Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Joseph Addison (1672–1719)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Hamilton Wright Mabie (1846–1916)
THERE are few figures in literary history more dignified and attractive than Joseph Addison; few men more eminently representative, not only of literature as a profession, but of literature as an art. It has happened more than once that literary gifts of a high order have been lodged in very frail moral tenements; that taste, feeling, and felicity of expression have been divorced from general intellectual power, from intimate acquaintance with the best in thought and art, from grace of manner and dignity of life. There have been writers of force and originality who failed to attain a representative eminence, to identify themselves with their art in the memory of the world. There have been other writers without claim to the possession of gifts of the highest order, who have secured this distinction by virtue of harmony of character and work, of breadth of interest, and of that fine intelligence which instinctively allies itself with the best in its time. Of this class Addison is an illustrious example. His gifts are not of the highest order; there was none of the spontaneity, abandon, or fertility of genius in him; his thought made no lasting contribution to the highest intellectual life; he set no pulses beating by his eloquence of style, and fired no imagination by the insight and emotion of his verse; he was not a scholar in the technical sense: and yet, in an age which was stirred and stung by the immense satiric force of Swift, charmed by the wit and elegance of Pope, moved by the tenderness of Steele, and enchanted by the fresh realism of De Foe, Addison holds the most representative place. He is, above all others, the Man of Letters of his time; his name instantly evokes the literature of his period.  1
  Born in the rectory at Milston, Wiltshire, on May Day, 1672, it was Addison’s fortune to take up the profession of Letters at the very moment when it was becoming a recognized profession, with a field of its own, and with emoluments sufficient in kind to make decency of living possible, and so related to a man’s work that their acceptance involved loss neither of dignity nor of independence. He was contemporary with the first English publisher, Jacob Tonson. He was also contemporary with the notable reorganization of English prose which freed it from exaggeration, complexity, and obscurity; and he contributed not a little to the flexibility, charm, balance, and ease which have since characterized its best examples. He saw the rise of polite society in its modern sense; the development of the social resources of the city; the enlargement of what is called “the reading class” to embrace all classes in the community and all orders in the nation. And he was one of the first, following the logic of a free press, an organized business for the sale of books, and the appearance of popular interest in literature, to undertake that work of translating the best thought, feeling, sentiment, and knowledge of his time, and of all times, into the language of the drawing-room, the club, and the street, which has done so much to humanize and civilize the modern world.  2
  To recognize these various opportunities, to feel intuitively the drift of sentiment and conviction, and so to adjust the uses of art to life as to exalt the one, and enrich and refine the other, involved not only the possession of gifts of a high order, but that training which puts a man in command of himself and of his materials. Addison was fortunate in that incomparably important education which assails a child through every sense, and above all through the imagination—in the atmosphere of a home, frugal in its service to the body, but prodigal in its ministry to the spirit. His father was a man of generous culture: an Oxford scholar, who had stood frankly for the Monarchy and Episcopacy in Puritan times; a voluminous and agreeable writer; of whom Steele says that he bred his five children “with all the care imaginable in a liberal and generous way.” From this most influential of schools Addison passed on to other masters: from the Grammar School at Lichfield, to the well-known Charter House; and thence to Oxford, where he first entered Queen’s College, and later, became a member of Magdalen, to the beauty of whose architecture and natural situation the tradition of his walks and personality adds no small charm. He was a close student, shy in manner, given to late hours of work. His literary tastes and appetite were early disclosed, and in his twenty-second year he was already known in London, had written an ‘Account of the Greatest English Poets,’ and had addressed some complimentary verses to Dryden, then the recognized head of English Letters.  3
  While Addison was hesitating what profession to follow, the leaders of the political parties were casting about for men of literary power. A new force had appeared in English politics—the force of public opinion; and in their experiments to control and direct this novel force, politicians were eager to secure the aid of men of Letters. The shifting of power to the House of Commons involved a radical readjustment, not only of the mechanism of political action, but of the attitude of public men to the nation. They felt the need of trained and persuasive interpreters and advocates; of the resources of wit, satire, and humor. It was this very practical service which literature was in the way of rendering to political parties, rather than any deep regard for literature itself, which brought about a brief but brilliant alliance between groups of men who have not often worked together to mutual advantage. It must be said, however, that there was among the great Whig and Tory leaders of the time a certain liberality of taste, and a care for those things which give public life dignity and elegance, which were entirely absent from Robert Walpole and the leaders of the two succeeding reigns, when literature and politics were completely divorced, and the government knew little and cared less for the welfare of the arts. Addison came on the stage at the very moment when the government was not only ready but eager to foster such talents as his. He was a Whig of pronounced although modern type, and the Whigs were in power.  4
  Lord Somers and Charles Montagu, better known later as Lord Halifax, were the heads of the ministry, and his personal friends as well. They were men of culture, lovers of Letters, and not unappreciative of the personal distinction which already stamped the studious and dignified Magdalen scholar. A Latin poem on the Peace of Ryswick, dedicated to Montagu, happily combined Virgilian elegance and felicity with Whig sentiment and achievement. It confirmed the judgment already formed of Addison’s ability; and, setting aside with friendly insistence the plan of putting that ability into the service of the Church, Montagu secured a pension of £300 for the purpose of enabling Addison to fit himself for public employment abroad by thorough study of the French language, and of manners, methods, and institutions on the Continent. With eight Latin poems, published in the second volume of the ‘Musæ Anglicanæ,’ as an introduction to foreign scholars, and armed with letters of introduction from Montagu to many distinguished personages, Addison left Oxford in the summer of 1699, and, after a prolonged stay at Blois for purposes of study, visited many cities and interesting localities in France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Holland. The shy, reticent, but observing young traveler was everywhere received with the courtesy which early in the century had made so deep an impression on the young Milton. He studied hard, saw much, and meditated more. He was not only fitting himself for public service, but for that delicate portraiture of manners which was later to become his distinctive work. Clarendon had already drawn a series of lifelike portraits of men of action in the stormy period of the Revolution: Addison was to sketch the society of his time with a touch at once delicate and firm; to exhibit its life in those aspects which emphasize individual humor and personal quality, against a carefully wrought background of habit, manners, usage, and social condition. The habit of observation and the wide acquaintance with cultivated and elegant social life which was a necessary part of the training for the work which was later to appear in the pages of the Spectator, were perhaps the richest educational results of these years of travel and study; for Addison the official is a comparatively obscure figure, but Addison the writer is one of the most admirable and attractive figures in English history.  5
  Addison returned to England in 1703 with clouded prospects. The accession of Queen Anne had been followed by the dismissal of the Whigs from office; his pension was stopped, his opportunity of advancement gone, and his father dead. The skies soon brightened, however: the support of the Whigs became necessary to the Government; the brilliant victory of Blenheim shed lustre not only on Marlborough, but on the men with whom he was politically affiliated; and there was great dearth of poetic ability in the Tory ranks at the very moment when a notable achievement called for brave and splendid verse. Lord Godolphin, that easy-going and eminently successful politician of whom Charles the Second once shrewdly said that he was “never in the way and never out of it,” was directed to Addison in this emergency; and the story goes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, afterward Lord Carleton, who was sent to express to the needy scholar the wishes of the Government, found him lodged in a garret over a small shop. The result of this memorable embassy from politics to literature was ‘The Campaign’: an eminently successful poem of the formal, “occasional” order, which celebrated the victor of Blenheim with tact and taste, pleased the ministry, delighted the public, and brought reputation and fortune to its unknown writer. Its excellence is in skillful avoidance of fulsome adulation, in the exclusion of the well-worn classical allusions, and in a straightforward celebration of those really great qualities in Marlborough which set his military career in brilliant contrast with his private life. The poem closed with a simile which took the world by storm:—
  “So when an angel, by divine command,
With rising tempests shakes a guilty land,
(Such as of late o’er pale Britannia passed,)
Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleased the Almighty’s orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm.”
  “Addison left off at a good moment,” says Thackeray. “That simile was pronounced to be the greatest ever produced in poetry. That angel, that good angel, flew off with Mr. Addison, and landed him in the place of Commissioner of Appeals—vice Mr. Locke, providentially promoted. In the following year Mr. Addison went to Hanover with Lord Halifax, and the year after was made Under-Secretary of State. O angel visits! You come ‘few and far between’ to literary gentlemen’s lodgings! Your wings seldom quiver at the second-floor windows now!”  7
  The prize poem was followed by a narrative of travel in Italy, happily written, full of felicitous description, and touched by a humor which, in quality and manner, was new to English readers. Then came one of those indiscretions of the imagination which showed that the dignified and somewhat sober young poet, the “parson in a tye-wig,” as he was called at a later day, was not lacking in gayety of mood. The opera ‘Rosamond’ was not a popular success, mainly because the music to which it was set fell so far below it in grace and ease. It must be added, however, that Addison lacked the qualities of a successful libretto writer. He was too serious, and despite the lightness of his touch, there was a certain rigidity in him which made him unapt at versification which required quickness, agility, and variety. When he attempted to give his verse gayety of manner, he did not get beyond awkward simulation of an ease which nature had denied him:—
          “Since conjugal passion
        Is come into fashion,
And marriage so blest on the throne is,
        Like a Venus I’ll shine,
        Be fond and be fine,
And Sir Trusty shall be my Adonis.”
  Meantime, in spite of occasional clouds, Addison’s fortunes were steadily advancing. The Earl of Wharton was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Addison accepted the lucrative post of Secretary. Spenser had found time and place, during a similar service in the same country, to complete the ‘Faery Queene’; although the fair land in which the loveliest of English poems has its action was not unvexed by the chronic turbulence of a mercurial and badly used race. Irish residence was coincident in Addison’s case, not only with prosperous fortunes and with important friendships, but also with the beginning of the work on which his fame securely rests. In Ireland the acquaintance he had already made in London with Swift ripened into a generous friendship, which for a time resisted political differences when such differences were the constant occasion of personal animosity and bitterness. The two men represented the age in an uncommonly complete way. Swift had the greater genius: he was, indeed, in respect of natural endowment, the foremost man of his time; but his nature was undisciplined, his temper uncertain, and his great powers quite as much at the service of his passions as of his principles. He made himself respected, feared, and finally hated; his lack of restraint and balance, his ferocity of spirit when opposed, and the violence with which he assailed his enemies, neutralized his splendid gifts, marred his fortune, and sent him into lonely exile at Dublin, where he longed for the ampler world of London. Few figures in literary history are more pathetic than that of the old Dean of St. Patrick’s, broken in spirit, failing in health, his noble faculties gone into premature decay, forsaken, bitter, and remorseful. At the time of Addison’s stay in Ireland, the days of Swift’s eclipse were, however, far distant; both men were in their prime. That Swift loved Addison is clear enough; and it is easy to understand the qualities which made Addison one of the most deeply loved men of his time. He was of an eminently social temper, although averse to large companies and shy and silent in their presence. “There is no such thing,” he once said, “as real conversation but between two persons.” He was free from malice, meanness, or jealousy, Pope to the contrary notwithstanding. He was absolutely loyal to his principles and to his friends, in a time when many men changed both with as little compunction as they changed wigs and swords. His personality was singularly winning; his features regular, and full of refinement and intelligence; his bearing dignified and graceful; his temper kindly and in perfect control; his character without a stain; his conversation enchanting, its charm confessed by persons so diverse in taste as Pope, Swift, Steele, and Young. Lady Mary Montagu declared that he was the best company she had ever known. He had two faults of which the world has heard much: he loved the company of men who flattered him, and at times he used wine too freely. The first of these defects was venial, and did not blind his judgment either of himself or his friends; the second defect was so common among the men of his time that Addison’s occasional over-indulgence, in contrast with the excesses of others, seems like temperance itself.  9
  The harmony and symmetry of this winning personality has, in a sense, told against it; for men are prone to call the well-balanced nature cold and the well-regulated life Pharisaic. Addison did not escape charges of this kind from the wild livers of his own time, who could not dissociate genius from profligacy nor generosity of nature from prodigality. It was one of the great services of Addison to his generation and to all generations, that in an age of violent passions, he showed how a strong man could govern himself. In a time of reckless living, he illustrated the power which flows from subordination of pleasure to duty. In a day when wit was identified with malice, he brought out its power to entertain, surprise, and delight, without taking on the irreverent levity of Voltaire, the bitterness of Swift, or the malice of Pope.  10
  It was during Addison’s stay in Ireland that Richard Steele projected the Tatler, and brought out the first number in 1709. His friendship for Addison amounted almost to a passion; their intimacy was cemented by harmony of tastes and diversity of character. Steele was ardent, impulsive, warm-hearted, mercurial; full of aspiration and beset by lamentable weaknesses,—preaching the highest morality and constantly falling into the prevalent vices of his time; a man so lovable of temper, so generous a spirit, and so frank a nature, that his faults seem to humanize his character rather than to weaken and stain it. Steele’s gifts were many, and they were always at the service of his feelings; he had an Irish warmth of sympathy and an Irish readiness of humor, with great facility of inventiveness, and an inexhaustible interest in all aspects of human experience. There had been political journals in England since the time of the Revolution, but Steele conceived the idea of a journal which should comment on the events and characteristics of the time in a bright and humorous way; using freedom with judgment and taste, and attacking the vices and follies of the time with the light equipment of wit rather than with the heavy armament of the formal moralist. The time was ripe for such an enterprise. London was full of men and women of brilliant parts, whose manners, tastes, and talk presented rich material for humorous report and delineation or for satiric comment. Society, in the modern sense, was fast taking form, and the resources of social intercourse were being rapidly developed. Men in public life were intimately allied with society and sensitive to its opinion; and men of all interests—public, fashionable, literary—gathered in groups at the different chocolate or coffee houses, and formed a kind of organized community. It was distinctly an aristocratic society: elegant in dress, punctilious in manner, exacting in taste, ready to be amused, and not indifferent to criticism when it took the form of sprightly badinage or of keen and trenchant satire. The informal organization of society, which made it possible to reach and affect the Town as a whole, is suggested by the division of the Tatler:—  11
  “All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment, shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate-House; Poetry under that of Will’s Coffee-House; Learning under the title of Grecian; Foreign and Domestic News you will have from St. James’s Coffee-House; and what else I have to offer on any other subject shall be dated from my own apartment.”  12
  So wrote Steele in his introduction to the readers of the new journal, which was to appear three times a week, at the cost of a penny. Of the coffee-houses enumerated, St. James’s and White’s were the headquarters of men of fashion and of politics; the Grecian of men of legal learning; Will’s of men of Letters. The Tatler was successful from the start. It was novel in form and in spirit; it was sprightly without being frivolous, witty without being indecent, keen without being libelous or malicious. In the general license and coarseness of the time, so close to the Restoration and the powerful reaction against Puritanism, the cleanness, courtesy, and good taste which characterized the journal had all the charm of a new diversion. In paper No. 18, Addison made his appearance as a contributor, and gave the world the first of those inimitable essays which influenced their own time so widely, and which have become the solace and delight of all times. To Addison’s influence may perhaps be traced the change which came over the Tatler, and which is seen in the gradual disappearance of the news element, and the steady drift of the paper away from journalism and toward literature. Society soon felt the full force of the extraordinary talent at the command of the new censor of contemporary manners and morals. There was a well-directed and incessant fire of wit against the prevailing taste of dramatic art; against the vices of gambling and dueling; against extravagance and affectation of dress and manner: and there was also criticism of a new order.  13
  The Tatler was discontinued in January, 1711, and the first number of the Spectator appeared in March. The new journal was issued daily, but it made no pretensions to newspaper timeliness or interest; it aimed to set a new standard in manners, morals, and taste, without assuming the airs of a teacher. “It was said of Socrates,” wrote Addison, in a memorable chapter in the new journal, “that he brought Philosophy down from heaven to inhabit among men; and I shall be happy to have it said of me that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.” For more than two years the Spectator discharged with inimitable skill and success the difficult function of chiding, reproving, and correcting, without irritating, wounding, or causing strife. Swift found the paper too gentle, but its influence was due in no small measure to its persuasiveness. Addison studied his method of attack as carefully as Matthew Arnold, who undertook a similar educational work in our own time, studied his means of approach to a public indifferent or hostile to his ideas. The two hundred and seventy-four papers furnished by Addison to the columns of the Spectator may be said to mark the full development of English prose as a free, flexible, clear, and elegant medium of expressing the most varied and delicate shades of thought. They mark also the perfection of the essay form in our literature; revealing clear perception of its limitations and of its resources; easy mastery of its possibilities of serious exposition and of pervading charm; ability to employ its full capacity of conveying serious thought in a manner at once easy and authoritative. They mark also the beginning of a deeper and more intelligent criticism; for their exposition of Milton may be said to point the way to a new quality of literary judgment and a new order of literary comment. These papers mark, finally, the beginnings of the English novel; for they contain a series of character-studies full of insight, delicacy of drawing, true feeling, and sureness of touch. Addison was not content to satirize the follies, attack the vices, and picture the manners of his times: he created a group of figures which stand out as distinctly as those which were drawn more than a century later by the hand of Thackeray, our greatest painter of manners. De Foe had not yet published the first of the great modern novels of incident and adventure in ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett were unborn or unknown, when Addison was sketching Sir Roger de Coverley and Will Honeycomb, and filling in the background with charming studies of life in London and in the country. The world has instinctively selected Sir Roger de Coverley as the truest of all the creations of Addison’s imagination; and it sheds clear light on the fineness of Addison’s nature that among the four characters in fiction whom English readers have agreed to accept as typical gentlemen,—Don Quixote, Sir Roger de Coverley, Henry Esmond, and Colonel Newcombe,—the old English baronet holds a secure place.  14
  Finished in style, but genuinely human in feeling, betraying the nicest choice of words and the most studied care for elegant and effective arrangement, and yet penetrated by geniality, enlivened by humor, elevated by high moral aims, often using the dangerous weapons of irony and satire, and yet always well-mannered and kindly,—these papers reveal the sensitive nature of Addison and the delicate but thoroughly tempered art which he had at his command.  15
  Rarely has literature of so high an order had such instant success; for the popularity of the Spectator has been rivaled in English literature only by that of the Waverley novels or of the novels of Dickens. Its influence was felt not only in the sentiment of the day, and in the crowd of imitators which followed in its wake, but also across the Channel. In Germany, especially, the genius and methods of Addison made a deep and lasting impression.  16
  No man could reach such eminence in the first quarter of the eighteenth century without being tempted to try his hand at play-writing; and the friendly fortune which seemed to serve Addison at every turn reached its climax in the applause which greeted the production of ‘Cato.’ The motive of this tragedy, constructed on what were then held to be classic lines, is found in the two lines of the Prologue: it was an endeavor to portray
  “A brave man struggling in the storms of fate,
And greatly falling with a falling State.”
  The play was full of striking lines which were instantly caught up and applied to the existing political situation; the theatre was crowded night after night, and the resources of Europe in the way of translations, plaudits, and favorable criticisms were exhausted in the endeavor to express the general approval. The judgment of a later period has, however, assigned ‘Cato’ a secondary place, and it is remembered mainly on account of its many felicitous passages. It lacks real dramatic unity and vitality; the character of Cato is essentially an abstraction; there is little dramatic necessity in the situations and incidents. It is rhetorical rather than poetic, declamatory rather than dramatic. Johnson aptly described it as “rather a poem in dialogue than a drama, rather a succession of just sentiments in elegant language than a representation of natural affections, or of any state probable or possible in human life.”  18
  Addison’s popularity touched its highest point in the production of ‘Cato.’ Even his conciliatory nature could not disarm the envy which such brilliant success naturally aroused, nor wholly escape the bitterness which the intense political feeling of the time constantly bred between ambitious and able men. Political differences separated him from Swift, and Steele’s uncertain character and inconsistent course blighted what was probably the most delightful intimacy of his life. Pope doubtless believed that he had good ground for charging Addison with jealousy and insincerity, and in 1715 an open rupture took place between them. The story of the famous quarrel was first told by Pope, and his version was long accepted in many quarters as final; but later opinion inclines to hold Addison guiltless of the grave accusations brought against him. Pope was morbidly sensitive to slights, morbidly eager for praise, and extremely irritable. To a man of such temper, trifles light as air became significant of malice and hatred. Such trifles unhappily confirmed Pope’s suspicions; his self-love was wounded, sensitiveness became animosity, and animosity became hate, which in the end inspired the most stinging bit of satire in the language:—
  “Should such a one, resolved to reign alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne,
View him with jealous yet with scornful eyes,
Hate him for arts that caused himself to rise,
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Alike unused to blame or to commend,
A timorous foe and a suspicious friend,
Fearing e’en fools, by flatterers besieged,
And so obliging that he ne’er obliged;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.”
  There was just enough semblance of truth in these inimitable lines to give them lasting stinging power; but that they were grossly unjust is now generally conceded. Addison was human, and therefore not free from the frailties of men of his profession; but there was no meanness in him.  20
  Addison’s loyalty to the Whig party and his ability to serve it kept him in intimate relations with its leaders and bound him to its fortunes. He served the Whig cause in Parliament, and filled many positions which required tact and judgment, attaining at last the very dignified post of Secretary of State. A long attachment for the Countess of Warwick culminated in marriage in 1716, and Addison took up his residence in Holland House; a house famous for its association with men of distinction in politics and letters. The marriage was not happy, if report is to be trusted. The union of the ill-adapted pair was, in any event, short-lived; for three years later, Addison died in his early prime, not yet having completed his forty-eighth year. On his death-bed, Young tells us, he called his stepson to his side and said, “See in what peace a Christian can die.” His body was laid in Westminster Abbey; his work is one of the permanent possessions of the English-speaking race; his character is one of its finest traditions. He was, as truly as Sir Philip Sidney, a gentleman in the sweetness of his spirit, the courage of his convictions, the refinement of his bearing, and the purity of his life. He was unspoiled by fortune and applause; uncorrupted by the tempting chances of his time; stainless in the use of gifts which in the hands of a man less true would have caught the contagion of Pope’s malice or of Swift’s corroding cynicism.  21

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