Page images
PDF
EPUB

professing learning were not ashamed of ignorance; and, in the female world, any acquaint. ance with books was distinguished only to be censured. When we reflect, that to express contempt for all literary acquirement was then a certain proof of gentility, and ignorance the characteristic of superior station (a statement which, I believe, previous to the publication of the Tatler, is nearly correct), we ought to hesitate in assigning the epithet of Augustan to this era of our history. We should recollect that two-thirds of the reign of Anne were entirely occupied by politics ; that the struggles of faction, the inveterate contentions of the Whigs and Tories, banished for many years, even among the learned, almost all attention to useful and elegant pursuits; and that the commencement of taste, and the diffusion of know. ledge, may be dated from the well-timed efforts of Steele and Addison, efforts which illuminated but the latter days of Anne, and were independent of any engagement from the throne. From this time only has the public mind been powerfully excited to intellectual emulation, and gradually has it acquired that polish and intimacy with literary subjects which distinguish the present age. It is solely indeed to a

nation that has long cherished a strong relish for literature in all its departments, whose taste is correct and pure, and which fosters in her bosom every rising genius, that the title of Augustan can be given, and not to the casual appearance of a few luminaries, surrounded by wastes of interminable darkness.

“ That extension of mental light, which was first happily effected by our periodical essayists, and which has by degrees led to the brilliancy we now enjoy, had been for a long time intercepted by the dissolute and licentious manners which the court of Charles the Second had introduced, and which continued for several after the commencement of the eighteenth century, though in a less virulent manner, to pollute the channels of public decency, and to choke the germs of intellectual excellence.

« Of the success which attended the efforts of Steele and Addison, in the reformation and improvement of their own immediate age, nothing can afford so decisive a proof as the opinions of contemporaries competent to form a just estimate of the result of their labours. We shall only quote one of the numerous productions of this kind. It was published on the close of the Tatler, and affords a very strik

several years

ing and satisfactory detail of the salutary effect of the Tatlers, Spectators, and Guardians, in ameliorating the morals of society, and in accelerating the progress of intellectual acquirement.

“ To Gay, there is every reason to suppose, we are indebted for the description of the moral influence of the Tatler. After regretting the recent decease of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq. he adds, • to give you my own thoughts of this gentleman's writings, I shall in the first place observe, that there is this noble difference between him and all the rest of our polite and gallant authors: the latter have endeavoured to please the age, by falling in with them, and encouraging them in their fashionable vices and false notions of things. It would have been a jest, some time since, for a man to have asserted that any thing witty could be said in praise of a married state; or that devotion and virtue were any way necessary to the character of a fine gentleman. Bickerstaff ventured to tell the town that they were a parcel of fops, fools, and vain coquettes; but in such a manner as even pleased them, and made them more than half inclined to believe that he spoke truth.

[ocr errors]

“ Instead of complying with the false sentiments or vicious tastes of the

age,

either in mo rality, criticism, or good-breeding, he has boldly assured them, that they were altogether in the wrong;

and commanded them, with an authority which perfectly well became him, to surrender themselves to his arguments for virtue and good sense.

"It is incredible to conceive the effect his writings have had on the town ; how many thousand follies they have either quite banished, or given a very great check to; how much countenance they have added to virtue and religion ; how many people they have rendered happy, by shewing them it was their own fault if they were not so; and lastly, how entirely they have convinced our fops and young of the value and advantages of learning.

66. He has indeed rescued it out of the hands of pedants and fools, and discovered the true method of making it amiable and lovely to all mankind. In the dress he gives it, it is a most welcome guest at tea-tables and assemblies, and is relished and caressed by the merchants on Change.

Lastly, his writings have set all our wits and men of letters upon a new way of thinking,

young fellows

of which they had little or no notion before ; and though we cannot yet say that any of them have come up to the beauties of the original, I think we may venture to affirm, that

every one of them writes and thinks much more justly than they did some time since.'

« Of the almost immediate utility accruing to manners and literature from the circulation of the Tatler, no passages can be more decisive than those which we have quoted ; and to these might be added testimonials equally strong with regard to the moral and mental operation on society of the whole body of periodical writings which issued from the school of Steele and Addison.

“ The result, indeed, of the publication of the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, has been of the first national importance. The diffasion of private virtue and wisdom must necessarily tend to purify and enlighten the general mass ; and experience in every age has proved, that the strength, the weight, and prosperity of a nation, are better founded on knowledge, morality, and sound literature, than on the unstable effects of conquest or commerce. Rational liberty, indeed, can only be supported by integrity and ability; and it is of little conse

« PreviousContinue »