1712
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Spectator 523 [Heathen Mythology.]

The Spectator No. 523 (30 October 1712).

Joseph Addison


Joseph Addison praises the pastorals of his associate Ambrose Philips in terms that would have offended Alexander Pope. He singles out what was most significant in Philips's endeavours: "One would have thought it impossible for this Kind of Poetry to have subsisted without Fawns and Satyrs, Wood-Nymphs and Water-Nymphs, with all the Tribe of Rural Deities. But we see he has given a new Life, and a more natural Beauty to this way of Writing, by Substituting in the Place of these Antiquated Fables, the superstitious Mythology which prevails among the Shepherds of our own Country." Once British pastoral extended from the local superstitions (imitating Theocritus really), to describing and recording local manners, landscapes, and habits of speech, pastoral poetry, and indeed modern literature, would depart dramatically from classical precedent.

Joseph Warton: "'Addison,' says Johnson, 'never outsteps the modesty of nature, nor raises merriment or wonder by the violation of truth. His figures neither divert by distortion, nor amaze by aggravation. He copies life with so much fidelity, that he can hardly be said to invent, yet his exhibitions have an air so much original, that it is difficult to suppose them not merely the product of imagination. His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal; on light occasions not grovelling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration.' Very different, therefore, from the style of Dr. Johnson himself" in Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Warton (1797) 7:275n.

Tobias Oldschool: "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" Literary Speculum 1 (April 1822) 418.

W. J. Courthope: "Up to a certain point Addison, in his critical method, proceeded along the same lines as Dryden; the best criticism of each of them implies the presence of a critical audience. But Addison's papers of this kind in The Spectator have nothing in them 'occasional,' nothing of that charm of careless egotism which characterises the Prefaces of Dryden, when he speaks with the conscious authority of a man of genius about matters which he knows to be generally interesting. The essayist feels that, through his newspaper, he is addressing a far wider audience than would listen to a literary discourse in any single coffee-house, or indeed would be likely to buy a particular book. Men of business, as well as of pleasure, weigh his opinions; women in large numbers are among his readers; it is his business rather to persuade and conciliate their understandings, than to treat them as if they were scholars. Hence there is very much less of dialectic in Addison's criticism than there is in Dryden's, but much more of illustration; and, generally speaking, it may be said that the farther the former moves away from his practical end and his particular instances, in the direction of abstract reasoning, the less valuable do his judgments become" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 5:84.




I am always highly delighted with the Discovery of any rising Genius among my Countrymen. For this Reason I have read over, with great Pleasure, the late Miscellany published by Mr. Pope, in which there are many Excellent Compositions of that ingenious Gentleman. I have had a Pleasure, of the same kind, in perusing a Poem that is just published on the Prospect of Peace, and which, I hope, will meet with such a Reward from its Patrons, as so noble a Performance deserves. I was particularly well pleased to find that the Author had not amused himself with Fables out of the Pagan Theology, and that when he hints at any thing of this nature, he alludes to it only as to a Fable.

Many of our Modern Authors, whose Learning very often extends no farther than Ovid's Metamorphosis, do not know how to celebrate a Great Man, without mixing a parcel of School-boy Tales with the Recital of his Actions. If you read a Poem on a fine Woman, among the Authors of this Class, you shall see that it turns more upon Venus or Helen, than on the Party concerned. I have known a Copy of Verses on a great Hero highly commended, but upon asking to hear some of the beautiful Passages, the Admirer of it has repeated to me a Speech of Apollo, or a Description of Polypheme. At other times when I have searched for the Actions of a Great Man, who gave a Subject to the Writer, I have been entertained with the Exploits of a River-God, or have been forced to attend a Fury in her mischievous Progress, from one end of the Poem to the other. When we are at School it is necessary for us to be acquainted with the System of Pagan Theology, and may be allowed to enliven a Theme, or point an Epigram with an Heathen God; but when we would write a manly Panegyrick, that should carry in it all the Colours of Truth, nothing can be more ridiculous than to have recourse to our Jupiter's and Juno's.

No Thought is beautiful which is not just, and no Thought can be just which is not founded in Truth, or at least in that which passes for such.

In Mock-Heroick Poems, the use of the Heathen Mythology is not only excusable but graceful, because it is the Design of such Compositions to divert, by adapting the fabulous Machines of the Ancients to low Subjects, and at the same time by ridiculing such kinds of Machinery in Modern Writers. If any are of Opinion, that there is a necessity of admitting these Classical Legends into our Serious Compositions, in order to give them a more Poetical Turn; I would recommend to their Consideration the Pastorals of Mr. Philips. One would have thought it impossible for this Kind of Poetry to have subsisted without Fawns and Satyrs, Wood-Nymphs and Water-Nymphs, with all the Tribe of Rural Deities. But we see he has given a new Life, and a more natural Beauty to this way of Writing, by Substituting in the Place of these Antiquated Fables, the superstitious Mythology which prevails among the Shepherds of our own Country.

Virgil and Homer might compliment their Heroes, by interweaving the Actions of Deities with their Atchievements; but for a Christian Author to write in the Pagan Creed, to make Prince Eugene a Favourite of Mars, or to carry on a Correspondence between Bellona and the Marshal De Villars, would be downright Puerility, and unpardonable in a Poet that is past Sixteen. It is want of sufficient Elevation in a Genius to describe Realities, and place them in a shining Light, that makes him have recourse to such trifling antiquated Fables; as a Man may write a fine Description of Bacchus or Apollo, that does not know how to draw the Character of any of his Contemporaries.

In order, therefore, to put a stop to this absurd Practice, I shall publish the following Edict, by Vertue of that Spectatorial Authority with which I stand Invested.

"WHEREAS the Time of a General Peace is, in all appearance, drawing near; being informed that there are several ingenious Persons who intend to shew their Talents on so happy an Occasion, and being willing, as much as in me lies, to prevent that Effusion of Nonsense, which we have good Cause to apprehend; I do hereby strictly require every Person, who shall write on this Subject, to remember that he is a Christian, and not to Sacrifice his Catechism to his Poetry. In order to it, I do expect of him in the first place, to make his own Poem without depending upon Phoebus for any part of it, or calling out for Aid upon any one of the Muses by Name. I do likewise positively forbid the sending of Mercury with any particular Message or Dispatch relating to the Peace, and shall by no means suffer Minerva to take upon her the Shape of any Plenipotentiary concerned in this Great Work. I do further declare, that I shall not allow the Destinies to have had an Hand in the Deaths of the several Thousands who have been slain in the late War, being of Opinion that all such Deaths may be very well accounted for by the Christian System of Powder and Ball. I do therefore strictly forbid the Fates to cut the Thread of Man's Life upon any Pretence whatsoever, unless it be for the sake of the Rhime. And whereas I have good Reason to fear, that Neptune will have a great deal of Business on his Hands, in several Poems which we may now suppose are upon the Anvil, I do also prohibit his Appearance, unless it be done in Metaphor, Simile, or any very short Allusion, and that even here he be not permitted to enter, but with great Caution and Circumspection. I desire that the same Rule may be extended to his whole Fraternity of Heathen Gods, it being my Design to condemn every Poem to the Flames, in which Jupiter Thunders, or exercises any other Act of Authority, which does not belong to him: In short, I expect that no Pagan Agent shall be introduced, or any Fact related which a Man cannot give Credit to with a good Conscience. Provided always, that nothing herein contained shall extend, or be construed to extend, to several of the Female Poets in this Nation, who shall be still left in full Possession of their Gods and Goddesses, in the same manner as if this Paper had never been written."


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