Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 4. Influence of the Coffeehouses

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

§ 4. Influence of the Coffeehouses

He discovered it five years later in the coffee-houses. Here could be met serious-minded, progressive citizens, who were steadily outnumbering and overbearing the votaries of the old social régime. Matthew Arnold has said that, when “England entered the prison of Puritanism,” it “turned the key on its intellectual progress for two hundred years.” In reality, it was precisely this class, made up of inheritors of puritan narrowness and perseverance, which created a new culture for England out of its coffee-houses. It has already been shown how Londoners, as early as the protectorate, began to assemble in these rendezvous and how, by daily intercourse, they learned to feel interest in each other’s manners and habits of thought. As they cared little for the more frivolous diversions of the capital, they tended more and more to seek the pleasures of news and conversation, until, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, coffee-houses had become the most striking feature of London life. Men who gathered day after day in these resorts were not only interested in their companions’ ideas and demeanour; they cultivated an eye for trivial actions and utterances, a gift for investigating other people’s prejudices and partialities, and they realised the pleasure of winning their way into the intricacies of another man’s mind. Hence, they acquired new attitude towards their fellow-creatures. Characters which would formerly have been ridiculed or despised were now valued as intellectual puzzles, eccentricities attracted sympathetic attention, and it became the note of intelligent men to be tolerant. Besides this sentiment of friendliness, the mere conditions of clublife imposed a new code of manners. If men were to enjoy daily intercourse, they had to respect each other’s opinions and to cultivate self-suppression. Thus, consideration for others became the fashion, and the middle class, besides studying character, came to regard courtesy as a part of civilisation.