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The Life and Works of Joseph Addison

by William J. Long

In the pleasant art of living with one's fellows, Addison is easily a master. It is due to his perfect expression of that art, of that new social life which, as we have noted, was characteristic of the Age of Anne, that Addison occupies such a large place in the history of literature. Of less power and originality than Swift, he nevertheless wields, and deserves to wield, a more lasting influence. Swift is the storm, roaring against the ice and frost of the late spring of English life. Addison is the sunshine, which melts the ice and dries the mud and makes the earth thrill with light and hope. Like Swift, he despised shams, but unlike him, he never lost faith in humanity; and in all his satires there is a gentle kindliness which makes one think better of his fellow-men, even while he laughs at their little vanities.

Illustration: JOSEPH ADDISON

Addison's InfluenceTwo things Addison did for our literature which are of inestimable value. First, he overcame a certain corrupt tendency bequeathed by Restoration literature. It was the apparent aim of the low drama, and even of much of the poetry of that age, to make virtue ridiculous and vice attractive. Addison set himself squarely against this unworthy tendency. To strip off the mask of vice, to show its ugliness and deformity, but to reveal virtue in its own native loveliness,--that was Addison's purpose; and he succeeded so well that never, since his day, has our English literature seriously followed after false gods. As Macaulay says, "So effectually did he retort on vice the mockery which had recently been directed against virtue, that since his time the open violation of decency has always been considered amongst us a sure mark of a fool." And second, prompted and aided by the more original genius of his friend Steele, Addison seized upon the new social life of the clubs and made it the subject of endless pleasant essays upon types of men and manners. The Tatler and The Spectator are the beginning of the modern essay; and their studies of human character, as exemplified in Sir Roger de Coverley, are a preparation for the modern novel.

Life. Addison's life, like his writings, is in marked contrast to that of Swift. He was born in Milston, Wiltshire, in 1672. His father was a scholarly English clergyman, and all his life Addison followed naturally the quiet and cultured ways to which he was early accustomed. At the famous Charterhouse School, in London, and in his university life at Oxford, he excelled in character and scholarship and became known as a writer of graceful verses. He had some intention, at one time, of entering the Church, but was easily persuaded by his friends to take up the government service instead. Unlike Swift, who abused his political superiors, Addison took the more tactful way of winning the friendship of men in large places. His lines to Dryden won that literary leader's instant favor, and one of his Latin poems, "The Peace of Ryswick" (1697), with its kindly appreciation of King William's statesmen, brought him into favorable political notice. It brought him also a pension of three hundred pounds a year, with a suggestion that he travel abroad and cultivate the art of diplomacy; which he promptly did to his own great advantage.

From a literary view point the most interesting work of Addison's early life is his Account of the Greatest English Poets (1693), written while he was a fellow of Oxford University. One rubs his eyes to find Dryden lavishly praised, Spenser excused or patronized, while Shakespeare is not even mentioned. But Addison was writing under Boileau's "classic" rules; and the poet, like the age, was perhaps too artificial to appreciate natural genius.

While he was traveling abroad, the death of William and the loss of power by the Whigs suddenly stopped Addison's pension; necessity brought him home, and for a time he lived in poverty and obscurity. Then occurred the battle of Blenheim, and in the effort to find a poet to celebrate the event, Addison was brought to the Tories' attention. His poem, "The Campaign," celebrating the victory, took the country by storm. Instead of making the hero slay his thousands and ten thousands, like the old epic heroes, Addison had some sense of what is required in a modern general, and so made Marlborough direct the battle from the outside, comparing him to an angel riding on the whirlwind:

'T was then great Marlbro's mighty soul was proved,
That, in the shock of charging hosts unmoved,
Amidst confusion, horror, and despair,
Examined all the dreadful scenes of war;
In peaceful thought the field of death surveyed,
To fainting squadrons sent the timely aid,
Inspired repulsed battalions to engage,
And taught the doubtful battle where to rage.
So when an angel by divine command
With rising tempests shakes a guilty land,
(Such as of late o'er pale Britannia past,)
Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleased th' Almighty's orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm.

That one doubtful simile made Addison's fortune. Never before or since was a poet's mechanical work so well rewarded. It was called the finest thing ever written, and from that day Addison rose steadily in political favor and office. He became in turn Undersecretary, member of Parliament, Secretary for Ireland, and finally Secretary of State. Probably no other literary man, aided by his pen alone, ever rose so rapidly and so high in office.

The rest of Addison's life was divided between political duties and literature. His essays for the Tatler and Spectator, which we still cherish, were written between 1709 and 1714; but he won more literary fame by his classic tragedy Cato, which we have almost forgotten. In 1716 he married a widow, the Countess of Warwick, and went to live at her home, the famous Holland House. His married life lasted only three years, and was probably not a happy one. Certainly he never wrote of women except with gentle satire, and he became more and more a clubman, spending most of his time in the clubs and coffeehouses of London. Up to this time his life had been singularly peaceful; but his last years were shadowed by quarrels, first with Pope, then with Swift, and finally with his lifelong friend Steele. The first quarrel was on literary grounds, and was largely the result of Pope's jealousy. The latter's venomous caricature of Addison as Atticus shows how he took his petty revenge on a great and good man who had been his friend. The other quarrels with Swift, and especially with his old friend Steele, were the unfortunate result of political differences, and show how impossible it is to mingle literary ideals with party politics. He died serenely in 1719. A brief description from Thackeray's English Humorists is his best epitaph:

A life prosperous and beautiful, a calm death; an immense fame and affection afterwards for his happy and spotless name.

The EssaysWorks of Addison. The most enduring of Addison's works are his famous Essays, collected from the Tatler and Spectator. We have spoken of him as a master of the art of gentle living, and these essays are a perpetual inducement to others to know and to practice the same fine art. To an age of fundamental coarseness and artificiality he came with a wholesome message of refinement and simplicity, much as Ruskin and Arnold spoke to a later age of materialism; only Addison's success was greater than theirs because of his greater knowledge of life and his greater faith in men. He attacks all the little vanities and all the big vices of his time, not in Swift's terrible way, which makes us feel hopeless of humanity, but with a kindly ridicule and gentle humor which takes speedy improvement for granted. To read Swift's brutal "Letters to a Young Lady," and then to read Addison's "Dissection of a Beau's Head" and his "Dissection of a Coquette's Heart," is to know at once the secret of the latter's more enduring influence.

Three other results of these delightful essays are worthy of attention: first, they are the best picture we possess of the new social life of England, with its many new interests; second, they advanced the art of literary criticism to a much higher stage than it had ever before reached, and however much we differ from their judgment and their interpretation of such a man as Milton, they certainly led Englishmen to a better knowledge and appreciation of their own literature; and finally, in Ned Softly the literary dabbler, Will Wimble the poor relation, Sir Andrew Freeport the merchant, Will Honeycomb the fop, and Sir Roger the country gentleman, they give us characters that live forever as part of that goodly company which extends from Chaucer's country parson to Kipling's Mulvaney. Addison and Steele not only introduced the modern essay, but in such characters as these they herald the dawn of the modern novel. Of all his essays the best known and loved are those which introduce us to Sir Roger de Coverley, the genial dictator of life and manners in the quiet English country.

Addison's StyleIn style these essays are remarkable as showing the growing perfection of the English language. Johnson says, "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison." And again he says, "Give nights and days, sir, to the study of Addison if you mean to be a good writer, or, what is more worth, an honest man." That was good criticism for its day, and even at the present time critics are agreed that Addison's Essays are well worth reading once for their own sake, and many times for their influence in shaping a clear and graceful style of writing.

PoemsAddison's poems, which were enormously popular in his day, are now seldom read. His Cato, with its classic unities and lack of dramatic power, must be regarded as a failure, if we study it as tragedy; but it offers an excellent example of the rhetoric and fine sentiment which were then considered the essentials of good writing. The best scene from this tragedy is in the fifth act, where Cato soliloquizes, with Plato's Immortality of the Soul open in his hand, and a drawn sword on the table before him:

It must be so--Plato, thou reason'st well!--
Else whence this pleasing hope, this fond desire,
This longing after immortality?
Or whence this secret dread, and inward horror,
Of falling into nought? why shrinks the soul
Back on herself, and startles at destruction?
'Tis the divinity that stirs within us;
'Tis heaven itself, that points out an hereafter,
And intimates eternity to man.

Many readers make frequent use of one portion of Addison's poetry without knowing to whom they are indebted. His devout nature found expression in many hymns, a few of which are still used and loved in our churches. Many a congregation thrills, as Thackeray did, to the splendid sweep of his "God in Nature," beginning, "The spacious firmament on high." Almost as well known and loved are his "Traveler's Hymn," and his "Continued Help," beginning, "When all thy mercies, O my God." The latter hymn--written in a storm at sea off the Italian coast, when the captain and crew were demoralized by terror--shows that poetry, especially a good hymn that one can sing in the same spirit as one would say his prayers, is sometimes the most practical and helpful thing in the world.