Page images



ADDISON may be said to have almost created English prose as an instrument for the expression of social thought. Prose had of course been written in many different manners before his time; and the great writers of the seventeenth century - Bacon, Milton, Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, and their compeers— have left us a prose which is full of dignity and grandeur, but which, constructed on a Latin model, lacks ease, simplicity, and lucidity of expression. Dryden made a great advance, and gave us an English written with sinewy precision. But for the first model of an easy, every-day English prose,—a practical, working prose,

we are indebted above all to Addison.

Joseph Addison was born May 1, 1672, four years before the death of Milton. In that year Dryden was at the height of his fame, and Swift was a boy of fifteen. Pope was not born till sixteen years after. At the time of Addison's birth, his father, Lancelot Addison, was a rector in the Church of England. He was a man of character and accomplishments, and a writer of considerable reputation in his day. It is known that Joseph entertained admiration and respect for his memory.

Young Addison received the best part of his education at the "Charter House," a famous London school. At the age of fifteen he entered Oxford, where he took his master's degree in 1693. While in college his Latin,

poems won him considerable renown, especially that on the inauguration of King William the Third.

His reputation as a scholar and a man of taste soon extended itself to the world of letters in London. In 1693, being then in his twenty-second year, he wrote his Account of the Greatest English Poets; and about the same time he addressed some complimentary verses to Dryden. John Dryden "glorious John," as Sir Walter Scott named him- was at this time, and for many years had been, the dictator of English letters; and the friendly countenance he showed Addison in reward for the latter's well-turned compliment was of decided service to the young poet.

The smile of royal favor, also, was not wanting; and in 1699 he received from King William a pension of three hundred pounds a year, that he might cultivate his classic tastes by travel on the Continent. So, with a full purse, and the reputation of being the most elegant scholar of his day in England, Addison set out upon the grand tour. The death of William, however, three years afterwards (March, 1702), stopped his pension (it was not continued by Queen Anne), and cut short his traveled ease; so home he came, a poor yet cheerful scholar, to wait quietly for fortune in a shabby lodging up two pair of stairs in the Haymarket, London.

But Addison's star was not to be long in eclipse. In the summer of 1704, Marlborough won (over the army of Louis XIV.) the great victory of Blenheim. The British chief minister, Godolphin, wishing a poem in celebration of the event, sent to invite Addison to write it. The result was the lucky poem known as

The Campaign, which chanted loudly the praises of Marlborough, who is compared, in a passage that took the whole town by storm, to an angel guiding the whirlwind. The Campaign had an immense vogue, and brought the poet a very solid reward. Thackeray calls it "a large prize poem that won an enormous prize." Addison was made under-secretary of state, a post from which he mounted to one position of honor after another, till his retirement from public life in 1718.

Meantime, during these years of official occupation his pen was not idle. We have seen that he made his literary début as a poet; but it was as a writer of sweet and artless prose that he was to achieve his highest fame. In the spring of 1709, Addison's old schoolfellow Steele (Dick Steele he was as a schoolboy, but now exalted to be Sir Richard) started a tri-weekly sheet called The Tatler, which for a penny gave a short article and some scraps of news. Addison, who was then in official employment in Ireland, wrote occasionally for this leaf. But when The Tatler, after living for nearly two years, gave place to the more famous daily sheet called The Spectator, Addison became a constant contributor, and by his prose-papers made the fortune of the periodical. It soon became a necessity in polite society. On the tray beside the delicate porcelain cups from which beauty and beau sipped their fragrant chocolate or tea by the toilettable in the late noonday, lay the welcome little sheet of sparkling wit or elegant criticism, giving a new zest to the morning meal, and suggesting fresh topics for the afternoon chat in the toy-shops or on the Mall.


In 1713 Addison completed his one drama, Roman tragedy entitled Cato. It was performed at Drury-lane Theater, London, to a house crammed with applauding friends; and it continued to be played nightly for more than a month. Time has greatly abated the reputation of this tragedy. Like Addison's own nature, it is calm and cold; undeniably excellent as a piece of literary sculpture, full of fine declamation and well-chiseled dialogue, but lacking the essentials of dramatic composition. Addison had not the genius of a dramatist, and the success of Cato was largely due to the political influence of the times.

Addison reached his highest political preferment in 1717, when he was made by Queen Anne one of her Majesty's principal secretaries of state. A year previously he had married a titled widow, the Countess of Warwick. Tradition says that the marriage was not a happy one; but this report seems to have been started by Pope, who in one of his poems congratulates himself on "not marrying discord with a noble wife."

After holding the office of secretary of state for a year, Addison was forced to resign in consequence of a severe asthma. Soon after dropsy set in; and he died on the 17th of June, 1719, at the early age of fortyseven. His body was buried by night in Westminster Abbey. It is related that when on his death-bed he sent for his stepson, the Earl of Warwick, and said to him, "See in what peace a Christian can die." These words explain an allusion in a beautiful elegy on Addi son, written by his friend the poet Tickell,

[ocr errors]

"He taught us how to live, and (oh! too high The price of knowledge) taught us how to die." Addison's personal appearance has not been very vividly recorded. Thackeray speaks of his "chiseled features, pure and cold." His statue in Westminster Abbey represents him clad in his dressing-gown, and freed from his wig, as though stepping into his Chelsea garden, with the last Sir Roger de Coverley paper just finished for the next day's Spectator. His temperament was cold, and his manner diffident. In large companies he was extremely reticent, but with two or three friends he was a charming companion and delightful conversationist.

Of Addison's style something has already been said, but rather by way of indicating the relation which as a prose writer he bore to his predecessors than of fixing his absolute rank. Dr. Johnson, in his autocratic way, laid down the famous dogma: "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison."

This advice, though quite sound in Johnson's day, is somewhat antiquated. The prose of the nineteenth century the prose of the best writers of our own day has attained an excellence unknown in the style of the eighteenth century, whether that style was exemplified in the felicitous expression of Addison, or in the sonorous and balanced periods of Johnson. The prose of this latter half of the nineteenth century is marked by a richness, freedom, and variety unknown in any former period of English literature.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »