No English poet illustrates more vividly than Addison the truth of the principle, "Poeta nascitur non fit." Possessed of an inimitable prose style, which makes him the most graceful of all social satirists, the creator of Sir Roger de Coverley rarely succeeds, as a poet, in impressing us with the sense — the true touchstone of poetical art — that what he is saying is expressed better in verse than it could be expressed in prose. Nor is this to he attributed to the comparatively prosaic nature of the subjects he undertakes. Dryden, Pope, and Goldsmith write on themes which seem unpropitious when compared with the materials of the Elizabethan poets; but the best work of these three poets is, in its class, first-rate; Addison's work is never more than second-rate. His Account of the Principal English Poets is just but tame; he probably wrote it in metre merely because Roscommon had done something of the same kind before him; at any rate, by the side of the animated judgments of Pope in his Epistle to Augustus, his historical survey of English poetry seems flat and languid. His Letter from Italy is certainly his most successful composition; but those who compare it with Goldsmith's Traveller will be chiefly struck with the different degrees of fertility a somewhat barren subject may exhibit when treated by an ordinary versifier and a master of poetical design. The same is true of Addison's complimentary verse compared with that of Pope. Poems of this kind are seldom very sincere; but some of Pope's noblest lines of praise were addressed to the not very noble Earl of Oxford. Whether or no Pope really felt as be pretended, he seemed at least to write with ardour, but the style of Addison's panegyrics on King William Ill is as artificial as the sentiments by which they were prompted. His sole conception of poetical compliment is hyperbole. When, for instance, he wishes to excuse himself for an inadequate celebration of William's heroic prowess, he says that, as Troy had perished long before Homer appeared, so perhaps some mighty bard may lie hid in futurity to write an Iliad on the Battle of the Boyne, when that river shall have ceased to flow. If he seeks to represent the terrors of Algiers and Tunis under the British attack, he says—
Fain from the neighbouring dangers would they run,
And wish themselves much nearer to the sun.
We see in such a conceit the evil influence of Dryden; but the large opulence of thought and the noble diction with which Dryden atoned for his extravagances are wanting in his pupil.
Yet with all Addison's deficiencies in poetical genius, his fine taste and blameless character were not without their effect on the course of our poetry. He never, like Dryden, prostituted his Muse to utterly unworthy objects; if his poetry is not free from "courtly stains," it is at least animated by a genuine love of freedom; and his lines on liberty are a fine expression of the Whig spirit of the times. The Campaign was called by Warton, not unjustly, a "gazette in rhyme"; the epic style however seems to have been considered indispensable to the subject; and allowing for this preliminary condition, Addison deserves credit for having depicted the character of his hero with some loftiness and dignity.
Addison's versification is pure though not vigorous; his treatment of the heroic couplet, in its antithesis and careful selection of epithet, marks the period of transition between the large and flowing style of Dryden and the compressed energy of Pope.