1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Addison

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 232.



JOSEPH ADDISON, a person in the foremost ranks of wit and elegant literature, was the son of the Reverend Lancelot Addison, at whose parsonage at Milston, near Ambrosbury, Wiltshire, he was born in May, 1672. At the age of fifteen he was entered of Queen's College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself by his proficiency in classical literature, especially in Latin poetry. He was afterwards elected a demy of Magdalen College, where he took the degrees of bachelor and master of arts. In his twenty-second year he became an author in his own language, publishing a short copy of verses addressed to the veteran poet, Dryden. Other pieces in verse and prose succeeded; and in 1695 he opened the career of his fortune as a literary man, by a complimentary poem on one of the campaigns of King William, addressed to the Lord-keeper Somers. A pension of 300 from the crown, which his patron obtained for him, enabled him to indulge his inclination for travel; and an epistolary poem to Lord Halifax in 1701, with a prose relation of his travels, published on his return, are distinguished by the spirit of liberty which they breathe, and which, during life, was his ruling passion. The most famous of his political poems, The Campaign, appeared in 1704. It was a task kindly imposed by Lord Halifax, who intimated to him that the writer should not lose his labour. It was accordingly rewarded by an immediate appointment to the post of commissioner of appeals.

This will be the proper place for considering the merits of Addison in his character of a writer in verse. Though Dryden and Pope had already secured the first places on the British Parnassus, and other rivals for fame were springing to view, it will scarcely be denied that Addison, by a decent mediocrity of poetic language, rising occasionally to superior efforts, has deserved that degree of praise which, in general estimation, has been allotted him. It cannot be doubted that playful and humorous wit was the quality in which he obtained almost unrivalled pre-eminence; but the reader of his poem to Sir Godfrey Kneller will discover, the comparison of the painter to Phidias, a very happy and elegant resemblance pointed out in b verse. His celebrated tragedy of Cato, equally remarkable for a correctness of plan, and a sustained elevation of style, then unusual on the English stage, was further distinguished by the glow of its sentiments in favour of political liberty, and was equally applauded by both parties.

A very short account will suffice for the remainder of his works. His connection with Steele engaged him in occasionally writing in the Tatler, the Spectator, and the Guardian, in which his productions, serious and humorous, conferred upon him immortal honour, and placed him deservedly at the head of his class. Some other periodical papers, decidedly political, were traced to Addison, of which The Freeholder was one of the most conspicuous. In 1716 he married the Countess-Dowager of Warwick, a connexion which is said not to have been remarkably happy. In the following year he was raised to the office of one of the principal secretaries of state; but finding himself ill suited to the post, and in a declining state of health, he resigned it to Mr. Craggs. In reality, his constitution was suffering from an habitual excess in wine; and it is a lamentable circumstance that a person so generally free from moral defects, should have given way to a fondness for the pleasures of a tavern life. Addison died in June, 1719, leaving an only daughter by the Countess of Warwick.