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"See nations slowly wise, and meanly just,
THE present work is something of an experiment. It is an attempt to reproduce in some form, however slight and imperfect, the age of Queen Anne through the medium of a life of Steele, who was perhaps more variously mixed up with the men and the times than any other person of that era. Two or three namesPrior, St John, Atterbury, Arbuthnot, and Defoe-have necessarily been omitted, as no fair opportunity occurred, without going out of the way, of noticing them, except in incidental allusions. How far the plan or execution may be deserving of approval must be left to readers. and critics to determine.
Our age is honourably distinguished by the elaborate tributes it has paid-in the shape of biographies-to literary reputations which, to the discredit of their own
times, were passed over with trifling or unworthy notice. The number of such which some of these have received may be taken as among the most unequivocal evidences of permanent excellence. The biography of Goldsmith has, in our own times, been written again and again— most elaborately by Prior, most eloquently by Forster,* and lastly by the charming and graceful pen of Washington Irving, though perhaps not in his happiest style. The lives of Pope and Swift have also been often written. Various memorials had previously existed of Addison; but his biography has only recently been written for the first time by Miss Aiken, on any extensive scale commensurate with his reputation, and was followed by the masterly review of Macaulay. Recently we have had elaborate lives of Sterne and Bolingbroke, besides others of inferior reputation, the most inconsiderable of whom are, to say the least, as fair a subject of two volumes as the hero of a sensation novel. Steele's biography is now for the first time attempted on a similar scale. The writer would willingly have left the task to others who might have done more justice to the subject; but finding none disposed to undertake it, and
This, as well as a great portion of the present work, was written previous to the appearance of the "Essay on Steele" by this distinguished writer, the allusions to which were subsequently added.
wishing to see such a work, which he considered a desideratum in our literature, he was obliged, as Mr Leigh Hunt said on a similar occasion, to undertake it himself. This surely ought not to have been so with one who was the founder of a new and brilliant era in our literature, and whose luminous wake has been followed by many of the most classic names of succeeding times-by Johnson, Goldsmith, Coleman, Canning, Hawkesworth, Chesterfield, Moore, Walpole, Cumberland, Mackenzie, Franklin, Irving, and others.
The reputation of Steele has long been obscured in a great degree by that of his eminent friend and coadjutor Addison.* Many reasons might be assigned for the superior place which Addison has held in popular estimation. Steele himself, perhaps, in his own generous nature and his characteristic self-depreciation, may be considered to have laid the first stone of the superstructure by which he has been overshadowed-in the so oft-repeated graceful and grateful compliment he paid his illustrious friend, when, in allusion to his timely and invaluable literary co-operation, he compares himself to a distressed prince who calls in the aid of a powerful
* Chalmers, in the annotated edition of the Essayists, speaks justly of the "envy which appears in some degree to have pursued him (Steele) to the grave, and of the little that has been attempted in justice to the memory of a man to whom the world is so eminently indebted."
neighbour, and finds himself undone by his ally. In this pleasantry, so creditable to his humility and gratitude, he has been taken rather too literally at his word, as is often the fate of the over-candid with matter-of-fact people; and though the remark has been so often repeated, ostensibly to his credit, it has come to lose half its grace by the evidently covert design it has been made to serve, in making him the victim of his own generous spirit, and wounding him with a shaft drawn from his own quiver, like the unhappy eagle that perceived the arrow rankling in its side to have been feathered from its own wing. Coleridge, however, has expressed his opinion emphatically against the justice to himself of Steele's remark.
The contributions of Steele, too, in the literary partnership which so happily subsisted between these distinguished friends, were less elaborately planned and systematic than those of Addison, and not unfrequently their finish of style overlooked. There was in fact more of the gipsy about the genius of Steele; but if his contributions lack the traces of the midnight oil in the same degree, they claim at least the superiority in freshness and fervour.
The personal habits, also, of Steele were devoid of the fastidiousness which characterised those of his friend, and
exhibited, indeed, like his writings, a careless irregularity, which has tended to his disadvantage in the general estimate. Addison was of a serene, cool, phlegmatic temperament; and though subject to one of Steele's worst weaknesses, prudently managed to keep the indications of it in the background; whilst in the other, who was all softness, warmth, and impulse, from a more excitable temperament, and a censurable disregard to appearances, it became more a subject of scandal. But with defects thus on the surface, he had eminently what Byron has celebrated as that
"Something so warm, so sublime in the core
Another cause, perhaps, has been the coterie reputation of Addison, which has adhered to him as a tradition. It is sometimes said that a man's reputation in private and among his intimates is the true test of his merit. But this appears very questionable, at least as a universal rule. How much has prestige of some kind or other to do with the estimate we all unconsciously form of men.t How seldom is it the man himself as he
"The Irish Avatar."
+ A particular instance may be referred to. Sidney Smith, who may be presumed to be at least as good a judge of humour as even the highest of the depreciators of Steele, selected as an illustration of that faculty in his "Lectures on Moral Philosophy," a passage from one of Steele's early comedies, of which he was a great admirer, but was inclined to suspect that Addison, though then abroad, had had a hand in it.