1756 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Addison

Joseph Warton, in Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1756; 1782) 1:275-82.



Having been imperceptibly led into this little criticism on the tragedy of Cato, I beg leave to speak a few words on some other of Addison's pieces. The first of his poems, addressed to Dryden, Sir John Somers, and king William, are languid, prosaic, and void of any poetical imagery or spirit. The Letter from Italy, is by no means equal to a subject fruitful of genuine poetry, and which might have warmed the most cold and correct imagination. One would have expected, a young traveller in the height of his genius and judgment, would have broke out into some strokes of enthusiasm. With what flatness and unfeelingness has he spoken of statuary and painting! Raphael never received a more flegmatic eulogy. The slavery and superstition of the present Romans, are well touched upon towards the conclusion; but I will venture to name a little piece on a parallel subject, that excels this celebrated Letter; and in which is much lively and original imagery, strong painting, and manly sentiments of freedom. It is a copy of verses written at Virgil's Tomb, and printed in Dodsley's Miscellanies.

That there are many well-wrought descriptions, and even pathetic strokes, in the Campaign, it would be stupidity and malignity to deny. But surely the regular march which the poet has observed from one town to another, as if he had been a commissary of the army, cannot well be excused. There is a passage in Boileau, so remarkably applicable to this fault of Addison, that one would almost be tempted to think he had the Campaign in his eye, when he wrote it, if the time would admit it.

Loin ces rimeurs craintiss, dont l'esprit phelgmatique
Garde dans ses fureurs un ordre didactique;
Qui chantant d'un heros les progress eclatans,
MAIGRES HISTORIENS, SUIVRONT L'ORDER DES TEMPS;
Ils n'osent un moment prendre un sujet de vue,
Pour prendre Dole, il faut que Lille foit rendue;
Et que leur vers exact, ainsi que Mezerai,
Ait fait deja tombet — les remparts de Coutrai.

The most spirited verses Addison has written, are, an Imitation of the third ode of the third book of Horace, which is indeed performed with energy and vigour; and his king George the first. The occasion of this last poem is peculiarly happy; for among the works of Phidias which he enumerates, he selects such statues as exactly mark, and characterise, the last six British kings and queens.

Great Pan who wont to chase the fair,
And lov'd the spreading OAK, was there;
Old Saturn too, with upcast eyes,
Beheld his ABDICATED skies;
And mighty Mars for war renown'd,
In adamantine armour frown'd:
By him the childless goddess rose,
Minerva, studious to compose
Her twisted threads; the web she strung,
And o'er a loom of marble hung;
Thetis the troubled ocean's queen,
Match'd with a MORTAL, next was seen,
Reclining on a funeral urn,
Her short-liv'd darling son to mourn.
The last was HE, whose thunder slew
The Titan race, a rebel crew,
That from a HUNDRED HELLS ally'd,
In impious league their king defy'd.

There is scarcely, I believe, any instance, where mythology has been applied with more delicacy and dexterity, and has been contrived to answer in its application, so minutely, exactly, in so many corresponding circumstances. — There are various passages in the opera of Rosamond, that deserve to be mentioned as beautiful, and the versification of this piece is particularly musical.

Whatever censures we have here, too boldly, perhaps, ventured to deliver on the professed poetry of Addison, yet must we candidly own, that in various parts of his prose-essays, are to found many strokes of genuine and sublime poetry; many marks of a vigorous and exuberant imagination. Particularly, in the noble allegory of Pain and Pleasure, the Vision of Mirza, the story of Maraton and Yaratilda, of Constantia and Theodosius, and the beautiful eastern tale of Abdallah and Balfora; and many others: together with several strokes in the Essay on the pleasures of imagination. It has been the lot of many great names, not to have been able to express themselves with beauty and propriety in the fetters of verse, in their respective languages; who have yet manifested the force, fertility, and creative power of a most poetic genius, in prose. This was the case of Plato, of Lucian, of Fenelon, of Sir Philip Sidney, and Dr. T. Burnet, who in his Theory of the Earth, has displayed an imagination, very nearly equal to that of Milton.

—Maenia mundi
Discedunt! totum video per Inane geri res!

After all, the chief and characteristical excellency of Addison, was his HUMOUR; for in humour no mortal has excelled him except Moliere. Witness the character of Roger De Coverley, so original, so natural, and so inviolably preserved; particularly, in the month, which the Spectator spends at his hall in the country. Witness also the Drummer, that excellent and neglected comedy, that just picture of life and real manners, where the poet never speaks in his own person, or totally drops or forgets a character, for the sake of introducing a brilliant simile, or acute remark: where no train is laid for wit; no JEREMYS, or BENS, are suffer'd to appear.