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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IT is entirely indicative of our opinions and feelings of the life and writings of this British author of the eighteenth century that we should think of Addison’s friend and fellow-essayist as Richard, or Dick, or Dicky Steele, rather than of Sir Richard Steele, as he is known in the history of literature. Dick or Dicky Steele conveys to our minds the impression which the heavy-limbed, square-jawed, dark-eyed, tender-hearted, awkward, careless, wholly unselfish Irishman conveyed to his personal friends and acquaintances.  1
  Irish by birth,—for he was born in Dublin in 1672,—he was of English parentage and descent, being the son of the secretary of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Ormond. Yet he had many of the amiable, kindly, mirthful, genial traits attributed to the Irish race. Through the Duke’s influence he was sent to the Charterhouse, London, where he first met Addison, of the same age as himself; with whom he formed the closest intimacy, which, continuing for many years, is one of the most memorable in literature. Steele always looked up to Addison, cherishing for him a respect almost reverential; and Addison’s stronger, more stable, more serious character affected very favorably his own wayward, volatile nature, without causing any permanent change in it. Notwithstanding that he lived to be fifty-eight,—dying at Llangunnor, Wales, September 1st, 1729,—he seemed never to have quite grown up. He preserved through all his vicissitudes, and to the very last, the same gay, reckless, jovial, irregular, prodigal disposition; never intending to do ill, but always getting into straits from which his friends were obliged to extricate him so far as they could, until he fell into new ones. His errors were ever human, ever committed without reflection; and though they demand at times broad charity, it is impossible not to forgive, on the whole, his shortcomings, and not to love him despite his grave defects. If he constantly needed help, he was constantly trying to help others; and to this cause are due most of his perplexities.  2
  The two friends were together at Merton College, Oxford; where Steele remained for three years, but left without taking a degree. He had conceived a passion for the army; and unable to get a commission, he enlisted as a private in the Horse Guards. A rich kinsman in Ireland had menaced him with disinheritance should he take such a step; but being naturally independent, he defied interference. He was liked in the army, and gained the rank of captain; a promotion due to his colonel, Lord Cutts, to whom he had dedicated his ‘Christian Hero’ (published in 1701), which was so moral and pious as to displease his very worldly associates, and which was written in those moods of contrition so frequent and so transient with him. It was at this time that he made that intimate acquaintance with the follies and vices of the era, and with human nature as he saw it, which made him an acute delineator of manners when he embraced literature as a profession.  3
  As a man about town he frequented the London theatres, and became intimately acquainted with the players and their companions. This naturally turned his mind to the stage; and in 1702 he wrote a comedy, ‘The Funeral, or Grief à la Mode’ (in striking contrast with the ‘Christian Hero’), which met with marked favor at Drury Lane. The next year he brought out ‘The Tender Husband’; and two years later a third comedy, ‘The Lying Lover,’ adapted from ‘Le Menteur’ of Thomas Corneille. This was too staid, too solemn, to suit his audience, who so energetically condemned it that he did not attempt until 1722 another play, ‘The Conscious Lovers’ (based on Terence’s ‘Andria’), his most successful drama, and conspicuously decorous.  4
  Steele was now a popular and a fashionable man, having political no less than social position. He was appointed gazetteer and gentleman usher to Prince George of Denmark. He had taken a wife, who lived but a little while, leaving him a considerable estate in Barbadoes. His second wife (he was married again in 1707), born Molly Scurlock, increased his fortune. His letters to this wife, some four hundred of which have been preserved, form an extraordinary correspondence. They reveal the author as he was,—full of faults and weaknesses, of dissipations and repentance, of affection and tenderness, of ardent promises of reform and reckless promise-breaking. They are wholly artless and confidential, written without premeditation or second thought; mere talk on paper. They are dated from jails, taverns, wine-shops, bailiffs’ offices, under the influence of vinous headaches, marital contritions, fresh impulses of devotion, and tearful regrets for neglected duties. They afford a curious, rather melancholy, at the same time entertaining, history of a drinking, impulsive, vacillating, over-generous, spendthrift, loving husband’s checkered life.  5
  To a man of Steele’s temperament and habits, money was of little benefit. He was always in debt, and always would have been, whether his income were five hundred pounds or five thousand. He had neither order nor method; but in their stead numberless whims and desires. He had not the slightest conception of business; he was entirely destitute of practicality: but no kind of adversity, no misfortune, could depress his ever-buoyant spirit.  6
  In 1709 a felicitous financial idea occurred to him; and oddly enough, he acted on it. His office of gazetteer put him in control of early foreign intelligence; and in imitation of Defoe’s plan, he organized the Tatler, issuing the first number April 12th. He secured the assistance of Addison, who furnished many of the principal articles, and who aided him in procuring the appointment of commissioner of the Stamp Office. When the Whigs were overthrown in 1710, Steele, as a strong Whig, was deprived of his gazetteership, and with it the means of supplying the items of official news which were at the beginning important to the Tatler. This paper was accordingly succeeded the next year by the Spectator, mostly written by the two friends. The Tatler had appeared thrice a week, price one penny; but the Spectator appeared daily at twopence, issuing five hundred and fifty-five numbers,—the last December 6th, 1712. Many of Addison’s most famous contributions were printed in the two papers; though Steele furnished the larger number, and stamped himself and his character on what he wrote. His object was to expose what was false in life, manners, morals; to strip disguises from vanity, selfishness, affectation; to recommend simplicity and sincerity; to correct public taste, and urge the adoption of true English sentiment and opinion. Steele and Addison co-operated also in the Guardian: and Steele at different periods was interested in similar periodicals, like the Englishman, the Lover, the Reader, the Plebeian; but they were short-lived, and added nothing to his reputation. Few of Steele’s essays are remembered; nor is the fact that he was the originator of the noted characters “Sir Roger de Coverley” and “Will Honeycomb,” though Addison afterward adopted them, making them virtually his own.  7
  As an essayist he is admired for vivacity and ease, but not for finish: he was often neglectful of his style. His charm is his perfect naturalness. He had great versatility, being a humorist, satirist, critic, story-teller, and remarkable in each capacity. Political acrimony raged in 1713. Steele’s patriotism triumphed over self-interest; he resigned his office, and plunged headlong into political controversy. He gained a seat in Parliament as a member for Stockbridge in Hampshire; vehemently supported the Protestant succession, which he believed in peril; and published a pamphlet, ‘The Crisis,’ warning the kingdom against the danger of a Popish succession, for which he was expelled from the House of Commons. The death of Queen Anne mollified his opponents. In the new reign he received several profitable employments; was knighted, and elected to Parliament from Boroughbridge. But, head over heels in debt again, he was soon attacked with paralysis and rendered incapable of exertion. He retired to a small estate (left him by his second wife), where he passed away nearly forgotten by his contemporaries. He was distinguished, in an era that cherished slight respect for women, for his high opinion of and chivalrous feeling for them. No loftier compliment has ever been paid to woman than his to Lady Elizabeth Hastings: “To love her was a liberal education.”  8
 
 
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