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Importance Of Periodical Essay


The periodical essay and the novel are the two important gifts of "our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century" to English literature. The latter was destined to have a long and variegated career over the centuries, but the former was fated to be born with the eighteenth century and to die with it.

This shows how it was a true mirror of the age. A. R. Humphrey observes in this connection: "If any literary form is the particular creation and the particular mirror of the Augustan Age in England, it is the periodical essay." Generally speaking, it is very difficult to date precisely the appearance of a new literary genre. For example, nobody can say with perfect certainty as to when the first novel, or the first comedy or the first short story came to be written in England or elsewhere. We often talk of "fathers" in literature: for instance, Fielding is called the father of English novel, Chaucer the father of English poetry, and so forth. But that is done, more often than not in a loose and very unprecise sense. This difficulty in dating a genre, however, does not arise in a few cases-that of the periodical essay included. The periodical essay was literally invented by Steele on April 12, 1709, the day he launched his Taller. Before The Taller there had been periodicals and there had been essays, but there had been no periodical essays. The example of The Taller was followed by a large number of writers of the eighteenth century till its very end, when with the change of sensibility, the periodical essay disappeared along with numerous other accompaniments of the age. Throughout the century there was a deluge of periodical essays. The periodical essay remained the most popular, if not the dominant, literary form. Men as different as Pope, Swift, Dr. Johnson, and Goldsmith found the periodical essay an eligible medium. As a matter of fact it was, unlike the novel for example, the only literary form which was patronised without exception by all the major writers of the century. It is hard to name a single first-rate writer of the century who did.not write something for a periodical paper. Mrs. Jane H. Jack says: "From the days of Queen Anne-who had The Spectator taken in with her breakfast-to the time of the French Revolution and even beyond, periodical essays on the lines laid down by Steele and Addison flooded the country and met the eye in every bookseller's shop and coffee-house." Before tracing the history of the periodical essay in the eighteenth century and assigning causes for its phenomenal popularity, let us consider what exactly a periodical essay is.

What is a Periodical Essay?

What is called the periodical essay was first of all given by Steele as The Taller. Nothing of this type had before him been attempted in or even elsewhere. However, to attempt a definition of the periodical essay is neither easy nor helpful. George Sherburn in A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh, avers in this connexion: "Rigorous definition of this peculiarly eighteenth century type of publication is not very heIpful...The periodical essay has been aptly described as dealing with morals and manners,1 but it might in fact deal with anything that pleased its author. It covered usually not more than the two sides (in two columns) of a folipjialf-sheet: normally it was shorter than that. It might be published independent of other material, as was The Spectator, except for advertising; or it might be the leading article in a newspaper."

Reasons for the Popularity:

The periodical essay found a spectacular response in the eighteenth century on account of various reasons. Fundamentally this new genre was in perfect harmony with the spirit of the age. It sensitively combined the tastes of the different classes of readers with the result that it appealed to ail-though particularly to the resurgent middle classes. In the eighteenth century there was a phenomenal spurt in literacy, which expanded widely the circle of readers. They welcomed the periodical essay as it was "light" literature. The brevity of the periodical essay, its common sense approach, and its tendency to dilute morality and philosophy for popular consumption paid rich dividends. To a great extent, the periodical essayist assumed the office of the clergyman and taught the masses the lesson of elegance and refinement, though not of morality of the psalm-singing kind. The periodical paper was particularly welcome as it was not a dry, high-brown, or hoity-toity affair like the professional sermon, in spite of being highly instructive in nature. In most cases the periodical essayist did not "speak from the clouds" but communicated with the reader with an almost buttonholing familiarity. The avoidance of politics (though not by all the periodical essayists yet by a good many of them) also contributed towards their popularity. Again, the periodical essayists made it a point to cater for the female taste and give due consideration to the female point of view. That won for them many female readers too. All these factors were responsible for the universal acceptance of the periodical essay in eighteenth-century England:

The History of the Periodical Essay

"The Tatler":

It was Steele's Tatler which began the deluge of the periodical essays which followed. The first issue of The Tatler appeared on . At that time . Steele's bosom friend, was functioning as Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of , in that country. Steele had not informed Addison of his design, but if he desired to write in secret he was not lucky; a single month detected him. and 's first contribution appeared on May 26. Though Addison contributed to The Tatler much less than Steele, yet he soon overshadowed his friend. Of the 271 numbers, 188 are Steele's and 42 Addison's; 36 of them were written by both jointly. The rest were penned by others like Tickell and Budgell. Steele spoke of himself as "a distressed prince who calls in a powerful neighbour to his aid," and added: "I was undone by my auxiliary [Addison]: when I had once called him in, I could not subsist without him"'The Tatler appeared thrice a week-on Tuesdays. Thursdays, and Saturdays, that isythe days on which the post went to the country. As regards the aim of the paper, we may quote the words of Steele in the dedication to the first collected volume (1710): "The general purpose of this paper is to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, affectation, and recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse and our behaviour." All the material of The Taller was purported by Steele to be based upon discussions in the four famous coffee-houses, and was divided as follows:

(i)         "All accounts of gallantry, pleasure and entertainment"-White's Chocolate-house.

(ii)        Poetry-Will's Coffee-house.

(iii)       Learning-the Grecian.

(iv)       Foreign and domestic news-St. James' Coffee-house.

(v)        "What else I shall on any other subject offer"-"My own apartment"

The chief importance of The Toiler lies in its social and moral criticism which had a tangibly salubrious effect on the times. Both Addison and Steele did good work each in his own way. Addison was a much more refined and correct writer than Steele whom Macaulay aptly calls "a scholar among rakes and a rake among scholars." Addison's prose is, according to Dr. Johnson, a model of "the middle style." And this is his famous suggestion: "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison." Steele, on the contrary, was a thing of moods and moments. His writing has a look of spontaneity and human warmth which Addison's lacks. Comparing Steele and Addison, George Sherburn maintains "Steele's prose never attained the elegant ease and correctness of Addison's, and yet it is probable that his tendency to warm to a subject and to write intimately and personally, as the reader's friend, contributed much to the success of the paper. Addison's best essays are the result of his slightly chilly insight into the typical mental attitudes of his day." Later critics are apt to place Steele higher than Addison. Thus Leigh-Hunt, for instance, affirms that he prefers "Steele with all his faults" to "Addison with all his essays."

"The Spectator":

Without any warning to his readers, Steele suddenly wound up The Taller on January 2, 1711. But two months later-on March 1,171 \-The Spectator began its memorable career of 555 numbers up to . Whereas The Tatler had appeared only three times a week. The Spectator appeared daily, excepting Sundays. The new paper became tremendously popular among English men and women belonging to all walks of life. The best of all the periodical essays, it is an important human document concerning the morals and manners, thoughts and ideas, of the English society of the age of Queen Anne. Addison's fame chiefly rests on The Spectator papers. As A. R. Humphreys puts it: "Were it not for his essays, Addison's literary reputation would be insignificant; into them, diluted and sweetened for popular consumption, went his classical and modern reading, his study of philosophy and natural science, reflections culled from French critics, and indeed] anything that might make learning "polite"'. A particularly happy feature of The Spectator was its envisagement of a club consisting of representatives from diverse walks of life. Among them Sir Roger de Coverley, and eccentric but thoroughly lovable Tory baronet, is one of the immortal creations of English literature. The Spectator drew a large female readership as many of the papers were for and about women. Though both Addison and Steele were Whigs, yet in The Spectator they kept up a fairly neutral political poise and, in fact, did their best to expose the error of the political fanaticism of both the Tories and Whigs. Further, The Spectator evinced much interest in trade and, consequently, endeared itself to the up-and-coming trading community which had its representative in The Spectator Club-4he rich Sir Andrew Freeport. However, much of the charm of The Spectator lay in its style-­humorous, ironical, but elegant and polished. The chief importance of The Spectator for the modern reader lies in its humour. As A. R. Humphrey reminds us, The Spectator papers are important much more historically than aesthetically. The modern reader, "if led to expect more than a charming humour and vivacity, is likely to feel cheated."

"The Guardian" and Other Papers before Dr. Johnson:

The tremendous popularity of The Toiler and The Spectator prompted many imitations. Among them may be mentioned The Tory Taller, The Female Tatler, Tit for Tatt, and The North Taller. The best of all was Steele's own Guardian which had a run of 175 numbers, from March 12 to . It was, like The Spectator, a daily. "If," says George Sherburn, "The Spectator had not existed, The Guardian might outrank all periodicals of this kind, but it is shaded by its predecessor, and the fact that Addison—busy with his tragedy Cato-had no part in the early numbers certainly diminished its interest." Another factor which diminished its interest was its open indulgence in political affairs. Apart from Steele and Addison it included contributions from Berkeley and Gay. The Englishmen, the successor of The Guardian, was even more politically biased. Steele's Lover (40 numbers) and Addison's Freeholder (55 numbers) followed The Englishman. Even to name the works of other periodical essayists would be difficult, so large is their number. "None of them," to quote Sherburn, "approached with any consistency the excellency of these (the periodical papers produced by Steele and Addison)."

Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, and Others:

In the second half of the eighteenth century the periodical essay showed a tendency to cease as an independent publication and to get incorporated into the newspaper as just another feature. The series of about a hundred papers of Dr. Johnson, called The Idler, for example, was contributed to newspaper, The Universal Chronicler, and appeared between April 15, 1758 and April 5, 1760. These papers are lighter and shorter than those published in the periodical paper The Rambler. The Rambler appeared twice a week, between and , and ran to 208 numbers. Dr. Johnson as a periodical essayist was much more serious in purpose than Steele and Addison had been. His lack of humour and unrelived gravity coupled with his ponderous English make his Rambler papers quite heavy reading. The lack of popularity of The Rambler can easily be ascribed to this very fact.

Among the papers that followed The Rambler may be mentioned Edward Moore's World (209 numbers) and the novelist Henry Mackenzie's Mirror and The Lounger. A significant development was the creation of the "magazine" or what we call "digest" today. It was an anthology of the interesting material which had already appeared in recent newspapers orpenodicals. The first magazine was 's monthly, The Gentleman's Magazine, founded i,. 1731. The vogue of the magazine caught on and many magazines including The magazines of Magazines (1750-51), appeared and disappeared. Along with the magazine may be mentioned the initiation of the critical review devoted to the criticism of books. The first such periodical was Ralph Griffith's Monthly Review.

In the end, let us consider the work of Oliver Goldsmith who from 1757 to 1772 contributed to no fewer than ten periodicals, including The Monthly Review. His own Bee (1759) ran to only eight weekly numbers. The Citizen of the World (1762)—Goldsmith his best work—is a collection of essays which originally appeared in The Public Ledger as "Chinese Letters" (1760-61). Goldsmith's essays are rich in human details, a quivering sentimentalism, and candidness of spirit. His prose style is, likewise, quite attractive; he avoids bitterness, coarseness, pedantry, and stiff wit. His style, in the words of George Sherburn, "lacks the boldness of the aristocratic manner, and it escapes the tendency of his generation to follow Johnson into excessive heaviness of diction and balanced formality of sentence structure...It is precisely for this lack of formality and for his graceful and sensitive ease, fluency, and vividness that we value his style."

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The periodical essay had its birth and death in the eighteenth century. It was born with The Tatler in the beginning of the century (1709) and breathed its last (about 1800) after remaining in the throes of death in the years following the French Revolution (1789). The reason for its popularity in the eighteenth century is to be sought in the rapport which it had with the genius of the century.

What Matthew Arnold describes as "our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century" added three new literary genres to the fund of English literature. These genres are the mock epic, the novel, and the: periodical essay. All of them enjoyed much popularity in the century and the mock epic and the novel, even beyond the termination of the century. However, the periodical essay was the most popular of all, even though it did not extend beyond the century. About the importance and phenomenal popularity of the periodical essay A. R. Humphreys observes: "If any literary form is the particular creation and the particular mirror of the Augustan age in England it is the periodical essay. The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature lists ninety periodicals founded between The Tatler in 1709 and 1720." The Tatler and The Spectator, indeed unleashed a virtual deluge of periodicals which overran eighteenth century England. Mrs. Jane H. Jack refers to "the remarkable proliferation" of this type'of essay in the years following the first number of The Tatler. Throughout the eighteenth century, and especial ly the first half of it, the periodical essay was the most popular, if not the dominant, literary form. Men as different as Pope, Swift, Dr. Johnson, and Goldsmith found the periodical essay an eligible medium. As a matter of fact it was, unlike the novel for example, the only literary form which was patronised without exception by all the major writers of the century. It is hard to name a single first-rate, or even second-rate, writer who did not write something for a periodical paper. In the words of Mrs. Jane H. Jack, "from the days of Queen Anne-who had The Spectator taken in with her breakfast-to the time of the French Revolution and even beyond, periodical essays on the lines laid down by Steele and Addison flooded the country and met the eye in every bookseller's shop and coffee-house."

Now let us consider briefly the chief causes of the popularity of the periodical essay in the eighteenth century.

Suited the Genius of the People:

The first and foremost reason of the popularity of the periodical essay in the eighteenth century was its pre-eminent suitability to the genius of the people of that age. The eighteenth century, especially its earlier phase, is known in the social history of England for the rise of the middle classes. With the unprecedented rise in trade and commerce the English masses were becoming wealthy and many poor people finding themselves in the ranks of respectable burgesses. These nouveaux riches were, naturally enough, desirous of giving themselves an aristocratic touch by appearing to be learned and sophisticated like their traditional social superiors--the landed gentry and nobility. This class of readers had hitherto been neglected by highbrow writers. Literary productions before the eighteenth century were invariably meant for the higher strata of society. Only "popular literature", such as the ballad, catered to the lower rungs. Literary works were very often published by raising subscription among the enlightened few, and men of letters were very often dependent upon their patrons who were rich and influential. There was little literature meant especially for the middle classes of society. Works like Browne's Hydriotaphia or even Milton's Paradise Lost were much above them, and those like ballads and roundelays much below them. These middle classes had now become a force to reckon with. Moreover, in the early eighteenth century, as Bonamy Dobree puts it, the two hitherto well-defined and well-divided groups of readers came to converge into each other. Consequently the writers of the age like Swift, Defoe, Addison, Pope, and Steele-addressed themselves not to a particular group of readers, but all society in general. However, they seem to have been particularly mindful of the middle classes who made up the bulk of readers and consequently but for whose appreciation and patronage they would have been denied all popularity and success. The periodical essay was particularly suited to the genius of these new patrons of literature. It was the literature of the bourgeoisie. It gave them what they wanted. It gave them pleasure as well as instruction, the age of parliamentary democracy had then recently dawned and the novel and the periodical essay became the literary embodiments of its spirit.

Not "Heavy" Literature:

The periodical essay was a delicate and sensitive synthesis of literature and journalism. It was neither too "literary" to be comprehended and appreciated by the common people nor too journalistic to meet the fate of ephemeral writings. It could be read, appreciated, and discussed at the tea-table or in the coffee-house. Its lightness and brevity were its two major popularising features. Accounting for the enthusiastic reception of the periodical essay, Mrs. Jane H. Jack observes in "The Periodical Essayists" in vol. 4 of The Pelican Guide to English Literature: "one principal reason for the success of Addison and Steele was the fact that they kept the tastes and requirements of their readers, male and female, constantly in mind. One of the attractions of their new form was its brevity. The seventeenth century had been the century of long books. A seventeenth-century reader seems to have been able to read anything. The only brief forms with any literary pretensions were stiff with 'wit'. The increasing 'reading public' of the eighteenth century brought a demand for easier reading. It was a time when writers paid more attention to the human frailty of their readers and treated them with greater consideration." A periodical essay, normally, covered not more than the two sides of a folio half-sheet; quite often it was even shorter.

Suited the Moral Temper of the Age:

But it was not mainly owing to its brevity or any other formal feature that the periodical essay became the darling of eighteenth century readers. The main reason lies in the fact that it suited their moral temper. The periodical essayists, particularly Steele and Addison struck a delicate and rational balance between the strait-jacketed morality of the Puritan and the reckless Bohemianism of the Cavalier. The average middle class man, with a hard core of common sense about him was sick of the profligacies and cynicism of the post-Restoration courtiers still surviving in the eighteenth century. Equally was he repelled by the immoderately self-righteous outlook of the pleasure-hating Puritans in whose eyes beauty was a snare and all pleasure a sin. The man in the street in the early eighteenth century spurned both the unthinking epicurism of the Cavalier and the rigid asceticism of the Puritan. Some via media, after the demand of common sense and reason, was being sought after. It was for the periodical essayists, particularly Addison and Steele, to effect a synthesis between these two mutually militating views of life. They were to show in their periodical essays that virtue and pleasure were not always incompatible with each other, that pleasure was not always irrational and necessarily irreligious. As A. R. Humphreys points out, "conventionally the code of pleasure was that of the rake; Steele and Addison wished to equate it with virtue, and virtue with religion." They strove to emphasize that religion and virtue, far from being incompatible with good breeding, were the 'most important signs of it. In the words of Taine theirs was "the difficult task of making morality fashionable." But they did not flinch. They not only fulfilled their self-imposed task, but fulfilled it so well that they (especially Addison) became popular idols. As Addison put it, the task of Mr. Spectator was "to temper wit with morality and to enliven morality with wit." The periodical essayist, then, worked as a popular moral mentor. But he was more : he enriched the life of the common man with general knowledge which was then called "philosophy" and was limited to the closet of the specialized scholar, "It was," wrote Addison, "said of Socrates that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of the closets, and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee­houses." The periodical essay was welcomed by the busy trader and men of affairs because it made accessible to them that knowledge which had till then been considered the monopoly of the chosen few.

Appeal to Women:

The doses of morality, philosophy, and religion administered by the periodical essayists to their readers were fairly dilute, in keeping with their constitution. They, especially Addison and Steele, taught their coarse age the lesson of refinement and elegance. They instinctively felt that women could do a lot in setting the tone of society. But before they were able to do so, women themselves had to learn a lot. They had, for instance, to give up French fopperies, coarse as well as frivolous behaviour, and to cultivate the virtues of domesticity and modesty. Most periodical essayists followed the lead of Addison and Steele in writing many of their essays about and for women. "It became," says Mrs. Jane H. Jack, "an important part of the Tatler and Spectator 'platform' to stress that the authors were writing for women as well as men and to emphasize that women must play a large part in the civilizing which they were striving to promote. Attention to the interests of the fair sex became one of the invariable conventions of the periodical essay, and there can be little doubt that the essayists did much to improve the status and education! of women." was quite explicit in his intention : "But there are none to whom this paper will be more useful than to the female world." He meant to offer women "an innocent if not an improving entertainment," and urged them not to grudge "throwing away a quarter of an hour in a day on this paper." Swift was indignant at Addison's too frequent treatment of topics of female interest and wrote to Stella in a tantrum: "Let him fair sex it to the world's end!" At any rate, by "fair sexing" it too much Addison and Steele became extremely popular with both the sexes, for they emerged as the first writers in the history of English literature to give adequate importance to specifically female interests.

Avoidance of Religious and Political Controversies:

One of the reasons for the general popularity of the periodical essays was that they (with the exception of party organs), shunned religious and political controversies and kept their attention focused only on topics of general interest. Steele and Addison were the writers who with their pose or poise of neutrality set an example for their successors. The eighteenth century was a period of fierce party strife between the Whigs and Tories, and though Steele and Addison were both uncompromising Whigs, yet in their periodical essays at least they maintained a neutral attitude. Mr. Spectator says in the very first issue of The Spectator: "I never espoused any party with violence, and am resolved to observe an exact neutrality between the Whigs and Tories, unless I shall be forced to declare myself by the hostilities of either side." When in The Guardian Steele shed his neutral attitude and started espousing the Whig cause, his popularity declined.

The Interest in Trade:

We have already referred to the phenomenal rise of the trading community in early eighteenth-century England. One reason why the periodical essay (particularly The Spectator and The Taller) made a special appeal to this community was that it showed a healthy interest in trade. Most of the traders were Whigs and most of the landed gentry and nobility, Tories. The clash between the two parties was not only political but social too. In numerous Spectators ladled glowing praise to th,e trading community much to their gratification. Up to that time the merchant in literary compositions had served only as an object of satire for his alleged dishonesty, meanness, and calculating nature. But in The Spectator Sir Andrew Freeport was given a place equal to the other respectable men who constituted "the Club." The Spectator essay describing the mercantile activity at the Royal Exchange is quite sentimental in the expression of complacency at the tremendous prosperity of the rich merchants.

The Style:

Most of the periodical essayists used a simple and conversational style so as to be able to be understood and appreciated by their semi-educated or, at any rate, unscholarly readers. Mrs. Jane H. Jack observes: "The periodical writers prided themselves on being 'nearer in our style to that of common talk than any other writers' (Tatler, No. 204) and there can be little-dtmbt that the ubiquity of these essays had a good effect on the prose-styteof the century as a whole." The periodical essayist could indulge in individual whimsies, conceits, witticisms, or even "hard words" only at his peril. Women, who made up a large proportion of the readers,--.could appreciate such things even less than their male counterpartsvThe stylejiad to be simple and clear. How disastrous an effect the use of a heavy style could have on the popularity of a periodical essayist is obvious from the case of Dr. Johnson's Rambler which never circulated above five hundred copies. The Spectator, on the other hand, ran to no fewer than five thousand.

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