The World's Greatest Books — Volume 20 — Miscellaneous Literature and Index

DiscoverWriting & JournalismThe World's Greatest Books — Volume 20 — Miscellaneous Literature and Index
The World's Greatest Books — Volume 20 — Miscellaneous Literature and Index

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The Spectator

"The Spectator," the most popular and elegant miscellany of English literature, appeared on the 1st of March, 1711. With an interruption of two years—1712 to 1714—during part of which time "The Guardian," a similar periodical, took its place, "The Spectator" was continued to the 20th of December, 1714. Addison's fame is inseparably associated with this periodical. He was the animating spirit of the magazine, and by far the most exquisite essays which appear in it are by him. Richard Steele, Addison's friend and coadjutor in "The Spectator," was born in Dublin in March, 1672, and died at Carmarthen on September 1, 1729. (Addison biography, see Vol. XVI, p. 1.)

The Essays and the Essayist

Addison's "Spectator" is one of the most interesting books in the English language. When Dr. Johnson praised Addison's prose, it was specially of "The Spectator" that he was speaking. "His page," he says, "is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendour. His sentences have neither studied amplitude nor affected brevity; his periods, though not diligently rounded, are voluble and easy. Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to Addison."

Johnson's verdict has been upheld, for it is chiefly by "The Spectator" that Addison lives. None but scholars know his Latin verse and his voluminous translations now. His "Cato" survives only in some half-dozen occasional quotations. Two or three hymns of his, including "The spacious firmament on high," and "When all Thy mercies, O my God," find a place in church collections; and his simile of the angel who rides upon the whirlwind and directs the storm is used now and again by pressmen and public speakers. But, in the main, when we think of Addison, it is of "The Spectator" that we think.

Recall the time when it was founded. It was in the days of Queen Anne, the Augustan age of the essay. There were no newspapers then, no magazines or reviews, no Parliamentary reports, nothing corresponding to the so-called "light literature" of later days. The only centres of society that existed were the court, with the aristocracy that revolved about it, and the clubs and coffee-houses, in which the commercial and professional classes met to discuss matters of general interest, to crack their jokes, and to exchange small talk about this, that and the other person, man or woman, who might happen to figure, publicly or privately, at the time. "The Spectator" was one of the first organs to give form and consistency to the opinion, the humour and the gossip engendered by this social contact.

One of the first, but not quite the first; for the less famous, though still remembered, "Tatler" preceded it. And these two, "The Tatler" and "The Spectator," have an intimate connection from the circumstance that Richard Steele, who started "The Tatler" in April, 1709, got Addison to write for it, and then joined with Addison in "The Spectator" when his own paper stopped in January, 1711. Addison and Steele had been friends since boyhood. They were contemporaries at the Charterhouse, and Steele often spent his holidays in the parsonage of Addison's father.

The two friends were a little under forty years of age when "The Spectator" began in March, 1711. It was a penny paper, and was published daily, its predecessor having been published three times a week. It began with a circulation of 3,000 copies, and ran up to about 10,000 before it stopped its daily issue in December, 1712. Macaulay, writing in 1843, insists upon the sale as "indicating a popularity quite as great as that of the most successful works of Scott and Dickens in our time." The 555 numbers of the daily issue formed seven volumes; and then there was a final eighth volume, made up of triweekly issues: a total of 635 numbers, of which Addison wrote 274, and Steele 236.

To summarise the contents of these 635 numbers would require a volume. They are so versatile and so varied. As one of Addison's biographers puts it, to-day you have a beautiful meditation, brilliant in imagery and serious as a sermon, or a pious discourse on death, or perhaps an eloquent and scathing protest against the duel; while to-morrow the whole number is perhaps concerned with the wigs, ruffles, and shoe-buckles of the macaroni, or the hoops, patches, farthingales and tuckers of the ladies. If you wish to see the plays and actors of the time, "The Spectator" will always show them to you; and, moreover, point out the dress, manners, and mannerisms, affectations, indecorums, plaudits, or otherwise of the frequenters of the theatre.

For here is no newspaper, as we understand the term. "The Spectator" from the first indulged his humours at the expense of the quidnuncs. Says he:

"There is another set of men that I must likewise lay a claim to as being altogether unfurnished with ideas till the business and conversation of the day has supplied them. I have often considered these poor souls with an eye of great commiseration when I have heard them asking the first man they have met with whether there was any news stirring, and by that means gathering together materials for thinking. These needy persons do not know what to talk of till about twelve o'clock in the morning; for by that time they are pretty good judges of the weather, know which way the wind sets, and whether the Dutch mail be come in. As they lie at the mercy of the first man they meet, and are grave or impertinent all the day long, according to the notions which they have imbibed in the morning, I would earnestly entreat them not to stir out of their chambers till they have read this paper; and do promise them that I will daily instil into them such sound and wholesome sentiments as shall have a good effect on their conversation for the ensuing twelve hours."

Now, the essential, or at least the leading feature of "The Spectator" is this: that the entertainment is provided by an imaginary set of characters forming a Spectator Club. The club represents various classes or sections of the community, so that through its members a corresponding variety of interests and opinions is set before the reader, the Spectator himself acting as a sort of final censor or referee. Chief among the Club members is Sir Roger de Coverley, a simple, kindly, honourable, old-world country gentleman. Here is the description of this celebrated character:

"The first of our society is a gentleman of Worcestershire, of ancient descent, a baronet, his name Sir Roger de Coverley. His great-grandfather was inventor of that famous country dance which is called after him. All who know that shire are very well acquainted with the parts and merits of Sir Roger. He is a gentleman that is very singular in his behaviour, but his singularities proceed from his good sense, and are contradictions to the manners of the world only as he thinks the world is in the wrong. However, this humour creates him no enemies, for he does nothing with sourness or obstinacy; and his being unconfined to modes and forms makes him but the readier and more capable to please and oblige all who know him. When he is in town, he lives in Soho Square. It is said he keeps himself a bachelor by reason he was crossed in love by a perverse beautiful widow of the next county to him. Before this disappointment, Sir Roger was what you call a fine gentleman, had often supped with my Lord Rochester and Sir George Etherege, fought a duel upon his first coming to town, and kicked Bully Dawson in a public coffee-house for calling him youngster. But being ill-used by the above-mentioned widow, he was very serious for a year and a half; and though, his temper being naturally jovial, he at last got over it, he grew careless of himself, and never dressed afterwards. He continues to wear a coat and doublet of the same cut that were in fashion at the time of his repulse, which, in his merry humours, he tells us, has been in and out twelve times since he first wore it. It is said Sir Roger grew humble in his desires after he had forgot this cruel beauty, insomuch that it is reported he was frequently offended with beggars and gipsies; but this is looked upon by his friends rather as matter of raillery than truth. He is now in his fifty-sixth year, cheerful, gay, and hearty; keeps a good house both in town and country; a great lover of mankind; but there is such a mirthful cast in his behaviour that he is rather beloved than esteemed."

Then there is Sir Andrew Freeport, "a merchant of great eminence in the City of London; a person of indefatigable industry, strong reason, and great experience." He is "acquainted with commerce in all its parts; and will tell you it is a stupid and barbarous way to extend dominion by arms; for true power is to be got by arts and industry. He will often argue that, if this part of our trade were well cultivated, we should gain from one nation; and if another, from another."

There is Captain Sentry, too, "a gentleman of great courage and understanding, but invincible modesty," who in the club speaks for the army, as the templar does for taste and learning, and the clergyman for theology and philosophy.

And then, that the club may not seem to be unacquainted with "the gallantries and pleasures of the age," there is Will Honeycomb, the elderly man of fashion, who is "very ready at that sort of discourse with which men usually entertain women." Will "knows the history of every mode, and can inform you from which of the French king's wenches our wives and daughters had this manner of curling their hair, that way of placing their hoods; whose frailty was covered by such a sort of petticoat; and whose vanity to show her foot made that part of the dress so short in such a year. In a word, all his conversation and knowledge have been in the female world. As other men of his age will take notice to you what such a minister said upon such and such an occasion, he will tell you when the Duke of Monmouth danced at court, such a woman was then smitten, another was taken with him at the head of his troop in the park. This way of talking of his very much enlivens the conversation among us of a more sedate turn; and I find there is not one of the company, but myself, who rarely speak at all, but speaks of him as that sort of man who is usually called a well-bred fine gentleman. To conclude his character, where women are not concerned, he is an honest, worthy man."

Nor must we forget Will Wimble, though he is really an outsider. Will is the younger son of a baronet: a man of no profession, looking after his father's game, training his dogs, shooting, fishing, hunting, making whiplashes for his neighbors, knitting garters for the ladies, and afterwards slyly inquiring how they wear: a welcome guest at every house in the county; beloved by all the lads and the children.

Besides these, and others, there is a fine little gallery of portraits in Sir Roger's country neighbours and tenants. We have, for instance, the yeoman who "knocks down a dinner with his gun twice or thrice a week, and by that means lives much cheaper than those who have not so good an estate as himself"; and we have Moll White, the reputed witch, who, if she made a mistake at church and cried "Amen!" in a wrong place, "they never failed to conclude that she was saying her prayers backwards." We have the diverting captain, "young, sound, and impudent"; we have a demure Quaker; we have Tom Touchy, a fellow famous for "taking the law" of everybody; and we have the inn-keeper, who, out of compliment to Sir Roger, "put him up in a sign-post before the door," and then, when Sir Roger objected, changed the figure into the Saracen's Head by "a little aggravation of the features" and the addition of a pair of whiskers!

Best of all is the old chaplain. Sir Roger was "afraid of being insulted with Latin and Greek at his own table"; so he got a university friend to "find him out a clergyman, rather of plain sense than much learning, of a good aspect, a clear voice, a sociable temper, and, if possible, a man that understood a little of backgammon." The genial knight "made him a present of all the good sermons printed in English, and only begged of him that every Sunday he would pronounce one of them in the pulpit." Thus, if Sir Roger happened to meet his chaplain on a Saturday evening, and asked who was to preach to-morrow, he would perhaps be answered: "The Bishop of St. Asaph in the morning, and Dr. South in the afternoon." About which arrangement "The Spectator" boldly observes: "I could heartily wish that more of our country clergy would follow this example; and, instead of wasting their spirits in laborious compositions of their own, would endeavour after a handsome elocution, and all those other talents that are proper to enforce what has been penned by greater masters. This would not only be more easy to themselves, but more edifying to the people."

There is no end to the subjects discussed by "The Spectator." They range from dreams to dress and duelling; from ghosts to gardening and goats' milk; from wigs to wine and widows; from religion to riches and riding; from servants to sign-posts and snuff-boxes; from love to lodgings and lying; from beards to bankruptcy and blank verse; and hundreds of other interesting themes. Correspondents often wrote to emphasise this variety, for letters from the outside public were always welcome. Thus one "Thomas Trusty":

"The variety of your subjects surprises me as much as a box of pictures did formerly, in which there was only one face, that by pulling some pieces of isinglass over it was changed into a senator or a merry-andrew, a polished lady or a nun, a beau or a blackamoor, a prude or a coquette, a country squire or a conjurer, with many other different representations very entertaining, though still the same at the bottom."

But perhaps, on the whole, woman and her little ways have the predominant attention. Indeed, Addison expressly avowed this object of engaging the special interests of the sex when he started. He says:

"There are none to whom this paper will be more useful than to the female world. I have often thought that there has not been sufficient pains taken in finding out proper employments and diversions for the fair ones. Their amusements seem contrived for them rather as they are women than as they are reasonable creatures; and are more adapted to the sex than to the species. The toilet is their great scene of business, and the right adjustment of their hair the principal employment of their lives. The sorting of a suit of ribands is reckoned a very good morning's work; and if they make an excursion to a mercer's or a toy-shop, so great a fatigue makes them unfit for anything else all the day after. Their more serious occupations are sewing and embroidery, and their greatest drudgery the preparations of jellies and sweetmeats. This, I say, is the state of ordinary women; though I know there are multitudes of those of a more elevated life and conversation, that move in an exalted sphere of knowledge and virtue, that join all the beauties of the mind to the ornaments of dress, and inspire a kind of awe and respect, as well as of love, into their male beholders. I hope to increase the number of these by publishing this daily paper, which I shall always endeavour to make an innocent, if not an improving, entertainment, and by that means, at least, divert the minds of my female readers from greater trifles."

These reflections on the manners of women did not quite please Swift, who wrote to Stella: "I will not meddle with 'The Spectator'; let him fair sex it to the world's end." But they pleased most other people, as the main contents of "The Spectator" still please. Here is one typical acknowledgment, signed "Leonora":

Mr. Spectator,—Your paper is part of my tea-equipage; and my servant knows my humour so well that, calling for my breakfast this morning (it being past my usual hour), she answered, "'the Spectator' was not yet come in, but the tea-kettle boiled, and she expected it every moment."

As an "abstract and brief chronicle of the time," this monumental work of Addison and Steele is without peer. In its pages may be traced the foundations of all that is noble and healthy in modern English thought; and its charming sketches may be made the open sesame to a period and a literature as rich as any our country has seen.