Addison and Steele: Contribution & Comparison to Prose

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Literary Contribution of Addison & Steele

      The names of Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729) are always associated on account of their collaboration in the periodical essay. Just of an age, they met as boys at the Charterhouse, and afterward as young men at Oxford. Then Steele went into the army, later threw himself with characteristic ardor into politics, and after many ups and downs and much buffeting by fortune, died in Wales, having, as Thackeray says, “outlived his places, his schemes, his wife, his income, his health, and almost everything but his kind heart”. Addison meanwhile gained a high reputation for classical scholarship, made the Grand Tour of Europe as a preparation for diplomacy, entered the House of Commons, was Chief Secretary for Ireland and for a year Secretary of State, and died ten years before his friend. Their characters were curiously contrasted. Steele was a thorough Bohemian, easy-going, thriftless, careless, but full of generosity and sympathy, and with an honest love of what is pure and good. Addison was an urbane and polished gentleman, of exquisite refinement of taste and lofty ideas of rectitude and piety, but shy, self-conscious, and a little remote and austere. These striking differences of temperament and outlook, however, were of the greatest value to both, when they came to join forces in the field of the periodical essay. Outside that field, both men did a good deal of miscellaneous work. Of Steele’s comedies and Addison’s one tragedy, however, we will say a word presently, while of the latter’s once famous poem, The Campaign which was written to celebrate the victory at Blenheim, and proved to be its author’s passport to political advancement, it is enough to record that the praise once lavished upon it seems absolutely ridiculous now. For the moment, then, we are concerned with Addison and Steele as essayists only. Here Steele, who was always the more originative genius, led the way by the foundation of The Tatler, the first of the long line of eighteenth-century periodical essays. This was followed by the most famous of them, The Spectator, in which Addison, who had contributed to his friend’s former enterprise, now became the chief partner. It began on March 1, 1711, was published daily, Sundays excepted, and ran till December 6, 1712; though some eighteen months later it was revived by Addison alone, and issued three times a week from June 18 to December 20, 1714. In its complete form, it contains 635 essays. Of these Addison wrote 274 and Steele 240, the remaining 121 being the work of various friends.

      The ethical importance of what Addison and Steele together did through the medium of the periodical essay could not well be overstated, while their method too is highly significant. They set themselves as moralists to break down two opposed influences—that of the profligate Restoration tradition of loose living and loose thinking on the one hand, and that of Puritan fanaticism and bigotry on the other. Their method was admirably adapted to their purpose. They did not indulge in sweeping condemnations and unqualified invectives, as, greatly to the damage of their cause, the Puritan moralists habitually did; they wrote good-humouredly, met all classes of readers on their own ground, and made ample allowance for the ordinary failings of humanity; but at the same time they consistently advocated the claims of decency and sound sense. It was, moreover, by their use of wit, humor, and satire that they scored most. In post-Restoration literature, these had commonly been employed in the service of vice and to make decency and sound sense look ridiculous. Addison and Steele turned the tables upon the scoffers, and got the laugh on the other side; and the gain was enormous. Thus they did much to set the conscience of their time right on the fundamental questions of social and domestic conduct, and for this reason, they occupy a high place in the history of English manners during the first half of the eighteenth century. Nor is this all. They wrote with an educational as well as with a purely moral aim, and it was always one of their objects to extend and popularise general culture. Thus they discussed (always in a light and engaging way) art, philosophy, the drama, and poetry, and sought in so doing not only to interest the general reader in such subjects, but also to guide and develop his taste. It was in The Spectator, for example, that Addison first published his series of eighteen papers on Paradise Lost, by which he helped to spread among English people a better appreciation of Milton and his work. In particular, they addressed themselves avowedly and directly to women; and at a time when women in society were as a rule immersed in the mere trivialities of existence, they did their best to draw them into the currents of the larger intellectual life. One other aspect of The Spectator deserves attention.

      When Addison and Steele wrote their daily miscellany, no lively picture had appeared in our literature (outside the drama) of men and manners in the ordinary social world of their time. In the many papers in which they dealt with the leading figures of the Spectator Club, and especially, with the eccentricities of the delightful Tory squire, Sir Roger de Coverley, our essayists painted such a picture, and painted it admirably. For more than a century before this, satirists in verse and prose had been cultivating what is known as ‘character writing’, taking the Characters of the Greek Theophrastus as their model. These formal studies of types were often clever, but they were mere lay figures, without reality or life. In the hands of Addison and Steele, the seventeenth-century character study became personal and vital; instead of catalogs of qualities, we have actual men moving amid real scenes and taking part in various incidents. Though in the scattered papers of the Spectator we cannot look for that sustained interest which is essential to a novel, this large development in characterization must still be regarded as a stage in the evolution of the genuine novel. It is scarcely too much to say that in many of the Spectator papers, in which scenes from the life of Sir Roger are described, we have the modern novel in germ.

Steele as Compared with Addison

      When we think of Spectator papers or the periodical essays, the names of Steele and Addison come to mind together. So much so that, when we think of one, the other name automatically comes to mind. Their names will always come together on account of their close and most useful collaboration with each other. And yet their temperaments and tastes were quite different as was their style of writing.

Contrast in Characters

      The very characters of the two friends, who together did so much as collaborators in the field of the English essays, differed widely from each other. Steele was what is called Bohemian, easy going, most careless about money, friendly and very generous and sympathetic. He enjoyed life and the pleasures it offered with an ease and carefree feeling. Addison, on the other hand, was a cultured and civilized and urbane gentleman, dignified and reserved by nature. He was naturally refined and had lofty ideas of morality and piety.

Contrast as Writers: Originality and Spontaneity versus Polish and Refinement

      Steele and Addison together produced the remarkable essays of the Spectator. They complemented each other’s qualities
as writers. Steele was the more original and inventive of the two. He was more natural and easy and spontaneous of expression. Addison gave to originality and spontaneity of Steele—refinement, polish and correctness of writing. Steele exhibited a romantic strain of writing which came out of his warm involvement in life around him. As Hugh Walker remarks: “The heart is dominant in Steele whereas Addison’s head dominated his character and writing.” Steele “writes, as a rule, less from the head than from the heart, to the warmth of which organ his rapid pen gives eager and emphatic expression. His humor is delightfully kind and genial, his sympathies quick springing and compassionate, his instincts uniformly on the side of what is generous, honest, manly and of good report”. (Dobson). In Addison, there is a languid refinement and polish and elegance which is missing in the writing of Steele. Addison’s writing lacks the warmth of Steele’s appoach. Addison’s approach is that of a man whose head dominates over his heart.

Careless Sympathy versus Cold Artistry, Romantic Against Intellectual

      Steele is original and creative but in this creativity, there was also carelessness which checked him from being artistically consistent. In the characterization of Sir Roger, he seems to have introduced a kind of discrepancy—he paints Sir Roger as having been a dandy and a gentleman about town. This seems slightly incongruous with the image of the knight as a whole.

      The warmth and tenderness of Steele versus the cold intellectuality of Addison is never more evident than in their humor. Steele’s humor is warm and verges on the sentimental at times. Addison’s is mildly astringent, and frequently ironical. Steele laughs heartily and affectionately without the suspicion of a sneer. Addison would not be so freely amused. He would control, polish and refine the sentiment, and express it in precise, clear terms.

Addison: the Superior Artist

      Addison was a more reasoned, and deliberate critic whereas Steele’s criticism was more instinctive in nature. As far as artistic finish is concerned, there is no doubt that Addison was superior to Steele. As a writer, Addison was less faulty than Steele. Hugh Walker says: “No doubt Addison is on the whole superior. He is a far more finished writer, more correct, more scholarly, more subtly humorous. Steele’s style is like his life, as Thackeray said, ‘full of faults and careless blunders; and redeemed; like that, by his sweet and compassionate nature.’ ...There is such a thing as tone in writing as well as style, and Steele at his best is as much superior to Addison in the former quality as he is inferior in the latter.”

      Comparing the two writers H. V. Routh remarks: “It may be said that Steele was the more original and Addison the more effective. Steele conceived the periodical essay, but never perfected it.....Addison without any deep fund of ideas or sympathy raised Steele’s conception of an essay to a degree of perfection never since surpassed.”

      E. Albert remarks in this context that Steele is at least Addison’s equal in originality and versatility. As he says: “His humor is broader and less restrained than Addison’s......His pathos is more attractive and more humane......but he is incapable of irony; he lacks penetration and power; and much of his moralizing is cheap and obvious. He lacks Addison’s care and smoothly polite ironic insight; he is heedless, incautious in style, and inconsequent in the method. And so, in the final estimate, as the greater artist he fails.” But one has to admit that Steele’s writing has maintained a certain quality of freshness and charm which is lacking in Addison’s. Saintsbury remarks in connection with Steele and Addison as collaborators: “We might allow Steele a finer—certainly a more generous and heartfelt sentiment, a freer spirit, and perhaps a more creative fancy; while reserving for Addison a more generally critical temperament, a better regulated if less catholic taste, and certainly more mastery of that wonderful ‘middle style’ to which Dr. Johnson refers.”


      Addison and Steele were admirably suited as co-craftsmen, for each could give what the other lacked. Steele brought to his work a wide experience of life, generous sympathies, and a sunny humor; Addison brought a wide experience of literature, a polished style, and a pleasant tinge of acidity in his humor. Both were moralists at heart, with much the same outlook on the society of their day. Yet there were sufficient differences in temperament and in gifts to be of real service in giving breadth and diversity to the work they accomplished.

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