the plainer Latin or French styles than like anything else in English.
John Arbuthnot,8 the "moon" of Swift, born 1667, came of the noble family of that name in Kincardineshire, but went to Oxford, and spent all the latter part of his life in London, where he was physician to Queen Anne, a strong Tory, and an intimate friend of Swift and Pope. He died in 1735, much respected and beloved. Arbuthnot’s literary fate, or rather the position which he deliberately chose, was peculiar. It is very difficult to identify much of his work, and what seems certainly his (especially the famous History of John Bull and The Memoirs of Scriblerus) is exceedingly like Swift, and was pretty certainly produced in concert with that strange genius, who, unlike some animals, never took colour from his surroundings, but always gave them his own. It is, however, high enough praise that Arbuthnot, at the best of his variable work, is not inferior to anything but the very best of Swift. There is the same fertility and the same unerringness of irony; and, if we can distinguish, it is only that a half or wholly good-natured amusement takes the place of Swift’s indignation.
Francis Atterbury,9 born in Buckinghamshire in 1672, a distinguished Christ Church man, who, after being head of his house, obtained the bishopric of Rochester and the Deanery of Westminster in succession to Sprat, was the divine and scholar of the extreme Tory party, as Arbuthnot was their man of science. He has been accused not merely of conspiring after the Hanoverian succession, but of denying it, and sailing too near perjury in this denial. Of this there is no sufficient proof, and we must remember that the political ethics of the age were extremely accomodating. He was at any rate attained, and banished (in 1723) to France, where he died nine years later. A brilliant and popular preacher, a pleasant letter-writer, a most dangerous controversialist and debater, and a good critic (though he made the usual mistakes of his age about poetry before Waller), Atterbury wrote in a style not very unlike Addison’s, though inferior to it.
The huge contemporary fame of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke,10 and its rapid and lasting decline after his death, are among the commonplaces of literary history. He was born in 1678, passed through Eton and Christ Church, entered Parliament very early, was Secretary for War at six-and-twenty, climbed with Harley to power, and contrived to edge his companion "out," but remained "in" himself only a few days, fled to the Continent, returned to England and recovered his estates, but not his seat in Parliament, in 1723, organised and carried out the English Fronde against Walpole, and died in 1751. His career—for he was as famous for "wildness" as for success—was one of those which specially appeal to the vulgar, and are not uninteresting even to unvulgar tastes. He was beyond question one of the greatest orators of his day, and he was extravagantly praised by his friends, who happened to include the chief poet and the greatest prose writer of the time. Yet hardly any one who for generations has opened the not few volumes of his works has closed them without more or less than profound disappointment. Bolinbroke, more than any other English writer, is a rhetorician pure and simple; and it was his misfortune, first, that the subjects of his rhetoric were not the great and perennial subjects, but puny ephemeral forms of them—the partisan and personal politics of his day, the singularly shallow form of infidelity called Deism, and the like—and, secondly, that his time deprived him of many, if not most, of the rhetorician’s most telling weapons. The Letter to Windham (1716), a sort of apologia, and the Ideal of a Patriot King (1749) exhibit him at his best.
Butler and Other Divines
Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761), a pluralist courtier, and more than doubtfully orthodox divine on the Whig side, held four sees in succession, in one at least of which he was the cause of much literature, or at least many books, by provoking the famous "Bangorian" controversy. He himself wroter clearly and well. Nor can the same praise be denied to Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) philosopher, physicist, and divine. There is more diversity of opinion about the purely literary merites, as distinguished from the unquestioned claims in religious philosophy, of Bishop Joseph Butler, who was born at Wantage in 1692, left Nonconformity for the Church, went to Oriel, became preacher at the Rolls Chapel, Rector of Stanhope, Bishop of Bristol, Dean of St. Paul’s, and, lastly, Bishop of Durham, owing these appointments to no cringing or intrigue, but to his own great learning, piety, wisdom, and churchmanship, fortunately backed by Queen Caroline’s fancy for philosophy. Butler’s Sermons, published in 1726, and his Analogy of Natural and Revealed Religion ten years later, occasionally contain aphorisms of beauty equal to their depth; but it is too much to claim "crispness and clearness" for his general style,11 which is, on the contrary, too often obscure and tough.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, the third of his names and title, the grandson of "Achitophel," and the son of the "shapeless lump" (a phrase for which he never forgave Dryden), was born in 1671. His mother was Lady Dorothy Manners. He was brought up partly by a learned lady, and partly by Locke. He was for three years at Winchester, went to no University , and travelled a good deal abroad. He sat for a short time in the House of Commons, but made no figure there or in the House of Lords, where, during nearly the whole time of his tenure of the earldom (1699-1713), politics, whether Whig or Tory, were of too rough a cast for his dilettantism. He died, after more foreign travel, in 1713. His writings, scattered and not extensive, had been collected two years before as Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.12 Shaftesbury was an original and almost powerful thinker and writer, spoilt by an irregular education, a sort of morbid aversion from English thought generally, an early attack of Deism, and a strong touch of affectation. Much harm has been done to him by Lamb’s description of his style as "genteel," a word in Lamb’s time and later not connoting the snobbishness which has for half a century been associated with it. "Superfine," the usual epithet, is truer; though Dr. George Cambpell, an excellent critic, was somewhat too severe13 on Shaftesbury’s Gallicisms, and his imprudent and rather amateurish engagement in the Deist controversy of the time caused him to be broken a little too ruthlessly on the wheel, adamantine in polish as in strength, of Berkeley in Alciphron. His central doctrine, that ridicule is the test of truth, as well as his style, are in reality caricatures of Addison, though the dates preclude any notion of plagiarism. He is full of suggestion, and might have been a great thinker and writer.
Shaftesbury’s superfineness and his optimism seem to have had at least a considerable share in provoking the cynical pessimism of another remarkable thinker of this time, Bernard Mandeville, or de Mandeville,14 a Dutchman, born at Dordrecht about 1670, who came early to London, attained a singular mastery in English, practised physic, and died in 1733. There is some mystery, and probably some mystification, about the origin of The Grumbling Hive, better known by its later title of The Fable of the Bees. No edition earlier than 1705 is known, but Mandeville claimed a much earlier date for it. About nine years later a reprint, in 1714, drew attention, and after yet another nine years another was "presented" by the Grand Jury of Middlesex, and fiercely denounced by men of such importance as law and Berkeley. The book, which was constantly enlarged, is in its final form a cluster of prose tractates, with a verse nucleus (the original piece) showing how vice made some bees happy, and virtue made them miserable. A good deal of other work, some certainly and some probably spurious, is attributed to Mandeville, who is the Diogenes of English philosophy. An exceedingly charitable judgment may impute to deliberate paradox, and to irritation at Shaftesbury’s airy gentility, his doctrine that private vices are public benefits; but the gusto with which he caricatures and debases everything pure and noble and of good report is, unluckily, too genuine. He thought, however, with great force and acuteness, despite his moral twist; he had a strong, fertile, and whimsical humour; and his style, plebeian as it is, may challenge comparison with the most famous literary vernaculars in English for racy individuality.
If, however, Shaftesbury has rather too much of the peacock, and Mandeville a great deal too much of the polecat, about him, no depreciatory animal comparison need be sought or feared for George Berkeley, the best-praised man of his time, and among the most deserving of praise. He was born in 1685 near Kilkenny, and was educated first, like swift and Congreve earlier, at its famous grammar school, and then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he made a long residence, and wrote his chief purely philosophical works. In 1713 he went to London , and was introduced to the wits by Swift, after which he travelled on the Continent for several years. He was made Dean of Derry in 1724, went with missionary schemes, which were defeated, to North America, but returned, in 1731, and published the admirable dialogues of Alciphron. He was made Bishop of Cloyne in 1714, and for eighteen years resided in his diocese. A few months before his death, in 1753, he had gone, in bad health, to Oxford, and he died there.
Berkeley’s principal works,15 or groups of works, are first—The Theory of Vision (1709), The Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and the Dialogues of Hylas [Materialist] and Philonous [partisan of mind], in which, continuing the Lockian process of argument against innate ideas, he practically re-established them by a further process of destruction, and brought down on himself a great deal of very ignorant attack or banter for his supposed denial of matter. The above-mentioned Alciphron; or, the Minute Philosopher, is a series of dialogues, in which the popular infidelity of the day, whether optimist like Shaftesbury’s, pessimistical like Mandeville’s, or one-sidedly critical like that of the Deists proper, is attacked in a fashion which those who sympathise with the victims accuse of occasional unfairness, but which has extraordinay cogency as polemic, and extraordinary brilliance as literature. His last important work was Siris, and odd miscellany, advocating tar-water for the body, and administering much excellent mysticism to the soul; but he wrote some minor things, and a good many letters, diaries, etc., which were not fully published till the later years of the present century [19th].
Excellence of his style
Unusually good as a man, and unusually great as a philosopher, Berkeley would have stood in the first rank as a mere writer had his character been bad or unknown, and the matter of his writings unimportant. The charm of his style is at once so subtle and so pervading that it is extremely difficult to separate and define it. He has no mannerisms; although he is a most accomplished ironist, he does not depend upon irony for the seasoning of his style, as, in different ways, do Addison and Swift; he can give the plainest and most unadorned exposition of an abstruse, philosophical doctrine with perfect literary grace. And (as, for instance, in Lysicles’ version of Mandeville’s vices-and-benefits argument) he can saturate a long passage with satiric innuendo, never once breaking out into direct tirade or direct burlesque. He can illustrate admirably, but he is never the dupe of his illustrations. He is clearer even than Hobbes and infinitely more elegant, while his dialect and arrangement, though originally arrived at for argumentative purposes, or at least in argumentative works, are equally suited for narrative, for dialogue, for description, for almost every literary end. Were it not for the intangibleness, and therefore the inimitableness, of his style, he would be an even better general model than Addison; and, as it is, he is unquestionably the best model in English, if not in any language, for philsoophical, and indeed for argumentative, writing generally.
Daniel Defoe,16 the link between the great essayists of the earlier and the great novelists of the middle years of the eighteenth century—one of the most voluminous and problematical of English writers, as well as one of all but the greatest—a man, too, of very questionable life and character—could not be fully discussed in any compendious history of English literature. But luckily it is by no means necessary that he should be so discussed, the strictly literary lines of his work being broad and clear, and the problems both of it and of his life being such as may, without any loss, be left to the specialist. He was born, it would seem, in 1659 (not , as used to be though, 1661) in the heart of London, St. Giles’s, Cripplegate, where his father (whose name was certainly Foe) was a butcher. It is not known for what reason or cause Daniel, when more than fifty, assumed the "de," sometimes as separate particle, sometimes in composition. He was well educated, but instead of becoming a Nonconformist minister, took to trade, which at intervals and in various forms (stocking-selling, tile-making, etc.) he pursued with no great luck. He seems to have been a partaker in Monmouth’s rebellion, and was certainly a good deal abroad in the later years of the seventeenth century, but he early took to the vocation of pamphleteering, which, with journalism and novel-writing, gave his three great literary courses. The chief among the many results of this was the famous Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), a statement of the views of the extreme "Highflying" or High Church party, in which some have seen irony, but which really is the exact analogue in argument of his future fictions, that is to say, an imitation of what he wanted to represent so close that it looks exactly like fact. He was prosecuted, fined, pilloried, and imprisoned, but in the growing Whig temper of the nation, the piece was undoubtedly very effective.
For the greater part of the reign of Queen Anne, and at first in prison, Defoe carried on, from 1704 to 1713, his famous Review, the prototype to some extent of the great later periodicals, but written entirely by himself. Before he had been long in prison he was liberated by Harley, of whose statesmanship, shifting in method, and strangely compounded of Toryism and Whiggery in principle, Defoe became a zealous secret agent. He had a great deal to do with negotiating the Union with Scotland. Nor did Harley’s fall put an end to his engagement in subterranean branches of the public service; for it has long been known that under the House of Hanover he discharged the delicate, or indelicate, part ofa Tory journalist, secretly paid by the Whig Government to tone down and take the sting out of Mist’s Journal and other opposition papers. He lived for a good many years longer, and did his best literary work in his latest period; but at the last he experienced some unexplained revolution of fortune, and died at Moorfields, in concealment and distress, in 1731.
Of Defoe’s, in the strictest sense, innumerable works the following catalogue of the most importan may serve: —Essay on Projects (1698), an instance of the restless tendency of the time towards commercial and social improvements, and of Defoe’s own fertility; The True-Born Englishman (1701), an argument in vigorous though most unpoetical verse to clear William from the disability of his foreign origin; the Hymn to the Pillory (1703), composed on the occasion of his exhibition in that implement, still more vigorous and a little less unpoetical; the curious political satire of the Consolidator (1705); the masterly Relation of Mrs. Veal, the first instance of his wonderful "lies like truth"; Jure Divino (1706), worse verse and also worse sense than The True-Born Englishman. But the best of these is poor compared with the great group of fiction of his later years — Robinson Crusoe (1719), Duncan Campbell, Memoirs of a Cavalier, and Captain Singleton (all produced in 1720), Moll Flanders, the History of the Plague, and Colonel Jack (all in 1722), Roxana (1724), and A New Voyage Round the World (1725). Besides these, he published in his later years, as he had in his earlier, a crowd of works, small and great, political, topographical, historical, moral, and miscellaneous.
It is not of much use to discuss Defoe’s moral character, and it is sincerely to be hoped that no more revelations concerning it will turn up, inasmuch as each is more damaging than the last, except to those, who have succeeded in taking his true measure once for all. It is that of a man who, with no high, fine, or poetical sentiment to save him, shared to the full the partisan enthusiasm of his time, and its belief that all was fair in politics. His literary idiosyncrasy is more comfortable to handle. He was a man of extraordinary industry and versatility, who took an interest, subject to the limitations of his temperament, in almost everything, whose brain was wonderfully fertile, and who had a style, if not of the finest or most exquisite, singularly well suited to the multifarious duties to which he put it. Also, he could give, as hardly even Bunyan had given before him, and as nobody has since, absolute verisimilitude to fictitious presentations. He seems to have done this mainly by a certain chameleon-like faculty of assuming the atmosphere and colour of his subject, and by a cunning profusion of exactly suited and selected detail. It is enough that in Robinson Crusoe he has produced, by help of this gift, a book which is, throughout its first two parts, one of the great books of the world in its particular kind; and that parts of Moll Flanders, Captain Singleton, and Colonel Jack, at least, are not inferior. Further, the "lift" which Defoe gave to the novel was enormous. He was still dependent on adventure; he did not advance mucho, if at all, beyond the more prosaic romantic scheme. But the extraordinary verisimilitude of his action could not but show the way to the last step that remained to be taken, the final projection of character.