1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Addison

Tobias Oldschool, Gentleman, "Eminent Authors: Addison" Literary Speculum 1 (April 1822) 417-19.



Scarcely any of our British classics have been so generally admired as Addison. The purity of his style, the harmony of his sentences, the beauty and originality of his ideas, the unaffected force of his pathos, and the elegant playfulness of his humour, have been and continue to be perpetual themes of eulogium. That there is much justice in this we do not deny, but is there not some cant? Are not the critics, who enlarge so fluently on the merits of Addison, swayed in a measure by his prescriptive claims on our applause by his high character as an essayist, and by the opinions of those, whose decisions in matters of taste are referred to as final? The prose compositions of Addison, we are assured, have never been equalled — they are the highest examples of excellence in the English language, and the author who aims at perfection must make them his standard. Now, we take it for granted, that the finest specimens of Addison's prose style, are to found the Spectator; and perhaps nothing of his in that work equals the Essays on the Pleasures of imagination. Well, then, we admit their beauty in the fullest extent; we own that they are most admirable; indeed, they have left too vivid an impression on our minds ever to be forgotten, but we cannot allow that they are faultless. There am many portions of the Rambler, which triumph in a comparison with these, the most brilliant efforts of Addison's genius; and Goldsmith, in his Citizen of the World, has approached still nearer to perfection. Addison, particularly in the Spectator, frequently falls into a poverty of expression, which, were his essays now perused for the first time, would not be tolerated for a moment. Occasionally, no doubt, he has passages of overpowering splendour, but these are mixed up with much careless, much coarse, and much incorrect writing; you feel, while perusing his compositions, that he heartily despised his readers, and though he might sometimes labour a page or two for posterity, their general texture is negligent and unfinished. It is the fashion to admire the Spectator; children are desired to model their morals and their manners by its precepts; and the Tyro in literature is counselled to emulate its perfections. What does the Spectator consist of? A bundle of unconnected papers, for the most part relating to ephemeral modes and feelings, in which we of the nineteenth century can have no possible interest; remarks on players, who flourished more than a hundred years since; censures of fashions, of which we have little or no idea; rebukes of enormities, of which fortunately we have no conception; and biographical notices of men, in whose actions we have no sympathy; humorous sketches of character, moral essays, and critical dissertations are interspersed; and these (the only valuable part of the Spectator) would scarcely form one thin volume. Of course, the Spectator, when first circulated in numbers, had a claim to approbation extrinsic of its literary excellence; for it conduced, perhaps more than any other work, to embue the English nation with a taste for literature and the fine arts; but the merit of originating and conducting it was entirely Steele's.

Of Addison's other works, Cato is the best known. It is certainly a fine poem; but as a drama, unless when supported by the powers of a Kemble, it has little or no interest. The character of Cato is truly Roman throughout; and the sentiments he is made to utter are in excellent keeping: he is indeed what our imaginations have conceived him, the very God of Liberty. Juba and Syphax are passable enough; but the ladies, and the love-scenes in which they figure, placed in juxtaposition with the other events and persons of the play, are absolutely absurd.

Nobody reads "Blenheim;" indeed it has only one passage (the angel simile) to redeem it from utter contempt. The Letter to Lord Halifax is a very elegant and beautiful production; but of Addison's other poems, (always excepting his exquisite odes in the Spectator,) the less that is said the better. His Latin compositions are exceedingly dull: they may be "coldly correct, and elegantly slow," and they are immortal because Addison wrote them, but they have no other recommendation. The fame of Addison, however, is too widely diffused, and too well founded, to suffer from any animadversion on his minor compositions. The mingling acclamation of ages have declared him entitled to a distinguished rank among the great spirits of his country, and the folly and cupidity of that man would be glaring, who should venture to call in question the literary excellence of him, for whose sake the Spectator is immortal, — the author of Cato.