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THE commencement of the eighteenth century was distinguished by the appearance of a class of writers so eminent for wit, elegance, and taste, that the period in which they flourished has, almost by universal consent, been recorded as the Augustan age of English literature; criticism, however, has since endeavoured to explode a term which, while it consigned the past to oblivion, might check the hope of future improvement: yet, if we fairly estimate the writings of the principal ornaments of that time, we must at least allow that they formed a combination which has not often graced the annals of literature, and that they have bestowed upon the world labours whose intrinsic worth must be great, since they have outlived many revolutions of taste, and have attained unrivalled popularity and classic fame, while multitudes of their contemporaries, successors and imitators, have perished, with the accidents, or caprice, or fashion, which procured them any share of public attention.
To this pre-eminence the Essayists whose works are now before us seem justly entitled, from the importance of the task they undertook, and the manner in which they executed what has seldom been attempted but with a repulsive and unac
commodating sternness. The more serious duties. of religion had not been neglected by those who wrote to reform the age; but for common life and manners, no precepts were laid down, except what were too general or too precise. The instructions contained in the systematic writers on morality, were not devoid of force, or argument; but their style was unpolished, and with the gay and idle their tediousness was ill calculated to agree. Abuses crept in, which were beneath the attention of the pulpit, or the bar. Public amusements, which are not indifferent to the manners of a nation, became disgraced by absurdities, which impeded their usefulness even as vehicles of mere entertainment. Though purified from much of their licentiousness by the indefatigable zeal of Collier, they were not yet rational; and beyond the waste of an hour, which to the idle is certainly of great importance, their influence was unperceived. The conductors of public amusements have indeed seldom been ambitious of a rank among the reformers of mankind; and the history of the stage would be a barren detail, if it excluded the schemes of avarice and the intrigues of licentiousness.
In all changes of English manners, a foreign influence has long been predominant. The earliest accounts inform us, that those who were allowed to prescribe the modes in dress, language, or sentiment, collected their knowledge on their travels, and were not ashamed of being conquered by the follies of a nation whose arms they despised. About the time we now treat of, foreign fopperies, ignorance of the rules of propriety, and indecorous affectations, had introduced many absurdities into public aud private life, for which no remedy was provided in the funds of
general instruction, and which consequently prevailed with impunity until the appearance of the ESSAYISTS. This useful and intelligent class of writers, struck with the necessity of supplying the lesser wants of society, determined to subdivide instruction into such portions as might suit those temporary demands and casual exigencies, which were overlooked by graver writers, and more bulky theorists: or, in the language of Addison, 'to bring philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at teatables, and in coffee-houses.'
Of the origin of this species of writing Dr. JOHNSON has given a sketch which it were to be wished he had illustrated by research. Yet though written in advanced life, when inquiry became irksome, it is too highly valuable for elegance of diction, and justice of criticism, to be omitted in this place.
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 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, and their precepts now are no longer wanted. Their usefulness to the age in which they were written is sufficiently attested by the translations which almost all the nations of Europe were in haste to obtain.
This species of instruction was continued and
perhaps advanced by the French: among whor LA BRUYERE'S Manners of the Age, though, as BOILEAU remarked, it is written without connection, certainly deserves great praise, for liveliness of description, and justness of observation.
Before the TATLER and SPECTATOR, if the writers for the theatre are excepted, England had no masters of common life. No writers had yet undertaken to reform either the savageness of neglect, or the impertinence of civility; to show when to speak, or to be silent; how to refuse, or how to comply. We had many books to teach us our more important duties, and to settle opinions in philosophy or politics: but an Arbiter elegantiarum, a judge of propriety, was yet wanting, who should survey the track of daily conversation, and free it from thorns and prickles, which teaze the passer, though they do not wound him.
For this purpose nothing is so proper as the frequent publication of short papers, which we read not as study, but amusement. If the subject be slight, the treatise likewise is short. The busy may find time, and the idle may find patience.
This mode of conveying cheap and easy knowledge began among us in the civil war; when it was much the interest of either party to raise and fix the prejudices of the people. At that time appeared Mercurius Aulicus, Mercurius Rusticus, and Mercurius Civicus. It is said that when any title grew popular, it was stolen by the antagonist, who by this stratagem conveyed his notions to those who would not have received him, had he not worn the appearance of a friend. The tumult of those unhappy days left scarcely any man leisure to treasure up occasional compositions; and so much were they neglected that a complete collection is
no were to be found. These Mercuries were succeeded by L'Estrange's Observator, and that by Lesley's Rehearsal and perhaps by others: but hitherto nothing had been conveyed to the people, in this commodious manner, but controversy relating to the church or state; of which they taught many to talk, whom they could not teach to judge.
It has been suggested that the Royal Society was instituted soon after the Restoration, to divert the attention of the people from public discontent. The TATLER and SPECTATOR had the same tendency they were published at a time when two parties, loud, restless, and violent, each with plausible declarations, and each perhaps without any distinct termination of its views, were agitating the nation; to minds heated with political contest they supplied cooler and more inoffensive reflections; and it is said by ADDISON, in a subsequent work, that they had a perceptible influence upon the conversation of that time, and taught the frolic and the gay to unite merriment with decency; an effect which they can never wholly lose, while they continue to be among the first books by which both sexes are initiated in the elegancies of knowledge.**
In this sketch, we may observe, that the praise of original design is still reserved for the author of the TATLER. If Casa and Castiglione were allowed to be exceptions, we might add to the number by reciting the titles of many works published in England, for the regulation of manners; among these PEACHAM, BRAITHWAITE, and Sir FRANCIS VERE, were writers of no inconsiderable fame; but, like many of their contemporaries, much more
*Johnson's Life of Addison: