George Steevens (1736-1800)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

The contributions of Steevens to Shakespearean learning were substantial and valuable. But he had a devil of perversity, which sufficiently accounts for Gifford's description of him as `the Puck of commentators'. He is said to have ascribed his notes on the more indecent passages of Shakespeare to two clergymen, Richard Amner and John Collins, who had offended him. Nor do I think that he can have been altogether serious when he wrote on the `parish top' in Twelfth Night, 1. iii. 44, to be solemnly followed by later annotators down to the Arden edition,

`This is one of the old customs now laid aside. A large top was formerly kept in every village, to be whipped in frosty weather, that the peasants might be kept warm by exercise, and out of mischief, while they could not work.'

Whether he was ever responsible for a deliberate fabrication is less clear.

E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare (1930), ii. 378-9.

GEORGE Steevens usually commenced his operations by opening some pretended discovery in the evening papers, which were then of a more literary cast; the St. James's Chronicle, the General Evening Post, or the Whitehall, were they not dead in body and in spirit, would now bear witness to his successful efforts. . . . The marvellous narrative of the upastree of Java, which Darwin adopted in his plan of `enlisting imagination under the banner of science', appears to have been another forgery which amused our `Puck'. It was first given in the London Magazine, as an extract from a Dutch traveller, but the extract was never discovered in the original author, and `the effluvia of this noxious tree, which through a district of twelve or fourteen miles had killed all vegetation, and had spread the skeletons of men and animals, affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described, or painters delineated,' is perfectly chimerical! A splendid flim-flam!

When Dr. Berkenhout was busied in writing, without much knowledge or skill, a history of our English authors, Steevens allowed the good man to insert a choice letter by George Peele, giving an account of a `a merry meeting at the Globe', wherein Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and Ned Alleyne are admirably made to perform their respective parts. As the nature of the Biographia Literaria required authorities, Steevens ingeniously added, `Whence I copied this letter I do not recollect.' However, he well knew that it came from The Theatrical Mirror, where he had first deposited the precious original, to which he had unguardedly ventured to affix the date of 1600; unluckily, Peele was discovered to have died two years before he wrote his own letter! The date is adroitly dropped in Berkenhout. Steevens did not wish to refer to his original, which I have often seen quoted as authority....

One of the sort of inventions which I attribute to Steevens has been got up with a deal of romantic effect to embellish the poetical life of Milton; and unquestionably must have sadly perplexed his last matter-of-fact editor, who is not a man to comprehend a flim-flam!—for he has sanctioned the whole fiction by preserving it in his biographical narrative. The first impulse of Milton to travel in Italy is ascribed to the circumstance of his having been found asleep at the foot of a tree in the vicinity of Cambridge, when two foreign ladies, attracted by the loveliness of the youthful poet, alighted from their carriage, and having admired him for some time as they imagined unperceived, the youngest, who was very beautiful, drew a pencil from her pocket, and having written some lines, put the paper with her trembling hand into his own! But it seems—for something was to account how the sleeping youth could have been aware of these minute particulars, unless he had been dreaming them—that the ladies had been observed at a distance by some friends of Milton, and they explained to him the whole silent adventure. Milton, on opening the paper, read four verses from Guarini, addressed to those `human stars', his own eyes. On this romantic adventure, Milton set off for Italy, to discover the fair `incognita', to which undiscovered lady we are told we stand indebted for the most impassioned touches in the Paradise Lost! We know how Milton passed his time in Italy, with Dati, and Gaddi, and Freseobaldi, and other literary friends, amidst its academies, and often busied in book-collecting. Had Milton's tour in Italy been an adventure of knight-errantry, to discover a lady whom he had never seen, at least he had not the merit of going out of the direct road to Florence and Rome, nor of having once alluded to this Dame de ses pensées in his letters or inquiries among his friends, who would have thought themselves fortunate to have introduced so poetical an adventure in the numerous canzoni they showered on our youthful poet.

This historiette, scarcely fitted for a novel, first appeared where generally Steevens's literary amusements were carried on, in the General Evening Post or the St. James's Chronicle: and Mr. Todd, in the improved edition of Milton's life, obtained this spurious original, where the reader may find it; but the more curious part of the story remains to be told. Mr. Todd proceeds: `The preceding highly-coloured relation, however, is not singular; my friend, Mr. Walker, points out to me a counterpart in the extract from the preface to Poésies de Marguerite-Eleanore Clotilde, depuis Madame de Surville, Poète François du XV. Siècle. Paris, 1803.

And true enough we find among `the family traditions' of this same Clotilde that Justine de Levis, great-grandmother of this unknown poetess of the fifteenth century, walking in a forest, witnessed the same beautiful spectacle which the Italian Unknown had at Cambridge; never was such an impression to be effaced, and she could not avoid leaving her tablets by the side of the beautiful sleeper, declaring her passion in her tablets by four Italian verses. The very number our Milton had meted to him! ... The `Poésies' of Clotilde are as genuine a fabrication as Chatterton's; subject to the same objections, having many ideas and expressions which were unknown in the language at the time they are pretended to have been composed, and exhibiting many imitations of Voltaire and other poets ... A pretended editor is said to have found by mere accident the precious manuscript, and while he was copying for the press, in 1793, these pretty poems, for such they are, of his grande tante, was shot in the reign of terror, and so completely expired that no one could ever trace his existence! The real editor, whom we must presume to be the poet, published them in 1803.

Isaac D'Israeli, Curiosities of Literature (14th edition,1849), pp. 327-31.

STEEVENS, in 1789, having procured a block of marble, and having engraved upon it by means of aquafortis some Anglo-Saxon letters, placed it in the window of a shop in Southwark, and caused it to be represented to the Society of Antiquaries that it had been dug up in Kennington Lane, and was the tombstone of Hardecanute. Jacob Schnebbelie produced in good faith a drawing, which was engraved by Basire and published in the Gentleman's Magazine. Samuel Pegge, falling into the trap, read a paper on the inscription before the Society of Antiquaries on 10 December 1789; but the deception was discovered before the disquisition was printed in the Archæologia. An acrimonious correspondence between Steevens and those he hoped to dupe followed in the daily and monthly journals. Steevens finally committed the stone to the custody of Sir Joseph Banks, and it was regularly exhibited at his assemblies in Soho Square.

Sir Sidney Lee, in Dictionary of National Biography, article `George Steevens', xviii. 1034, col. 1.

Talking of an acquaintance of ours [Steevens], whose narratives, which abounded in curious and interesting topics, were unhappily found to be very fabulous, I [Boswell] mentioned Lord Mansfield's having said to me,

`Suppose we believe one half of what he tells:
JOHNSON. `Ay; but we don't know which half to believe.'

Boswell, Life of Johnson, iv. 178.

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