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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

§ 19. The Spectator’s Correspondence

Many of these glimpses of life are given us in the form of letters, and, as The Spectator always welcomed correspondence, and, on two occasions, publicly asked for it, there is often danger of taking genuine communications for a device of the editors. Steele, in fact, posed as the “courier of Love,” starting a kind of “agony column,” in which lovers could communicate with each other, and in at least one paper he printed some of his own love-letters. Some of the epistles, however, are unmistakably inventions. It must be remembered that, for more than a century, the epistle had become a recognised literary type, and that The Spectator would naturally avail itself of “the gentler art” to lend variety and grace to its papers. But, while letter-writers, from Seneca to Loveday, had used this form of composition to convey ideas, Steele and his associates went further. To them belongs the credit of discovering that the epistle could become a picturesque type of character-sketch. Among others, Thomas Hearne is said to have portrayed Arthur Charlett as Abraham Froth, who describes the discussions of his futile club with prolix self-satisfaction, and John Hughes composed the two admirably characteristic letters on the education of a girl, one from Célimène, who despairs of breaking in her charge to all the artificialities of polite society, and the other from a self-styled “rough man” who fears that “the young girl is in a fair way to be spoilt.” Steele is certainly the author of the footman’s love-letter couched, like The Yellowplush Papers of a later day, in language which he can neither understand nor spell, with that inimitable touch of nature, suggestive of The Conscious Lovers, “Oh! dear Betty, must the nightingales sing to those who marry for money and not to us true lovers?” Besides revealing character, letters were admirably adapted to disclose the secrets of private life. In the guise of a correspondent, Steele found new scope for the gift of storytelling which he had developed in The Tatler. Some of the communications contained glimpses into the comic side of domestic history—such as the account of Anthony Freeman’s device for escaping from the over-affectionate attentions of his wife; while others are fragments torn from sordid reality, like the “unhappy story in low life” telling how the drunken weaver unwittingly sells a successful lottery ticket which his wife had pinched herself to buy. In some numbers, Steele goes further and narrates a sequence of events by an interchange of letters. One of his noblest efforts in this style is a correspondence by which a widow wins back her petulant and wasteful son from the dissipations of London, and one of his wittiest is the series of letters which release Cynthio from Flavia’s inconvenient affection.

Thus, Steele was on the verge of inventing the epistolary novel; but, as in The Tatler, so, now, he had neither the perseverance nor the self-confidence necessary to create a literary type. He was more inclined to follow his illustrious contemplative collaborator, who, in the meantime, had created the serial treatise. Addison began with a succession of rather fugitive but witty attacks on the staging of the Italian opera, in which his own scholarly love of simplicity, inspired by Terence and Horace, blended with the inherited middle-class dislike of all that was un-English. These early papers are hardly more than outbursts of Addisonian irony, such as he might have vented on any other of society’s laughable weaknesses. But material prosperity and the discussions of coffee-houses had brought the middle class to a stage at which they felt the need of culture and eagerly read anything on taste or style. In this way, Addison found himself leading a reaction in literature, just as Steele had led a reaction in manners. The drama was the natural field for a critic nurtured at the university; so, Addison began to discuss tragedy in a didactic spirit, not without sallies of characteristic irony insisting on what he calls “the moral part of the performance,” showing how the technique of playwriting contributes to dramatic effect, and how false art may be detected by comparison with the great masters. As he warmed to his work, he perceived that the coffee-house public would never take more than a passing interest in the stage. There was a danger that, in literary taste as in morality, the inexperienced, for sheer lack of proper models, might accept as their standard of poetry the precious and artificial style of versifying with which fashionable society still amused itself. What the citizens of London really needed was a literature as serious as themselves. Accordingly, Addison gave up a whole week’s issues to the criticism of conceits and mere verbal dexterity, condemning acrostics, lipograms, rebuses, anagrams, chronograms, bouts rimés, puns and paragrams; and, after dismissing all these kinds of false wit, he shows his unacademic readers in what true wit consists. It is illustrative of the middle-class reaction in literature that he should base his definition on the reasoning of so modern and independent a thinker as Locke, and should follow up Dryden’s preface to The State of Innocence by restricting the meaning of wit to “the resemblance of ideas … that give delight and surprise to the reader,” always supposing the resemblance to be founded on truth and common-sense. Addison, indeed, was teaching his fellow citizens to expect far more than wit or art from literature. His aim was to find “the precepts of morality” which should underlie every work of inspiration; and, with this end in view, he endeavoured to explain the universal charm of such artless compositions as Chevy Chace and The Children in the Wood. Among the middle class, the love of medieval ballads had survived the renascence and was probably not yet dead; but Addison essayed a task beyond the learning of his age when he attempted to subject folklore to the canons of criticism. In his day, men could judge poetry only under the shadow of the classics, and The Spectator is still pedantic enough to praise the old minstrelsy because it finds therein a few parallels to Vergil and Horace.