Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Austin Dobson
Richard Steele (1672–1729)
 
[Richard Steele, the son of an Irish attorney of the same name, was born in Dublin in March 1672, N.S. He was educated at the Charterhouse, and at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1691 he was made a postmaster of Merton. In 1694 he suddenly quitted the university to enter the army as a cadet in the second troop of Life Guards. The dedication of a poem on the death of Queen Mary to John, Lord Cutts, Colonel of the Coldstream Guards, procured him a standard in that regiment, and he subsequently became a captain in Lucas’s regiment of Foot. While still a soldier, he wrote a devotional manual called The Christian Hero, 1701. This he followed up, rather inconsequently, by a series of three comedies, beginning with The Funeral; or, Grief a-la-Mode, which was produced at Drury Lane at the close of 1701. In 1707 he was appointed Gazetteer, a post which he held for some years; and in 1709 he began the tri-weekly paper entitled The Tatler. This was succeeded by several similar efforts, of which The Spectator and The Guardian are the chief. In all of those named he had the assistance of his friend and schoolfellow Addison. While engaged on The Guardian he became involved in politics. He began to publish pamphlets in the Whig interest; entered Parliament; was expelled from it under Anne for alleged sedition; re-entered it at the accession of George I.; was knighted; became patentee of Drury Lane Theatre; wrote another comedy (The Conscious Lovers, 1722); busied himself in various ways, and finally died at Carmarthen, 1st September 1729, and was buried in St. Peter’s Church.]  1
 
FOR purposes of classification, the prose writings of Steele may be roughly divided into two groups, his pamphlets and his essays. Under the former head come the series of political tracts, beginning with The Englishman’s Thanks to the Duke of Marlborough (written when, in December 1711, the Duke was deprived of all his offices), and ending with The Crisis of Property which with its sequel, A Nation a Family, was issued about ten years before his death. To the latter division belong the essays or occasional papers which he contributed to the Tatler, Spectator, Guardian, and their more or less abortive successors, the last of which, the Theatre, was published in the same year as the Crisis of Property. Outside these two classes he did nothing, save prefaces and introductions, which can fairly be regarded as serious prose, since, despite their titles, the Account of the state of the Roman-Catholick Religion, 1715, and the Romish Ecclesiastical History of late Years 1714, are little more than pamphlets overgrown. From a passage in the Reader, it seems that he did at one time contemplate the task which, rejected by Glover and Mallet, ultimately fell to Archdeacon Coxe,—the history of the War in Flanders; but the project, like many others which emanated from his restless Irish brain, never got beyond the proposal stage. This is perhaps to be regretted. Although he at no time showed any special aptitude for labours de longue haleine, and although he never served abroad, he was not without qualifications as a military historian. He had a genuine enthusiasm for military exploits; and—as is proved by the well-known story of “Valentine and Unnion,” and by the episode of Sergeant Hall of the Foot Guards in Tatler, No. 87,—a practical sympathy with the rank and file which augured well for his success as a military annalist. Had he done no more for the campaigns of Marlborough, than Carleton’s Memoirs did for those of Peterborough, the result had still been welcome.  2
  In the meantime, the strongest believer in Steele’s personal loyalty and political integrity can scarcely, at this date, speak with approval of his excursions into faction. Even if one allows to them the fullest measure of sincerity, of common sense, and of that stubborn form of gallantry which never knows when it is worsted, it is equally clear that they were lamentably deficient in logical power, in sustained argument, and in controversial tenacity. Moreover, he had the ill-fortune to enter the lists against an adversary who was conspicuously strong in these very respects—the terrible author of the Battle of the Books. Upon Steele’s Importance of Dunkirk consider’d, followed Swift’s remorselessly contemptuous Importance of the “Guardian” consider’d; and after the hasty patchwork of his Crisis, came Swift’s second best political pamphlet, the famous Publick Spirit of the Whigs. Before Swift’s withering irony, Steele’s straggling patriotism fared no better than an old-fashioned bell-mouthed blunderbuss might be supposed to fare when opposed to a close-throwing modern mitrailleuse. If any one of his efforts in this direction be worth the serious consideration of the student, it is his Apology for Himself and his Writings, in which—when the death of Anne had once more restored the reins to the hands of the Whigs—he reviewed and defended his past course of action. But even this is more interesting for its disclosure of his personality than for its political import, and it includes besides several autobiographical particulars which have been of no small service to his biographers. In sum, however, Swift’s sneer in the Examiner that he (Steele) had “oblig’d his party with a very awkward pamphleteer in the room of an excellent droll,” must be held to express with practical truth, though with needless directness, his position as a political writer.  3
  But if the phrase “awkward pamphleteer” be a not inexact definition of the writer of the Crisis, the expression “excellent droll” is certainly a wholly inadequate description of the founder of the Tatler, and the father of the English essay. The fashion which so long prevailed of making him the mere umbra or shadow of the distinguished colleague whose inestimable aid he so loyally and generously acknowledged has, it is true, now passed away. But if the collaboration of Addison was useful to him in one respect, it was, and still is, disastrous to him in another. He suffered the fate—not uncommon with forerunning and inventive minds—of seeing his crude and half-considered ideas become, in other hands, the stepping stones to higher things. When out of his labours as Gazetteer in Lord Sunderland’s office, suddenly upsprang that larger idea of a “Letter of Intelligence,” or “Journal of News,” which so rapidly developed into the Tatler, he probably had no more serious purpose than to criticise life in such a way “as (he tells us) might gratify the curiosity of persons of all conditions, and of each sex.” Literature he scarcely intended; he claimed, and he took, the right to be “incorrect” if he liked, and to use “common speech,” if he preferred to do so. “The elegance, purity, and correctness,” which Addison imported into the enterprise, were not part of his design; nor, though they undoubtedly stimulated and elevated his own efforts, were they quite within his range. Hence, though he profited immensely by Addison’s inimitable art, he lost, by comparison, something of the credit he might have enjoyed, had he worked alone. It would be idle to contend that, at any moment, he really rivalled Addison in any of his more individual qualities,—his delicate irony, his keen observation, his finished and leisurely expression. Moreover Steele had certain disadvantages of circumstance which intensified his other shortcomings. He had started, and—if we except the hints and occasional contributions of Swift—had maintained for some time without assistance, the periodical to which his old friend eventually became a regular contributor. These relations were continued to the end of the chapter. Upon Steele fell the labour of keeping the paper going, while Addison remained an assistant only, indispensable, as it turned out, to the success of the enterprise, but still an assistant and no more.  4
  Yet when everything is allowed to Addison that can reasonably be conceded to him, and when everything has been said, that can be said, of Steele’s slap-dash method, impulsive judgment, and careless style, it must be admitted that Steele brought some gifts to his work for which one may seek in vain in the work of his coadjutor. If he was less literary, he was more earnest; if he was more hasty, he was sometimes more happy. The very energy of his indignation, pity, or enthusiasm frequently taught him those short cuts to his reader’s sympathy, which neither art nor artifice can teach; and he often becomes eloquent by the sheer force and sincerity of his emotion. Like Addison, he is occasionally hortatory and didactic; but his sermons, though at times excellent, are not his best work. His true school is human nature. As a genial and kindly commentator upon the men and women about him; as a humane and an indulgent interpreter of their frailties; as a generous and an ungrudging sympathiser with their feeblest better impulse—he belongs to the great race of English humourists.  5
 
 
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