The letter "e" with a macron is rendered ē in this text.
The astute reader will notice there is no Chapter XV in the Table of Contents or in the text. This was a printer's error in the original book. The chapters were incorrectly numbered, but no chapter was missing. This e-book has been transcribed to match the original.
HISTORY OF ENGLISH HUMOUR
With an Introduction upon Ancient Humour.
THE REV. A. G. L'ESTRANGE,
Author of "The Life of the Rev. William Harness," "From the Thames to the Tamar," Etc.
In Two Volumes.
London: Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, 13, Great Marlborough Street. 1878. All rights reserved.
CONTENTS OF THE SECOND VOLUME.
Burlesque—Parody—The "Splendid Shilling"—Prior—Pope—Ambrose Philips—Parodies of Gray's Elegy—Gay 1
Defoe—Irony—Ode to the Pillory—The "Comical Pilgrim"—The "Scandalous Club"—Humorous Periodicals—Heraclitus Ridens—The London Spy—The British Apollo 22
Swift—"Tale of a Tub"—Essays—Gulliver's Travels—Variety of Swift's Humour—Riddles—Stella's Wit—Directions for Servants—Arbuthnot 44
Steele—The Funeral—The Tatler—Contributions of Swift—Of Addison—Expansive Dresses—"Bodily Wit"—Rustic Obtuseness—Crosses in Love—Snuff-taking 62
Spectator—The Rebus—Injurious Wit—The Everlasting Club—The Lovers' Club—Castles in the Air—The Guardian—Contributions by Pope—"The Agreeable Companion"—The Wonderful Magazine—Joe Miller—Pivot Humour 77
Sterne—His Versatility—Dramatic Form—Indelicacy—Sentiment and Geniality—Letters to his Wife—Extracts from his Sermons—Dr. Johnson 99
Dodsley—"A Muse in Livery"—"The Devil's a Dunce"—"The Toy Shop"—Fielding—Smollett 113
Cowper—Lady Austen's Influence—"John Gilpin"—"The Task"—Goldsmith—"The Citizen of the World"—Humorous Poems—Quacks—Baron Muenchausen 127
The Anti-Jacobin—Its Objects and Violence—"The Friends of Freedom"—Imitation of Latin Lyrics—The "Knife Grinder"—The "Progress of Man" 141
Wolcott—Writes against the Academicians—Tales of a Hoy—"New Old Ballads"—"The Sorrows of Sunday"—Ode to a Pretty Barmaid—Sheridan—Comic Situations—"The Duenna"—Wits 150
Southey—Drolls of Bartholomew Fair—The "Doves"—Typographical Devices—Puns—Poems of Abel Shufflebottom 164
Lamb—His Farewell to Tobacco—Pink Hose—On the Melancholy of Tailors—Roast Pig 175
Byron—Vision of Judgment—Lines to Hodgson—Beppo—Humorous Rhyming—Profanity of the Age 184
Theodore Hook—Improvisatore Talent—Poetry—Sydney Smith—The "Dun Cow"—Thomas Hood—Gin—Tylney Hall—John Trot—Barham's Legends 196
Douglas Jerrold—Liberal Politics—Advantages of Ugliness—Button Conspiracy—Advocacy of Dirt—The "Genteel Pigeons" 207
Thackeray—His Acerbity—The Baronet—The Parson—Medical Ladies—Glorvina—"A Serious Paradise" 216
Dickens—Sympathy with the Poor—Vulgarity—Geniality—Mrs. Gamp—Mixture of Pathos and Humour—Lever and Dickens compared—Dickens' power of Description—General Remarks 226
Variation—Constancy—Influence of Temperament—Of Observation—Bulls—Want of Knowledge—Effects of Emotion—Unity of the Sense of the Ludicrous 241
Definition—Difficulties of forming one of Humour 276
Charm of Mystery—Complication—Poetry and Humour compared—Exaggeration 285
Imperfection—An Impression of Falsity implied—Two Views taken by Philosophers—Firstly that of Voltaire, Jean Paul, Brown, the German Idealists, Leon Dumont, Secondly that of Descartes, Marmontel and Dugald Stewart—Whately on Jests—Nature of Puns—Effect of Custom and Habit—Accessory Emotion—Disappointment and Loss—Practical Jokes 307
Nomenclature—Three Classes of Words—Distinction between Wit and Humour—Wit sometimes dangerous, generally innocuous 339
HISTORY OF ENGLISH HUMOUR.
Burlesque—Parody—The "Splendid Shilling"—Prior—Pope—Ambrose Philips—Parodies of Gray's Elegy—Gay.
Burlesque, that is comic imitation, comprises parody and caricature. The latter is a valuable addition to humorous narrative, as we see in the sketches of Gillray, Cruikshank and others. By itself it is not sufficiently suggestive and affords no story or conversation. Hence in the old caricatures the speeches of the characters were written in balloons over their heads, and in the modern an explanation is added underneath. For want of such assistance we lose the greater part of the humour in Hogarth's paintings.
We may date the revival of Parody from the fifteenth century, although Dr. Johnson speaks as though it originated with Philips. Notwithstanding the great scope it affords for humorous invention, it has never become popular, nor formed an important branch of literature; perhaps, because the talent of the parodist always suffered from juxtaposition with that of his original. In its widest sense parody is little more than imitation, but as we should not recognise any resemblance without the use of the same form, it always implies a similarity in words or style. Sometimes the thoughts are also reproduced, but this is not sufficient, and might merely constitute a summary or translation. The closer the copy the better the parody, as where Pope's lines
"Here shall the spring its earliest sweets bestow Here the first roses of the year shall blow,"
were applied by Catherine Fanshawe to the Regent's Park with a very slight change—
"Here shall the spring its earliest coughs bestow, Here the first noses of the year shall blow."
But all parody is not travesty, for a writing may be parodied without being ridiculed. This was notably the case in the Centones, Scripture histories in the phraseology of Homer and Virgil, which were written by the Christians in the fourth century, in order that they might be able to teach at once classics and religion. From the pious object for which they were first designed, they degenerated into fashionable exercises of ingenuity, and thus we find the Emperor Valentinian composing some on marriage, and requesting, or rather commanding Ausonius to contend with him in such compositions. They were regarded as works of fancy—a sort of literary embroidery.
It may be questioned whether any of these parodies were intended to possess humour; but wherever we find such as have any traces of it, we may conclude that the imitation has been adopted to increase it. This does not necessarily amount to travesty, for the object is not always to throw contempt on the original. Thus, we cannot suppose "The Battle of the Frogs and Mice," or "The Banquet of Matron," although written in imitation of the heroic poetry of Homer, was intended to make "The Iliad" appear ridiculous, but rather that the authors thought to make their conceits more amusing, by comparing what was most insignificant with something of unsurpassable grandeur. The desire to gain influence from the prescriptive forms of great writings was the first incentive to parody. We cannot suppose that Luther intended to be profane when he imitated the first psalm—
"Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the way of the Sacramentarians, not sat in the seat of the Zuinglians, or followed the counsel of the Zurichers."
Probably Ben Jonson saw nothing objectionable in the quaintly whimsical lines in Cynthia's Revels—
Amo. From Spanish shrugs, French faces, smirks, irps, and all affected humours.
Chorus. Good Mercury defend us.
Pha. From secret friends, sweet servants, loves, doves, and such fantastique humours.
Chorus. Good Mercury defend us.
The same charitable allowance may be conceded to the songs composed by the Cavaliers in the Civil War. We should not be surprised to find a tone of levity in them, but they were certainly not intended to throw any discredit on our Church. In "The Rump, or an exact collection of the choicest poems and songs relating to the late times from 1639" we have "A Litany for the New Year," of which the following will serve as a specimen—
"From Rumps, that do rule against customes and laws From a fardle of fancies stiled a good old cause, From wives that have nails that are sharper than claws, Good Jove deliver us."
Among the curious tracts collected by Lord Somers we find a "New Testament of our Lords and Saviours, the House of our Lords and Saviours, the House of Commons, and the Supreme Council at Windsor." It gives "The Genealogy of the Parliament" from the year 1640 to 1648, and commences "The Book of the Generation of Charles Pim, the son of Judas, the son of Beelzebub," and goes on to state in the thirteenth verse that "King Charles being a just man, and not willing to have the people ruinated, was minded to dissolve them, (the Parliament), but while he thought on these things. &c."
Of the same kind was the parody of Charles Hanbury Williams at the commencement of the last century, "Old England's Te Deum"—the character of which may be conjectured from the first line
"We complain of Thee, O King, we acknowledge thee to be a Hanoverian."
Sometimes parodies of this kind had even a religious object, as when Dr. John Boys, Dean of Canterbury in the reign of James I., in his zeal, untempered with wisdom, attacked the Romanists by delivering a form of prayer from the pulpit commencing—
"Our Pope which art in Rome, cursed be thy name,"
"For thine is the infernal pitch and sulphur for ever and ever. Amen."
"The Religious Recruiting Bill" was written with a pious intention, as was also the Catechism by Mr. Toplady, a clergyman, aimed at throwing contempt upon Lord Chesterfield's code of morality. It is almost impossible to draw a hard and fast line between travesty and harmless parody—the feelings of the public being the safest guide. But to associate Religion with anything low is offensive, even if the object in view be commendable.
Some parodies of Scripture are evidently not intended to detract from its sanctity, as, for instance, the attack upon sceptical philosophy which lately appeared in an American paper, pretending to be the commencement of a new Bible "suited to the enlightenment of the age," and beginning—
"Primarily the unknowable moved upon kosmos and evolved protoplasm.
"And protoplasm was inorganic and undifferentiated, containing all things in potential energy: and a spirit of evolution moved upon the fluid mass.
"And atoms caused other atoms to attract: and their contact begat light, heat, and electricity.
"And the unconditioned differentiated the atoms, each after its kind and their combination begat rocks, air, and water.
"And there went out a spirit of evolution and working in protoplasm by accretion and absorption produced the organic cell.
"And the cell by nutrition evolved primordial germ, and germ devolved protogene, and protogene begat eozoon and eozoon begat monad and monad begot animalcule ..."
We are at first somewhat at a loss to understand what made the "Splendid Shilling" so celebrated: it is called by Steele the finest burlesque in the English language. Although far from being, as Dr. Johnson asserts, the first parody, it is undoubtedly a work of talent, and was more appreciated in 1703 than it can be now, being recognised as an imitation of Milton's poems which were then becoming celebrated. Reading it at the present day, we should scarcely recognise any parody; but blank verse was at that time uncommon, although the Italians were beginning to protest against the gothic barbarity of rhyme, and Surrey had given in his translation of the first and fourth books of Virgil a specimen of the freer versification.
Meres says that "Piers Plowman was the first that observed the true quality of our verse without the curiositie of rime" but he was not followed.
The new character of the "Splendid Shilling" caused it to bring more fame to its author than has been gained by any other work so short and simple. It was no doubt an inspiration of the moment, and was written by John Philips at the age of twenty. There is considerable freshness and strength in the poem, which commences—
"Happy the man, who void of cares and strife In silken or in leathern purse retains A splendid shilling: he nor hears with pain New oysters cried, nor sighs for cheerful ale; But with his friends, when nightly mists arise To Juniper's Magpie or Town Hall repairs. Meanwhile he smokes and laughs at merry tale, Or pun ambiguous or conumdrum quaint; But I, whom griping penury surrounds, And hunger sure attendant upon want, With scanty offals, and small acid tiff (Wretched repast!) my meagre corps sustain: Then solitary walk or doze at home In garret vile, and with a warming puff. Regale chilled fingers, or from tube as black As winter chimney, or well polished jet Exhale mundungus, ill-perfuming scent."
He goes on to relate how he is besieged by duns, and what a chasm there is in his "galligaskins." He wrote very little altogether, but produced a piece called "Blenheim," and a sort of Georgic entitled "Cyder."
Prior, like many other celebrated men, partly owed his advancement to an accidental circumstance. He was brought up at his uncle's tavern "The Rummer," situate at Charing Cross—then a kind of country suburb of the city, and adjacent to the riverside mansions and ornamental gardens of the nobility. To this convenient inn the neighbouring magnates were wont to resort, and one day in accordance with the classic proclivities of the times, a hot dispute, arose among them about the rendering of a passage in Horace. One of those present said that as they could not settle the question, they had better ask young Prior, who then was attending Westminster School. He had made good use of his opportunities, and answered the question so satisfactorily that Lord Dorset there and then undertook to send him to Cambridge. He became a fellow of St. John's, and Lord Dorset afterwards introduced him at Court, and obtained for him the post of secretary of Legation at the Hague, in which office he gave so much satisfaction to William III. that he made him one of his gentlemen of the bed chamber. He became afterwards Secretary of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Ambassador in France, and Under Secretary of State.
During his two year's imprisonment by the Whigs on a charge of high treason—from which he was liberated without a trial—he prepared a collection of his works, for which he obtained a large sum of money. He then retired from office, but died shortly afterwards in his fifty-eighth year.
Prior is remarkable for his exquisite lightness and elegance of style, well suited to the pretty classical affectations of the day. He delights in cupids, nymphs, and flowers. In two or three places, perhaps, he verges upon indelicacy, but conceals it so well among feathers and rose leaves, that we may half pardon it. Although always sprightly he is not often actually humorous, but we may quote the following advice to a husband from the "English Padlock"
"Be to her virtues very kind, And to her faults a little blind, Let all her ways be unconfined, And clap your padlock on her mind."
"Yes; ev'ry poet is a fool; By demonstration Ned can show it; Happy could Ned's inverted rule, Prove ev'ry fool to be a poet."
"How old may Phyllis be, you ask, Whose beauty thus all hearts engages? To answer is no easy task, For she has really two ages.
"Stiff in brocade and pinched in stays, Her patches, paint, and jewels on: All day let envy view her face, And Phyllis is but twenty-one.
"Paint, patches, jewels, laid aside, At night astronomers agree, The evening has the day belied, And Phyllis is some forty-three."
"Helen was just slipt from bed, Her eyebrows on the toilet lay, Away the kitten with them fled, As fees belonging to her prey."
"For this misfortune, careless Jane, Assure yourself, was soundly rated: And Madam getting up again, With her own hand the mouse-trap baited.
"On little things as sages write, Depends our human joy or sorrow; If we don't catch a mouse to-night, Alas! no eyebrows for to-morrow."
He wrote the following impromptu epitaph on himself—
"Nobles and heralds by your leave, Here lies what once was Matthew Prior, The son of Adam and of Eve, Can Bourbon or Nassau go higher."
But he does not often descend to so much levity as this, his wing is generally in a higher atmosphere. Sir Walter Scott observes that in the powers of approaching and touching the finer feelings of the heart, he has never been excelled, if indeed he has ever been equalled.
Prior wrote a parody called "Erle Robert's Mice," but Pope is more prolific than any other poet in such productions. His earlier taste seems to have been for imitation, and he wrote good parodies on Waller and Cowley, and a bad travesty on Spencer. "January and May" and "The Wife of Bath" are founded upon Chaucer's Tales. Pope did not generally indulge in travesty, his object was not to ridicule his original, but rather to assist himself by borrowing its style. His productions are the best examples of parodies in this latter and better sense. Thus, he thought to give a classic air to his satires on the foibles of his time by arranging them upon the models of those of Horace. In his imitation of the second Satire of the second Book we have—
"He knows to live who keeps the middle state, And neither leans on this side nor on that, Nor stops for one bad cork his butler's pay, Swears, like Albutius, a good cook away, Nor lets, like Naevius, every error pass, The musty wine, foul cloth, or greasy glass."
There is a slight amount of humour in these adaptations, and it seems to have been congenial to the poets mind. Generally he was more turned to philosophy, and the slow measures he adopted were more suited to the dignified and pompous, than to the playful and gay. Occasionally, however, there is some sparkle in his lines, and, we read in "The Rape of the Lock"—
"Now love suspends his golden scales in air, Weighs the men's wits against the lady's hair, The doubtful beam long nods from side to side, At length the wits mount up, the hairs subside."
Again, his friend Mrs. Blount found London rather dull than gay—
"She went to plain work and to purling brooks, Old-fashioned halls, dull aunts, and croaking rooks, She went from opera, park, assembly, play, To morning walks and prayers three hours a day, To part her time 'twixt reading and bohea, To muse and spill her solitary tea, Or o'er cold coffee trifle with a spoon, Count the slow clock, and dine exact at noon, Divert her eyes with pictures in the fire, Hum half a tune, tell stories to the Squire, Up to her Godly garret after seven, There starve and pray—for that's the way to Heaven."
He was seldom able to bring a humorous sketch to the close without something a little objectionable. Often inclined to err on the side of severity, he was one of those instances in which we find acrimonious feeling associated with physical infirmity. "The Dunciad" is the principal example of this, but we have many others—such as the epigram:
"You beat your pate and fancy wit will come, Knock as you please, there's nobody at home."
At one time he was constantly extolling the charms of Lady Wortley Montagu in every strain of excessive adulation. He wrote sonnets upon her, and told her she had robbed the whole tree of knowledge. But when the ungrateful fair rejected her little crooked admirer, he completely changed his tone, and descended to lampoon of this kind—
"Lady Mary said to me, and in her own house, I do not care for you three skips of a louse; I forgive the dear creature for what she has said, For ladies will talk of what runs in their head."
He is supposed to have attacked Addison under the name of Atticus. He says that "like the Turk he would bear no brother near the throne," but that he would
"View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes, And hate for arts that caused himself to rise, Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, And with our sneering teach the rest to sneer; Willing to wound and yet afraid to strike, Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike, Alike reserved to blame or to commend, A tim'rous foe, and a suspicious friend, Dreading e'en fools, by flatterers besieged, And so obleeging that he ne'er obleeged."
Pope at first praised Ambrose Philips, and said he was "a man who could write very nobly," but afterwards they became rivals, and things went so far between them that Pope called Philips "a rascal," and Philips hung up a rod with which he said he would chastise Pope. He probably had recourse to this kind of argument, because he felt that he was worsted by his adversary in wordy warfare, having little talent in satire. In fact, his attempts in this direction were particularly clumsy as—"On a company of bad dancers to good music."
"How ill the motion with the music suits! So Orpheus fiddled, and so danced the brutes."
Still there is a gaiety and lightness about many of his pieces. The following is a specimen of his favourite style. Italian singers, lately introduced, seem to have been regarded by many with disfavour and alarm.
TO SIGNORA CUZZONI.
"Little syren of the stage, Charmer of an idle age, Empty warbler, breathing lyre, Wanton gale of fond desire, Bane of every manly art, Sweet enfeebler of the heart; O! too pleasing is thy strain, Hence, to southern climes again, Tuneful mischief, vocal spell, To this island bid farewell, Leave us, as we ought to be, Leave the Britons rough and free."
To parody a work is to pay it a compliment, though perhaps unintentionally, for if it were not well known the point of the imitation would be lost. Thus, the general appreciation of Gray's "Elegy" called forth several humorous parodies of it about the middle of the last century. The following is taken from one by the Rev. J. Duncombe, Vicar of Bishop Ridley's old church at Herne in Kent. It is entitled "An Evening Contemplation in a College."
"The curfew tolls the hour of closing gates, With jarring sound the porter turns the key, Then in his dreamy mansion, slumbering waits, And slowly, sternly quits it—though for me.
"Now shine the spires beneath the paly moon, And through the cloister peace and silence reign, Save where some fiddler scrapes a drowsy tune, Or copious bowls inspire a jovial strain.
"Save that in yonder cobweb-mantled room, Where lies a student in profound repose, Oppressed with ale; wide echoes through the gloom, The droning music of his vocal nose.
"Within those walls, where through the glimmering shade, Appear the pamphlets in a mouldering heap, Each in his narrow bed till morning laid, The peaceful fellows of the college sleep.
"The tinkling bell proclaiming early prayers, The noisy servants rattling o'er their head, The calls of business and domestic cares, Ne'er rouse these sleepers from their drowsy bed.
"No chattering females crowd the social fire, No dread have they of discord and of strife, Unknown the names of husband and of sire, Unfelt the plagues of matrimonial life.
"Oft have they basked along the sunny walls, Oft have the benches bowed beneath their weight, How jocund are their looks when dinner calls! How smoke the cutlets on their crowded plate!
"Oh! let not Temperance too disdainful hear How long their feasts, how long their dinners last; Nor let the fair with a contemptuous sneer, On these unmarried men reflections cast.
* * * * *
"Far from the giddy town's tumultuous strife, Their wishes yet have never learned to stray, Content and happy in a single life, They keep the noiseless tenor of their way.
"E'en now their books, from cobwebs to protect, Inclosed by door of glass, in Doric style, On polished pillars raised with bronzes decked, Demand the passing tribute of a smile."
Another parody of this famous Elegy published about the same date, has a less pleasant subject—the dangers and vices of the metropolis. It speaks of the activities of thieves.
"Oft to their subtlety the fob did yield, Their cunning oft the pocket string hath broke, How in dark alleys bludgeons did they wield! How bowed the victim 'neath their sturdy stroke!
"Let not ambition mock their humble toil, Their vulgar crimes and villainy obscure; Nor rich rogues hear with a disdainful smile, The low and petty knaveries of the poor.
"Beneath the gibbet's self perhaps is laid, Some heart once pregnant with infernal fire, Hands that the sword of Nero might have swayed, And midst the carnage tuned the exulting lyre.
"Ambition to their eyes her ample page Rich with such monstrous crimes did ne'er unroll, Chill penury repressed their native rage, And froze the bloody current of their soul.
"Full many a youth, fit for each horrid scene, The dark and sooty flues of chimneys bear; Full many a rogue is born to cheat unseen, And dies unhanged for want of proper care."
Gay dedicated his first poem to Pope, then himself a young man, and this led to an intimacy between them. In 1712 he held the office of Secretary to Ann, Duchess of Monmouth; and in 1714 he accompanied the Earl of Clarendon to Hanover. In this year he wrote a good travesty of Ambrose Philips' pastoral poetry, of which the following is a specimen—
Lobbin Clout. As Blouzelinda, in a gamesome mood, Behind a hayrick loudly laughing stood, I slily ran and snatched a hasty kiss; She wiped her lips, nor took it much amiss. Believe me, Cuddy, while I'm bold to say, Her breath was sweeter than the ripened hay.
Cuddy. As my Buxoma in a morning fair, With gentle finger stroked her milky care, I quaintly stole a kiss; at first, 'tis true, She frowned, yet after granted one or two. Lobbin, I swear, believe who will my vow, Her breath by far excelled the breathing cow.
Lobbin. Leek to the Welsh, to Dutchmen butter's dear, Of Irish swains potato is the cheer, Oats for their feasts the Scottish shepherds grind, Sweet turnips are the food of Blouzelind; While she loves turnips, butter I'll despise, Nor leeks, nor oatmeal, nor potato prize.
Cuddy. In good roast beef my landlord sticks his knife, And capon fat delights his dainty wife; Pudding our parson eats, the squire loves hare, But white-pot thick is my Buxoma's fare; While she loves white-pot, capon ne'er shall be Nor hare, nor beef, nor pudding, food for me.
The following is not without point at the present day—
TO A LADY ON HER PASSION FOR OLD CHINA.
What ecstasies her bosom fire! How her eyes languish with desire! How blessed, how happy, should I be, Were that fond glance bestowed on me! New doubts and fears within me war, What rival's here? A China jar! China's the passion of her soul, A cup, a plate, a dish, a bowl, Can kindle wishes in her breast, Inflame with joy, or break her rest.
* * * * *
Husbands more covetous than sage, Condemn this China-buying rage, They count that woman's prudence little, Who sets her heart on things so brittle; But are those wise men's inclinations Fixed on more strong, more sure foundations? If all that's frail we must despise, No human view or scheme is wise.
Gay's humour is often injured by the introduction of low scenes, and disreputable accompaniments.
"The Dumps," a lament of a forlorn damsel, is much in the same style as the Pastorals. It finishes with these lines—
"Farewell ye woods, ye meads, ye streams that flow, A sudden death shall rid me of my woe, This penknife keen my windpipe shall divide, What, shall I fall as squeaking pigs have died? No—to some tree this carcase I'll suspend; But worrying curs find such untimely end! I'll speed me to the pond, where the high stool, On the long plank hangs o'er the muddy pool, That stool, the dread of every scolding queen: Yet sure a lover should not die, so mean! Thus placed aloft I'll rave and rail by fits, Though all the parish say I've lost my wits; And thence, if courage holds, myself I'll throw, And quench my passion in the lake below."
He published in 1727 "The Beggar's Opera," the idea had been suggested by Swift. This is said to have given birth to the English Opera—the Italian having been already introduced here. This opera, or musical play, brought out by Mr. Rich, was so renumerative that it was a common saying that it made "Rich gay, and Gay rich."
In "The Beggar's Opera" the humour turns on Polly falling in love with a highwayman. Peachum gives an amusing account of the gang. Among them is Harry Paddington—"a poor, petty-larceny rascal, without the least genius; that fellow, though he were to live these six months would never come to the gallows with any credit—and Tom Tipple, a guzzling, soaking sot, who is always too drunk to stand, or make others stand. A cart is absolutely necessary for him." Peachum, and his wife lament over their daughter Polly's choice of Captain Macheath. There are numerous songs, such as that of Mrs. Peachum beginning—
"Our Polly is a sad slut! nor heeds what we have taught her, I wonder any man alive will ever rear a daughter."
Polly, contemplating the possibility of Macheath's being hanged exclaims—
"Now, I'm a wretch indeed. Methinks, I see him already in the cart, sweeter and more lovely than the nosegay in his hand! I hear the crowd extolling his resolution and intrepidity! What volleys of sighs are sent down from the windows of Holborn, that so comely a youth should be brought to disgrace. I see him at the tree! the whole circle are in tears! even butchers weep! Jack Ketch himself hesitates to perform his duty, and would be glad to lose his fee by a reprieve. What then will become of Polly?"
Were you sentenced to transportation, sure, my dear, you could not leave me behind you?
Mac. "Is there any power, any force, that could tear thee from me. You might sooner tear a pension out of the hands of a courtier, a fee from a lawyer, a pretty woman from a looking-glass, or any woman from quadrille."
Gay may have taken his idea of writing fables from Dryden whose classical reading tempted him in two or three instances to indulge in such fancies. They were clever and in childhood appeared humorous to us, but we have long ceased to be amused by them, owing to their excessive improbability. Such ingenuity seems misplaced, we see more absurdity than talent in representing a sheep as talking to a wolf. To us fables now present, not what is strange and difficult of comprehension, but mentally fanciful folly. In some few instances in La Fontaine and Gay, the wisdom of the lessons atones for the strangeness of their garb, and the peculiarity of the dramatis personae may tend to rivet them in our minds. There is something also fresh and pleasant in the scenes of country life which they bring before us. But the taste for such conceits is irrevocably gone, and every attempt to revive it, even when recommended by such ingenuity and talent as that of Owen Meredith, only tends to prove the fact more incontestably. In Russia, a younger nation than ours, the fables of Kriloff had a considerable sale at the beginning of this century, but they had a political meaning.
Defoe—Irony—Ode to the Pillory—The "Comical Pilgrim"—The "Scandalous Club"—Humorous Periodicals—Heraclitus Ridens—The London Spy—The British Apollo.
Defoe was born in 1663, and was the son of a butcher in St. Giles'. He first distinguished himself by writing in 1699 a poetical satire entitled "The True Born Englishman," in honour of King William and the Dutch, and in derision of the nobility of this country, who did not much appreciate the foreign court. The poem abounded with rough and rude sarcasm. After giving an uncomplimentary description of the English, he proceeds to trace their descent—
"These are the heroes that despise the Dutch And rail at new-come foreigners so much, Forgetting that themselves are all derived From the most scoundrel race that ever lived; A horrid race of rambling thieves and drones Who ransacked kingdoms and dispeopled towns; The Pict and painted Briton, treacherous Scot, By hunger, theft, and rapine hither brought; Norwegian pirates, buccaneering Danes, Whose red-haired offspring everywhere remains; Who joined with Norman-French compound the breed From whence your true-born Englishmen proceed. Dutch, Walloons, Flemings, Irishmen, and Scots, Vaudois, and Valtolins and Huguenots, In good Queen Bess's charitable reign, Supplied us with three hundred thousand men; Religion—God we thank! sent them hither, Priests, protestants, the devil, and all together."
The first part concludes with a view of the low origin of some of our nobles.
"Innumerable city knights we know From Bluecoat hospitals and Bridewell flow, Draymen and porters fill the City chair, And footboys magisterial purple wear. Fate has but very small distinction set Betwixt the counter and the coronet. Tarpaulin lords, pages of high renown Rise up by poor men's valour, not their own; Great families of yesterday we show And lords, whose parents were the Lord knows who."
So much keen and clever invective levelled at the higher classes of course had its reward in a wide circulation; but we are surprised to hear that the King noticed it with favour; the author was honoured with a personal interview, and became a still stronger partizan of the court. Defoe called the "True Born Englishman",
"A contradiction In speech an irony, in fact a fiction;"
and we may observe that he was particularly fond of an indirect and covert style of writing. He thought that he could thus use his weapons to most advantage, but his disguise was seen through by his enemies as well as by his friends. Irony—the stating the reverse of what is meant, whether good or bad—is often resorted to by those treading on dangerous ground, and admits of two very different interpretations. It is especially ambiguous in writing, and should be used with caution. Defoe's "Shortest Way with the Dissenters" was first attributed to a High Churchman, but soon was recognised as the work of a Dissenter. He explained that he intended the opposite of what he had said, and was merely deprecating measures being taken against his brethren; but his enemies considered that his real object was to exasperate them against the Government. Even if taken ironically, it hardly seemed venial to call furiously for the extermination of heretics, or to raise such lamentation as, "Alas! for the Church of England! What with popery on one hand, and schismatics on the other, how has she been crucified between two thieves!" Experience had not then taught that it was better to let such effusions pass for what they were worth, and Defoe was sentenced to stand in the pillory, and suffer fine and imprisonment He does not seem to have been in such low spirits as we might have expected during his incarceration, for he employed part of his time in composing his "Hymn to the Pillory,"
"Hail hieroglyphic state machine, Contrived to punish fancy in: Men that are men in thee can feel no pain, And all thy insignificants disdain."
He continues in a strong course of invective against certain persons whom he thinks really worthy of being thus punished, and proceeds—
"But justice is inverted when Those engines of the law, Instead of pinching vicious men Keep honest ones in awe: Thy business is, as all men know, To punish villains, not to make men so.
"Whenever then thou art prepared To prompt that vice thou shouldst reward, And by the terrors of thy grisly face, Make men turn rogues to shun disgrace; The end of thy creation is destroyed Justice expires of course, and law's made void.
"Thou like the devil dost appear Blacker than really thou art far, A wild chimeric notion of reproach Too little for a crime, for none too much, Let none the indignity resent, For crime is all the shame of punishment. Thou bugbear of the law stand up and speak Thy long misconstrued silence break, Tell us who 'tis upon thy ridge stands there So full of fault, and yet so void of fear, And from the paper on his hat, Let all mankind be told for what."
These lines refer to his own condemnation, and the piece concludes,—
"Tell them the men who placed him here Are friends unto the times, But at a loss to find his guile They can't commit his crimes."
Defoe seems to have thoroughly imbibed the ascetic spirit of his brethren. He was fond of denouncing social as well as political vanities. The "Comical Pilgrim" contains a considerable amount of coarse humour, and in one place the supposed cynic inveighs against the drama, and describes the audience at a theatre—
"The audience in the upper gallery is composed of lawyers, clerks, valets-de-chambre, exchange girls, chambermaids, and skip-kennels, who at the last act are let in gratis in favour to their masters being benefactors to the devil's servants. The middle gallery is taken up by the middling sort of people, as citizens, their wives and daughters, and other jilts. The boxes are filled with lords and ladies, who give money to see their follies exposed by fellows as wicked as themselves. And the pit, which lively represents the pit of hell, is crammed with those insignificant animals called beaux, whose character nothing but wonder and shame can compose; for a modern beau, you must know, is a pretty, neat, fantastic outside of a man, a well-digested bundle of costly vanities, and you may call him a volume of methodical errata bound in a gilt cover. He's a curiously wrought cabinet full of shells and other trumpery, which were much better quite empty than so emptily filled. He's a man's skin full of profaneness, a paradise full of weeds, a heaven full of devils, a Satan's bedchamber hung with arras of God's own making. He can be thought no better than a Promethean man; at best but a lump of animated dust kneaded into human shape, and if he has only such a thing as a soul it seems to be patched up with more vices than are patches in a poor Spaniard's coat. His general employment is to scorn all business, but the study of the modes and vices of the times, and you may look upon him as upon the painted sign of a man hung up in the air, only to be tossed to and fro with every wind of temptation and vanity."
It would appear that servants had in his day many of the faults which characterise some of them at present. In "Everybody's Business is Nobody's Business" we have an amusing picture of the over-dressed maid of the period.
"The apparel," he says, "of our women-servants should be next regulated, that we may know the mistress from the maid. I remember I was once put very much to the blush, being at a friend's house, and by him required to salute the ladies. I kissed the chamber-jade into the bargain, for she was as well dressed as the best. But I was soon undeceived by a general titter, which gave me the utmost confusion; nor can I believe myself the only person who has made such a mistake."
Again "I have been at places where the maid has been so dizzied with idle compliments that she has mistook one thing for another, and not regarded her mistress in the least, but put on all the flirting airs imaginable. This behaviour is nowhere so much complained of as in taverns, coffee houses, and places of public resort, where there are handsome barkeepers, &c. These creatures being puffed up with the fulsome flattery of a set of flies, which are continually buzzing about them, carry themselves with the utmost insolence imaginable—insomuch that you must speak to them with the utmost deference, or you are sure to be affronted. Being at a coffee-house the other day, where one of these ladies kept the bar, I bespoke a dish of rice tea, but Madam was so taken up with her sparks that she quite forgot it. I spoke for it again, and with some temper, but was answered after a most taunting manner, not without a toss of the head, a contraction of the nostrils, and other impertinences, too many to enumerate. Seeing myself thus publickly insulted by such an animal, I could not choose but show my resentment. 'Woman,' said I sternly, 'I want a dish of rice tea, and not what your vanity and impudence may imagine; therefore treat me as a gentleman and a customer, and serve me with what I call for. Keep your impertinent repartees and impudent behaviour for the coxcombs that swarm round your bar, and make you so vain of your blown carcass.' And indeed, I believe the insolence of this creature will ruin her master at last, by driving away men of sobriety and business, and making the place a den of vagabonds."
In July, 1704, Defoe commenced a periodical which he called a "Review of the Affairs of France." It appeared twice, and afterwards three times a week. From the introduction, we might conclude that the periodical, though principally containing war intelligence, would be partly of a humorous nature. He says—
"After our serious matters are over, we shall at the end of every paper present you with a little diversion, as anything occurs to make the world merry; and whether friend or foe, one party or another, if anything happens so scandalous as to require an open reproof, the world may meet with it there. Accordingly at the end of every paper we find 'Advice for the Scandalous Club: A weekly history of Nonsense, Impertinence, Vice, and Debauchery.'" This contained a considerable amount of indelicacy, and the humour was too much connected with ephemeral circumstances of the times to be very amusing at the present day. The Scandalous Club was a kind of Court of Morals, before whom all kinds of offences were brought for judgment, and it also settled questions on love affairs in a very judicious manner. Some of the advice is prompted by letters asking for it, but it is probable that they were mostly fictitious and written by Defoe himself. Many of the shafts in this Review were directed against magistrates, and other men in authority. Thus we read in April 18, 1704:
"An honest country fellow made a complaint to the Club that he had been set in the stocks by the Justice of the Peace without any manner of reason. He told them that he happened to get a little drunk one night at a fair, and being somewhat quarrelsome, had beaten a man in his neighbourhood, broke his windows, and two or three such odd tricks. 'Well, friend,' said the Director of the Society, 'and was it for this the Justice set you in the stocks?' 'Yes!' replied the man. 'And don't you think you deserved it?' said the Director. 'Why, yes, Sir,' says the honest man; 'I had deserved it from you, if you had been the Justice, but I did not deserve it from Sir Edward—for it was not above a month before that he was so drunk that he fell into our mill-pond, and if I had not lugged him out he would have been drowned.' The Society told him he was a knave, and then voted 'that the Justice had done him no wrong in setting him in the stocks—but that he had done the nation wrong when he pulled him out of the pond,' and caused it to be entered in their books—'That Sir Edward was but an indifferent Justice of the Peace.'"
Sometimes religious subjects are touched upon. The following may be interesting at the present day—
"There happened a great and bloody fight this week, (July 18th 1704), between two ladies of quality, one a Roman Catholic, the other a Protestant; and as the matter had come to blows, and beauty was concerned in the quarrel, having been not a little defaced by the rudeness of the scratching sex, the neighbours were called in to part the fray, and upon debate the quarrel was referred to the Scandalous Club. The matter was this:
"The Roman Catholic lady meets the Protestant lady in the Park, and found herself obliged every time she passed her to make a reverent curtsey, though she had no knowledge of her or acquaintance with her. The Protestant lady received it at first as a civility, but afterwards took it for a banter, and at last for an affront, and sends her woman to know the meaning of it. The Catholic lady returned for answer that she did not make her honours to the lady, for she knew no respect she deserved, but to the diamond cross she wore about her neck, which she, being a heretic, did not deserve to wear. The Protestant lady sent her an angry message, and withal some reflecting words upon the cross itself, which ended the present debate, but occasioned a solemn visit from the Catholic lady to the Protestant, where they fell into grievous disputes; and one word followed another till the Protestant lady offered some indignities to the jewel, took it from her neck and set her foot upon it—which so provoked the other lady that they fell to blows, till the waiting-women, having in vain attempted to part them, the footmen were fain to be called in. After they were parted, they ended the battle with their other missive weapon, the tongue—and there was all the eloquence of Billingsgate on both sides more than enough. At last, by the advice of friends it was, as is before noted, brought before the Society."
The judgment was that for a Protestant to wear a cross was a "ridiculous, scandalous piece of vanity"—that it should only be worn in a religious sense, and with due respect, and is not more fitting to be used as an ornament than "a gibbet, which, worn about the neck, would make but a scurvy figure."
Most of the stories show the democratic tendencies of the writer, for instance—
"A poor man's cow had got into a rich man's corn, and he put her into the pound; the poor man offered satisfaction, but the rich man insisted on unreasonable terms, and both went to the Justice of the Peace. The Justice advised the man to comply, for he could not help him; at last the rich man came to this point; he would have ten shillings for the damage. 'And will you have ten shillings,' says the poor man, 'for six pennyworth of damage?' 'Yes, I will,' says the rich man. 'Then the devil will have you,' says the poor man. 'Well,' says the rich man, 'let the devil and I alone to agree about that, give me the ten shillings.'"
"A gentleman came with a great equipage and a fine coach to the Society, and desired to be heard. He told them a long story of his wife; how ill-natured, how sullen, how unkind she was, and that in short she made his life very uncomfortable. The Society asked him several questions about her, whether she was
"A thief? No.
"A Slut? No.
"A scold? No.
"A drunkard? No.
"A Gossip? No.
"But still she was an ill wife, and very bad wife, and he did not know what to do with her. At last one of the Society asked him, 'If his worship was a good husband,' at which being a little surprised, he could not tell what to say. Whereupon the Club resolved,
"1. That most women that are bad wives are made so by their husbands. 2. That this Society will hear no complaint against a virtuous bad wife from a vicious good husband. 3. He that has a bad wife and can't find the reason of it in her, 'tis ten to one that he finds it in himself."
Sometimes correspondents ask advice as to which of several lovers they should choose. The following applicants have a different grievances.
"Gentlemen.—There are no less than sixty ladies of us, all neighbours, dwelling in the same village, that are now arrived at those years at which we expect (if ever) to be caressed and adored, or, at least flattered. We have often heard of the attempts of whining lovers; of the charming poems they had composed in praise of their mistresses' wit and beauty (tho' they have not had half so much of either of them as the meanest in our company), of the passions of their love, and that death itself had presently followed upon a denial. But we find now that the men, especially of our village, are so dull and lumpish, so languid and indifferent, that we are almost forced to put words into their mouths, and when they have got them they have scarce spirit to utter them. So that we are apt to fear it will be the fate of all of us, as it is already of some, to live to be old maids. Now the thing, Gentlemen, that we desire of you is, that, if possible, you would let us understand the reason why the case is so mightily altered from what it was formerly; for our experience is so vastly different from what we have heard, that we are ready to believe that all the stories we have heard of lovers and their mistresses are fictions and mere banter."
The case of these ladies is indeed to be pitied, and the Society have been further informed that the backwardness or fewness of the men in that town has driven the poor ladies to unusual extremities, such as running out into the fields to meet the men, and sending their maids to ask them; and at last running away with their fathers' coachmen, prentices, and the like, to the particular scandal of the town.
The Society concluded that the ladies should leave the village "famous for having more coaches than Christians in it," as a learned man once took the freedom to tell them "from the pulpit" and go to market, i.e., to London.
The "Advice of the Scandalous Club" was discontinued from May, 1703.
Although we cannot say that Defoe carried his sword in a myrtle wreath, he certainly owed much of his celebrity to his insinuating under ambiguous language the boldest political opinions. He was fond of literary whimsicalities, and wrote a humorous "History," referring mostly to the events of the times. Towards the end of his career, he happily turned his talent for disguises and fictions into a quieter and more profitable direction. How many thousands remember him as the author of "Robinson Crusoe" who never heard a word about his jousts and conflicts, his animosities and misfortunes!
The last century, although adorned by several celebrated wits, was less rich in humour than the present. Literature had a grave and pedantic character, for where there was any mental activity, instruction was sought almost to the exclusion of gaiety. It required a greater spread of education and experience to create a source of superior humour, or to awaken any considerable demand for it. Hence, although the taste was so increased that several periodicals of a professedly humorous nature were started, they disappeared soon after their commencement. To record their brief existence is like writing the epitaphs of the departed. Towards the termination of the previous century, comic literature was represented by an occasional fly-sheet, shot off to satirize some absurdity of the day. The first humorous periodical which has come to our knowledge, partakes, as might have been expected, of an ecclesiastical character and betokens the severity of the times. It appeared in 1670, under the title of "Jesuita Vapulans, or a Whip for the Fool's Back, and a Gad for his Foul Mouth." The next seems to have been a small weekly paper called "Heraclitus Ridens," published in 1681. It was mostly directed against Dissenters and Republicans; and in No. 9, we have a kind of Litany commencing:—
"From Commonwealth, Cobblers and zealous State Tinkers, From Speeches and Expedients of Politick Blinkers, From Rebellion, Taps, and Tapsters, and Skinkers, Libera Nos.
* * * * *
"From Papists on one hand, and Phanatick on th' other, From Presbyter Jack, the Pope's younger brother, And Congregational Daughters, far worse than their Mother, Libera Nos."
In the same year appeared "Hippocrates Ridens," directed against quacks and pretenders to physic, who seem then to have been numerous. The contents of these papers were mostly in dialogue—a form which seems to have been approved, as it was afterwards adopted in similar publications. These papers do not seem to have been written by contributors from the public, but by one or two persons, and this, I believe, was the case with all the periodicals of this time, and one cause of their want of permanence—the periodical was not carried on by an editor, but by its author.
The "London Spy" appeared in 1699, and went through eighteen monthly parts. Any one who wishes to find a merry description of London manners at the end of the seventeenth century, cannot look in a better place. It was written by Edward (Ned) Ward, author of an indifferent narrative entitled "A Trip to Jamaica;" but he must have possessed considerable observation and talent. A man who proposes to visit and unmask all the places of resort, high and low in the metropolis, could not have much refinement in his nature, but at the present day we cannot help wondering how a work should have been published and bought, containing so much gross language.
Under the character of a countryman who has come up to see the world, he gives us some amusing glimpses of the metropolis, for instance. He goes to dine with some beaux at a tavern, and gives the following description of the entertainment:—
"As soon as we came near the bar, a thing started up all ribbons, lace, and feathers, and made such a noise with her bell and her tongue together, that had half-a-dozen paper-mills been at work within three yards of her, they'd have signified no more to her clamorous voice than so many lutes to a drum, which alarmed two or three nimble-heel'd fellows aloft, who shot themselves downstairs with as much celerity as a mountebank's Mercury upon a rope from the top of a church-steeple, every one charged with a mouthful of 'coming! coming!' This sudden clatter at our appearance so surprised me that I looked as silly as a bumpkin translated from the plough-tail to the play-house, when it rains fire in the tempest, or when Don John's at dinner with the subterranean assembly of terrible hobgoblins. He that got the start and first approached us of these greyhound-footed emissaries, desir'd us to walk up, telling my companion his friends were above; then with a hop, stride and jump, ascended the stair-head before us, and from thence conducted us to a spacious room, where about a dozen of my schoolfellow's acquaintances were ready to receive us. Upon our entrance they all started up, and on a suddain screwed themselves into so many antick postures, that had I not seen them first erect, I should have query'd with myself, whether I was fallen into the company of men or monkeys.
"This academical fit of riggling agility was almost over before I rightly understood the meaning on't, and found at last they were only showing one another how many sorts of apes' gestures and fops' cringes had been invented since the French dancing-masters undertook to teach our English gentry to make scaramouches of themselves; and how to entertain their poor friends, and pacifie their needy creditors with compliments and congies. When every person with abundance of pains had shown the ultimate of his breeding, contending about a quarter of an hour who should sit down first, as if we waited the coming of some herauld to fix us in our proper places, which with much difficulty being at last agreed on, we proceed to a whet of old hock to sharpen our appetites to our approaching dinner; though I confess my stomach was as keen already as a greyhound's to his supper after a day's coursing, or a miserly livery-man's, who had fasted three days to prepare himself for a Lord Mayor's feast. The honest cook gave us no leisure to tire our appetites by a tedious expectancy; for in a little time the cloth was laid, and our first course was ushered up by the dominus factotum in great order to the table, which consisted of two calves'-heads and a couple of geese. I could not but laugh in my conceit to think with what judgment the caterer had provided so lucky an entertainment for so suitable a company. After the victuals were pretty well cooled, in complimenting who should begin first, we all fell to; and i'faith I found by their eating, they were no ways affronted by their fare; for in less time than an old woman could crack a nut, we had not left enough to dine the bar-boy. The conclusion of our dinner was a stately Cheshire cheese, of a groaning size, of which we devoured more in three minutes than a million of maggots could have done in three weeks. After cheese comes nothing; then all we desired was a clear stage and no favour; accordingly everything was whipped away in a trice by so cleanly a conveyance, that no juggler by virtue of Hocus Pocus could have conjured away balls with more dexterity. All our empty plates and dishes were in an instant changed into full quarts of purple nectar and unsullied glasses. Then a bumper to the Queen led the van of our good wishes, another to the Church Established, a third left to the whimsie of the toaster, till at last their slippery engines of verbosity coined nonsense with such a facil fluency, that a parcel of alley-gossips at a christening, after the sack had gone twice round, could not with their tattling tormentors be a greater plague to a fumbling godfather, than their lame jest and impertinent conundrums were to a man of my temper. Oaths were as plenty as weeds in an alms-house garden.
"The night was spent in another tavern in harmony, the songs being such as:—
"Musicks a crotchet the sober think vain, The fiddle's a wooden projection, Tunes are but flirts of a whimsical brain, Which the bottle brings best to perfection: Musicians are half-witted, merry and mad, The same are all those that admire 'em, They're fools if they play unless they're well paid, And the others are blockheads to hire 'em."
Perhaps the most interesting account is that of St. Paul's Cathedral—then in progress. We all know that it was nearly fifty years in building, but have not perhaps been aware of all the causes of the delay:—
"Thence we turned through the west gate of St. Paul's Churchyard, where we saw a parcel of stone-cutters and sawyers so very hard at work, that I protest, notwithstanding the vehemency of their labour, and the temperateness of the season, instead of using their handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat off their faces, they were most of them blowing their nails. 'Bless me!' said I to my friend, 'sure this church stands in a colder climate than the rest of the nation, or else those fellows are of a strange constitution to seem ready to freeze at such warm exercise.' 'You must consider,' says my friend, 'this is work carried on at a national charge, and ought not to be hastened on in a hurry; for the greater reputation it will gain when it's finished will be, "That it was so many years in building."' From thence we moved up a long wooden bridge that led to the west porticum of the church, where we intermixed with such a train of promiscuous rabble that I fancied we looked like the beasts driving into the ark in order to replenish a new succeeding world....
"We went a little farther, where we observed ten men in a corner, very busie about two men's work, taking as much care that everyone should have his due proportion of the labour, as so many thieves in making an exact division of their booty. The wonderful piece of difficulty, the whole number had to perform, was to drag along a stone of about three hundred weight in a carriage in order to be hoisted upon the moldings of the cupula, but were so fearful of dispatching this facile undertaking with too much expedition, that they were longer in hauling on't half the length of the church, than a couple of lusty porters, I am certain, would have been carrying it to Paddington, without resting of their burthen.
"We took notice of the vast distance of the pillars from whence they turn the cupula, on which, they say, is a spire to be erected three hundred feet in height, whose towering pinnacle will stand with such stupendous loftiness above Bow Steeple dragon or the Monument's flaming urn, that it will appear to the rest of the Holy Temples like a cedar of Lebanon, among so many shrubs, or a Goliath looking over the shoulders of so many Davids."
"The British Apollo, or curious Amusements for the Ingenious, performed by a Society of Gentlemen;" appeared in 1708, and seems to have been a weekly periodical, and to have been soon discontinued. The greater part of it consisted of questions and answers. Information was desired on all sorts of abstruse and absurd points—some scriptural, others referring to natural philosophy, or to matters of social interest.
Question. Messieurs. Pray instruct your Petitioner how he shall go away for the ensuing Long Vacation, having little liberty, and less money. Yours, SOLITARY.
Answer. Study the virtues of patience and abstinence. A right judgment in the theory may make the practice more agreeable.
Ques. Gentlemen. I desire your resolution of the following question, and you will oblige your humble servant, Sylvia. Whether a woman hath not a right to know all her husband's concerns, and in particular whether she may not demand a sight of all the letters he receives, which if he denies, whether she may not open them privately without his consent?
Ans. Gently, gently, good nimble-fingered lady, you run us out of breath and patience to trace your unexampled ambition. What! break open your husband's letters! no, no; that privilege once granted, no chain could hold you; you would soon proceed to break in upon his conjugal affection, and commit a burglary upon the cabinet of his authority. But to be serious, although a well-bred husband would hardly deny a wife the satisfaction of perusing his familiar letters, we can noways think it prudent, much less his duty, to communicate all to her; since most men, especially such as are employed in public affairs, are often trusted with important secrets, and such as no wife can reasonably pretend to claim knowledge of.
Ques. Apollo say, Whence 'tis I pray, The ancient custom came, Stockins to throw (I'm sure you know,) At bridegroom and dame?
Ans. When Britons bold Bedded of old, Sandals were backward thrown, The pair to tell, That ill or well, The act was all their own.
Ques. Long by Orlinda's precepts did I move, Nor was my heart a foe or slave to love, My soul was free and calm, no storm appeared, While my own sex my love and friendship shared; The men with due respect I always used, And proffered hearts still civilly refused. This was my state when young Alexis came With all the expressions of an ardent flame, He baffles all the objections I can make, And slights superior matches for my sake; Our humour seem for one another made, And all things else in equal ballance laid; I love him too, and could vouchsafe to wear The matrimonial hoop, but that I fear His love should not continue, cause I'm told, That women sooner far than men grow old; I, by some years, am eldest of the two, Therefore, pray Sirs, advise me what to do.
Ans. If 'tis your age alone retards your love, You may with ease that groundless fear remove; For if you're older, you are wiser too, Since few in wit must hope to equal you. You may securely, therefore, crown a joy, Not all the plagues of Hymen can destroy, For tho' in marriage some unhappy be, They are not, sure, so fair, so wise as thee.
Swift—"Tale of a Tub"—Essays—Gulliver's Travels—Variety of Swift's Humour—Riddles—Stella's Wit—Directions for Servants—Arbuthnot.
The year 1667 saw the birth of Swift, one of the most highly gifted and successful humorists any country ever produced. A bright fancy runs like a vein of gold through nearly all his writings, and enriches the wide and varied field upon which he enters. He says of himself—
"Swift had the sin of wit, no venial crime; Nay, 'tis affirmed he sometimes dealt in rhyme: Humour and mirth had place in all he writ, He reconciled divinity and wit."
Whether religion, politics, social follies, or domestic peculiarities come before him, he was irresistibly tempted to regard them in a ludicrous point of view. He observes—
"It is my peculiar case to be often under a temptation to be witty, upon occasions where I could be neither wise nor sound, nor anything to the matter in hand."
This general tendency was the foundation of his fortunes, and gained him the favour of Sir William Temple, and of such noblemen as Berkeley, Oxford, and Bolingbroke. They could nowhere find so pleasant a companion, for his natural talent was improved by cultivation, and it is when humour is united with learning—a rare combination—that it attains its highest excellence. There was much classical erudition at that day, and it was exhibited by men of letters in their ordinary conversation in a way which would appear to us pedantic. Thus many of Swift's best sayings turned on an allusion to some ancient author, as when speaking of the emptiness of modern writers, who depend upon compilations and digressions for filling up a treatise "that shall make a very comely figure on a bookseller's shelf, there to be preserved neat and clean for a long eternity, never to be thumbed or greased by students: but when the fulness of time is come, shall happily undergo the trial of purgatory in order to ascend the sky." He continues:—
"From such elements as these I am alive to behold the day, wherein the corporation of authors can outvie all its brethren in the guild. A happiness derived to us, with a great many others, from our Scythian ancestors, among whom the number of pens was so infinite that Grecian eloquence had no other way of expressing it than by saying that in the regions of the north it was hardly possible for a man to travel—the very air was so replete with feathers."
The above is taken from the "Tale of a Tub" published in 1704, but never directly owned by him. At the commencement of it he says that,
"Wisdom is a fox, who after long hunting will at last cost you the pains to dig out; it is a cheese which, by how much the richer, has the thicker, the homelier, and the coarser coat; and whereof to a judicious palate the maggots are the best; it is a sack posset, wherein the deeper you go you will find it the sweeter. Wisdom is a hen, whose cackling we must value and consider, because it is attended with an egg, but then, lastly, it is a nut, which unless you choose with judgment may cost you a tooth, and pay you with nothing but a worm."
He attacks indiscriminately the Pope, Luther, and Calvin. Of the first he says—
"I have seen him, Peter, in his fits take three old high-crowned hats, and clap them all on his head three story high, with a huge bunch of keys at his girdle, and an angling rod in his left hand. In which guise, whoever went to take him by the hand in the way of salutation, Peter with much grace, like a well educated spaniel, would present them with his foot; and if they refused his civility, then he would raise it as high as their chaps, and give them a damned kick in the mouth, which has ever since been called a salute."
He also ridicules Transubstantiation, representing Peter as asking his brothers to dine, and giving them a loaf of bread, and insisting that it was mutton.
In the history of Martin Luther—a continuation of the "Tale of a Tub," he represents Queen Elizabeth as "setting up a shop for those of her own farm, well furnished with powders, plasters, salves, and all other drugs necessary, all right and true, composed according to receipts made by physicians and apothecaries of her own creating, which they extracted out of Peter's, Martin's, and Jack's receipt books; and of this muddle and hodge-podge made up a dispensary of their own—strictly forbidding any other to be used, and particularly Peter's, from whom the greater part of this new dispensatory was stolen."
At the conclusion of the "Tale of a Tub," he says, "Among a very polite nation in Greece there were the same temples built and consecrated to Sleep and the Muses, between which two deities they believed the greatest friendship was established. He says he differs from other writers in that he shall be too proud, if by all his labours he has any ways contributed to the repose of mankind in times so turbulent and unquiet."
It is evident from this work, as from the "Battle of the Books," "The Spider and the Bee," and other of his writings, that Allegory was still in high favour.
Swift first appeared as a professed author in 1708, when he wrote against astrologers, and prophetic almanack-makers, called philomaths—then numerous, but now only represented by Zadkiel. This Essay was one of those, which gave rise to "The Tatler." He wrote about the same time, "An argument against Christianity"—an ironical way of rebuking the irreligion of the time—
"It is urged that there are by computation in this kingdom above ten thousand persons, whose revenues added to those of my lords the bishops, would suffice to maintain two hundred young gentlemen of wit and pleasure, and freethinking,—enemies to priestcraft, narrow principles, pedantry, and prejudices; who might be an ornament to the court and town; and then again, so great a body of able (bodied) divines might be a recruit to our fleet and armies."
"Another advantage proposed by the abolishing of Christianity is the clear gain of one day in seven, which is now entirely lost, and consequently the kingdom one seventh less in trade, business, and pleasure; besides the loss to the public of so many stately structures, now in the hands of the clergy, which might be converted into play-houses, market-houses, exchanges, common dormitories, and other public edifices. I hope I shall be forgiven a hard word, if I call this a perfect cavil. I readily own there has been an old custom, time out of mind, for people to assemble in the churches every Sunday, and that shops are still frequently shut, in order, as it is conceived, to preserve the ancient practice, but how they can be a hindrance to business or pleasure it is hard to imagine. What if the men of pleasure are forced one day in the week to game at home instead of in the chocolate houses? Are not the taverns and coffee-houses open? Is not that the chief day for traders to sum up the accounts of the week, and for lawyers to prepare their briefs.... But I would fain know how it can be contended that the churches are misapplied? Where more care to appear in the foremost box with greater advantage of dress. Where more meetings for business, where more bargains are driven, and where so many conveniences and enticements to sleep?"
"I am very sensible how much the gentlemen of wit and pleasure are apt to murmur, and be choked at the sight of so many draggle-tailed parsons, who happen to fall in their way and offend their eyes; but at the same time, these wise reformers do not consider what an advantage and felicity it is for great wits to be always provided with objects of scorn and contempt, in order to exercise and improve their talents, and divert their spleen from falling on each other, or on themselves; especially, when all this may be done without the least imaginable danger to their persons."
"And to add another argument of a parallel nature—if Christianity were once abolished, how could the free-thinkers, the strong reasoners, and the men of profound learning be able to find another subject so calculated in all points, whereon to display their abilities? What wonderful productions of wit should we be deprived of, from those whose genius, by continual practice, has been wholly turned upon raillery and invectives against religion, and would, therefore never be able to shine or distinguish themselves upon any other subject! We are daily complaining of the great decline of Wit among us, and would we take away the greatest, perhaps the only topic we have left? Who would ever have suspected Asgil for a wit, and Toland for a philosopher, if the inexhaustible supply of Christianity had not been at hand to provide them with materials? What other subject through all Art and Nature could have produced Tindal for a profound author, and furnished him with readers? It is the wise choice of the subject, which alone adorns and distinguishes the writer. For had a hundred such pens as these been employed on the side of religion, they would have sunk into silence and oblivion."
Pope claims to have shadowed forth such a work as Gulliver's Travels in the Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus; but Swift, no doubt, took the idea from Lucian's "True History." He was also indebted to Philostratus, who speaks of an army of pigmies attacking Hercules. Something may also have been gathered from Defoe's minuteness of detail; and he made use of all these with a master-hand to improve and increase the fertile resources of his own mind. Swift produced the work, by which he will always survive, and be young. In the voyage to Lilliput he depreciates the court and ministers of George I., by comparing them to something insignificantly small: in the voyage to Brobdingnag by likening them to something grand and noble. But the immortality of the work owes nothing to such considerations but everything to humour and fancy, especially to the general satire upon human vanity. "The Emperor of Lilliput is taller by almost the breadth of my nail than any of his Court, which alone is enough to strike awe into beholders."
In the Honyhuhums, the human race is compared to the Yahoos, and placed in a loathsome and ridiculous light. They are represented as most irrational creatures, frequently engaged in wars or acrimonious disputes as to whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh, whether it be better to kiss a post or throw it into the fire, and what is the best colour of a coat!—referring to religious disputes between Catholics and Protestants. He says, that among the Yahoos, "It is a very justifiable cause of war to invade the country after the people have been wasted by famine, destroyed by pestilence, or embroiled by factions among themselves." With regard to internal matters, "there is a society of men among us, bred up from youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. In this society all the rest of the people are slaves."
Swift's humour, as has been already intimated, by no means confined itself to being a mere vehicle of instruction. It luxuriated in a hundred forms, and on every passing subject. He wrote verses for great women, and for those who sold oysters and herrings, as well as apples and oranges. The flying leaves, so common at that time, contained a great variety of squibs and parodies written by him. Here, for instance is a travesty of Ambrose Philips' address to Miss Carteret—
"Happiest of the spaniel race Painter, with thy colours grace, Draw his forehead large and high, Draw his blue and humid eye, Draw his neck, so smooth and round, Little neck, with ribbons bound, And the spreading even back, Soft and sleek, and glossy black, And the tail that gently twines Like the tendrils of the vines, And the silky twisted hair Shadowing thick the velvet ear, Velvet ears, which hanging low O'er the veiny temples flow ..."
He could scarcely stay at an inn without scratching something humorous on the window pane. At the Four Crosses in the Wading Street Road, Warwickshire, he wrote—
"Fool to put up four crosses at your door Put up your wife—she's crosser than all four."
On another, he deprecated this scribbling on windows, which, it seems, was becoming too general—
"The sage, who said he should be proud Of windows in his breast Because he ne'er a thought allowed That might not be confessed; His window scrawled, by every rake, His breast again would cover And fairly bid the devil take The diamond and the lover."
The members of the Kit Kat club used to write epigrams in honour of their "Toasts" on their wine glasses.
He sometimes amused himself with writing ingenious riddles. Additional grace was added to them by giving them a poetic form. They differ from modern riddles, which are nearly all prose, and turn upon puns. They more resemble the old Greek and Roman enigmas, but have not their obscurity or simplicity. Most of them are long, but the following will serve as a specimen—
"We are little airy creatures All of different voice and features; One of us in glass is set, One of us you'll find in jet T'other you may see in tin, And the fourth a box within If the fifth you should pursue, It can never fly from you."
This may have suggested to Miss C. Fanshawe her celebrated enigma on the letter H.
The humorous talent possessed by the Dean made him a great acquisition in society, and, as it appears, somewhat too fascinating to the fair sex. Ladies have never been able to decide satisfactorily why he did not marry. It may have been that having lived in grand houses, he did not think he had a competent income. In his thoughts on various subjects, he says, "Matrimony has many children, Repentance, Discord, Poverty, Jealousy, Sickness, Spleen, &c."
His sentimental and platonic friendship with young ladies, to whom he gave poetical names, made them historical, but not happy. "Stella," to whom he is supposed to have been privately married before her death, charmed him with her loveliness and wit. Some of his prettiest pieces, in which poetry is intermingled with humour, were written to her. In an address to her in 1719, on her attaining thirty-five years of age, after speaking of the affection travellers have for the old "Angel Inn," he says—
"Now this is Stella's case in fact An angel's face a little cracked, (Could poets or could painters fix How angels look at thirty-six) This drew us in at first to find In such a form an angel's mind; And every virtue now supplies The fainting rays of Stella's eyes See at her levee crowding swains Whom Stella greatly entertains With breeding humour, wit, and sense And puts them out to small expense, Their mind so plentifully fills And makes such reasonable bills, So little gets, for what she gives We really wonder how she lives, And had her stock been less, no doubt, She must have long ago run out."
Swift says that Stella "always said the best thing in the company," but to judge by the specimens he has preserved, this must have been the opinion of a lover, unless the society she moved in was extremely dull. At the same time those who assert that her allusions were coarse, have no good foundation for such a calumny. Her humour contrasted with that of the Dean, both in its weakness and its delicacy. Swift was too fond of bringing forward into the light what should be concealed, but saw the fault in others, and imputed it to an absence of inventive power. He writes—
"You do not treat nature wisely by always striving to get beneath the surface. What to show and to conceal she knows, it is one of her eternal laws to put her best furniture forward."
The last of his writings before his mind gave way was his "Directions to Servants." It was compiled apparently from jottings set down in hours of idleness, and shows that his love of humour survived as long as any of his faculties. He was blamed by Lord Orrery for turning his mind to such trifling concerns, and the stricture might have had some weight had not his primary object been to amuse. That this was his aim rather than mere correction, is evident from the specious reasons he gives for every one of his precepts, and he would have found it difficult to choose a subject which would meet with a more general response.
The following few extracts will give an idea of the work—
"Rules that concern all servants in general—When your master or lady calls a servant by name, if that servant be not in the way, none of you are to answer, for then there will be no end of drudgery; and masters themselves allow that if a servant comes, when he is called, it is sufficient.
"When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
"The cook, the butler, the groom, the market-man, and every other servant, who is concerned in the expenses of the family, should act as if his whole master's estate ought to be applied to that peculiar business. For instance, if the cook computes his master's estate to be a thousand pounds a year, he reasonably concludes that a thousand pounds a year will afford meat enough, and therefore he need not be sparing; the butler makes the same judgment; so may the groom and the coachman, and thus every branch of expense will be filled to your master's honour.
"Take all tradesmen's parts against your master, and when you are sent to buy anything, never offer to cheapen it, but generously pay the full demand. This is highly to your master's honour, and may be some shillings in your pocket, and you are to consider, if your master has paid too much, he can better afford the loss than a poor tradesman.
"Write your own name and your sweetheart's with the smoke of a candle on the roof of the kitchen, or the servant's hall to show your learning.
"Lay all faults upon a lap dog or favourite cat, a monkey, a parrot, or a child; or on the servant, who was last turned off; by this rule you will excuse yourself, do no hurt to anybody else, and save your master or lady the trouble and vexation of chiding.
"When you cut bread for a toast, do not stand idly watching it, but lay it on the coals, and mind your other business; then come back, and if you find it toasted quite through, scrape off the burnt side and serve it up.
"When a message is sent to your master, be kind to your brother servant who brings it; give him the best liquor in your keeping, for your master's honour; and, at the first opportunity he will do the same to you.
"When you are to get water for tea, to save firing, and to make more haste, pour it into the tea-kettle from the pot where cabbage or fish have been boiling, which will make it much wholesomer by curing the acid and corroding quality of the tea.
"Directions to cooks.—Never send up the leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it, but if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a stray greyhound.
"When you roast a long joint of meat, be careful only about the middle, and leave the two extreme parts raw, which will serve another time and also save firing.
"Let a red-hot coal, now and then fall into the dripping pan that the smoke of the dripping may ascend and give the roast meat a high taste.
"If your dinner miscarries in almost every dish, how could you help it? You were teased by the footman coming into the kitchen; and to prove it, take occasion to be angry, and throw a ladleful of broth on one or two of their liveries.
"To Footmen.—In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell them those of your masters; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and be regarded as a person of importance.
"Never be seen in the streets with a basket or bundle in your hands, and carry nothing but what you can hide in your pockets, otherwise you will disgrace your calling; to prevent which, always retain a blackguard boy to carry your loads, and if you want farthings, pay him with a good slice of bread or scrap of meat.
"Let a shoe-boy clean your own boots first, then let him clean your master's. Keep him on purpose for that use, and pay him with scraps. When you are sent on an errand, be sure to edge in some business of your own, either to see your sweetheart, or drink a pot of ale with some brother servants, which is so much time clear gained. Take off the largest dishes and set them on with one hand, to show the ladies your strength and vigour, but always do it between two ladies that if the dish happens to slip, the soup or sauce may fall on their clothes, and not daub the floor."
We think that he might have written "directions" for the masters of his day, as by incidental allusions he makes, we find they were not unaccustomed to beat their servants.
Sarcasm was Swift's foible. But we must remember that the age in which he lived was that of Satire. Humour then took that form as in the latter days of Rome. Critical acumen had attained a considerable height, but the state of affairs was not sufficiently settled and tranquil to foster mutual forbearance and amity. Swift, it must be granted, was not so personal as most of his contemporaries, seeking in his wit rather to amuse his friends than to wound his rivals. But his scoffing spirit made him enemies—some of whom taking advantage of certain expressions on church matters in "The Tale of a Tub" prejudiced Queen Anne, and placed an insuperable obstacle in the way of his ambition. He writes of himself.
"Had he but spared his tongue and pen He might have rose like other men; But power was never in his thought And wealth he valued not a groat."
In his poem on his own death, written in 1731, he concludes with the following general survey—
"Perhaps I may allow the Dean Had too much satire in his vein; And seemed determined not to starve it, Because no age could more deserve it. Yet malice never was his aim He lashed the vice, but spared the name: No individual could repent Where thousands equally meant; His satire points out no defect But what all mortals may correct: For he abhorred that senseless tribe Who call it humour, when they gibe: He spared a hump or crooked nose Whose owners set not up for beaux. Some genuine dulness moved his pity Unless it offered to be witty. Those who their ignorance confessed He ne'er offended with a jest; But laughed to hear an idiot quote A verse of Horace, learned by drote. He knew a hundred pleasing stories With all the turns of Whigs and Tories; Was cheerful to his dying day, And friends would let him have his way. He gave the little wealth he had To build a house for fools and mad; And showed by one satiric touch, No nation wanted it so much, That kingdom he has left his debtor, I wish it soon may have a better."
We may here mention a minor luminary, which shone in the constellation in Queen Anne's classic reign. Pope said that of all the men that he had met Arbuthnot had the most prolific wit, allowing Swift only the second place. Robinson Crusoe—at first thought to be a true narrative—was attributed to him, and in the company who formed themselves into the Scriblerus Club to write critiques or rather satires on the literature, science and politics of the day, we have the names of Oxford, Bolingbroke, Swift, Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot. Of the last, who seems to have written mostly in prose, a few works survive devoid of all the coarseness which stains most contemporary productions and also deficient in point of wit. It is noteworthy that the two authors who endeavoured to introduce a greater delicacy into the literature of the day, were both court physicians to Queen Anne. The death of this sovereign caused the Scriblerus project to be abandoned, but Gulliver's Travels, which had formed part of it, were afterwards continued, and some of the introductory papers remain, especially one called "Martinus Scriblerus," supposed to have been the work of Arbuthnot. It contains a violent onslaught principally upon Sir Richard Blackmore's poetry, such as we should more easily attribute to Pope, or at least to his suggestions. It resembles "The Dunciad" in containing more bitterness than humour. Examples are given of the "Pert style," the "Alamode" style, the "Finical style." The exceptions taken to such hyperbole as the following, seem to be the best founded—
OF A LION.
"He roared so loud and looked so wondrous grim His very shadow durst not follow him."
OF A LADY AT DINNER.
"The silver whiteness that adorns thy neck Sullies the plate, and makes the napkins black."
OF THE SAME.
"The obscureness of her birth Cannot eclipse the lustre of her eyes Which make her all one light."
OF A BULL BAITING.
"Up to the stars the sprawling mastiffs fly And add new monsters to the frighted sky."
There is a certain amount of humour in Arbuthnot's "History of John Bull," and in his "Harmony in an Uproar." A letter to Frederick Handel, Esquire, Master of the Opera House in the Haymarket, from Hurlothrumbo Johnson, Esquire, Composer Extraordinary to all the theatres in Great Britain, excepting that of the Haymarket, commences—
"Wonderful Sir!—The mounting flames of my ambition have long aspired to the honour of holding a small conversation with you; but being sensible of the almost insuperable difficulty of getting at you, I bethought me a paper kite might best reach you, and soar to your apartment, though seated in the highest clouds, for all the world knows I can top you, fly as high as you will."
But we may consider his best piece to be "A Learned Dissertation on Dumpling."
"The Romans, tho' our conquerors, found themselves much outdone in dumplings by our forefathers; the Roman dumplings being no more to compare to those made by the Britons, than a stone dumpling is to a marrow pudding; though indeed the British dumpling at that time was little better than what we call a stone dumpling, nothing else but flour and water. But every generation growing wiser and wiser the project was improved, and dumpling grew to be pudding. One projector found milk better than water; another introduced butter; some added marrow, others plums; and some found out the use of sugar; so that to speak truth, we know not where to fix the genealogy or chronology of any of these pudding projectors to the reproach of our historians, who eat so much pudding, yet have been so ungrateful to the first professor of the noble science as not to find them a place in history.
"The invention of eggs was merely accidental. Two or three having casually rolled from off a shelf into a pudding, which a good wife was making, she found herself under the necessity either of throwing away her pudding or letting the eggs remain; but concluding that the innocent quality of the eggs would do no hurt, if they did no good, she merely jumbled them all together after having carefully picked out the shells; the consequence is easily imagined, the pudding became a pudding of puddings, and the use of eggs from thence took its date. The woman was sent for to Court to make puddings for King John, who then swayed the sceptre; and gained such favour that she was the making of the whole family.
"From this time the English became so famous for puddings, that they are called pudding-eaters all over the world to this day.
"At her demise her son was taken into favour, and made the King's chief cook; and so great was his fame for puddings, that he was called Jack Pudding all over the kingdom, though in truth his real name was John Brand. This Jack Pudding, I say, became yet a greater favourite than his mother, insomuch that he had the King's ear as well as his mouth at command, for the King you must know was a mighty lover of pudding; and Jack fitted him to a hair. But what raised our hero in the esteem of this pudding-eating monarch was his second edition of pudding, he being the first that ever invented the art of broiling puddings, which he did to such perfection and so much to the King's liking (who had a mortal aversion to cold pudding) that he thereupon instituted him Knight of the Gridiron, and gave him a gridiron of gold, the ensign of that order, which he always wore as a mark of his Sovereign's favour."
Steele—The Funeral—The Tatler—Contributions of Swift—Of Addison—Expansive Dresses—"Bodily Wit"—Rustic Obtuseness—Crosses in Love—Snuff-taking.
A new description of periodical was published in 1709, and met with deserved success. It was little more or less than the first lady's newspaper, consisting of a small half sheet printed on both sides, and sold three times a week. The price was a penny, and the form was so unpretentious that deprecators spoke of its "tobacco-paper" and "scurvy letter." Like Defoe's review, it was strong in Foreign War intelligence, but beyond this the aim was to attract readers, not by political sarcasm or coarse jesting, but by sparkling satire on the foibles of the fashionable world. Addison says that the design was to bring philosophy to tea-tables, and to check improprieties "too trivial for the chastisement of the law, and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit," and that these papers had a "perceptible influence upon the conversation of the time, and taught the frolic and gay to unite merriment with decency." Johnson says that previously, with the exception of the writers for the theatre, "England had no masters of common life," and considers the Italian and the French to have introduced this kind of literature. From its social character, this publication gives us a great amount of interesting information as to the manners and customs of the time, and the name "Tatler" was selected "in honour of the fair."
The originator of this enterprise, Richard Steele, was English on his father's side, Irish on his mother's. He was educated at Charterhouse, and followed much the same course as his countryman, Farquhar. He tells us gaily, "At fifteen I was sent to the University, and stayed there for some time; but a drum passing by, being a lover of music, I enlisted myself as a soldier." He seems to have been at this time ambitious of being one of those "topping fellows," of whom he afterwards spoke with so much contempt. Among the various appointments he successively obtained, was that of Gentleman Usher to Prince George, and that of Gazetteer, an office which gave him unusual facilities for affording his readers foreign intelligence. He was also Governor of the Royal Company of Comedians, and wrote plays, his best being "The Conscious Lovers" and "The Funeral." The latter was much liked by King William. Notwithstanding its melancholy title, it contained some good comic passages, as where the undertaker marshalls his men and puts them through a kind of rehearsal:—
Sable. Well, come, you that are to be mourners in this house, put on your sad looks, and walk by me that I may sort you. Ha, you! a little more upon the dismal—(forming their countenances)—this fellow has a good mortal look—place him near the corpse; that wainscot face must be o' top of the stairs; that fellow's almost in a fright (that looks as if he were full of some strange misery) at the entrance of the hall—so—but I'll fix you all myself. Let's have no laughing now on any provocation, (makes faces.) Look yonder, that hale, well-looking puppy! You ungrateful scoundrel, did not I pity you, take you out of a great man's service, and show you the pleasure of receiving wages? Did not I give you ten, then fifteen, now twenty shillings a week to be sorrowful? and the more I give you, I think the gladder you are.