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He was weakly opposed by Congreve, whose opposition had only the effect of prolonging, and giving added decision to the victory of his antagonist. "Collier lived," writes Dr Johnson, "to see the reward of his labour in the reformation of the theatre."
Of Congreve, we are entitled to offer a separate notice, as he was educated first at Kilkenny, and then in the university of Dublin. The place of his birth has been disputed, but he was himself strenuous in the assertion of his claim to have been a native of England. We do not see any reason to dispute the point, and our fast contracting limits offer some for declining the doubtful honour. So far as education may be allowed to govern the judgment, store the memory, or guide the taste, his literary reputation is due to the university of Dublin. A brief but sufficient memoir of his life has been written by Johnson, whose writings are in every hand.
BoRN A.D. 1652. DIED A.D. 1715.
Nahum Tate was the son of a clergyman of the county of Cavan. He was born in Dublin, whither his father had been driven by the rebels. His father became, after some vicissitudes, minister of Werburgh's church in Dublin. It may be inferred that the son had the advantages of a peaceable youth and pious education. At the age of sixteen he entered the university of Dublin. He was favoured early with the patronage of the earl of Dorset, and succeeded Shadwell as poet laureat. The incidents of his life were few and uninteresting. He fell into great distress and died, it is said in the Mint, into which he had escaped from his creditors.
As a writer, he cannot receive much commendation—his poems and dramatic works could hardly be considered as entitling him to a notice here. But those far and universally known versions of the psalms, which have given to piety a welcome and available resource, and added to sacred music the utterance of inspired feeling, is not to be rated by the talent that has been employed in the pious and honourable task. When the proudest monuments of human genius shall have past away, and when the thoughts of which the very foundation and meaning subsist in perishable things shall have been forgotten, the meanest song, in which eternal truths are uttered, may be preserved by their abiding truth, and be a portion of the records of heaven.
The songs of Zion do not indeed demand the genius of Moore or Byron, to give to heavenly inspiration the power of earthly genius. They demand no refined and artful melody of versification, no terse and pointed rhetoric of style, to wrest them from their pure and simple significancy: they refuse the additions which are involved in the whole art of poetry, and have only required, with the utmost truth and fidelity to be conformed to the rhythm adapted to church music, and to the genius of the national ear. To be sung, as in their origin they were, and to be still the song of every rank and tongue, as well adapted to the sabbath-evening of the peasant, as the endowed cathedral; to be the effusion of the simplest christian piety, and still not lose their tone and echo of the ancient harp of Israel, only demanded changes of form, to which aspiring genius, with its excess of invention and profuse array of intellectual tints, will not he confined; and which a thorough infusion of genuine sympathy with pious sentiments, can alone command. In such a task a more refined and gifted mind than Tate's might hare found itself wanting; and, it may perhaps be not unfitly added—for we have seen it variously exemplified—that a degree of intellectual power little competent in most exertions of human aim, when employed in the service of God, and elevated by that Spirit which is greater than the power of genius, will reach to heights which can be accounted for in no other way than by tracing them to the source of all truth and wisdom,—such efforts will ever be found characterized by a chaste adaptation to their good and hallowed purpose.
Sir &fd&ar& Steele.
BoRN A.D. 1671.—WED A.D. 1729.
Steele was born in Dublin, some time in 1671. His father was a barrister, and private secretary to the duke of Ormonde, by whose influence his son was admitted into the charter-house in London, to be educated. In this institution he formed his acquaintance with Addison. From the charter-house he entered Merton College, Oxford, where he gave his attention chiefly to the study of English literature, and manifested that talent and restlessness of temper, so remarkable in his after life. While yet in college he wrote a comedy, which he suppressed by the advice of a fellow-student. He probably devoted more time to gaiety and dissipation than to study, and evidently became at last impatient of the sober character of a student. Being destitute of the means of the more expensive and costly dissipation of the place, and, in all probability, infected with the military tastes for gay uniform and companions, to which young men are so liable; he left the university without taking his degree, and enlisted in the horse-guards. The step was fatal to his prospects, as he was thus, by the resentment of his family, cut off from the succession to an estate in the county of Wexford, to which he was the presumptive heir.
Having thus cut the ties between him and these expectations to which he was entitled by his birth, Steele was not deficient in those less ordinary advantages, by which men of genius and enterprise occasionally make their way good in life. As often happens in such instances, he had more power to win, than prudence to secure, the advantages of success. His wit, uniform gaiety, and amiability of manner and temper, together with the pleasure-loving recklessness of his character, made him a universal favourite in the regiment. With these qualities Steele possessed another, not so much in unison with such a temper, and not so much to the taste of those by whom it is possessed—a tender and impressible conscience. Young men, aban^ned to gaiety with that wholeness of devotion which generally marks the follies of the young, will not often—if ever—he observed to be very much alive to impressions of an opposite kind; but this is chiefly because, in the crowd, the physical portion of our nature is far predominant above the moral or intellectual, and preserves therefore, more thoroughly that consistency in good or evil which is due to habits of mind, however caused. But it is different in the few cases where the mind obtains some degree of prevalence: the seeming contradiction, so frequently displayed in the career of Steele, then appears. While the animal passions, and the tastes which they engender, will hurry on the devotee of folly, he becomes, at the same time, painfully subject to the daily check of a voice which he cannot silence, because he continues, in despite of folly, to think and feel; he cannot be brutalized by the cup of Circe till after long and repeated draughts have at length destroyed the divine elements of humanity within him. In Steele, restless and impulsive as he was, the noble element was strong within; and, while his wit and spirit placed him high in the revel, he felt also a growing repugnance to the distinction, and turned in his moments of reflection to look back, with longing, upon the peaceful and happy tenor of better and more profitable years. But, above all, he was yet, in his convictions at least, a sincere Christian, and could not without compunction experience the total inconsistency with such a profession of all his present companionships and avocations. He resolved at last on a change, for which he by no means possessed adequate perseverance; yet, acting with a noble courage on his resolution, he at once took what he considered a decisive step to cut the bonds between him and temptation. In pursuance of this laudable design he wrote for himself a brief manual of moral and religious counsel, which he shortly after published under the title of "The Christian Hero." The result strongly proves the real character of his associates—he was at once denounced among them and universally shunned. Those who had been his companions and admirers took every opportunity to insult him, and, as they said, to prove whether he was a "Christian Hero" or not. Among them, one more violent and vain-glorious than the rest endeavoured to provoke him to a duel. Steele made every effort to avoid it, but the prejudice of the day was still in favour of this monstrous remnant of the barbarism of Gothic times; and public opinion was imperative. A soldier could not, without the loss of honour, refuse to expose his life at the demand of the most wanton vice and folly. Steele was compelled to meet his brutal and despicable challenger, but had the good fortune or the prowess to run him through in the encounter. The whole transaction came circumstantially before the commander of the regiment; lord Cutts, whose conduct deserves to be honourably recorded, appointed him his private secretary, and obtained him an ensigncy in the regiment of lord Lucas.
The impression made in the regiment, generally, and among the dissolute circle in which he lived, was, however, strongly unfavourable to Steele,—and not, indeed, without strong apparent ground. It was evident that a course of reckless dissipation was maintained during the composition of a book, which, thus accompanied, could not fail to carry an air of gross insincerity; his mornings were spent in preaching against the disorder and vices of his nights, and the charge of hypocrisy can only be answered by the imputation of a more than common share of that fearful inconsistency which is a known condition of the human character. The contempt thus incurred, if not justly directed, was at least strongly sanctioned. Steele is thought to have sought refuge in literary distinction, and, under the influence of this distressing position, to have turned his mind to the drama—then the main direction of the intellectual power of the age. His first effort, in this line of composition, was the "Funeral, or Grief a la mode," a Comedy. It had at least the success of satisfying the king's taste, and the author's name was placed on the list of preferment—tho king, however, did not live to effect his favourable intentions, and tho list of court favour was cancelled by death. His friendship with Addison was of more avail. Addison exerted himself so strenuously that he obtained for him the appointment of writer of the Gazette, with a salary of £300 a-year.
Encouraged by the success of his first effort he persevered in dramatic composition; and in the course of the next few years brought out several plays, some original, some translations.
Steele is best known to posterity as a writer of periodical papers, which have survived, not alone by their own great merit, but by their conjunction with the writings of Addison, his still more illustrious friend. Steele appears to have been the projector of the first effort of this character, which, in any considerable degree, caught the public attention. He commenced the Tattler on the 22d April, 1709. Addison, who was not in the secret, discovered the true author by means of a comment on Virgil, which he had given to Steele. Addison's first contribution appeared on the 26th of May following, and he continued to assist his friend by a succession of papers, which continued at intervals nearly till the 2d of January, 1711, when Steele discontinued the Tattler. This paper may not improbably have been suggested by Swift's papers on Bickerstaff, which preceded it but a little, and it is known that Swift was for sometime an active contributor; it was not, however, till Addison became enabled by the change of the ministry to give his time to the paper, that it rose to any very considerable eminence. It advanced the reputation of Steele very much, and obtained for him the office of commissioner of stamps.
In the mean time, Steele had contracted a marriage, in which it is most likely that his principal objects were not attained,—a lady, who brought him an estate in the island of Barbadoes, considered worth eight hundred pounds a-year, but encumbered to nearly its value. Such an alliance held forth a strong temptation to one of Steele's expensive habits, and brought with it not much more than an excuse for extravagance.
On the 1st of March, 1711, the first number of the Spectator was published. It was conceived and generally executed in a more serious spirit, and has been, we believe, by far the most successful production of the same class. Though perhaps mainly designed as a vehicle for political opinion, it soon obtained a far higher, as well as more useful direction "to mend the manners and improve the heart;'' an intent loudly called for by the time. Johnson, whose wide acquaintance with the history of literature gives authority to his remarks, in his notice of this kind of writing in which he was himself only second to Addison, tells us,—" To teach the minuter decencies and inferior duties—to regulate the practice of daily conversation—to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal—and to 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." We have made this extract, not only for its historical value, but because it gives a just, though perhaps too expanded a description of this species of literature, which was a great and especial want of the time in which the Spectator appeared. This desideratum could not fail to force itself on the keen observation of Steele and his cotemporaries—Swift and Addison—who seem to have eminently possessed the talents which their day stood in need of. There was a laxity of manners; the result of a looseness of morals— of the prevalence of deism—and, in some measure, of the simplicity and ignorance of the times. "Before the Tattler and Spectator" says Johnson, "if the writers for the theatre are excepted, England had no masters of common life." The office here described, was, as we have already mentioned, ingrafted on the primary design, for the purpose of obtaining general attention by the production of papers in which persons of every party might find an equal interest. And as party animosity ran high during their publication, there may have been felt a very considerable attraction in papers full of wit, refinement, and interesting observation, which alone breathed no fierce passion or uncandid misrepresentation—the universal spirit of politics, then as now and ever. Iu these papers, which appeared daily, and were perhaps a fashionable accompaniment to the breakfast table, every one found something to learn from or be amused by—absurdities were exposed with a rare combination of good nature and playful wit—the taste of the age was instructed by criticism, such as no age or country has excelled for elegance, truth, and just refinement; while, from time to time, papers appeared in support of religious truths, which yet hold their place among the most consummate specimens of English style. These remarks would, according to our general plan, be more fitly placed at the end of this memoir; but, in point of fact, they have more reference to the papers of Addison than to those of Steele, whose share in the Spectator was not less in point of quantity, but in other respects stamped with the comparative inferiority of his genius to that of his friend. Johnson makes a computation, from which the daily sale of the Spectator appears to have amounted to no more than 1680 copies. Among the notices connected with this period of Steele's life several stories are told, which display the singular improvidence and carelessness of his temper in a strong point of view. He was in the habit of constantly postponing the composition of his paper until the last moment, while the printer waited to carry it to the press. Mr Nutt, the printer of the Tattler, has been known to mention, that he had at one time occasion to call on Steele at midnight for the paper for next