Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 1. The New Civilisation in England and London

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

II. Steele and Addison

§ 1. The New Civilisation in England and London

STEELE and Addison are writers of talent who rose almost to genius because they intuitively collaborated with the spirit of their age. They came to London at a time when, quite apart from politics, society was divided into two classes, apparently so irreconcilable that they seemed like two nations. On the one side was the remnant of the old order, which still cherished the renascence ideals of self-assertion and irresponsibility and had regained prominence at the restoration. They followed the old fashion of ostentation and self-abandonment, fighting duels on points of honour, vying with each other in quips and raillery, posing as atheists and jeering at sacred things, love-making with extravagant odes and compliments, applauding immoral plays, while the more violent, the “gulls” and “roarers,” roamed through the town in search of victims to outrage or assault. The women, in these higher circles, read and thought of little but erotic French romances, wore false eyebrows and patches, painted themselves, gesticulated with their fans and eyes, intrigued in politics and passed the time in dalliance. But, on the other hand, the citizens of London, who, since Tudor times, had stood aloof from culture and corruption, were now no longer the unconsidered masses. Each new expansion of trade gave them a fresh hold on society, while the civil war, which had decimated or ruined the nobility, conferred on the middle class a political importance of which their fathers had never dreamt. As a rule, members of the citizen class who have risen in the social scale intermarry with the aristocracy and imitate the manners, and especially the vices, of the class into which they enter. But, in the great political revolution of the seventeenth century, merchants and traders had triumphed through their moral character even more than by their material prosperity. The time had come when England was weary of all the medieval fanaticism, brutality and prejudice which had risen to the surface in the civil war, and it was the citizen class, apart from the zealots on both sides, which had first upheld moderation. The feud which Greene, a century before, had symbolised as a quaint dispute between the velvet breeches and cloth breeches had entered upon its last phase. Votaries of Caroline elegance and dissipation had become a set apart. They still had all the glamour of wealth and fashion; but they had lost their influence on the civilisation of the country. The middle class had broken away from their leadership and had pressed forward to the front rank of national progress. It has already been shown how they had trodden down the relics of a less humane and less reasonable age, reforming the laws for debt and the administration of prisons, refuting the superstition of witchcraft, attacking scholasticism in the universities and founding the Royal Society—nay, more, how the more enlightened had pleaded for a purer and simpler morality, for gentler manners, for a more modest yet dignified self-respect. To the superficial observer, these protests and appeals must have sounded like isolated voices in a confused multitude. In reality, they were indications of a new civilisation which was already fermenting underneath. A new London had sprung up since the great fire and, with it, a generation of Londoners whose temperament and occupations led them to form a standard of culture, honour and religion peculiar to themselves. Such progress is the work of a whole class. It is never initiated by individuals, though one or two thinkers are generally needed to give form and expression to the tendencies of the rest. In this case, the victory of “cloth breeches” was not complete until Steele and Addison had discovered in what quarter to look for the movement and in what form to reveal to men their own ideas. These writers saw further and deeper than their contemporaries, because each, according to his own character, had first been born again.

It was Steele who led the way. Nature had endowed him with the instincts and temperament of one of king Charles I’s cavaliers. He had the same generosity, love of pleasure, restlessness, chivalry and tincture of classical culture. Like many others of this class, he was extremely impressionable; but, unlike his prototypes, he lived in an age when recklessness and self-indulgence, though still fashionable in some circles, ran counter to the better tendencies of the time. Thus, the conviviality and gallantry which were popular in the guardroom caused him many searchings of heart, when confronted by the disapproval of scholars and moralists. In such moments of inward discontent, the gay life of the capital lost its glamour; the puritan spirit came over him, and he perceived that the dissipation of the young man-about-town was, at best, a pose and the moral teaching of the ancients a lamentable protection against the temptation of the senses. Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch had proved persuasive monitors to many a Jacobean and Caroline essayist, because the renascence had endowed the classics with almost scriptural authority. But, though Steele belonged to the class which still clung to these guides from respect for the old times, he also came daily into contact with the new enlightened religion of the middle class.