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Jul 8, 2013

Leight Hunt on Periodical Essay

I look upon a periodical essayist as a writer who claims a peculiar intimacy with the public. He does not come upon them at once in all the majesty of a quarto or all the gaiety of a beau duodecimo,’ smooth and well dressed: but his acquaintance is likely to be more lasting, because it is more gradual and because you see him in a greater variety of subject and opinion. If you do not like him at first you may give up his conversation; but the author of a book is fixed upon you forever, and if he cannot entertain you beyond the moment, you must even give him sleeping room in your library. But how many pleasant modes are there of getting rid of a periodical essay? It may assist your meditation by lighting your pipe, it may give steadiness to your candle, it may curl the tresses of your daughter or your sister, or lastly, if you are not rich enough to possess an urn or a cloth-holder, it may save you a world of opodeldoc* by wrapping the handle of your tea-kettle. These are advantages.

The title of my essays may perhaps alarm some of my friends with its magnificence, and the repetition of the name Examiner may annoy others with its monotony. But with respect to the later objection, I regard the various departments of this paper as children of the same family, and therefore though of different professions they all have the same surname: A gentleman of the name of Simkins for instance has three sons, one a politician, another a theatrical critic, and the third a philosopher; a person sees these three honest men and points them out to his friend, That is Mr. Simkins the politician, with the black hair; the next to him, a thin man, Mr. Simkins the critic; the other, pale-faced gentleman, is Mr. Simkins the philosopher.’ Just so I have my Political Examiner, my Theatrical Examiner, and my Literary and Philosophical Examiner. As to the epithet literary, it is no very boastful title when every editor of a newspaper claims the palm of authorship; and with respect to the title of philosopher, it means nothing more in its original sense than a Lover of Wisdom, and my readers must confess, that it would be a most unpardonable rudeness in any person to come with his objections between me and my mistress. (I put the lady last for the sake of climax.)

A Philosopher in fact, or in other words a Lover of Wisdom, claims no more merit to himself for his title than is claimed by the lover of any other lady; all his praise consists in having discovered her beauty and good sense. He is, like any other submissive swain, a mere machine in her hands. It is his business to echo and to praise every word she says, to doat upon her charms, and to insist to every body he meets that the world would want its sunshine without her.

The age of periodical philosophy is perhaps gone by, but Wisdom is an ever-lasting beauty; and I have the advantage of all the lessons in philosophic gallantry which my predecessors have left behind them. Perhaps I may avoid some of the inelegancies, though I may be hopeless of attaining the general charm of these celebrated men. I shall always endeavor to recollect the consummate ease and gentility with which Addison approached his divine fair one and the passionate earnestness with which he would gaze upon her in the intervals of the most graceful familiarity; but then I must not forget his occasional incorrectness of language and his want of depth, when he attempted to display the critic. Goldsmith, next to Addison, was the favorite who approached Wisdom with the happiest mixture of seriousness and pleasantry; the instant he began to speak, you were prepared for elegance, solidity; and a most natural manner of expression: it must be confessed indeed, that he was infinitely more correct in his general manner than Addison, but it must also be recollected that the latter spoke first and was more original.

Johnson paid his devoirs like one who claimed rather than entreated notice, for he knew his desert; it becomes me to be more humble, and I hope it will be my good fortune to see Wisdom in her cheerful moments a little oftener than the melancholy Rambler; at the same time I must confess that I have not the slightest hope of viewing her so clearly or of venturing half so far within the sphere of her approach. There was a coldness in the obeisance of Hawkesworth, but there was also a thoughtfulness and a dignity: what he spoke was always acknowledged by the circle, but it seldom reached their feelings. Colman and Thornton did not profess sensibility, they were content with a jauntiness and a pleasantry, that ought to have been their ornament rather than their sole merit.

Mackenzie felt the beauty more than the mind of his goddess; he stood rather bashfully behind, and could never venture into her presence without an introduction by some other admirer; but he was full of sensibility, and Wisdom never smiled upon him with such complacency as when his eyes were filled with tears.

If I can persuade the public to hear me after these celebrated men, I shall think myself extremely fortunate;  if I can amuse them with any originality, I shall think myself deserving; if I procure them any moral benefit, I shall think myself most happy. It will be my endeavor to avoid those subjects which have been already handled in periodical works, or at any rate if I should be tempted to use them, I will exert myself to give them a new air and recommendation. .

If I begin with promises however, my reader will begin with suspicion. I wish to make an acquaintance with   him, and I know that it is not customary on your first introduction to a person to tell him how you mean to enchant him in your future connexion. My new acquaintance and I therefore will sit still a little and reconnoitre each other with true English civility.


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