Page images
PDF
EPUB

and only source of real happiness, it does not appear that our authors ever lost sight. When they had allured public attention by sprightliness of address and familiarity of intercourse, they endeavoured to lead the young and frivolous by insensible gradations and gentle persuasion, to connect the lesser with the greater obligations, and to secure an interest in that favour which alone can alleviate the calamities of life and the terrors of death. Without invading the province of more serious instructors, they would not degrade their writings to the rank of mere amusement, but watched every opportunity and fortunate moment, the molissima fandi tempora, when the mind was prepared to receive a timely caution, or encourage a momentous consideration. Some papers are expressly devoted to religious subjects; and in others the precepts of inspiration are introduced in that easy and unobtrusive manner, which appears opportune and affectionate, and has commanded, we hope, more than a temporary veneration. To this, the highest praise that can be bestowed, the earlier Essayists are justly entitled; and it is most probable that by thus uniting the serious and the gay part of mankind in their favour, they secured that popularity which they have so long enjoyed, and which no revolutions in taste, style, or opinions, have yet interrupted.

Of the works written upon this plan, the first in point of time, and that which prescribed a form to all the others, is the TATLER. The design of this work belongs exclusively to Sir RICHARD STEELE, concerning whom it may be necessary to collect what information is upon record. It is to be regretted that our materials are but scanty: there are periods of STEELE's life with which it would be desirable to be better acquainted; but the envy which his talents created during his life

appears

int some degree to have pursued him to the grave, and much information is lost which his surviving contemporaries did not think worth preserving. The fullest account is that given in the Biographia Britannica, but it is in many instances inaccurate and defective; and until the publication of the Tatler in six volumes crown octavo in 1786, and the subsequent publication of Steele's Letters by Mr. Nichols, nothing was attempted in justice to the memory

of a man to whom the world is so eminently indebted.

Richard STEELE was born in Dublin, in 1671. His father, who had been for some time private secretary to James the first Duke of ORMOND, was of English extraction, and sent his son, then very young, to London, where he was placed in the Charter-house by the Duke, who was one of the governors of that seminary. From thence he was removed to Merton college, Oxford, and admitted a Post-master in 1691. Of his father we have no further information, except that he died when his son was not quite five years of age.

While at college, Mr. STEELE is said to have amused himself by writing a comedy, which a fellow collegian advised him to suppress, as unworthy of his genius. After pursuing his studies for some time, he left the University without a degree, and indulged an early prepossession for a military life, by entering as a private gentleman in the Horseguards. This step was taken against the opinion of his friends, and is said to have deprived him of the succession to his Irish estate ; whether this was occasioned by the terms of his father's will, or any other reason which rendered the profession of a soldier a disqualification

to inherit, we are not told. His conduct, however, soon procured him the post of ensign.

During this period of his life, in which he was probably forsaken by those friends who had opposed his entering into the army, he fell into the company of gay and unthinking young men, to whose principles and example he yielded rather from easiness of temper than depravity, but in whose follies and vices he participated with a freedom for which his conscience frequently reproached him. To counteract the force of temptations thus continually presenting themselves, he had recourse to a very singular expedient. He tells us that, being thoroughly convinced of many things which he often repented, and as often repeated, he wrote, for his own private use, a little book, called “ The Christian Hero," with a design principally to fix upon his mind a strong impression of virtue and religion, in opposition to a stronger propensity to unwarrantable pleasures.

In this he appears to have followed, I know not whether intentionally, the example of the Puritans, in their forms of personal covenanting, a practice not uncommon in more modern times with the pious of a certain class, but for which the authority has been thought doubtful, and which in many cases will prove dangerous. A great judge of the human heart has well obseryed, that “a man who proposes schemes of life in a state of abstraction and disengagement, exempt from the enticements of hope, the solicitations of affection, the importunities of appetite, or the depressions of fear, is in the same state with him that teaches upon land the art of navigation, to whom the sea is always smooth, and the wind always prosperous.*

Rambler, No. 14. DENHAM, the poet, was another inSTEELE soon discovered at least one mistake in this experiment; he discovered that the support of this little book was too weak, while his engagement to be virtuous was voluntary and unknown. To render it more binding, he reprinted the book with his name, and endeavoured to live as well as he wrote, appealing boldly to the world for the consistency of his principles and practice. But this, we are told, had no other good effect than that, from being thought a pleasant companion, he was reckoned a disagreeable fellow. One or two of his companions thought fit to misuse him, and try their valour upon him; and every body measured the least levity in his words and actions with the character of a Christian Hero.'

This little work was printed in 1701, with a dedication to Lord Cutts, who had not only appointed him his private secretary, but procured for him a company in Lord Lucas's regiment of fuzileers. It consists chiefly of a review of the characters of some celebrated Heathens, contrasted with the life and principles of our blessed Saviour, and of St. Paul, from which it is his object to prove, that none of the heroic virtues, or “true greatness of mind, can be maintained, unless upon Christian principles. The language is far from being regular, and, perhaps, he may seem deficient in powers of argument: but his address has much of that honest zeal and affection which comes from the heart.

It has been often reprinted and circulated among the middling class of readers, but in his own

stance of a man attempting to write himself out of his follies. To show, that he repented and was reclaimed from gaming, he published an Essay on that vice; but a few years proved that he was not reclaimed, and had again to reperty

time probably redounded more to his honour as an author, than to his advantage as a man; for he informs us that the rebuffs he met with, instead of encouragements for his declarations in regard to religion, laid him under a necessity of enlivening his character; and with this view, he wrote his first play, called The Funeral, or Grief Alamode,' which was very successfully performed the same year, and is yet a favourite with the public. This play is said to have procured 'him the regard of King WILLIAM, who intended to have betowed some mark of favour upon him, which the death of that monarch prevented. By the friendship, however, of Lord HALIFAX, and of the Earl of SUNDERLAND, to whom he had been recommended by ADDISON, he was, in the beginning of Queen ANNE's reign, appointed Gazetteer. ADDISON is said also to have assisted him in the comedy of the Tender Husband, or the Accomplished Fools, which was acted with great success in 1704. The friendship between these two illustrious characters commenced when they were school-fellows at the Charter-house." I remember,' says STEELE, • when I finished the “Tender Husband,” I told him (Addison) there was nothing I so tenderly wished, as that we might, some time or other, publish a work written by us both, which should bear the name of the MONUMENT, in memory of our friendship.'

His next play was 'The Lying Lover,' which, he tells us, was damned for its piety;' a fate which it does not appear to deserve on that, or any other account more within the province of a dramatic tribunal. There is great regularity in the fable of all his plays, and the characters are well sketched and preserved; but in the dialogue

[ocr errors][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »