Prose Style of Richard Steele as Essayist

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Themes that Interested Steele

      Steele, like Addison, was a moralist at heart. He had a great experience of the town and he saw, with the insight he possessed, into the latent vices which city life developed. He became aware of the vanity, ignorance and selfishness and disillusionment that reigned in the town. The themes of his essays were connected with what he aimed to achieve. Steele’s aim was “to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguise of cunning, vanity and affectation, and to recommend a great simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behavior.” He wanted to reform the tastes of the readers. He did not want them to continue in the contemporary fashions which were perverted tastes—drinking, gambling and all kinds of vice. Thus the themes of his essays are concerned with good taste in dress, behavior and reading. He uses humor to make moralizing agreeable to the readers. He also deals with the sensitive studies of home life. He had a keen insight into human nature and knew the dangers of false ideals.

Humorous Moralist

      Steele was sensible to the fact that the age would not tolerate a serious and grave moralist who was totally didactic. He knew the value of humor in convincing the reader and converting him to one’s point of view. He was free of the zealous moralizing of the Puritans. He realized that lightness of touch, a humorous gaiety was needed to give moralizing an acceptable flavor. He said: “Touching upon the malady tenderly is halfway to the cure, and there are some faults which need only to be observed, to be amended.” Steele used his lively sense of humor to effective ends. He is friendly and not as ironic as Addison and not in the least bit savage like Swift. As Austin Dobson says: “As a genial and kindly commentator; upon the men and women about him; as a human and an indulgent interpreter of their facilities; as a generous and ungrudging sympathizer with their feeblest better impulse—he belongs to the great race of English humorists.”


      Steele possessed a touch of creative originality. He produced The Tatler as a result of his own idea. The work was original and easy and friendly in style. It was Steele’s creative imagination which led to the original establishment of the Spectator club. It was he
who made the first sketches of the members of this club. It is true that it was Addison who developed these characters fully but the original conception was Steele’s.

Steele’s Prose Style

      Steele was not a stickler for perfection of style. He was free from the professional author’s obsession with correctness and cultivated quality of expression. He establishes a friendly relationship with the reader. His essays have an effusiveness of conversation about them. He is often not too careful about the construction of his sentences; he is free from any kind of pedantry. His prose has an ease and flew, symptomatic of conversation. His style shows warmth, sincerity of conviction, naturalness and spontaneity which makes up for any lack of correctness of writing, any lack of elegance or purity in writing. Sometimes he is capable of writing pithy and compact epigrammatic sentences. He is also capable of a subtle and gentle irony as is evident in the essays, Of the Club and Sir Roger’s Ancestors as well as the essays dealing with his disappointment in love. But his approach is slightly sentimental and romantic and more soft than Addison’s. To Steele, women are distressed heroines and he shows a great sympathy for the downtrodden. In the portrayal of the members of the Spectator Club, Steele first showed the general tendencies of each character and it was left to Addison to develop them. He might have intended them to be mere figureheads but he achieves the portraits of a social environment and character in them.

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