« PreviousContinue »
valuable for matter than manner. Essayists on general subjects were likewise numerous: FeltHAM's Resolves was once a very popular book, and has more merit than will be allowed by those who are anxious rather to be pleased than to be instructed; and it would be unpardonable to omit the Essays of LORD Bacon, which for sound philosophy and accurate observation, have not been exceeded, nor perhaps equalled*' Translations were also published from Montaigne, and other foreign authors; but still no attempt had been made on the plan of the PERIODICAL Essay, confined alone to life and manners.
With regard to the theatre, much good could certainly not be expected from it. Perhaps in its nature, it is not a direct source of instruction. It reflects, but does not prescribe manners; it represents, but does not invent. Common life and manners are unquestionably the materials upon which a dramatic writer is to exercise his wit; but the stage has never been considered as a master of common life, or as editing the laws of manners. It has seldom succeeded even in correcting what is amiss, although, by flattering the depraved taste or morals of certain periods, it has often made bad worse. During the reign of CHARLES II. and JAMES II. the stage was in all respects so licentious that the comedies then represented are now declared unfit to be read; and Dr. Johnson has acknowledged, when speaking of certainly not the worst dramatic writer of his age, that the perusal of his works will make no man better; and that their ultimate effect is to represent pleasure in alliance with vice; and
to relax those obligations by which life ought to be regulated.'*
If it was the purpose of the first ESSAYISTS to detach the public from political controversy, and to direct their attention to subjects that, like those of LORD VERULAM, came home to men's business and bosoms, a most extensive field lay before them, for the cultivation of which little provision had been made by preceding authors. There were innumerable topics, which, though of great importance in promoting regularity and propriety in social life, and securing the happiness of the domestic relations, had been but slightly touched by any of the teachers of wisdom. The weightier morals and the Christian virtues, the grosser vices and depravities, were indeed sufficiently considered in the public discourses of our English Divines, which form a body of religious and moral instruction, such as no other nation can hope to rival; but the freaks and vagaries of fashion,t operating upon various tempers, and creating many varieties of character, and many modifications of absurdity, whatever influence they might have upon society, were excluded from a place where nothing can intrude but what is capable of grave discussion. SENECA, and a few more modern writers, had given the world their thoughts on such subjects, as they presented themselves in the people whom they addressed: but at this time, no nation on earth was so happily favourable to the genius of the PERIODICAL ESSAYISTS as our own: and it is the peculiarity of our political constitution and manners, which has since enabled the English to maintain a preference in this species of composition, to which foreign writers have hitherto aspired in vain.
* Johnson's Life of Congreve. + 'Too trivial for the chastisement of the law, and too fantastical for the cognisance of the pulpit. Spec. No. 34, one of the purest specimens of Addisonian humour. Pope has harmonized this observation;
• Safe from the bar, the pulpit and the throne,
No man can make a just estimate of the literature of any country who does not take into his consideration its political government, and the advantages or obstructions which they may present to genius and imagination. If our EssayIsts have excelled in humour, they owe their materials and their opportunities to circumstances that are not known in other countries
to the freedom of our constitution, which interferes with no man's peculiarities of acting or thinking, while they do not injure his neighbour—to the vast extension of commerce, which has created a new race of men, more independent of set forms and modes than any other class of the community, and productive of that infinite variety of character of which a writer of humour knows how to avail himself, and which he cannot easily exhaust-to the forms of social intercourse, the growing and general relish for conversation, and unconstrained interchange of sentiments; to a taste for dress, sometimes reasonable and sometimes capricious; to the intermixture of the sexes in all companies ;-and to the operation of wealth, whether acquired by labour or inheri. tance, on minds of strong or weak texture. All these circumstances afford a numerous class of characters; which, as they display themselves openly, without fear and without shame, become the prey of the wit, and present him with such opportunities of exposing improprieties and wrong notions to ridicule, as no systematic study or philosophical contemplation could suggest.
When the ESSAYISTS, whose works compose these volumes, began to write, they found this wide field almost entirely unoccupied. Their predecessors and their contemporaries, as Dr. Johnson has observed, meddled only with politics,* which, as they discussed them, required neither wit nor learning. Elegance of style was but little known at that time in any prose compositions : and wit, confined chiefly to the stage, was associated with the grossest immorality. It was left for STEELE and ADDISON to rescue those valuable accomplishments from obscurity or abuse, and to unite wit, learning, and elegant sentiments, in the service of cheerful piety, and de
In such an undertaking, the regulation of TASTE became a principal object. England had not been unproductive of genius of the first class, for to HOMER and VIRGIL, the boast of Greece and Rome, she could proudly join the names of SHAKSPEARE and MILTON; but hitherto few attempts had been made to reduce the common notions of taste to any regular form. It is not easy, perhaps to prescribe rules for critical acumen; but it is certain that the faculty of discerning and appreciating the beauties of nature or art may be assisted by a reference to the best models, and to the remarks of men of cultivated minds and acknowledged sagacity. And if, with philosophers, we determine that the component parts of a good taste, are, a lively imagination, a clear and distinct apprehension of objects, a quick perception, sensibility, and judgment, it cannot be denied that STEELE, in a considerable degree, and ADDISON in a very high degree, were qualified to correct the opinions of the pullic, in matters of that kind. On these principles their criticisms are generally founded; while their acquaintance with the Greek and Roman classics furnished them with apt allusions and illustrations, and enabled them, without the folly of presumption, or the harshness of pedantry, to refine the taste of a people to whom the elegancies of literature had not yet become familiar, and whose authors had seldom studied correctness, and not always perspicuity. If it be true also that a good taste requires purity of moral and religious principle, and in few instances, I believe, have they ever been found far apart, it cannot be denied that the most celebrated of our ESSAYISTS united these qualities in no common degree.
* "I must confess I am amazed that the press should be only made use of in this way by news-writers, and the zealots of parties; as if it were not more advantageous to mankind, to be instructed in wisdom and virtue, than in politics; and to be made good fathers, husbands, and sons, than counsellors and statesmen. Had the philosophers and great men of antiquity, wbo took so much pains in order to instruct mankind, and leave the world wiser and better than they found it; had they, I say, been possessed of the art of printing, there is no question but they would have made such an advantage of it, in dealing out their lectures to the public. Our common prints would be of great use were they thus calculated to diffuse good sense through the bulk of a people, to clear up their understandings, animate their minds with vir. tue, dissipate the sorrows of a heavy heart, or unbend the mind from its more severe employments with innocent amusements. ADDISON, Spec. No. 124.