1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Addison

Anonymous, in "The Augustan Age in England" The Album 1 (1822) 185-87.



We must say that we consider ADDISON to have acquired a reputation far — very far — exceeding his merits. Cato is the very icicle of tragedy — "you might slide from his shoulder to his heel, with no longer run than his head and neck." — As a sermon, or a political pamphlet, Cato may be of some merit; but, as a poem or a play, who would, if it were now first produced, sit out the first act, or cut open the second leaf? We will venture to assert, that we could pick out a dozen poems, published in the last ten years, which have not run to a second edition, in any page of any one of which there is more poetry than in all the tragedy of Cato. As for the Letter from Italy, a road-book put into verse would be every bit as poetical, and not much less entertaining. But it is on Addison's prose works, say his admirers, — on the Spectator, especially, — that his fame depends. We are far from denying merit to these writings, but we can, by no means, allow it to be of that order or degree, which for so many years they undisputedly possessed; — and it is to be observed, that when you detract from the merit of an author, his friends always accuse you of wishing to destroy it altogether. This is, by no means the case with us; — we look on the Spectator as possessing some wit, much humour, and a great deal of elegance; but we cannot allow, either that they are so great as they used formerly to be esteemed, or that the more serious compositions which it contains are of equal merit. The serious style of Addison is cold, tame, and feeble; and if any one were to write on that model now, he would be quite overwhelmed by the energetic diction of the present day. His literary disquisitions sink into nothing before the writings of our contemporary critics, — his style grows pale when contrasted with the more fiery beauties of their powerful composition. But his humour — say you nothing of Sir Roger de Coverley; — the sensitive, the benevolent Sir Roger? Yes, we do say, — that Addison did not draw the character. It is very strange, that he always has had all the credit of this very beautiful imagination; whereas it was Steele who wrote the second paper of the Spectator, in which the characters of the members of the club are sketched in a tone of such elegant humour. Addison was, as well he might be, charmed with his friend's creation; and by continually filling in the details of Steele's felicitous outline, he ended in appropriating to himself even the conception of the character. We allow great merit to Addison's papers on Sir Roger; but the praise due to the original idea belongs entirely to Steele. Of Addison's miserable failure as a statesman, or even of his imbecility in conversation, we do not here speak. In allusion to these deficiencies, and to his capacity as a writer, it was said, that though he never had a guinea in his pocket, he could at any time draw on his banker for a thousand pounds. We must say, we doubt his bill being honoured for so large a sum.