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An attentive consideration of the period at which any work of moral instruction has appeared, and of the admonitions appropriate to the state of those times, is highly necessary for a correct estimate of the merits of the writer.
For to quote the judicious remarks of one of our earlier Essayists", " there is a sort of craft attending vice and absurdity; and when hunted out of society in one shape, they seldom want address to reinsinuate themselves in another: hence the modes of licence vary almost as often as those of dress, and consequently require continual observation to detect and explode them anew.” The days in which the Rambler first undertook to reprove and admonish his country, may be said to have well required a moralist of their own. For the modes of fashionable life, and the marked distinction between the capital and the country, which drew forth the satire, and presented scope for the admonitions of the Spectator and the Tatler, were then fast giving place to other follies, and to characters that had not hitherto subsisted. The crowd of writers', whatever might be their individual merit, who offered their labours to the public, between the close of the Spectator and the appearance of the Rambler, had contributed, in a most decided manner, towards the diffusion of a taste for literary information. It was no longer a coterie of wits at Button's, or at
a The Champion by Fielding. 1741. 12mo, vol. i. p. 258.
• Dr. Drake, in his Essays on the Rambler, &c. enumerates eighty-two periodical papers published during that period. For the comparative state of female literature, see Dr. Johnson himself, in Rambler 173.
Will's, who, engrossing all acquaintance with Belles Lettres, pronounced with a haughty and exclusive spirit on every production for the stage or the closet ; but it was a reading public to whom writers now began to make appeal for censure or applause. That education which the present day beholds so widely spread had then commenced its progress; and perhaps it is not too bold to say, that Johnson almost foresaw the course that it would run. He saw a public already prepared for weightier discussions than could have been understood the century before. In addition to a more general education, the improved intercourse between the remotest. parts of the country and the metropolis made all acquainted with the dissipation and manners, which, during the publication of the Spectator, were hardly known beyond the circle where they existed. The pages of that incomparable production were therefore perused by general readers, as well for the gratification of curiosity, as for the improvement of morals. The passing news of the day, the tattle of the auction or the Mall, the amusing extravagances of dress, and the idle fopperies of fashion, topics that excited merriment rather than detestation, were those most judiciously selected to allure a nation to read. Addison and Steele therefore in their age acted wisely; their cotemporaries would have been driven “ by the sternness of the Rambler's philosophy to more cheerful and airy companions." The pages of the Tatler were enlivened by foreign and domestic politics, by the current scandal of the town, and by easy critiques on the last new play; by advertisements of “ orangerie for beaux !,” and by prescriptions for the cure of love-sickness or the spleen. The Guardian uttered forth his moral lessons from the wide and voracious mouth of an imaginary lion, whose roarings were to have influence “ for the purifying of behaviour and the bettering of manners.” But for Johnson was reserved a different task, and one for which his powers and the natural bent of his mind were peculiarly
e Rambler, Number 208.
d Tatler, Number 94, e Guardian, Numbers 98. 114. 124. 140.