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

§ 10. Varied topics

Steele touched on many more topics. As was to be expected from the mouthpiece of the coffee-houses and from the self-appointed “Censor of Great Britain,” he is full of contempt for feudal prejudices and the arrogance of the rich. He sided with Hoadly, bishop of Winchester, against Blackall, bishop of Exeter, on the doctrine of passive obedience. He worked up Roger Grant’s supposed healing of a blind boy into an enthusiastic description not unlike a broadside. He criticised the lack of pulpit eloquence. He composed, or published, some charming letters on the pleasures of country life. Just as John Dunton had constituted himself an oracle for all questioners in The Athenian Mercury, so Steele, sometimes, filled whole numbers with the correspondence he received or pretended to receive. In his constant endeavour to “extirpate … all such as are either prejudicial or insignificant to society,” his characterisation is often onesided and becomes caricature. But, now and then, he pierced beneath the superficiality almost inseparable from satire, and hinted at the profound complexity of the civilised mind, showing, in several papers, how the ordinary human character is inextricably interwoven with the social fabric to which it belongs and becomes as particoloured as the woof itself. While society grows more heterogeneous, conflicting principles exist side by side, and, as men are bound, in some measure, to think according to their environment, they misunderstand each other on the commonest topics, fluctuate between opposite ideals and often end by distrusting their own instincts and mistaking their own emotions. These more complex and impressionable personalities are distinguished from simpler types: first, society nonentities, subordinate characters of men such as Tim Dapper, who are “like pegs in a building, they make no figure in it but hold the structure together,” and, then, the vast workaday world, which steadfastly performs the tasks of its rulers, and “cannot find out that they are doing nothing.”

These reflections are accidental and were probably shared by many another coffee-house critic of men and manners. Steele had neither the talent nor the opportunity to work them up into a philosophy. The same lack of system impairs his interpretation of literature. At a time when the most enlightened critics admired a poet for his rhetoric, Steele discovered in Shakespeare and Milton the sublime moralists of middle-class life, quoting from their pages to show where the everyday virtues of fidelity, pity and conjugal love have found their purest and noblest expression. He does not, however, seek to impress this view on his public. Beyond retelling the Bible story of Joseph and his brethren, to illustrate how, in moments of despondency, he “turns his thoughts to the adversities of persons of higher consideration in virtue and merit to regain tranquility,” he never taught his readers how to look for moral and spiritual guidance in literature. They are left to glean what they can from chance utterances. Had it been otherwise, these papers would have been the most remarkable critical production of Steele’s generation.

The Tatler continued to appear three times a week until 2 January, 1711, and then ceased abruptly. The loss of his gazetteership, though it deprived Steele of access to first-hand news, can hardly have influenced him, since foreign intelligence in The Tatler had long dwindled into an occasional and perfunctory paragraph. Possibly, he was allowed to retain his commissionership of stamps under the new government only on the understanding that a paper connected with the whig party should be discontinued. He may really have feared that the secret of authorship was now widely divulged, and that the association of his not unblemished name with moral counsels might revive the ridicule which had greeted The Christian Hero. But, besides this, he was suffering the discouragement of a man who wades beyond his depth. The self-imposed task of censor had led him deeper and deeper into the complex questions of his day, while his journalistic methods allowed of only fleeting and superficial glimpses at truth. Had he been fully conscious of his inability, he would probably, with characteristic candour, have freely confessed it. As it was, he sank under a temporary attack of weariness, all the more irresistible because another writer, who had been intermittently associated with him in the paper, seemed to have acquired without effort that art of expression which Steele himself lacked.