The Present State of Wit (1711)/The Letter


Present State


WIT, &c.


You Acquaint me in your last, that you are still so busie Building at ———, that your Friends must not hope to see you in Town this Year; At the same time you desire me that you may not be quite at a loss in Conversation among the Beau Monde next Winter, to send you an account of the present State of Wit in Town; which, without further Preface, I shall therefore endeavour to perform, and give you the Histories and Characters of all our Periodical Papers, whether Monthly, Weekly, or Diurnal, with the same freedom I used to send you our other Town News.

I shall only premise, that as you know I never cared one Farthing either for Whig or Tory, So I shall consider our Writers purely as they are such, without any respect to which Party they may belong.

Dr. King has for some time lain down his Monthly Philosophical Transactions, which the Title Page informed us at first, were only to be continued as they Sold; and tho' that Gentleman has a World of Wit, yet as it lies in one particular way of Raillery, the Town soon grew weary of his Writings; tho' I cannot but think, that their Author deserves a much better Fate, than to Languish out the small remainder of his Life in the Fleet Prison.

About the same time that the Doctor left off Writing, one Mr. Ozell put out his Monthly Amusement, (which is still continued) and as it is generally some French Novel or Play indifferently Translated, is more or less taken Notice of, as the Original Piece is more or less Agreeable.

As to our Weekly Papers, the Poor Review is quite exhausted, and grown so very Contemptible, that tho' he has provoked all his Brothers of the Quill round, none of them will enter into a Controversy with him. This Fellow, who had excellent Natural Parts, but wanted a small Foundation of Learning, is a lively instance of those Wits, who, as an Ingenious Author says, will endure but one Skimming.

The Observator was almost in the same Condition, but since our Party-Struggles have run so high, he is much mended for the better; which is imputed to the Charitable Assistance of some out-lying Friends.

These Two Authors might, however, have flourish'd some time longer, had not the Controversie been taken up by much abler Hands.

The Examiner is a Paper, which all Men, who speak without Prejudice, allow to be well Writ. Tho' his Subject will admit of no great Variety, he is continually placing it on so many different Lights, and endeavouring to inculcate the same thing by so many Beautiful Changes of Expressions, that Men, who are concern'd in no Party, may Read him with Pleasure. His way of assuming the Question in Debate, is extremely Artful; and his Letter to Crassus, is, I think, a Master-piece. As these Papers are suppos'd to have been Writ by several Hands, the Criticks will tell you, That they can discern a difference in their Stiles and Beauties, and pretend to observe, that the first Examiners abound chiefly in Wit, the last in Humour.

Soon after their first appearance, came out a Paper from the other Side, called the Whig Examiner, writ with so much Fire, and in so excellent a Stile, as put the Tories in no small pain for their favourite Hero, every one cry'd Bickerstaff must be the Author, and People were the more confirm'd in this opinion, upon its being so soon lay'd down; which seem'd to shew, that it was only writ to bind the Examiners to their good Behaviour, and was never design'd to be a Weekly Paper. The Examiners therefore have no one to Combat with at present, but their Friend the Medley; The Author of which Paper, tho' he seems to be a Man of good Sense, and expresses it luckily enough now and then, is, I think, for the most part, perfectly a Stranger to fine Writing.

I presume I need not tell you that the Examiner carries much the more Sail, as 'tis supposed to be writ by the Direction, and under the Eye of some Great Persons who sit at the helm of Affairs, and is consequently look'd on as a sort of publick Notice which way they are steering us.

The reputed Author is Dr. S———t, with the assistance, sometimes, of Dr. Att———y; and Mr. P———r.

The Medley, is said to be Writ by Mr. Old———n, and supervised by Mr. Mayn———g, who perhaps might intirely write those few Papers which are so much better than the rest.

Before I proceed further in the account of our Weekly Papers, it will be necessary to inform you, that at the begining of the Winter, to the infinite surprize of all Men, Mr. Steele flung up His Tatler, and instead of Isaac Bickerstaff Esq.; Subscrib'd himself Richard Steele to the last of those Papers, after an handsome Compliment to the Town for their kind acceptance of his Endeavours to divert them. The Chief Reason he thought fit to give for his leaving off writing, was, that having been so long look'd on in all publick Places and Companies as the Author of those Papers, he found that his most intimate Friends and Acquaintance were in Pain to Act or Speak before him. The Town was very far from being satisfied with this Reason; and most People judg'd the true cause to be, either that he was quite spent, and wanted matter to continue his undertaking any longer, or that he lay'd it down as a sort of Submission to, and Composition with the Government for some past Offences; Or lastly, that he had a Mind to vary his Shape, and appear again in some new Light.

However that were, his disappearing seem'd to be bewailed as some general Calamity, every one wanted so agreeable an Amusement, and the Coffee-houses began to be sensible that the Esquires Lucubrations alone, had brought them more Customers than all their other News papers put together.

It must indeeed be confess'd, that never Man threw up his Pen under Stronger Temptations to have imployed it longer: His Reputation was at a greater height than, I believe, ever any living Author's was before him. 'Tis reasonable to suppose that his Gains were proportionably considerable; Every one Read him with Pleasure and Good Will, and the Tories, in respect to his other Good Qualities, had almost forgiven his unaccountable Imprudence in declaring against them.

Lastly, It was highly improbable that if he threw off a Character, the Ideas of which were so strongly impress'd in every one's mind, however finely he might write in any new form, that he should meet with the same reception.

To give you my own thoughts of this Gentleman's Writings, I shall in the first place observe, that there is this noble difference between him and all the rest of our Polite and Gallant Authors: The latter have endeavour'd to please the Age by falling in with them, and incouraging them in their fashionable Vices, and false notions of things. It would have been a jest, sometime since, for a Man to have asserted, that any thing Witty could be said in praise of a Marry'd State, or that Devotion and Virtue were any way necessary to the Character of a fine Gentleman. Bickerstaff ventur'd to tell the Town, that they were a parcel of Fops, Fools, and vain Cocquets; but in such a manner, as even pleased them, and made them more than half enclin'd to believe that he spoke Truth.

Instead of complying with the false Sentiments or Vicious tasts of the Age, either in Morality, Criticism, or Good Breeding, he has boldly assur'd them, that they were altogether in the wrong, and commanded them with an Authority, which perfectly well became him, to surrender themselves to his Arguments, for Vertue and Good Sense.

'Tis incredible to conceive the effect his Writings have had on the Town; How many Thousand follies they have either quite banish'd, or given a very great check to; how much Countenance they have added to Vertue and Religion; how many People they have render'd happy, by shewing them it was their own fault if they were not so; and lastly, how intirely they have convinc'd our Fops, and Young Fellows, of the value and advantages of Learning.

He has indeed rescued it out of the hands of Pedants and Fools, and discover'd the true method of making it amiable and lovely to all mankind: In the dress he gives it, 'tis a most welcome guest at Tea-tables and Assemblies, and is relish'd and caressed by the Merchants on the Change; accordingly, there is not a Lady at Court, nor a Banker in Lumbard-Street, who is not verily perswaded, that Captain Steele is the greatest Scholar, and best Casuist, of any Man in England.

Lastly, His Writings have set all our Wits and Men of Letters upon a new way of Thinking, of which they had little or no Notion before; and tho' we cannot yet say that any of them have come up to the Beauties of the Original, I think we may venture to affirm, that every one of them Writes and Thinks much more justly than they did some time since.

The vast variety of Subjects which he has treated of in so different manners, and yet All so perfectly well, made the World believe that 'twas impossible they should all come from the same hand. This set every one upon guessing who was the Esquires Friend, and most people at first fancied it must be Dr. Swift; but it is now no longer a Secret, that his only great and constant assistant was Mr. Addison.

This is that excellent Friend to whom Mr. Steele ow's so much, and who refuses to have his Name set before those Pieces, which the greatest Pens in England would be Proud to own. Indeed, they could hardly add to this Gentleman's Reputation, whose Works in Latin and English Poetry, long since convinc'd the World, that he was the greatest Master in Europe of those Two Languages.

I am assur'd from good hands, That all the Visions, and other Tracts in that way of Writing, with a very great number of the most exquisite Pieces of Wit and Raillery throughout the Lucubrations, are intirely of this Gentleman's Composing; which may in some Measure account for that different Genius, which appears in the Winter Papers from those of the Summer; at which time, as the Examiner often hinted, this Friend of Mr. Steele's was in Ireland.

Mr. Steele confesses in his last Volume of the Tatlers, that he is oblig'd to Dr. Swift for his Town Shower, and the Description of the Morn, with some other hints received from him in Private Conversation.

I have also heard, that several of those Letters, which came as from Unknown Hands, were writ by Mr. Henly; which is an Answer to your Query, Who those Friends are, whom Mr. Steele speaks of in his last Tatler?

But to proceed with my account of our other Papers: The Expiration of Bickerstaff's Lucubrations, was attended with much the same Consequences as the Death of Melibæus's Ox in Virgil; as the latter engendred Swarms of Bees, the former immediately produc'd whole Swarms of little Satyrical Scriblers.

One of these Authors, call'd himself The Growler, and assur'd us, that to make amends for Mr. Steel's Silence, he was resolv'd to Growl at us Weekly, as long as we should think fit to give him any Encouragement. Another Gentleman, with more Modesty, call'd his Paper The Whisperer; and a Third, to Please the Ladies, Christen'd his, The Tell-Tale.

At the same time came out several Tatlers; each of which, with equal Truth and Wit, assur'd us, That he was the Genuine Isaac Bickerstaff.

It may be observ'd, That when the Esquire laid down his Pen, tho' he could not but foresee that several Scriblers would soon snatch it up, which he might, one would think, easily have prevented, he Scorn'd to take any further Care about it, but left the Field fairly open to any Worthy Successor. Immediately some of our Wits wre for forming themselves into a Club, headed by one Mr. Harrison, and trying how they could shoot in this Bow of Ulysses; but soon found that this sort of Writing, requires so fine and particular a manner of Thinking, with so exact a Knowledge of the World, as must make them utterly Despair of Success.

They seem'd indeed at first to think, that what was only the Garnish of the former Tatlers, was that which recommended them, and not those Substantial Entertainments which they every were abound in.

According they were continually talking of their Maid, Night-Cap, Spectacles, and Charles Lillie. However there were now and then some faint endeavours at Humour and Sparks of Wit, which the Town, for want of better Entertainment, was content to hunt after, through an heap of Impertinencies; but even those are at present, become wholly Invisible, and quite swallow'd up in the Blaze of the Spectator.

You may remember I told you before, that one Cause assign'd for the laying down the Tatler was, want of Matter; and indeed this was the prevailing Opinion in Town, when we were Surpriz'd all at once by a paper called The Spectator, which was promised to be continued every day, and was writ in so excellent a Stile, with so nice a Judgment, and such a noble profusion of Wit and Humour, that it was not difficult to determine it could come from no other hands but those which had penn'd the Lucubrations.

This immediately alarm'd these Gentlemen, who (as 'tis said Mr. Steele phrases it) had The Censorship in Commission. They found the new Spectator come on like a Torrent and swept away all before him; they despaired ever to equal him in Wit, Humour, or Learning; (which had been their true and certain way of opposing him) and therefore, rather chose to fall on the Author, and to call out for help to all Good Christians, by assuring them again and again, that they were the First, Original, True, and Undisputed Isaac Bickerstaff.

Mean while The Spectator, whom we regard as our shelter from that Flood of False Wit and Impertinence which was breaking in upon us, is in every ones Hand, and a constant Topick for our Morning Conversation at Tea-Tables, and Coffee-Houses. We had at first indeed no manner of Notion, how a Diurnal Paper could be continu'd in the Spirit and Stile of our present Spectators; but to our no small Surprize, we find them still rising upon us, and can only wonder from whence so Prodigious a Run of Wit and Learning can proceed; since some of our best Judges seem to think that they have hitherto, in general, out-shone even the Esquires first Tatlers.

Most People Fancy, from their frequency, that they must be compos'd by a Society; I, with all, Assign the first places to Mr. Steele and His Friend.

I have often thought that the Conjunction of those two Great Genius's (who seem to stand in a Class by themselves, so high above all our other Wits) resembled that of two famous States-men in a late Reign, whose Characters are very well expressed in their two Mottoes (viz.) Prodesse quam conspici, and Otium cum Dignitate. Accordingly the first was continually at work behind the Curtain, drew up and prepared all those Schemes and Designs, which the latter Still drove on, and stood out exposed to the World to receive its Praises or Censures.

Mean time, all our unbyassed well-wishers to Learning, are in hopes, that the known Temper and Prudence of one of these Gentlemen, will hinder the other from ever lashing out into Party, and rend'ring that wit which is at present a Common Good, Odious and Ungrateful to the better part of the Nation.

If this piece of imprudence do's not spoil so excellent a Paper, I propose to my self, the highest Satisfaction, in Reading it with you over a Dish of Tea, every Morning next Winter.

As we have yet had nothing new since the Spectator, it only remains for me to assure you, that I am

Yours, &c.

3, 1711.