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Richard Steele on insignificance

October 11, 1983



Addison (Joseph) and Steele (Richard) are mentioned in the same breath as 18 th-century pioneers of the journalistic personal essay. They wrote separately, however. Here, in the Spectator of Aug. 11, 1712, Steele seems simply to be rambling through Queen Anne's London. But, like all true essayists, he finally reaches home.m

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I lay one night last week at Richmond; and, being restless not out of dissatisfaction, but [from] a certain busy inclination one sometimes has, I arose at four in the morning and took boat for London, with a resolution to rove by boat and coach for the next four and twenty hours till the many different objects I must needs meet with should tire my imagination and give me an inclination to a repose more profound than I was at that time capable of. I beg people's pardon for an odd humor I am guilty of, and was often that day, which is saluting any person whom I like, whether I know him or not. This is a particularity [which] would be tolerated in me, if they considered that the greatest pleasure I know I receive at my eyes and that I am obliged to an agreeable person for coming abroad into my view, as another is for a visit of conversation at their own houses.

The hours of the day and night are taken up in the cities of London and Westminster by people as different from each other as those who are born in different centuries. Men of six-a-clock give way to those of nine, they of nine to the generation of twelve, and they of twelve disappear and make room for the fashionable world, who have made two-a-clock the noon of the day. . . .

As I drove along, it was a pleasing reflection to see the world so prettily checkered since I left Richmond, and the scene still filling with children of a new hour. This satisfaction increased as I moved towards the city; and gay signs , well disposed streets, magnificent public structures, and wealthy shops, adorned with contented faces, made the joy still rising till we came into the center of the city and center of the world of trade, the Exchange of London. As other men in the crowds about me were pleased with their hopes and bargains, I found my account in observing them, in attention to their several interests. I indeed looked upon myself as the richest man that walked the Exchange that day, for my benevolence made me share the gains of every bargain that was made. . . .

When I came to my chambers, I writ down these minutes, but was at a loss what instruction I should propose to my reader from the enumeration of so many insignificant matters and occurrences; and I thought it of great use, if they could learn with me, to keep their minds open to gratification and ready to receive it from anything it meets with. This one circumstance will make every face you see give you the satisfaction you now take in beholding that of a friend; will make every object a pleasing one; will make all the good which arrives to any man, an increase of happiness to yourself.