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HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL
A PRINCIPLE of gratitude must naturally be awakened in every generous mind when he peruses the pages of that distinguished class of writers, the BRITISH ESSAYISTs. At the dawn of the eighteenth century appeared this eminently useful class of literary men.-It was at this period that they began by their labours to amuse and instruct the world; and by their writings to bring philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and in coffee-houses ;'to issue from the press those precepts that have Tatler
so eminently tended to enlighten and adorn the path of common life, and form the manners of our nation.
Of the origin of this species of writing the celebrated Dr. JOHNSON has given a sketch, which, though written in advanced life, is highly valuable for elegance of diction, and justice of remark.
- To teach the minuter decencies and inferior duties,' says he, to regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal, and remove those grievances, which if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation, was first attempted by Casa, in his book of Manners, and Castiglione in his Courtier; two books yet celebrated in Italy for purity and elegance, and which, if they are now less read, are neglected only because they have effected that reformation which their authors intended, and their precepts now are no longer wanted. Their usefulness to the age in which they were written is sufficiently attested by the translations which almost all the nations of Europe were in haste to obtain.
* This species of instruction was continued, and perhaps advanced, by the French : among
whom La Bruyer's Manners of the Age, though, as Boileau remarked, it is written without connexion, certainly deserves great praise, for liveliness of description, and justness of observation.
Before the TATLER and SPECTATOR, if the writers for the theatre are excepted, England had no masters of common life. No writers had yet undertaken to reform either the savageness of neglect, or the impertinence of civility; to shew when to speak, or to be silent; how to refuse, or how to comply. We had many
books to teach us our more important duties, and to settle opinions in philosophy or politics: but an Arbiter elegantiarum, a judge of propriety, was yet wanting, who should survey the track of daily conversation, and free it from thorns and prickles, which teaze the passer, though they do not wound hin.
For this purpose nothing is so proper as the frequent publication of short papers, which we read not as a study, but amusement. If the subject be slight, the treatise likewise is short. The busy may find time, and the idle may find patience.
* This mode of conveying cheap and easy knowledge begun among.us in the civil war,
when it was much the interest of either party to raise and fix the prejudices of the people. At that time appeared Mercurius Aulicus, Mercurius Rusticus, and Mercurius Civicus. It is said that when any title grew popular, it was stolen by the antagonist, who by this stratagem conveyed his notions to those who would not have received him, had he not worn the appearance of a friend, The tumult of those unhappy days left scarcely any man leisure to treasure up occasional compositions; and so much were they neglected, that a complete collection is no where to be found.
6 These Mercuries were succeeded by L'ESTRANGE's OBSERVATOR, and that by LESLEY'S REHEARSAL, and perhaps by others : but hitherto nothing had been conveyed to the people, in this commodious manner, but controversy relating to the church or state ; of which they taught many to talk, whom they could not teach to judge.
* It has been suggested that the Royal Society was instituted soon after the Restoration, to divert the attention of the people from public discontent. The TATLER and SPECTATOR had the same tendency: they were published at a time when two parties,
loud, restless, and violent, each with plausible declarations, and each perhaps without any distinct termination of its views, were agitating the nation: to minds heated with political contest, they supplied cooler and more inoffensive reflections; and it is said by Addison, in a subsequent work, that they had a perceptible influence upon the conversation of that time, and taught the frolic and the gay to unite merriment with decency; an effect which they can never wholly lose, while they continue to be amongst the first books by which both sexes are initiated in the elegancies of knowledge.'
If it was the aim of the first ESSAYISTS to direct the public attention to subjects that, like those of LORD VERULAM, 'came home to men's business and bosoms, a wide field lay before them, for the cultivation of which little provision had been made by preceding authors. There were innumerable topics, which, though of great importance in promoting regularity and propriety in social life, and securing the happiness of the domestic relations, had been but superficially touched upon by any of the teachers of wisdom. The weightier morals and the Christian virtues, the grosser vices and de