Role of Periodical Essays

Role of Periodical Essays

Periodical Essays : In the beginning of 18th century, periodical essays began to appear in literary magazines and periodicals which were published at regular intervals in the 18th century. Its aim was social reformation and it conformed to Neo-classical ideal which placed a premium on its duty to inform the mind and delight the heart of the reading public.

Role of Periodical Essays

The periodical essays reflect the social, political and literary picture of the 18th century. Though the exact date and year of the beginning of the periodical essays cannot be given, it is generally presumed that the first periodical essays appeared in 1709 in  Richard Steele’s “Tatler”.


Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison are supposed to be the pioneers of periodical essays. Richard Steele started a magazine called “Tatler” in 1709 with the aim of exposing the false and corrupt manners of the contemporary society. It was followed by the “Spectator” in 1711.

Addison also contributed to this magazine. These periodicals enabled the ordinary and common man to read and discuss any topic ranging from philosophy to fashion. It is often said that the periodical essayists brought the philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges to the streets of London.

They taught people how to behave in a society. It was the first time that the essay was used for some social purpose. The great literary figures like Dr. Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith had also contributed to the periodicals like the Rambler, the Idler, and the Bee.

The Spectator

“The “Spectator” succeeded the “Tatler” from 1 March 1711 to 1712 which was produced jointly by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. After an interval for some time, it reappeared in 1714; it was revived by Joseph Addison and 80 numbers were added (556-635). This periodical appeared daily except on Sundays.

It was closely connected with London and its coffee-houses. Joseph Addison in this periodical, has artistically produced his famous “Spectator Club” with its popular members like Sir Roger de Coverley, who can be deemed as a representative of Tory party, the Whig merchant Sir Andrew Freeport, Captain Sentry of the army, and Will Honeycomb a man about town. Mr. Spectator is a man of learning and likes to travel and he also visits London as an observer.

This periodical was mainly dealt with contemporary manners, morals and literature. In this periodical Addison’s nineteen essays became famous for they were literary papers on John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, and his eleven essays dealt with pleasures of imagination. The primary motto of this periodical was to ‘enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality’.

The Spectator was written in satiric tone. The Tatler and the Spectator were the beginning of the modern essay. Their studies of human character, as exemplified in Sir Roger de Coverley, are the preparation for the modern novel. Out of “Tatler” essays, Addison contributed forty-two (42); thirty-six others are written jointly with Steele (36), while at least a hundred and eighty (180) are the works of Steele alone.

The Tatler

The “Tatler” was a periodical originally started by Richard Steele and later on joined by Joseph Addison. The purpose of this periodical was “to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguise of cunning, vanity, and affectation, and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behaviour.”

In this periodical, Richard Steele adopted the name of the character of Isaac Bickerstaff and this name was borrowed from Jonathan Swift. In the first issue of this periodical, it was made clear that the “Tatler” was to include ‘Accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure and Entertainment…..under the Article of White’s Chocolate House’; poetry under that of Will’s Coffee House; foreign and domestic news from St. James Coffee House; learning from the Grecian; and so on.

The “Tatler” also included letters, stories, reviews of recent plays, and publications, and spoof advertisement along with the real ones. The Tatler had a satiric and moral tone, attacking the evils of duelling and gambling, and it also discussed the matters of good manners of the time.

The “Tatler” was republished in book form and was popular for its light satiric tone. In this joint venture Joseph Addison also contributed suggestions, notes and a number of complete papers with equal zeal and force as Steele. Jonathan Swift’s some poems appeared in the “Tatler” and Alexander Pope borrowed some material on fashions for his famous “Rape of the Lock” from the Tatler.

Out of “Tatler” essays, Addison contributed forty-two (42); thirty-six others are written jointly with Steele (36), while at least a hundred and eighty (180) are the works of Steele alone. Richard Steele’s “Tatler” appeared three times a week.

Many more periodicals magazines tried to ape these periodical. Richard Steele founded a periodical called the “Guardian” in 1713. Joseph Addison, George Berkeley, and Eustace Budgell contributed to the “Guardian”. The Guardian was opposed by the “Examiner“. It was followed by the “Female Tatler“, the “Englishman“, “Whisper” and others.

Almost all the great literary figures contributed to such periodicals. These periodicals represented Whig and Tory parties. But their importance is only from literary point of view. These periodicals offered to literary aspirants an outlet for self-expression and brought out to the full of their talent.

The greatest and the best figures of the periodical essays are Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Jonathan Swift has also contributed some of his finest essays like “Meditation upon a Broomstick” through the medium of periodical papers. Similarly, Alexander Pope’s essay on gardens appeared in the “Guardian”.

It has been generally acknowledged that among Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, and Dr, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Addison is undoubtedly the master. Joseph Addison is the sunshine which melts the ice and dries the mud and makes the earth filled with light and hope.

Like Jonathan Swift, Addison despised sham but unlike him, he never lost faith in humanity. In all his satires, there is sobriety which makes one think better of his fellowmen even when he laughs at their little vanities. In the world of artificiality and moral laxity, Joseph Addison came with a wholesome message of refinement and simplicity. His essays are the best picture of the new social life of England. The characters created by Addison have become immortal in the realm of English novel.

Through his essays, the periodical essay is perfected the English style. As Dr. Samuel Johnson stated, ” Whoever wishes to attain an English style familiar but not coarse, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”

Along with Joseph Addison, Richard Steele’s contribution through his ‘Tatler” to the development of English essays in not insignificant. Richard Steele’s “Trumpet Club” and its members have also found a permanent place in the hearts of English people.

The Idler

Along with Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, Dr. Samuel Johnson‘s periodicals “Idler” and “The Rambler” developed the English periodical essay. Johnson’s early essays have a heavy style and a serious subject-matter. Therefore, they could not make themselves popular.

“The Idler” was mainly started by Samuel Johnson and it comprised more over 104 papers. It was published in the “Universal Chronicle”, or “Weekly Gazette” from 15 April 1758 to 5 April 1760. These papers are written in a lighter vein where as the Rambler was in serious tone. They include the well-known sketches of Dick Minim, the critic, of Mr. Sober (Johnson himself), and Jack Whirler (John Newbery the publisher).

Twelve papers were by other writers, including three by Joshua Reynolds and three by Thomas Warton the younger. The title was later used for a monthly journal edited by Jerome K. Jerome and Robert Barr.

The Rambler

The Rambler” was a twice weekly periodical which was started by Dr. Samuel Johnson. It comprised 208 papers, and it was published from 20 March 1750 to 14 March 1752. Edward Cave was the publisher. The essays deal with a variety of subjects like ethics, crime, marriage etc.

They include character studies, allegories, Eastern fables, and literary criticism (including a series on John Milton). The work opens with a prayer by Johnson which indicates moral seriousness of his enterprise. A fine account of the inception and writing of the papers is given in James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson”.

Minor contributions came from Samuel Richardson, Elizabeth Carter, Hester Chapone, and Catherine Talbot. In spite of the initial protests against its ‘solemn’ tone, the Rambler was pirated and imitated, and went through ten numbered reprinting in Johnson’s lifetime.

Oliver Goldsmith started his literary career as a periodical essayist with his contribution to his periodical “The Bee” which appeared in 1759. He also contributed to many periodicals such as “Busy Body“, “The Critical Review‘, and the “Ladies Magazine“. He also worked for Tobias Smollett’s “British Magazine“.

Thus, the periodicals gave a chance to many literary writers to give expression to their talent. The emergence of the periodical essay can be attributed to various factors.

One of the most important causes of the popularity of periodical essays is rise of the reading public, spread of education, growth in the number of educated women and the rise of the two political parties: Whig and Tory that needed their political mouth-pieces. The rise of the coffee-houses as  centres of social, political, and literary life helped for the development of the periodical essays.

According to A.H. Humphrey, the periodical essay was a popular form of literature and communication and recreation in the 18th century because it was the mirror of the Augustan age in England.

The periodical essays gave the new patrons pleasure as well as instruction. it was delicate and sensitive synthesis of literature and journalism. It could be read, appreciated and discussed at the tea-table or in the coffee-houses. It was suited to the moral temper of the age. It struck a delicate and rational balance between the straight-jacketed morality of the Puritans and reckless bohemianism of the Cavaliers.

The periodical essays appeal not only to the lovers of literature but also to those who were interested in men and manners, fashions and recreations. It appealed very well to women in general and educated house-wives in particular because the essayist employed simple everyday language.

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