This elegant writer, to whom the world owes so many obligations, was born at Milton near Ambrosbury in the county of Wilts (of which place his father, Mr. Lancelot Addison, was then rector) on the 6th of May 1672; and being thought not likely to live, was baptized on the same day, as appears from the church register. When he grew up to an age fit for going to school, he was put under the care of the rev. Mr. Naish at Ambrosbury. He afterwards removed to a school at Salisbury, taught by the rev. Mr. Taylor, thence to the Charter-house, where he was under the tuition of the learned Dr. Ellis, and where he contracted an intimacy with Mr. Steel, afterwards Sir Richard, which continued as long as Mr. Addison lived. He was not above fifteen years old when he was entered of Queen's College, Oxford, in which his father had been placed: where he applied himself so closely to the study of classical learning, that in a very short time he became master of a very elegant Latin stile, even before he arrived at that age when ordinary scholars begin to write good English.
In the year 1687 a copy of his verses in that tongue fell into the hands of Dr. Lancaster dean of Magdalen College, who was so pleased with them, that he immediately procured their author's election into that house; where he took the degrees of bachelor, and master of arts. In the course of a few years his Latin poetry was justly admired at both the universities, and procured him great reputation there, before his name was so much as known in London. When he was in the 22d year of his age, he published a copy of verses addressed to Mr. Dryden, which soon procured him the notice of some of the poetical judges in that age. The verses are not without their elegance, but if they are much removed above common rhimes, they fall infinitely short of the character Mr. Addison's friends bestowed upon them. Some little space intervening, he sent into the world a translation of the 4th Georgic of Virgil, of which we need not say any more, than that it was commended by Mr. Dryden. He wrote also that discourse on the Georgics, prefixed to them by way of preface in Mr. Dryden's translation, and chose to withhold his name from that judicious composition, because it contained an untried strain of criticism, which bore hard upon the old professors of that art, and therefore was not so fit for a young man to take upon himself; and Mr. Dryden, who was above the meanness of fathering any one's work, owns the Essay on the Georgics to have come from a friend, whose name is not mentioned, because he desired to have it concealed.
The next year Mr. Addison wrote several poems of different kinds; amongst the rest, one addressed to Henry Sacheverel, who became afterwards so exceedingly famous. The following year he wrote a poem to King William on one of his Campaigns, addressed to the Lord Keeper (Sir John Somers.) That excellent statesman received this mark of a young author's attachment with great humanity, admitted Mr. Addison into the number of his friends, and gave him on all occasions distinguishing proofs of a sincere esteem.
While he was at the university, he had been pressingly solicited to enter into holy orders, which he seemed once resolved on, probably in obedience to his father's authority; but being conscious of the importance of the undertaking, and deterred by his extreme modesty, he relinquished, says Mr. Tickell, all views that way; but Sir Richard Steel in his letter to Mr. Congreve prefixed to the Drummer, who had a quarrel with Tickell, on account of an injurious treatment of him, says, that those were not the reasons which made Mr. Addison turn his thoughts to the civil world, "and as you were the inducement (says he) of his becoming acquainted with my lord Hallifax, I doubt not but you remember the warm instances that noble lord made to the head of the college, not to insist on Mr. Addison's going into orders; his arguments were founded on the general pravity and corruption of men of business, who wanted liberal education; and I remember, as if I had read the letter yesterday, that my lord ended with a compliment, that however he might be represented as no friend to the church, he would never do it any other injury than by keeping Mr. Addison out of it."
Mr. Addison having discovered an inclination to travel, the abovementioned patron, out of zeal, as well to his country, as our author, procured him from the crown an annual pension of £300 which enabled him to make a tour to Italy the latter end of 1699. His Latin poems dedicated to Mr. Montague, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, were printed before his departure, in the Musae Anglicanae, and were as much esteemed in foreign countries, as at home, particularly by that noble wit of France, Boileau. It is from Mr. Tickell, we learn of this circumstance in relation to Boileau, and we shall present it to the reader in his own words; "his country owes it to Mr. Addison, that the famous Monsieur Boileau first conceived an opinion of the English genius for poetry, by perusing the present he made him of the Musae Anglicanae. It has been currently reported, that this famous French poet, among the civilities he shewed Mr. Addison on that occasion, affirmed, that he would not have written against Perrault, had he before seen such excellent pieces by a modern hand. The compliment he meant, was, that these books had given him a very new idea of the English politeness, and that he did not question, but there were excellent compositions in the native language of a country, which possessed the Roman genius in so eminent a degree." In 1701 Mr. Addison wrote an epistolary poem from Italy to lord Halifax, which is much admired as a finished piece in its kind, and indeed some have pronounced it the best of Mr. Addison's performances. It was translated by the Abbot Antonio Mario Salvini, Greek Professor at Florence into Italian verse, which translation is printed with the original in Mr. Tickell's 4to. edition of Mr. Addison's works. This poem is in the highest esteem in Italy, because there are in it the best turned compliments to that country, that, perhaps, are to be found anywhere: and the Italians, on account of their familiarity with the objects it describes, must have a higher relish of it. This poem likewise shews his gratitude to lord Hallifax, who had been that year impeached by the Commons in Parliament, for procuring exorbitant grants from the crown to his own use; and further charged with cutting down, and wasting the timber in his Majesty's forests, and with holding several offices in his Majesty's Exchequer, that were inconsistent, and designed as checks upon each other: The Commons had likewise addressed the King to remove him from his councils, and preference for ever. These were the causes of his retiring, and Mr. Addison's address at this time, was a noble instance of his fidelity, and steadfastness to his friends.
On his return to England, he published an account of his travels, dedicated to lord Somers; he would have returned earlier than he did, had not he been thought of as a proper person to attend prince Eugene, who then commanded for the emperor in Italy, which employment would much have pleased him; but the death of king William intervening caused a cessation of his pension and his hopes.
For a considerable space of time he remained at home, and as his friends were out of the ministry, he had no opportunity to display his abilities, or to meet a competent reward for the honour his works had already done his country. He owed both to an accident: In the year 1704 lord treasurer Godolphin happened to complain to the lord Hallifax, that the duke of Marlborough's victory at Blenheim, had not been celebrated in verse, in the manner it deserved, and told him, that he would take it kind, if his lordship, who was the patron of the poets, would name a gentleman capable of writing upon so elevated a subject. Lord Hallifax replied with some quickness, that he was well acquainted with such a person, but that he would not name him; and observed, that he had long seen with indignation, men of little or no merit, maintained in pomp and luxury, at the expence of the public, while persons of too much modesty, with great abilities, languished in obscurity. The treasurer answered, very coolly, that he was sorry his lordship had occasion to make such an observation; but that in the mean time, he would engage his honour, that whoever his lordship should name, might venture upon this theme, without fear of losing his time. Lord Hallifax thereupon named Mr. Addison, but insisted the treasurer should send to him himself, which he promised. Accordingly he prevailed upon Mr. Boyle, then chancellor of the exchequer, to go in his name to Mr. Addison, and communicate to him in the business, which he did in so obliging a manner, that he readily entered upon the task. The lord treasurer saw the Poem before it was finished, when the author had written no father than the celebrated simile of the Angel, and was so much pleased with it, that he immediately made him commissioner of appeals, in the room of Mr. Locke, who was promoted to be one of the lords commissioners for trade, &c.
His Poem, entitled the Campaign, was received with loud and general applause: It is addressed to the duke of Marlborough, and contains a short view of the military transactions in the year 1704, and a very particular description of the two great actions at Schellemberg and Blenheim.
In 1705 Mr. Addison attended the lord Hallifax to Hanover; and in the succeeding year he was made choice of for under-secretary to Sir Charles Hedges, then appointed secretary of state. In the month of December, in the same year, the earl of Sunderland, who succeeded Sir Charles in that office, continued Mr. Addison in the post of under secretary.
Operas being now much in fashion, many people of distinction and true taste, importuned him to make a trial, whether sense and sound were really so incompatible, as some admirers of the Italian pieces would represent them. He was at last prevailed upon to comply with their request, and composed his Rosamond: This piece was inscribed to the duchess of Marlborough, and met with but indifferent success of the stage. Many looked upon it as not properly an Opera; for considering what numbers of miserable productions had born that title, they were scarce satisfied that so superior a piece should appear under the same denomination. About this time our author assisted Sir Richard Steel, in a play called the Tender Husband; to which he wrote a humorous Prologue. Sir Richard, whose gratitude was as warm and ready as his wit, surprized him with a dedication, which may be considered as one of the few monuments of praise, not unworthy the great person to whose honour it was raised.
In 1709 he went over to Ireland, as secretary to the marquis of Wharton, appointed lord lieutenant of that kingdom. Her majesty also, was pleased, as a mark of her peculiar favour, to augment the salary annexed to the keeper of the records in that nation, and bestow it upon him. While he was in Ireland, his friend Sir Richard Steel published the Tatler, which appeared for the first time, on the 12th of April 1709: Mr. Addison (says Tickell) discovered the author by an observation on Virgil he had communicated to him. This discovery led him to afford further assistance, insomuch, that as the author of the Tatler well exprest it, he fared by this means, like a distrest prince, who calls in a powerful neighbour to his aid: that is, he was undone by his auxiliary.
The superiority of Mr. Addison's papers in that work is universally admitted; and being more at leisure upon the change of the ministry, he continued assisting in the Tatler till 1711, when it was dropt.
No sooner was the Tatler laid down, but Sir Richard Steel, in concert with Mr. Addison, formed the plan of the Spectator. The first paper appeared on the first of March 1711, and in the course of that great work, Mr. Addison furnished all the papers marked with any Letters of the Muse CLIO; and which were generally most admired. Tickell, who had no kindness for Mr. Steel, meanly supposed that he marked his paper out of precaution against Sir Richard; which was an ill-natur'd insinuation; for in the conclusion of the Spectators, he acknowledges to Mr. Addison, all he had a right to; and in his letter to Congreve, he declares that Addison's papers were marked by him, out of tenderness to his friend, and a warm zeal for his fame. Steel was a generous grateful friend; it therefore ill became Mr. Tickell in the defence of Mr. Addison's honour, which needed no such stratagem, to deprecate one of his dearest friends; and at the expence of truth, and his reputation, raise the character of his Hero. Sir Richard had opposed Mr. Addison, in the choice of Mr. Tickell as his secretary; which it seems he could never forget nor forgive.
In the Spectators, Sir Roger de Coverly was Mr. Addison's favourite character; and so tender was he of it, that he went to Sir Richard, upon his publishing a Spectator, in which he made Sir Roger pick up a woman in the temple cloisters, and would not part part with his friend, until he promised to meddle with the old knight's character no more. However, Mr. Addison to make sure, and to prevent any absurdities the writers of the subsequent Spectators might fall into, resolved to remove that character out of the way; or, as he pleasantly expressed it to an intimate friend, killed Sir Roger, that no body else might murder him. When the old Spectator was finished, a new one appeared; but, though written by men of wit and genius, it did not succeed, and they were wise enough not to push the attempt too far. Posterity must have a high idea of the taste and good sense of the British nation, when they are informed, that twenty-thousand of these papers were sometimes sold in a day.
The Guardian, a paper of the same tendency, entertained the town in the years 1713 and 1714, in which Mr. Addison had likewise a very large share; he also wrote two papers in the Lover.
In the year 1713 appeared his famous Cato. He entered into a design of writing a Tragedy on that subject, when he was very young; and when he was on his travels he actually wrote four acts of it: However, he retouched it on his return, without any design of bringing it on the stage; but some friends of his imagining it might be of service to the cause of liberty, he was prevailed upon to finish it for the theatre, which he accordingly did. When this play appeared, it was received with boundless admiration; and during the representation on the first night, on which its fate depended, it is said that Mr. Addison discovered uncommon timidity; he was agitated between hope and fear, and while he remained retired in the green-room, he kept a person continually going backwards and forwards, from the stage to the place where he was, to inform him how it succeeded, and till the whole was over, and the success confirmed, he never ventured to move.
When it was published, it was recommended by many Copies of Verses prefixed to it, amongst which the sincerity of Mr. Steele, and the genius of Eusden, deserve to be distinguished: But, as I would not omit any particulars relative to this renowned play, and its great author, I shall insert a letter of Mr. Pope's to Sir William Turnbull, dated the 30th of April, 1713, in which are some circumstances that merit commemoration.
As to poetical affairs, I am content at present to be a bare looker on, and from a practitioner turn an admirer; which as the world goes, is not very usual. Cato was not so much the wonder of Rome in his Days, as he is of Britain in ours; and though all the foolish industry possible had been used to make it thought a party play, yet what the author once said of another, may the most properly in the world be applied to him on this occasion.
Envy itself is dumb, in wonder lost.
And factions strive who shall applaud him most.
The numerous and violent claps of the Whig party, on the one side of the theatre, were ecchoed back by the Tories on the other; while the author sweated behind the scenes, with concern to find their applause proceeding more from the hand than the head. This was the case too with the Prologue writer, who was clapp'd into a staunch Whig at the end of every two lines. I believe you have heard, that after all the applauses of the opposite faction, my lord Bolingbroke sent for Booth, who played Cato, into the box, between one of the acts, and presented him with fifty guineas, in acknowledgement as he expressed it, for defending the cause of liberty so well against a perpetual dictator. The Whigs were unwilling to be distanced this way, and therefore design a present to the same Cato very speedily; in the mean time, they are getting ready as good a sentence as the former on their side, so betwixt them it is probable, that Cato (as Dr. Garth exprest it) may have something to live upon after he dies."
Immediately after the publication of this Tragedy, there came abroad a pamphlet, entitled, Observations on Cato; written by the ingenious Dr. Sewel: The design of this piece was to shew that the applause this Tragedy met with was founded on merit. It is a very accurate and entertaining criticism, and tends to secure the poet the hearts of his readers, as well as of his audience. Our author was not however without enemies, amongst whom was Mr. Dennis, who attacked it, first in a pamphlet, and then in a subsequent work, in which he employed seven letters in pulling it to pieces: In some of his remarks he is candid, and judicious enough, in others he is trifling and ill natur'd, and I think it is pretty plain he was agitated by envy; for as the intent of that play was to promote the Whig interest, of which Mr. Dennis was a zealous abettor, he could not therefore disesteem it from party principles. Another gentleman, who called himself a scholar at Oxford, considered the play in a very different light; and endeavoured to serve his party by turning the cannon upon the enemy. The title of this pamphlet is, Mr. Addison turned Tory: It is written with great spirit and vivacity. Cato was speedily translated into French by Mr. Boyer, but with no spirit: It was translated likewise into Italian.
Voltaire has commended, and condemned Mr. Addison by turns, and in respect to Cato, he admires, and censures it extravagantly. The principal character he allows superior to any before brought upon the stage, but says, that all the love-scenes are absolutely insipid: He might have added unnecessary, as to the plot; and the only reason that can be assigned for the poet's introducing them was, the prevalence of custom; but it must be acknowledged, that his lovers are the most sensible, and address each other in the best language, that is to be found in any love dialogues of the British stage: It will be difficult to find a more striking line, or more picturesque of a lover's passion, than this pathetic exclamation; "A lover does not live by vulgar time." Queen Anne was not the last in doing justice to our author and his performance; she was pleased to signify an inclination of having it dedicated to her, but as he intended that compliment to another, it came into the world without any dedication. If in the subsequent part of his life, his leisure had been greater, we are told, he would probably have written another tragedy on the death of Socrates; but the honours accruing from what he had already performed deprived posterity of that production. This subject was still drier, and less susceptible of poetical ornament than the former, but in the hands of so great a writer, there is no doubt but genius would have supplied what was wanting in the real story, and have covered by shining sentiments, and noble language, the simplicity of the plot, and deficiency in business.
Upon the death of the Queen, the Lords Justices appointed Mr. Addison their secretary. This diverted him from the design he had formed of composing an English Dictionary upon the plan of a famous Italian one: that the world has much suffered by this promotion I am ready to believe, and cannot but regret that our language yet wants the assistance of so great a master, in fixing its standard, settling its purity, and illustrating its copiousness, or elegance.
In 1716 our author married the countess of Warwick; and about that time published the Freeholder, which is a kind of political Spectator. This work Mr. Addison conducted without any assistance, upon a plan of his own forming; he did it in consequence of his principles, out of a desire to remove prejudices, and contribute all he could to make his country happy; however it produced his own promotion, in 1717, to be one of the principle secretaries of sate. His health, which had been before impaired by an asthmatic disorder, suffered exceedingly by an advancement so much to his honour, but attended with such great fatigue: Finding, that he was not able to manage so much business as his station led him to, he resigned, and in his leisure hours began a work of a religious nature, upon the Evidence of the Christian religion; which he lived not to finish. He likewise intended a Paraphrase on some of the Psalms of David: but a long and painful relapse broke all his designs, and deprived the world of one of its brightest ornaments, June 17, 1719, when he was entering the 54th year of his age. He died at Holland-house near Kensington, and left behind him an only daughter by the countess of Warwick [Catalogue of works omitted].
Thus we have gone through the most remarkable passages of the life of this great man, in admiration of whom, it is but natural to be an Enthusiast, and whose very enemies expressed their dislike with diffidence; nor indeed were his enemies, Mr. Pope excepted, (if it be proper to reckon Mr. Pope Mr. Addison's enemy) in one particular case, of any consequence. It is a true, and an old observation, that the greatest men have sometimes failings, that, of all other human weaknesses, one would not suspect them to be subject to. It is said of Mr. Addison, that he was a slave to flattery, that he was jealous, and suspicious in his temper, and, as Pope keenly expresses it, "Bore, like the Turk, no rival near the throne." That he was jealous of the fame of Pope, many have believed, and perhaps not altogether without ground. He preferred Tickell's translation of the first Book of Homer, to Pope's. His words are, "the other has more of Homer," when, at the same time, in a letter to Pope, he strenuously advises him to undertake it, and tells him, there is none but he equal to it; which circumstance has made some people conjecture, that Addison was himself the author of the translation, imputed to Mr. Tickell; Be this as it may, it is unpleasing to dwell upon the failings, and quarrels of great men; let us rather draw a veil over all their errors, and only admire their virtues, and their genius; of both which the author, the incidents of whose life we have now been tracing, had a large possession. He added much to the purity of the English stile in prose; his rhime is not so flowing, nervous, or manly as some of his contemporaries, but his prose has an original excellence, a smoothness and dignity peculiar to it. His poetry, as well as sentiments, in Cato, cannot be praised enough.
Mr. Addison was steadfast in his principles, faithful to his friends, a zealous patriot, honourable in public stations, amiable in private life, and as he lived, he died, a good man, and a pious Christian.