1749 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Addison

William Melmoth, "Letter XVI" in Letters of Sir Thomas Fitzosborne on several Subjects (1749) 1:75-78.



July 3, 1716.

When I mentioned grace as essential in constituting a fine writer, I rather hoped to have found my sentiments reflected back with a clearer light by yours; than imagined you would have called upon me to explain in form, what I only threw out by accident. To confess the truth, I know not whether, after all that can be said to illustrate this uncommon quality, it must not at last be resolved into the poet's "nequeo monstrare & sentio tantum." In cases of this kind, where language does not supply us with proper words to express the notions of one's mind, we can only convey our sentiments in figurative terms: a defect which necessarily introduces some obscurity.

I will not, therefore, undertake to mark out with any sort of precision, that idea which I would express by the word "grace"; and, perhaps, it can no more be clearly described, than justly defined. To give you, however, a general intimation of what I mean when I apply that term to compositions of genius, I would resemble it to that easy air, which so remarkably distinguishes certain persons of a genteel and liberal cast. It consists not only in the particular beauty of single parts, but arises from the general symmetry and construction of the whole. An author may be just in his sentiments, lively in his figures, and clear in his expression; yet may have no claim to be admitted into the rank of finished writers. Those several members must be so agreeably united as mutually to reflect beauty upon each other: their arrangement must be so happily disposed as not to admit of the least transposition without manifest prejudice to the entire piece. The thoughts, the metaphors, the allusions, and the diction should appear easy and natural, and seem to arise like so many spontaneous productions, rather than as the effects of art or labour.

Whatever therefore is forced or affected in the sentiments; whatever is pompous or pedantic in the expression, is the very reverse of grace. Her mien is neither that of a prude nor a coquet; she is regular without formality, and sprightly without being fantastical. Grace, in short, is to good writing, what a proper light is to a fine picture; it not only shews all the figures in their several proportions and relations, but shews them in the most advantageous manner.

As genteelity (to resume my former illustration) appears in the minutest action, and improves the most inconsiderable gesture; so grace is discovered in the placing even of a single word, or the turn of a meer expletive. Neither is this inexpressible quality confined to one species of composition only, but extends to all the various kinds; to the humble Pastoral as well as to the lofty Epic; from the slightest letter to the most solemn discourse.

I know not whether Sir William Temple may not be considered as the first of our prose authors, who introduced a graceful manner into our language. At least that quality does not seem to have appeared early, or spread far, amongst us. But wheresoever we may look for its origin, it is certainly to be found in its highest perfection in the late essays of a gentleman whose writings will be distinguished so long as politeness and good sense have any admirers. That becoming air which Tully esteemed the criterion of fine composition, and which every reader, he says, imagins so easy to be imitated, yet will find so difficult to attain, is the prevailing characteristic of all that excellent author's most elegant performances. In a word, one may justly apply to him what Plato, in his allegorical language, says of Aristophanes; that the Graces, having searched all the world round for a temple wherein they might for ever dwell, settled at last in the breast of Mr. Addison. Adieu. I am, &c.