Steele, Addison and Their Periodical Essays

Steele, Addison and Their Periodical Essays

Steele, Addison and Their Periodical Essays

Steele, Addison and Their Periodical Essays

Excerpt

It is a salutary principle, in judging a work of art, not to confuse its historical with its aesthetic importance. Anyone writing on the eighteenth-century periodical essay, even at its best in The Tatler and The Spectator, needs to remind himself of this principle; here is a case where the historical importance is very great but where the modern reader, if led to expect more than a charming humour and vivacity, is likely to feel cheated. Induced to expect too much, he will dismiss what he finds as too little.

Yet in doing so he will miss much in a delightful minor mode that is worth having, as well as an historical phenomenon that can give much food for reflection. Let us take this latter point first. In Britain's cultural life, few alliances have been more fruitful than that between the writers and the readers of these essays, few relationships more thoughtfully and responsibly adjusted. To study the best Augustan1 periodicals leaves one, if not responding to a profound literary achievement, at least admiring the skill with which enlightenment was spread on a broad front of morals and letters. This was achieved by authors who gave their public what it wanted (they had to) but gave it something consistently better than it could have imagined. Entertainment went hand-in-hand with improvement; if human nature demanded amusement, it had its better self to be considered too. There is here a code of behaviour, as well as a skill of achievement, which in our own times, and with our own . . .

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