Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 7. The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff

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

§ 7. The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff

These and similar performances were half-hearted, because Steele was finding his true level in the alleged lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff. He had borrowed this pseudonym from Swift’s famous pamphlet, as being the best known type of intellectual detective and watchman. Soon, coffee-houses began to make their influence felt, and, as he gradually marked out as his province the intimate world of conduct and courtesy, he tended more and more to invest his figurehead with a new personality. The literature of coffee-houses must be as light and informal as their discussions; so, he puts his moral counsels into the mouth of Bickerstaff, in order to preserve a conversational style and an air of persuasive authority quite acceptable to men who looked up to a self-constituted oracle in all their debates. As his readers were interested in eccentricity, Bickerstaff becomes an aged recluse living a lonely and mysterious life, surrounded, as Swift and suggested, by the old-fashioned paraphernalia of astrology and attended by his familiar Pacolet, like the now discredited magicians of the previous century. And yet this atmosphere of unreality gives effectiveness to Bickerstaff’s character. His isolation enables him to study his fellow creatures dispassionately, and Pacolet, like the diable boiteux of Lesage, reveals to him the inaccessible secrets of other people. As the numbers of The Tatler increased, he developed into the first, and rather roughdrawn, portrait of eighteenth-century civilisation. He has the reasonableness and insight of coffee-houses, a sympathy with common things, out of which the domestic novel was to come, and a spirit of independent thought, coupled with respect for order and religion, such as the seventeenth century never knew.

In this thin disguise, Steele touched on all those questions of breeding, good taste, courtesy and chivalry where the middle class had discarded old aristocratic ideals, without having yet learnt to trust entirely to their own. No wonder The Tatler became immensely popular when its readers found their half-formed notions confirmed and proclaimed. One of their perplexities centred round the ideal of what they called a gentleman. In aristocratic circles, men still emulated the type set forth by Jacobean essayists and affected “warmth of imagination, quick relish of pleasure and the manner of becoming it.” Such lubricity and self-assertion would be intolerable where friendly intercourse was the foundation of culture, and Steele points out that the first quality of a gentleman is not brilliance but forbearance and the art of accommodating another’s susceptibilities without sacrificing one’s own. Many recognise this ideal, but have not the tact to combine compliance with self-respect, and become “pretty fellows” or even “very pretty fellows,” or, again, affect an unwarrantable familiarity and merely succeed in becoming “whisperers without business and laughers without occasion.” Society being now a mosaic of different units, all of them seeking some common ground of intellectual fellowship, men of one interest, such as are many scholars and soldiers, are shown to be as superficial as those who think that boisterous good humour will make up for a lack of ideas. But, again and again, Steele insists that a man’s first duty is to please his hearers, showing how often the “wag” and the “wit” of the old school still abuse the privileges of acquaintanceship merely to gain a reputation for smartness and satire.

The puritan desire to see the seriousness of life in every word and deed was now being humanised into a standard of good taste, and, if Londoners refused to admire cleverness devoid of charity, they were even more ready to be warned against coarser methods of self-advertisement. Affectation in dress and manner, such as the manipulation of the snuffbox or the wearing a cane on the fifth button, is mercilessly ridiculed; the man who uses expletives to make his conversation forcible is declared to be merely empty-headed; the whole fraternity of fops is characterised as “the order of the insipids”; but the severest strictures are passed on the pretence of viciousness which was part of the dandies’ pose. Thus, the two nations pass before us. On the one hand, the degenerate imitators of Jacobean cavaliers and restoration courtiers, with the underworld of sharpers and gamesters; on the other, the middle-class coffee-houses, where citizens learnt to become urbane without ceasing to be pious. Steele belonged to both classes and traces the conflict between them. In many of his papers, after gibbeting the false ideal, he presents the true model, and it is not surprising that his own moral struggle, which gave him this insight, is sometimes recorded. In one paper, he pleads for the rake, claiming that he sins, repents and sins again only because his natural passions are too strong for him. Later, in a fit of self-humiliation, he confesses that good nature is often laziness, and, towards the end of The Tatler, he denounces his own besetting sin, declaring that the drunkard cannot be either a friend, a gentleman, a master or a subject, and is especially dastardly when he has a virtuous wife.