The prose works of Addison constitute the chief source of his fame, but his muse proved the architect of his fortune, and led him first to distinction. From his character, station, and talents, no man of his day exercised more extensive or beneficial influence on literature. JOSEPH ADDISON, the son of an English dean, was born at Milston, Wiltshire, in 1672. He distinguished himself at Oxford by his Latin poetry and appeared first in English verse by an address to Dryden, written in his twenty-second year. It opens thus:
How long, great poet! shall thy sacred lays
Provoke our wonder, and transcend our praise!
Can neither injuries of time or age
Damp thy poetic heat and quench thy rage?
Not so thy Ovid in his exile wrote;
Grief chilled his breast, and cheered his rising thought;
Pensive and sad, his drooping muse betrays
The Roman genius in its last decays.
The youthful poet's praise of his great master is confined to his translations, works which a modern eulogist would scarcely select as the peculiar glory of Dryden. Addison also contributed an Essay on Virgil's Georgics prefixed to Dryden's translation. His remarks are brief, but finely and clearly written. At the same time, he translated the fourth Georgic, and it was published in Dryden's Miscellany, issued in 1693, with a warm commendation from the aged poet on the "most ingenious Mr. Addison of Oxford." Next year, he ventured on a bolder flight — An Account of the Greatest English Poets, addressed to Mr. H. S. (the famous Dr. Henry Sacheverell), April 3, 1694. This Account is a poem of about 150 lines, containing sketches of Chaucer, Spenser, Cowley, Milton, Waller, &c. We subjoin the lines on the author of the Faery Queen, though, if we are to believe Spence, Addison had not then read the poet he ventured to criticise:—
Old Spenser next, warm'd with poetic rage,
In ancient tales amused a barbarous age;
An age, that yet uncultivate and rude,
Where'er the poet's fancy led, pursued
Through pathless fields, and unfrequented floods,
To dens of dragons and enchanted woods,
But now the mystic tale, that pleased of yore,
Can charm an understanding age no more;
The long-spun allegories fulsome grow,
While the dull moral lies too plain below.
We view well pleased, at distance, all the sights
Of arms and palfreys, battles, fields, and fights,
And damsels in distress, and courteous knights,
But when we look too near, the shades decay,
And all the pleasing landscape fades away.
This subdued and frigid character of Spenser shows that Addison wanted both the fire and the fancy of the poet. His next production is equally tame and commonplace, but the theme was more congenial to his style: it is A Poem to his Majesty, Presented to the Lord-Keeper. Lord Somers, then the keeper of the great seal, was gratified by this compliment, and became one of the steadiest patrons of Addison. In 1699, he procured for him a pension of £300 a year, to enable him to make a tour in Italy. The government patronage was never better bestowed. The poet entered upon his travels, and resided abroad two years, writing from thence a poetical Letter from Italy to Charles Lord Halifax, 1701. This is the most elegant and animated of all his poetical productions. The classic ruins of Rome, the "heavenly figures" of Raphael, the river Tiber, and streams "immortalised in song," and all the golden groves and flowery meadows of Italy, seem, as was justly remarked, "to have raised his fancy, and brightened his expressions." There was also, as Goldsmith observed, a strain of political thinking in the Letter, that was then new to our poetry. He returned to England in 1702.
The death of King William deprived him of his pension, and appeared to crush his hopes and expectations; but being afterwards engaged to celebrate in verse the battle of Blenheim, Addison so gratified the lord-treasurer, Godolphin, by his "gazette in rhyme," that he was appointed a commissioner of appeals. He was next made under secretary of state, and went to Ireland as secretary to the Marquis of Wharton, lord-lieutenant. The queen also made him keeper of the records of Ireland. Previous to this (in 1707), Addison had brought out his opera of Rosamond, which was not successful on the stage. The story of fair Rosamond would seem well suited for dramatic representation; and in the bowers and shades of Woodstock, the poet had materials for scenic description and display. The genius of Addison however was not adapted to the drama; and his opera being confined in action, and written wholly in rhyme, possesses little to attract either readers or spectators. He wrote afterwards a comedy, The Drummer, or the Haunted House, which Steele brought out after the death of the author. This play contains a fund of quiet natural humour but has not strength or breadth enough of character or action for the stage. Addison next entered upon his brilliant career as an essayist, and by his papers in the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, left all his contemporaries far behind in this delightful department of literture. In these papers, he first displayed that chaste and delicate humour, refined observation, and knowledge of the world, which now form his most distinguishing characteristics, and in his Vision of Mirza, his Reflections in Westminster Abbey, and other of his graver essays, he evinced a more poetical imagination and deeper vein of feeling than his previous writings had at all indicated. In 1713, his tragedy of Cato was brought upon the stage. Pope thought the piece deficient in dramatic interest, and the world has confirmed his judgment; but he wrote a prologue for the tragedy in his happiest manner, and it was performed with almost unexampled success. Party spirit ran high: the Whigs applauded the liberal sentiments in the play, and their cheers were echoed back by the Tories, to shew that they did not apply them as censures on themselves. After all the Whig enthusiasm, Lord Bolingbroke sent for Booth the actor, who personated the character of Cato, and presented him with fifty guineas, in acknowledgment, as he said, of his defending the cause of liberty so well against a perpetual dictator (a hit at the Duke of Marlborough). Poetical eulogiums were showered upon the author, Steele, Hughes, Young, Tickell, and Ambrose Phillips being among the writers of these encomiastic verses. The queen expressed a wish that the tragedy should be dedicated to her, but Addison had previously desired this honour for his friend Tickell, and to avoid giving offence either to his loyalty or his friendship, he published it without any dedication. It was translated into French, Italian, and German, and was performed by the, Jesuits in their college at St. Omer. "Being," says Sir Walter Scott, "in form and essence rather a French than an English play, it is one of the few English tragedies which foreigners hare admired." The unities of time and place have been preserved, and the action of the play is consequently much restricted. Cato abounds in generous and patriotic sentiments, and contains passages of great dignity and sonorous diction; but the poet fails to unlock the sources of passion and natural emotion. It is a splendid and imposing work of art, with the grace and majesty, and also the lifelessness of a noble antique statue.
Addison was now at the height of his fame. He had long aspired to the hand of the countess-dowager of Warwick, whom he had first known by becoming tutor to her son, and he was united to her in 1716. The poet is said to have "married discord in a noble wife." His marriage was reported to be as unhappy as Dryden's with Lady Elizabeth Howard, and that both ladies awarded to their husbands the "heraldry of hands, not hearts," but in the case of Addison we have no direct trustworthy information on the subject. Addison received his highest political honour in 1717, when he was made secretary of state, but he held the office only for a short time. He wanted the physical boldness and ready resources of an effective public speaker, and was unable to defend his measures in parliament. He is also said to have been slow and fastidious in the discharge of the ordinary duties of office. When he held the situation of under secretary, he was employed to send word to Prince George at Hanover on the death of the queen, and the vacancy of the throne; but the critical nicety of the author overpowered his official experience, and Addison was so distracted by the choice of expression, that the task was given to a clerk, who boasted of having done what was too hard or Addison. The vulgar love of wonder may have exaggerated the poet's inaptitude for business, but it is certain he was no orator. He retired from the principal Secretaryship with a pension of £1500 per annum, and during his retirement, engaged himself in writing a work on the Evidences of the Christian Religion, which he did not live to complete. He was oppressed by asthma and dropsy, and was conscious that he should die at comparatively an early age. Two anecdotes are related of his death-bed. He sent, as Pope relates (but Pope is a very bad authority for any circumstance reflecting upon Addison, or indeed for any question of fact), a message by the Earl of Warwick to Gay, desiring to see him. Gay obeyed the summons and Addison begged his forgiveness for an injury he had done him, for which, he said, he would recompense him if he recovered. The nature or extent of the injury he did not explain, but Gay supposed it referred to his having prevented some preferment designed for him by the court. At another time, he requested an interview with the Earl of Warwick, whom he was anxious to reclaim from a dissipated and licentious life. "I have sent for you," he said, "that you may see in what peace a Christian can die." The event thus calmly anticipated took place in Holland House on the 17th June, 1719.
A minute or critical review of the daily life of Addison, and his intercourse with his literary associates, is calculated to diminish our reverence and affection. He appears to have been jealous and taciturn (until thawed by wine); and the satire of Pope, that he could "bear no rival near the throne," seems to have been just and well-founded. His quarrels with Pope and Steele throw some disagreeable shades among the lights and beauties of the picture; but enough will still remain to establish Addison's title to the character of a good man and a sincere Christian. The uniform tendency of all his writings is his best and highest eulogium. No man can dissemble upon paper through years of literary exertion, or on topics calculated to disclose the nature of his tastes and feelings, and the qualities of his heart and temper. The display of these by Addison is so fascinating and unaffected, that the impression made by his writings, as has been finely remarked, is "like being recalled to a sense of something like that original purity from which man has been long estranged."
A Life of Addison, in two volumes, by Lucy Aiken, published in 1843, contains several letters supplied by a descendant of Tickell. This work is written in a strain of unvaried eulogium, and is frequently unjust to Steele, Pope, and the other contemporaries of Addison. The most interesting of the letters were written by Addison during his early travels; and though brief, and often incorrect, contain touches of his inimitable pen. He thus records his impressions of France: — "Truly, by what I have yet seen, they are the happiest nation in the world. 'Tis not in the power of want or slavery to make 'em miserable. There is nothing to be met with in the country but mirth and poverty. Every one singe, laughs, and starves. Their conversation is generally, agreeable; for if they have any wit or sense, they are sure to show it. They never mend upon a second meeting, but use all the freedom and familiarity at first sight that a long intimacy or abundance of wine can scarce draw from an Englishman. Their women are perfect mistresses in this art of showing themselves to the best advantage. They are always gay and sprightly, and set off the worst faces in Europe with the best airs. Every one knows how to give herself as charming a look and posture as Sir Godfrey Kneller could draw her in."
After some further experience, he recurs to the same subject: — "I have already seen, as I informed you in my last, all the king's palaces, and have now seen a great part of the country; I never thought there had been in the world such an excessive magnificence or poverty as I have met with in both together. One can scarce conceive the pomp that appears in everything about the king; but at the same time it makes half his subjects go bare-foot. The people are, however, the happiest in the world, and enjoy from the benefit of their climate and natural constitution such a perpetual mirth and easiness of temper, as even liberty and plenty cannot bestow on those of other nations. Devotion and loyalty are everywhere at their greatest height, but learning seems to run very low, especially in the younger people; for all the rising geniuses have turned their ambition another way, and endeavoured to make their fortunes in the army. The belles lettres in particular seem to be but short-lived in France."
In acknowledging a present of a snuff-box, we see traces of the easy wit and playfulness of the Spectator: — "About three days ago, Mr. Bocher put a very pretty snuff-box in my hand. I was not a little pleased to hear that it belonged to myself, and was much more so when I found it was a present from a gentleman that I have so great an honour for. You do not probably foresee that it would draw on you the trouble of a letter, but you must blame yourself for it. For my part, I can no more accept of a snuff-box without returning my acknowledgments, than I can take snuff without sneezing after it. This last, I must own to you, is so great an absurdity, that I should be ashamed to confess it, were not I in hopes of correcting it very speedily. I am observed to have my box oftener in my band than those that have bin used to one these twenty years, for I can't forbear taking it out of my pocket whenever I think of Mr Dashwood. You know Mr. Bays recommends snuff as a great provocative to wit, but you may produce this letter as a standing evidence against him. I have, since the beginning of it, taken above a dozen pinches, and still find myself much more inclined to sneeze than to jest. From whence I conclude, that wit and tobacco are not inseparable; or to make a pun of it, tho' a man may be master of a snuff-box, 'Non cuicunque datum est habere Nasam.' I should be afraid of being thought a pedant for my quotation, did not I know that the gentleman I am writing to always carrys a Horace in ins pocket."
The same taste which led Addison, as we have seen, to censure as fulsome the wild and gorgeous genius of Spenser, made him look with indifference, if not aversion, on the splendid scenery of the Alps: "I am just arrived at Geneva," he says, "by a very troublesome journey over the Alps, where I have been for some days together shivering among the eternal snows. My head is still giddy with mountains and precipices, and you can't imagine how much I am pleased with the sight of a plain, that is as agreeable to me at present as a shore was about a year ago, after our tempest at Genoa."
The matured powers of Addison show little of this tame prosaic feeling. The higher of his essays, and his criticism on the Paradise Lost, betray no insensibility to the nobler beauties of creation, or the sublime effusions of genius. His conceptions were enlarged, and his mind expanded, by that literary study and reflection from which his political ambition never divorced him even in the busiest and most engrossing period of his life.