Joseph Addison: Literary Contribution

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      His Life : Educated at the Charterhouse, Joseph Addison went to Oxford, where he became a Fellow of Magdalen College. He early made his mark as a serious and accomplished scholar, and seems to have attracted the notice of the Whig leaders, who marked him out as a future literary prop of their faction. He obtained travelling scholarship of three hundred pounds a year, and saw much of Europe under favourable conditions. Then the misfortunes of the Whigs in 1703 reduced him to poverty. In 1704, it is said at the instigation of the leaders of the Whigs, he wrote the poem The Campaign, praising the war policy of the Whigs in general and the worthiness of Marlborough in particular. This poem brought him fame and fortune. He obtained many official appointments and pensions, married a dowager countess (1716), and became a Secretary of State (1717). Two years later he died, at the early age of forty-seven.

In his Latin verses Addison attained early distinction. These verses were highly praised at a time when praise for proficiency in such a medium was of some significance.
Joseph Addison

      His Poetry : In his Latin verses Addison attained early distinction. These verses were highly praised at a time when praise for proficiency in such a medium was of some significance. Then his The Campaign in 1704 gave him a reputation as one of the major poets of the age. The poem is poor enough. It is written in the heroic couplet, and with some truth it has been called a "rhymed gazette." The story is little more than a pompous catalogue of places and persons; the style is but mediocre, and warms only when it is feebly stirred by the ignorant enthusiasm that a sedentary civilian feels for the glory of war. The hero is Marlborough, who is drawn on a scale of epic grandeur. The most famous passage of the work is that comparing the general to the angel that rides the storm. The poem literally made Addison's fortune; for after reading it the Whig Lord Treasurer Godolphin gave him the valuable appointment of Commissioner of Appeals. His only other poetical works worthy of notice are his hymns, which are melodious, scholarly, and full of a cheerful piety. The one that begins "The spacious firmament on high" is among the best.

      His Drama : Addison was lucky in his greatest dramatic effort, just as he was lucky in his longest poem. In 1713 he produced the tragedy of Cato, part of which had been in manuscript as early as 1703. It is of little merit, and shows that Addison, whatever his other qualities may be, is no dramatist. It is written in laborious blank verse, in which wooden characters declaim long, dull speeches. But it caught the ear of the political parties, both of which in the course of the play saw pithy references to the inflamed passions of the time. The play had the remarkable run of twenty nights, and was revived with much success. Addison also attempted an opera, Rosamond (1707), which was a failure; and the prose comedy of The Drummer (1715) is said, with some reason, to be his also. If it is, it adds nothing to his reputation.

      His Prose : Several political pamphlets are ascribed to Addison, but as a pamphleteer he is not impressive. He lacked the directness of Swift, whose pen was a terror to his opponents. It is in fact almost entirely as an essayist that Addison is justly famed. These essays began almost casually. On April 12, 1709, Steele published the first number of The Tatler, a periodical that was to appear thrice weekly. Addison, who was a school and college friend of Steele, saw and liked the new publication, and offered his services as a contributor. His offer was accepted, and his first contribution, a semi-political one, appeared in No. 18. Hence - forward Addison wrote regularly for the paper, contributing about 42 numbers, which may be compared with Steele's share of about 188. The Tatler finished in January 1711; then in March of the same year Steele began The Spectator, which was issued daily. The paper had some variations of fortune, price, and time of issue, but eventually it ran until December 1712, obtained an unprecedented Popularity (it was said that in its palmist days it sold ten thousand copies of each issue), and exercised a great influence upon the reading public of the period. In The Spectator Addison rapidly became the dominating spirit, wrote 274 essays out of a complete total of 555, and wholly shaped its policy when Steele tired of the project. Steele wrote 236 essays. In March 1713 Addison assisted Steele with The Guardian, which Steele began. It was only a moderate success, and terminated after 175 numbers, Addison contributing 51.

      In all, we thus have from Addison's pen nearly four hundred essays, which are of nearly uniform length, of almost unvarying excellence of style, and of a wide diversity of subject. They are a faithful reflection of the life of the time viewed with an aloof and dispassionate observation. He set out to be a mild censor of the morals of the age, and most of his compositions deal with topical subjects - fashions, head-dresses, practical jokes, polite conversation. His aim was to point out "those vices which are too trivial for the chastisement of the law, and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit... All agreed that I should be at liberty to carry the war into what quarters I pleased; provided I continued to combat with criminals in a body, and to assault the vice without hurting the person." Deeper themes were handled in a popular fashion - immorality, jealousy, prayer, death, and drunkenness. Politics were touched, but gingerly. In all things he advocated moderation and tolerance and was the enemy of 'enthusiasm.' Sometimes he adopted the allegory as a means of throwing his ideas vividly before his readers; and so we have the popular The Vision of Mirza and the political allegory of Public Credit. Literary criticism, of a mild and cautious kind, found a prominent place in the essays, as well as many half-personal, half-jocular editorial communications to the readers. And, lastly, there was the famous series dealing with the Spectator Club.

      It is certain that Steele' first hit on the idea of Sir Roger de Coverley, an imaginary eccentric old country knight who frequented the Spectator Club in London. Around the knight were grouped a number of contrasted characters, also members of the mythical club. Such were Will Honeycomb, a middle-aged beau; Sir Andrew Freeport, a city merchant; Captain Sentry, a soldier; and Mr Spectator, a shy, reticent person, who bears a resemblance to Addison himself. Addison seized upon the idea of the club; gave it life, interest, and adventure; cast over it the charm of his pleasant humour; and finished up by making the knight die with affecting deliberation and decorum. Sandwiched between essays on other topics, this series appeared at intervals in the pages of The Spectator, and added immensely to the popularity of the journal. In literature it has an added value. If Addison had pinned the Coverley papers together with a stronger plot; if, instead of only referring to the widow who had stolen the knight's affections, he had introduced a definite love-theme; if he had introduced some important female characters, we should have had the first regular novel in our tongue. As it is, this essay-series brings us within measurable distance of the genuine eighteenth-century novel.

      We give an extract to illustrate both his humour and his style. His humour is of a rare order. It is delicately ironical, gentlemanly, tolerant, and urbane. To Swift, with his virile mind, such a temper seemed effeminate and priggish. "I will not meddle with The Spectator," he wrote to Stella; "let him fair sex it to the world's end."

      His style has often been deservedly praised. It is the pattern of the middle style, never slipshod, or obscure, or un-melodious. He has an infallible instinct for the proper word, and an infallible ear for a subdued and graceful rhythm. In this fashion his prose moves with a demure and pleasing grace, in harmony with his subject, with his object, and with himself.

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