Though some of his cotemporaries certainly excelled Addison as a poet, he must be allowed to have carried English prose to its highest degree of purity and perfection.
The father of Joseph Addison was rector of Milston, in Wiltshire, where this distinguished luminary was born, May 1, 1672. Being of a weakly habit of body, at first he received a domestic education; but on his father being made Dean of Litchfield, in 1683, the son was placed at the Grammar school in that city, from whence he was removed to the Charter-House, where Steele was his fellow pupil, and afterward his friend through life.
In the fifteenth year of his age, he was entered of Queen's College, Oxford, where he obtained great reputation by the elegance of his Latin poetry; and this facilitated his election as a Demy of Magdalen College, whose classic groves boast the honour of having been trod by this child of genius and of virtue, and where he continued to justify the hopes that had been entertained of his talents and his worth.
When panting Virtue her last efforts made,
He brought his Clio to the virgin's aid;
Presumptuous Folly blush'd, and Vice withdrew,
To Vengeance yielding her abandon'd crew.
But though he had obtained distinction by his Latin composition at a very early age, it is said that he was twenty-two, before he made himself known as an English writer. Having, however, gained the patronage of Lord Somers, the King, in 1699, bestowed a pension on him of £300 a year, to enable him to travel; and inspired by the classical genius of Italy, he soon after produced his celebrated Epistle to Lord Halifax, the most spirited and finished of all his poetical compositions.
Returning home, about 1702, he found his friends out of power, and his pension discontinued. In this state he remained, till the victory of Blenheim having diffused triumph and confidence, he was solicited to celebrate the exploits of Marlborough, when he produced The Campaign, and was immediately after created a commissioner of appeals.
In 1700 he became Secretary to the Marquis of Wharton, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and while in that kingdom, assisted Steele in the Tatler, which being completed, he took a principal share in the Spectator, and afterwards in the Guardian, and other periodical essays. The genius of Addison shone with superior lustre in all these works, which are characterised by a facility of composition, exquisite humour, correct taste, and all the graces of fine writing.
The famous tragedy of Cato appeared in 1713, and raised the name of Addison to the highest pitch of celebrity.
"His poetry" says Johnson, "is polished and pure, the product of a mind too judicious to commit faults, but not sufficiently vigorous to attain excellence." Of his prose there is only one opinion, and that opinion is just.
But all his fame and his merits could not secure him from domestic infelicity. He married the Countess of Warwick in 1716. Next year, he was appointed one of the Secretaries of State to George I. but the duties of that station being little suitable to his accustomed habits, he solicited his dismission, and obtained a pension of £1500 a year. This otium cum dignitate he did not live long to enjoy, dying of an asthmatic complaint in June 1719, in the 45th year of his age. Conscious that he had lived to do good, his death was full of hope. His last words to his son in law, the young Earl of Warwick, are said to have been, "See in what peace of mind a Christian can die!"
He taught us how to live, and (O too high
The price for knowledge) taught us how to DIE!