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.
The Famous Mr. Joseph Addison
By William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)
From ‘The History of Henry Esmond’

THE GENTLEMEN ushers had a table at Kensington, and the Guard a very splendid dinner daily at St. James’s, at either of which ordinaries Esmond was free to dine. Dick Steele liked the Guard table better than his own at the gentlemen ushers’, where there was less wine and more ceremony; and Esmond had many a jolly afternoon in company of his friend, and a hundred times at least saw Dick into his chair. If there is verity in wine, according to the old adage, what an amiable-natured character Dick’s must have been! In proportion as he took in wine he overflowed with kindness. His talk was not witty so much as charming. He never said a word that could anger anybody, and only became the more benevolent the more tipsy he grew. Many of the wags derided the poor fellow in his cups, and chose him as a butt for their satire; but there was a kindness about him, and a sweet playful fancy, that seemed to Esmond far more charming than the pointed talk of the brightest wits, with their elaborate repartees and affected severities. I think Steele shone rather than sparkled. Those famous beaux esprits of the coffee-houses (Mr. William Congreve, for instance, when his gout and his grandeur permitted him to come among us) would make many brilliant hits,—half a dozen in a night sometimes,—but like sharpshooters, when they had fired their shot they were obliged to retire under cover till their pieces were loaded again, and wait till they got another chance at their enemy; whereas Dick never thought that his bottle companion was a butt to aim at—only a friend to shake by the hand. The poor fellow had half the town in his confidence: everybody knew everything about his loves and his debts, his creditors’ or his mistress’s obduracy. When Esmond first came on to the town, honest Dick was all flames and raptures for a young lady, a West India fortune, whom he married. In a couple of years the lady was dead, the fortune was all but spent, and the honest widower was as eager in pursuit of a new paragon of beauty as if he had never courted and married and buried the last one.  1
  Quitting the Guard table one Sunday afternoon, when by chance Dick had a sober fit upon him, he and his friend were making their way down Germain Street, and Dick all of a sudden left his companion’s arm and ran after a gentleman who was poring over a folio volume at the book-shop near to St. James’s Church. He was a fair, tall man, in a snuff-colored suit, with a plain sword, very sober, and almost shabby in appearance—at least when compared to Captain Steele, who loved to adorn his jolly round person with the finest of clothes, and shone in scarlet and gold lace. The captain rushed up then to the student of the book-stall, took him in his arms, hugged him, and would have kissed him,—for Dick was always hugging and bussing his friends,—but the other stepped back with a flush on his pale face, seeming to decline this public manifestation of Steele’s regard.  2
  “My dearest Joe, where hast thou hidden thyself this age?” cries the captain, still holding both his friend’s hands: “I have been languishing for thee this fortnight.”  3
  “A fortnight is not an age, Dick,” says the other very good-humoredly. (He had light-blue eyes, extraordinary bright, and a face perfectly regular and handsome, like a tinted statue.) “And I have been hiding myself—where do you think?”  4
  “What! not across the water, my dear Joe?” says Steele, with a look of great alarm: “thou knowest I have always—”  5
  “No,” says his friend, interrupting him with a smile: “we are not come to such straits as that, Dick. I have been hiding, sir, at a place where people never think of finding you—at my own lodgings, whither I am going to smoke a pipe now, and drink a glass of sack. Will your Honor come?”  6
  “Harry Esmond, come hither,” cries out Dick. “Thou hast heard me talk over and over again of my dearest Joe, my guardian angel?”  7
  “Indeed,” says Mr. Esmond with a bow, “it is not from you only that I have learnt to admire Mr. Addison. We loved good poetry at Cambridge as well as at Oxford; and I have some of yours by heart, though I have put on a red coat…. ‘O qui canoro blandius Orpheo vocale ducis carmen;’—shall I go on, sir?” says Mr. Esmond, who indeed had read and loved the charming Latin poems of Mr. Addison, as every scholar of that time knew and admired them.  8
  “This is Captain Esmond, who was at Blenheim,” says Steele.  9
  “Lieutenant Esmond,” says the other with a low bow, “at Mr. Addison’s service.”  10
  “I have heard of you,” says Mr. Addison with a smile; as indeed everybody about town had heard that unlucky story about Esmond’s dowager aunt and the duchess.  11
  “We were going to the George to take a bottle before the play,” says Steele: “wilt thou be one, Joe?”  12
  Mr. Addison said his own lodgings were hard by, where he was still rich enough to give a good bottle of wine to his friends; and invited the two gentlemen to his apartment in the Haymarket, whither we accordingly went.  13
  “I shall get credit with my landlady,” says he with a smile, “when she sees two such fine gentlemen as you come up my stair.” And he politely made his visitors welcome to his apartment,—which was indeed but a shabby one, though no grandee of the land could receive his guests with a more perfect and courtly grace than this gentleman. A frugal dinner, consisting of a slice of meat and a penny loaf, was awaiting the owner of the lodgings. “My wine is better than my meat,” says Mr. Addison. “My Lord Halifax sent me the burgundy.” And he set a bottle and glasses before his friends, and ate his simple dinner in a very few minutes; after which the three fell to, and began to drink.  14
  “You see,” says Mr. Addison, pointing to his writing-table, whereon was a map of the action at Hochstedt, and several other gazettes and pamphlets relating to the battle, “that I too am busy about your affairs, captain. I am engaged as a poetical gazetteer, to say truth, and am writing a poem on the campaign.”  15
  So Esmond, at the request of his host, told him what he knew about the famous battle, drew the river on the table aliquo mero, and with the aid of some bits of tobacco pipe showed the advance of the left wing, where he had been engaged.  16
  A sheet or two of the verses lay already on the table beside our bottles and glasses; and Dick, having plentifully refreshed himself from the latter, took up the pages of manuscript, writ out with scarce a blot or correction, in the author’s slim, neat handwriting, and began to read therefrom with great emphasis and volubility. At pauses of the verse, the enthusiastic reader stopped and fired off a great salvo of applause.  17
  Esmond smiled at the enthusiasm of Addison’s friend. “You are like the German burghers,” says he, “and the princes on the Mozelle: when our army came to a halt, they always sent a deputation to compliment the chief, and fired a salute with all their artillery from their walls.”  18
  “And drunk the great chief’s health afterward, did not they?” says Captain Steele, gayly filling up a bumper: he never was tardy at that sort of acknowledgment of a friend’s merit.  19
  “And the duke, since you will have me act his Grace’s part,” says Mr. Addison, with a smile and something of a blush, “pledged his friends in return. Most Serene Elector of Covent Garden, I drink to your Highness’s health,” and he filled himself a glass. Joseph required scarce more pressing than Dick to that sort of amusement: but the wine never seemed at all to fluster Mr. Addison’s brains, it only unloosed his tongue: whereas Captain Steele’s head and speech were quite overcome by a single bottle.  20
  No matter what the verses were (and to say truth, Mr. Esmond found some of them more than indifferent), Dick’s enthusiasm for his chief never faltered; and in every line from Addison’s pen, Steele found a master-stroke. By the time Dick had come to that part of the poem wherein the bard describes, as blandly as though he were recording a dance at the opera, or a harmless bout of bucolic cudgeling at a village fair, that bloody and ruthless part of our campaign with the remembrance whereof every soldier who bore a part in it must sicken with shame,—when we were ordered to ravage and lay waste the Elector’s country; and with fire and murder, slaughter and crime, a great part of his dominions was overrun;—when Dick came to the lines,—
  “In vengeance roused, the soldier fills his hand
With sword and fire, and ravages the land;
In crackling flames a thousand harvests burn,
A thousand villages to ashes burn.
To the thick woods the woolly flocks retreat,
And mixed with bellowing herds confusèd bleat;
Their trembling lords the common shade partake,
And cries of infants sound in every brake.
The listening soldier fixed in sorrow stands,
Loath to obey his leader’s just commands.
The leader grieves, by generous pity swayed,
To see his just commands so well obeyed,”—
by this time wine and friendship had brought poor Dick to a perfectly maudlin state, and he hiccoughed out the last line with a tenderness that set one of his auditors a-laughing.
  “I admire the license of your poets,” says Esmond to Mr. Addison. (Dick, after reading of the verses, was fain to go off, insisting on kissing his two dear friends before his departure, and reeling away with his periwig over his eyes.) “I admire your art: the murder of the campaign is done to military music, like a battle at the opera; and the virgins shriek in harmony as our victorious grenadiers march into their villages. Do you know what a scene it was?”—by this time, perhaps, the wine had warmed Mr. Esmond’s head too—“what a triumph you are celebrating? what scenes of shame and horror were enacted, over which the commander’s genius presided, as calm as though he didn’t belong to our sphere? You talk of the ‘listening soldier fixed in sorrow,’ the ‘leader’s grief swayed by generous pity’: to my belief the leader cared no more for bleating flocks than he did for infants’ cries, and many of our ruffians butchered one or the other with equal alacrity. I was ashamed of my trade when I saw those horrors perpetrated, which came under every man’s eyes. You hew out of your polished verses a stately image of smiling Victory: I tell you ’tis an uncouth, distorted, savage idol; hideous, bloody, and barbarous. The rites performed before it are shocking to think of. You great poets should show it as it is,—ugly and horrible, not beautiful and serene. Oh, sir, had you made the campaign, believe me, you never would have sung it so.”  22
  During this little outbreak Mr. Addison was listening, smoking out of his long pipe, and smiling very placidly. “What would you have?” says he. “In our polished days, and according to the rules of art, ’tis impossible that the Muse should depict tortures or begrime her hands with the horrors of war. These are indicated rather than described; as in the Greek tragedies, that I daresay you have read (and sure there can be no more elegant specimens of composition), Agamemnon is slain, or Medea’s children destroyed, away from the scene,—the chorus occupying the stage and singing of the action to pathetic music. Something of this I attempt, my dear sir, in my humble way: ’tis a panegyric I mean to write, and not a satire. Were I to sing as you would have me, the town would tear the poet in pieces, and burn his book by the hands of the common hangman.—Do you not use tobacco? Of all the weeds grown on earth, sure the nicotian is the most soothing and salutary.—We must paint our great duke,” Mr. Addison went on, “not as a man—which no doubt he is, with weaknesses like the rest of us—but as a hero. ’Tis in a triumph, not a battle, that your humble servant is riding his sleek Pegasus. We college poets trot, you know, on very easy nags; it hath been, time out of mind, part of the poet’s profession to celebrate the actions of heroes in verse, and to sing the deeds which you men of war perform. I must follow the rules of my art; and the composition of such a strain as this must be harmonious and majestic,—not familiar, or too near the vulgar truth. Si parva licet: if Virgil could invoke the divine Augustus, a humbler poet from the banks of the Isis may celebrate a victory and a conqueror of our own nation, in whose triumphs every Briton has a share, and whose glory and genius contribute to every citizen’s individual honor. When hath there been, since our Henrys’ and Edwards’ days, such a great feat of arms as that from which you yourself have brought away marks of distinction? If ’tis in my power to sing that song worthily, I will do so, and be thankful to my Muse. If I fail as a poet, as a Briton at least I will show my loyalty, and fling up my cap and huzza for the conqueror:—
              “‘Rheni pacator et Istri
Omnis in hoc uno variis discordia cessit
Ordinibus; lætatur eques, plauditque senator,
Votaque patricio certant plebeia favori.’”
  “There were as brave men on that field,” says Mr. Esmond (who never could be made to love the Duke of Marlborough, nor to forget those stories which he used to hear in his youth regarding that great chief’s selfishness and treachery)—“there were men at Blenheim as good as the leader, whom neither knights nor senators applauded, nor voices plebeian nor patrician favored, and who lie there forgotten under the clods. What poet is there to sing them?”  24
  “To sing the gallant souls of heroes sent to Hades!” says Mr. Addison with a smile. “Would you celebrate them all? If I may venture to question anything in such an admirable work, the catalogue of the ships in Homer hath always appeared to me as somewhat wearisome: what had the poem been, supposing the writer had chronicled the names of captains, lieutenants, rank and file? One of the greatest of a great man’s qualities is success: ’tis the result of all the others; ’tis a latent power in him which compels the favor of the gods and subjugates fortune. Of all his gifts I admire that one in the great Marlborough. To be brave? every man is brave. But in being victorious, as he is, I fancy there is something divine. In presence of the occasion, the great soul of the leader shines out, and the god is confessed. Death itself respects him, and passes by him to lay others low. War and carnage flee before him to ravage other parts of the field, as Hector from before the divine Achilles. You say he hath no pity: no more have the gods, who are above it, and superhuman. The fainting battle gathers strength at his aspect; and wherever he rides, victory charges with him.”  25

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.