1712
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Spectator 419 [The Fairy Way of Writing.]

The Spectator No. 419 (1 July 1712).

Joseph Addison


In this famous essay on pleasures of imagination arising from horror, Joseph Addison regards the taste for gothic in literature to be a particularly modern and English phenomenon: "we find a whole creation of the like shadowy persons in Spenser." The phrase "fairy way of writing" comes from Dryden's preface to King Arthur.

Henry Headley: "Though the poetry of Addison assumed little or no tincture from his taste for our obscurer writers (for a taste on this head he undoubtedly possessed, much superior to any of his contemporaries), he still merits the thanks of every poetical reader, for his elegant efforts to revive the beauties of the Paradise Lost, his critique on Chevy Chase, and various scattered notices of a congenial nature in his periodical papers" Specimens of Ancient English Poetry (1787; 1810) 1:xxiii.

John Wilson: "NORTH. As to the English school, Dryden and Dennis — forgive the junction James — both wrote acute criticism; but the name of Dennis but for Pope would have now been in oblivion, as all his writings are — and 'glorious John' had never gained that epithet — excellent as they are — by his prose prefaces. What other English critic has flourished before the present age? Addison. His Essays on the Imagination may be advantageously read by young ladies, before they paper their hair with such flimsy lucubrations. SHEPHERD. I'll no alloo ye to say a word against the author o' the Vision o' Mirza. As for the Spectawtors, I never could thole them" Blackwood's Magazine (April 1829) in Noctes Ambrosianae (1857) 3:271-72.

William Howitt: "He was not only a popular poet in his own day, but he was the friend and advocate of true poetry where it could be found. It was he who, in the Spectator, first sounded boldly and zealously abroad the glory of John Milton. In our time the revival of true poetry, the return to nature and to truth, have been greatly indebted to the old ballad poetry of the nation. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Scott, and others attribute the formation of their taste in the highest degree to the reading of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. But it was Addison who long before had pointed out these sources, and these effects. It was he who brought forward again the brave old ballad of Chevy Chace; who reminded us that Sir Philip Sidney had said that it always stirred his heart like the sound of a trumpet. It was he who showed us the inimitable touches of nature and of true pathos in it. He showed us how alive was the old bard who composed it to all the influences of nature and of circumstances" Homes and Haunts of the most eminent British Poets (1847) 1:124-25.

George Saintsbury: "I have seen this phrase ["fairy way of writing"] attributed, and by no unlettered person, to Charles Lamb. It is actually derived from Dryden's Preface to King Arthur, his 'fairy' opera; but no doubt Addison gave it much wider currency, and Lamb may have taken it from him" Loci Critici (1903) 198n.

Harold V. Routh: in the essays on the pleasures of imagination Addison "wanted to show how the emotions can be raised and purified by what men see and read. So, he discussed the intellectual pleasures, to be found, first, in landscapes and gardens, then, in statues, pictures, and architecture, and then, in the mirrored views of life which a descriptive writer can call up before the mind's eye. This difficult and intricate subject involved an inquiry into the psychology of the imagination and a scientific discrimination of the functions and limits of the different arts" Cambridge History of English Literature (1913) 9:68.

Herbert E. Cory: "Addison wrote of what Dryden called 'The Fairy Way of Writing' in a tone that has been called romantic, and lauded these 'allegories.' 'There is another sort of imaginary Beings, that we sometimes meet with among the Poets, when the Author represents any Passion, Appetite, Virtue or Vice, under a visible Shape and makes it a Person or an Actor in his Poem .... We find a whole Creation of the like shadowy Persons in Spencer, who had an admirable talent in Representations of this kind.' However romantic the general tenets of this paper may be conidered, the comments on Spenser are but that praise of allegory which was becoming orthodox among the Augustans. We may assume that, at this latter date, Addison would have been less ready to have his fling at Milton's Sin and Death, at Spenser and the Italians. Indeed the neo-classical admiration for the allegory of The Faerie Queene, though native to the didactic temperament of the eighteenth century, doubtless received some stimulus from the words of the revered Addison. He asserts that: 'Allegories, when well chosen, are like so many Tracks of Light in a discourse, that makes everything about them clear and beautiful'" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 131.

Earl R. Wasserman: "Addison therefore associated the personification of abstractions with the 'fairy way of writing,' which gives life to characters that have no existence but what the poet bestows upon them, such as fairies, witches, and abstractions 'under a visible shape'" "The Inherent Values of Eighteenth-Century Personification" PMLA 65 (1950) 443.

See also Addison's comment on Milton's imitation of Spenser in Spectator No. 297: "Such allegories [as Sin and Death] savour of the Spirit of Spencer and Ariosto, than of Homer and Virgil." Richard Hurd's discussion of the Faerie Queene in Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) owes something to Addison's argument.




There is a kind of Writing, wherein the Poet quite loses sight of Nature, and entertains his Reader's Imagination with the Characters and Actions of such Persons as have many of them no Existence, but what he bestows on them. Such are Fairies, Witches, Magicians, Demons, and departed Spirits. This Mr. Dryden calls the Fairie may of Writing, which is, indeed, more difficult than any other that depends on the Poet's Fancy, because he has no Pattern to follow in it, and must work altogether out of his own Invention.

There is a very odd turn of Thought required for this sort of Writing, and it is impossible for a Poet to succeed in it, who has not a particular Cast of Fancy, and an Imagination naturally fruitful and superstitious. Besides this, he ought to be very well versed in Legends and Fables, antiquated Romances, and the Traditions of Nurses and old Women, that he may fall in with our natural Prejudices, and humour those Notions which we have imbibed in our Infancy. For, otherwise, he will be apt to make his Fairies talk like People of his own Species, and not like other Setts of Beings, who converse with different Objects, and think in a different manner from that of Mankind;

Sylvis deducti caveant, me Judice, Fauni
Ne velut inanti triviis ac paene forenses
Aut nimium teneris juvenentur versibus—

I do not say with Mr. Bays in the Rehearsal, that Spirits must not be confined to speak Sense, but it is certain their Sense ought to be a little discoloured, that it may seem particular, and proper to the Person and the Condition of the Speaker.

These Descriptions raise a pleasing kind of Horrour in the Mind of the Reader, and amuse his Imagination with the Strangeness and Novelty of the Persons who are represented in them. They bring up into our Memory the Stories we have heard in our Child-hood, and favour those secret Terrours and Apprehensions to which the Mind of Man is naturally subject. We are pleased with surveying the different Habits and Behaviours of Foreign Countries, how much more must we be delighted and surprised when we are led, as it were, into a new Creation, and see the Persons and Manners of another Species? Men of cold Fancies, and Philosophical Dispositions, object to this kind of Poetry, that it has not Probability enough to affect the Imagination. But to this it may be answered, that we are sure, in general, there are many Intellectual Beings in the World besides our selves, and several Species of Spirits, who are subject to different Laws and Oeconomies from those of Mankind; when we see, therefore, any of these represented naturally, we cannot look upon the Representation as altogether impossible; nay, many are prepossess with such false Opinions, as dispose them to believe these particular Delusions; at least, we have all heard so many pleasing Relations in favour of them, that we do not care for seeing through the Falshood, and willingly give our selves up to so agreeable an Imposture.

The Ancients have not much of this Poetry among them, for, indeed, almost the whole Substance of it owes its Original to the Darkness and Superstition of later Ages, when pious Frauds were made use of to amuse Mankind, and frighten them into a Sense of their Duty. Our Forefathers looked upon Nature with more Reverence and Horrour, before the World was enlightened by Learning and Philosophy, and loved to astonish themselves with the Apprehensions of Witchcraft, Prodigies, Charms and Enchantments. There was scarce a Village in England that had not a Ghost in it, the Churchyards were all haunted, every large Common had a Circle of Fairies belonging to it, and there was scarce a Shepherd to be met with who had not seen a Spirit.

Among all the Poets of this Kind our English are much the best by what I have yet seen, whether it be that we abound with more Stories of this Nature, or that the Genius of our Country is fitter for this sort of Poetry. For the English are naturally Fanciful, and very often disposed by that Gloominess and Melancholly of Temper which is so frequent in our Nation, to many wild Notions and Visions, to which others are not so liable.

Among the English, Shakespear has incomparably excelled all others. That noble Extravagance of Fancy, which he had in so great Perfection, throughly qualified him to touch this weak superstitious Part of his Reader's Imagination; and made him capable of succeeding, where he had nothing to support him besides the Strength of his own Genius. There is something so wild and yet so solemn in the Speeches of his Ghosts, Fairies, Witches, and the like Imaginary Persons, that we cannot forbear thinking them natural, tho' we have no Rule by which to judge of them, and must confess, if there are such Beings in the World, it looks highly probable they should talk and act as he has represented them.

There is another sort of Imaginary Beings, that we sometimes meet with among the Poets, when the Author represents any Passion, Appetite, Virtue or Vice, under a visible Shape, and makes it a Person or an Actor in his Poem. Of this Nature are the Descriptions of Hunger and Envy in Ovid, of Fame in Virgil, and of Sin and Death in Milton. We find a whole Creation of the like shadowy Persons in Spencer, who had an admirable Talent in Representations of this kind. I have discoursed of these Emblematical Persons in former Papers, and shall therefore only mention them in this Place. Thus we see how many ways Poetry addresses it self to the Imagination, as it has not only the whole Circle of Nature for its Province, but makes new Worlds of its own, shews us Persons that are not to be found in Being, and represents even the Faculties of the Soul, with her several Virtues and Vices, in a sensible Shape and Character.

I shall, in my two following Papers, consider in general, how other kinds of Writing are qualified to please the Imagination, with which I intend to conclude this Essay.


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