Four Groups Defined in The Spectator

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Which, in your opinion, is the most important group of essays in the Spectator, and why?
“The essays in the Spectator fall into a few easily defined groups”. Examine each group briefly and show in which group Addison is at his best.

      The de Coverley papers: the most important of the “Spectator” Papers

The Spectator Papers Fall into Four Broad Divisions

      The “Spectator” essays can be divided into four categories. One of these is the category of purely didactic essays which have no element of satire or humour. The next category is those of critical essays. Then we have the social or satirical essays. Finally, there are the de Coverley papers. Let us see if all these categories have an equal importance as far as the literary reputation of the Spectator is concerned.

      The didactic essays are frankly ‘moralistic’ in intention. They are, in truth, ‘lay sermons’. Though one can admire the style of these essays, especially that of The Vision of Mirza, there is nothing great or profound in these essays. The moral lessons are of the variety of trite sayings which most people already know, such as ‘Be cheerful’, ‘Be content with what you have’ ‘Be charitable’, “Do not be egoistical”, and so on. Undoubtedly, these trite moral lessons are treated elaborately in his urbane and refined style and added interest is given to them with the help of fables and allusions and anecdotes and allegories. Yet beyond their style there is nothing admirable about them. There is neither depth nor originality of thought.

      The critical essays helped to establish Addison as a man of sense and ability to judge in his own times. Addison enjoyed the position of authority in the field of criticism in his age. In this field too, Addison clearly saw what the age required and gave it what it required. If his criticism was more accepted, it is essentially because of its simplicity. One can, of course, not doubt his importance in this field. He did create or generate an interest in great works of literature such as the Paradise Lost and the old ballads like Chevy Chase. He applies rules in the process of judging works and this is, perhaps, not very appealing to the modern sensibility. His ideas on the stage and opera give essays such as Stage Realism, Nicolini and the Lions, and Stage Murder, a historical value. The suggestions that he makes are valuable and show Addison’s good sense and sanity of outlook. But they do not have much relevance in the modern context. Though he has given certain valuable precepts as regards satire (The Scope of Satire, Malicious Wit), he limits the sphere of satire. On the whole, one agrees with Dr. Johnson that Addison was not very deep and probing in his critical essays. He is too superficial to be acclaimed as a great critic.

      The next group of the social or satirical essays are the essays which satirize the follies and foibles of the society in general. This group contains the essays which deal with feminine foibles of dress and fashion and behavior. These essays were intended to reform society, to dispel ignorance (Addison intended to bring philosophy out of the closets to dwell on the tea-tables and in the coffee-houses, and clubs), and to develop good sense and taste in the behavior of people, to remove affectation and vanities. In this “war” against vice and folly, Addison brought into use the weapons of satire, irony and humour. He intended to laugh mankind out of folly. He did not rant and rail or shower abuse upon the behavior of people but gently and humorously held these follies up to ridicule. In these essays, he made everyone realize the possibilities of humorous satire. He exposes the frivolities to laughter. The satire is good humoured and effective. Wit is employed to great effect but never ‘’abused” to hit out against anyone personally. He depicts and ridicules, at the same time, the vices of his times. We cannot deny that these essays have an interesting flavor even for the modern reader. We are amused at irony and satire and appreciate humour even though the topics are outdated. Their value in his times was great as they did indeed bring about an improvement in the position of women. These essays are therefore quite important papers of the Spectator papers as they deal with the comedy of manners.

      The de Coverley papers are, however, the most important of the Spectator as far as Addison’s achievement goes. It is in these essays that we find all the principal literary gifts that Addison possessed. We find in them his keen sense of humour, an insight into character, and a delicate taste. The gallery of portraits that we find in these essays — Sir Andrew Freeport with his joke about the sea and the British common, the volatile Will Honeycomb, so gallant and careful about his person, Will Wimble the younger son an aristocratic family idling away his skills, and above all, Sir Roger de Coverley—are admirable evidence of Addison’s skill.

      Sir Roger de Coverley was initially sketched by Steele but it was the hands Addison that he gained such an individuality and life-likeness. With what subtlety he combines praise and mockery characterization that we respect, even while we laugh at, Sir Roger. In nothing else has Addison shown such originality, in nothing else such an exquisite skill”. The ‘human’ quality of the characters add an everlasting charm to these essays. This was the first that characters gained a ‘roundness’ and were not mere ‘types’. The characterization in these papers form an important stage in the evolution of the English novel and their importance in this context is undoubted. For the first time the characters are made to act and speak against different scenes and in different circumstances. Sir Roger has a permanent place in English literature among the immortal characters from Chaucer to the present times. The gentle humor, the delectable irony and the completely ‘human’ characterization make these papers the best of Addison’s.

      As Hugh Walker observes: “Some of the savor has evaporated from nearly all the rest of the Spectator essays, but the de Coverley
papers are fresh. Few, probably, now rank Addison’s allegories as high as they were once ranked, such as The Vision of Mirza; and many are conscious of a certain triteness in the Thoughts in Westminster Abbey. We may admire the skill of the dissection of a beau’s head and of a coquette’s heart, we may admire the humour of Torn Folio and The Political Upholseltrer, or the delicate skill of......The Exercise of the Fan. But the best of these papers leave the reader somewhat cold. They have not humanity which Goldsmith and Lamb could impart to similar essays. This humanity we find hardly elsewhere in the Spectator, except in the de Coverley papers. In these the human characters of Sir Roger and of Will Wimble have been as salt to keep the humour sweet”. Sir Roger, wherever he appears, is “perennially delightful”

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