Irony Used in Addison’s Essays

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Introduction: Types of Irony

      Irony a weapon, and a dangerous weapon, in the hands of a satirist. It can have deadly effects if used with sense and ability. What is irony? Basically it means dissembling. Irony can take on the shape of Sophoclean irony in which fate is the dissembler, as J.H. Lobban remarks. In this the person expects something but fate deceives him. This is also a tragic or dramatic irony. The irony is often the use of words which mean the opposite of what is said. It involves the difference between what is said and what is meant. Irony can take the form of seeming to praise or approve of something while conveying indirectly the reality which exposes it to ridicule. It can mean pretending ignorance and, by doing so, leading an opponent to make mistakes and be puzzled. It can take the form of describing a trivial or ridiculous object in a mock-serious manner.

      Irony is the tool of a satirist and Addison is essentially a satirist, though a humorous one. Humour is basic to the satire of Addison and the essence of this humour is irony. Now, irony may be defined as a way of treating a trivial thing with mock gravity or by using words in a such a manner as to convey the opposite of what is said. Irony can be dangerous weapon in the hands of a satirist. Swift could make deadly use of it; Jane Austen could use it mercilessly, and Pope, maliciously. The essence of irony is the contrast it produces in one’s apprehension between the ‘appearance’ as presented through the words and the ‘reality’ as conveyed through those very words. Addison’s irony is ‘gentle’ because it is general and ‘urbane’, The very nature of Addison’s irony lies in his treatment of the subject. He seems to admire or condone or sympathize with the subject and manages, all the while, to convey to the reader the absurdity or ridiculous nature of the subject. He ridicules “some fashion of taste by the perfectly grave and simple description of the object.”

Addisonian Irony

      In the hands of Addison, irony gained a typical touch. His irony is that of pretending sympathy with a certain point of view or idea or object while all the time he exposes it to ridicule. His manner is serious and grave and this manner heightens the ironic effect. He had the remarkable ability to describe absurdities in a grave manner as if they were reasonable and natural but, at the same time, managing to leave the reader in no doubt about the reality. The very essence of his humor is irony. There is nothing of the moralist or censor in the way he approaches his victim. The more ridiculous the folly he attacks, the greater is the air of pretended concernment and sympathy. The irony, as Lobban remarks, is all the more deadly that it is delivered under the guise of friendship. Swift could use irony with deadly and devastating effects. So could Voltaire and Pope. Thackeray’s irony was often cynical. The irony of Jane Austen could be merciless. However, Addison could be sly and suave. Humorveils irony and makes it gentle. Also, his irony is general. The combination of irony and urbanity is typical of Addison. Pope was not far off the mark when he wrote the famous lines about Atticus who represented Addison:

“Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer”

      The couplet gives more than an idea of the irony of Addison as viewed by hostile eyes.

Examples of Irony in Addison’s Essays: Grave Irony

      In all the essays the irony comes about because of the grave tone and an apparently sympathetic manner adopted by Addison. In the essays on the stage and Italian opera, the taste of the theatre-going public and the stage props are freely and strikingly satirized through the ironic mode. Note how seriously Addison writes about the lion and Nicolini sitting behind stage peacefully smoking a pipe together. We are told that by this their common enemies would insinuate that the combat on stage is a sham, but Spectator found “upon inquiry: that if any such correspondence has passed between them, it was not till the combat was over, when the lion was to be looked upon as dead, according to the rules of drama”. The irony gains pungency with his next remark: “Besides, this is what is practiced everyday in Westminster Hall, where nothing is more usual than to see a couple of lawyers, who have been tearing each other to pieces in the court, embracing one another as soon as they are out of it”. This is irony at its best and most humorous. The same method of serious description of absurdities is used to satirize the stage props in Stage Realism. The entertainment is made to suit the season with works and illuminations on stage to keep the audience warm!

      The very first essay, The Spectator's Account of Himself, begins with an ironic sentence:

“I have observed, that a reader seldom peruses a book with pleasure till he knows whether the writer of it be black or a fair man, of a mild or choleric disposition, married or a bachelor, with other particularities of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an author.”

      Here is a neat dig at the reader and his unreasonable whims. Note the masterly use of irony in the phrase “that conduce very much to the right understanding of author”, for we at once realize that these factors like complexion are absolutely irrelevant to the understanding of any author’s works! Here is Addison seemingly agreeing with another’s point of view even while sabotaging that very view!

Irony Against the Female Sex

      It has been rightly said that nowhere else is Addison’s irony most effective and striking than in the essays where he deals with the foibles and fashions of the female sex. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an essay in which there is a more sustained use of pungent irony than the essay, Female Orators or Fans. In Female Orators, we are calmly and gravely told that the chair for rhetoric in universities should be reserved for females since they are so much more talkative than men. We are told that women are better orators, for men after all can talk for hours upon any subject, whereas women possess the ability to talk for hours upon nothing. This is written in a tone of praise and the ironical effect is enhanced. Each paragraph in this essay offers a shock of surprise through irony. The females, we are told should prove better in arguing cases in court eloquently. As proof, we are told in the most grave tone, that one has merely to observe the fish wives arguing to know for sure that women will make better lawyers! Here is a dig at the women’s volubility as well as the bickerings in court between lawyers. What can be more ironical than the reference to the fish wives as the British fishery? Towards the end, we are offered a grave account of the possible causes of the volubility in females. The climax is reached with the quotation from Ovid, that a female tongue, even when it is cut off can continue to make some sound. In the same essay, we have the delectable irony of the lady, Mrs. Fiddle Faddle who can speak for hours on the wit of her boy who has yet to learn how to speak.

      Fans deals with feminine fashion of the times to carry a fan. In the form of a letter from an imaginary correspondent, Addison satirizes the fashion. The language is serious and so is the tone of writing and this heightens the satire. “Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them.” The correspondent has opened an institution to train women in the art of using the fan to a great advantage. A fashionable foible is ridiculed with unrelaxed gravity and the irony is unsparing but not virulent. The ironical attitude advances gradually but steadily to reach a height of fun in Fans where we are told in the same serious and academic manner (as if the writer is researching some very important subject) that “there is an infinite variety of motion to be made use of in the flutter of a fan. There is the angry flutter, the modest flutter, and the amorous flutter...”

Irony in the de Coverley Essays

      The papers dealing with Sir Roger and the other Spectator Club members present a subtle irony. Sir Roger is a good man but full of oddities and these oddities are presented in an ironical light. But the irony is always good-natured and never malicious. In the essay, Sir Roger, we are told that Sir Roger being the landlord of the whole congregation, “he keeps them in very good order; and will suffer to sleep in it beside himself.” The tone is one of gravity even though the intention is to poke fun at the oddities of character. He seems to be actually praising his qualities, where irony is in the description of the behavior of Sir Roger in the essay, “Sir Rogen on the Bench,” where Sir Roger heard two opposing parties in country?ourt and “told them with the air of a man who would not give his judgment rashly, that much might be said on both sides”. In Sir in Church we have a number of instances where the straightforward narration clearly has an ironical purpose. Sir Roger “sometimes stands up when everybody else is upon their knees to count the congregation, or see if any of his tenants are missing.”

      We come across a number of other characters in the de Coverley papers and none of them is spared of an ironical dig. Will Honeycomb, the gallant member of the club, does not like pedantry in spellings, we are told, and that is why he spells wrongly. Spectator’s admiration, of Will Honeycomb’s ability to make his “real ignorance look like a seeming one” is obviously ironical. Sympathetic irony is very much the case in the description of Will Wimble and his attainments. In the essay, Character of Will Wimble, Addison says: “He is extremely well versed in all the little handicrafts of an idle man; he makes a May-fly to a miracle; and furnishes the whole country with angle rods”. The tone is again one of praise and gravity but the: irony can not be missed. The irony becomes pungent when, in the same essay, Addison attacks the particular class to which Will Wimble belongs and says that these great families would “rather see their children starve like gentlemen, than thrive in a trade or profession that is beneath their quality.” He uses irony very well for satiric purposes, for the purpose of reforming.

Ironic Attitude Towards the Tastes of Society

      Many of his other essays present his ironic attitude to the contemporary tastes or, rather, lack of good tastes. In the essay, A Grinning Match, ironical humor forms the basis. The writer pretends ignorance and says: “I have looked over all the Olympic games, and do not find anything in them like an ass-race, or a match at grinning.” He seems to accord a very important position to these matches while it is evident that he is only ridiculing them. There is irony in the essay Coffee House Politicians when he calls these gossips of the coffee house “statesmen” and “eminent politicians”. There is irony in Rural Manners when Will Wimble and Spectator are taking a walk and coming upon a gate in the fields, Will insists upon Spectator crossing over before him. When Spectator signals Will to cross over, Will remarks with gravity that Spectator seemed to believe that they had no manners in the country. This is most ironical, because what Will thought to be good manners, was excessively polite and was no longer considered to be good manners!

Urbane Irony

      Addison’s irony is typical of him because it goes hand in hand with an urbanity of language and expression. He is never crude or rough or coarse even when he is ironical. He never satirizes or uses ironic references towards particular persons. Though people have tried to find originals for Sir Roger, Will Honeycomb and the other members of the Spectator Club. They have not really been successful. Addison was more interested in attacking a type of vice and folly rather than the individual who possessed them. As such, his irony is also conditioned by this approach to satire. He is ironical, pungently so in the essays dealing with the fashions and foibles of finales, but he is never virulent and savage. Irony in Addison’s essays is gentle, precisely because it was aimed at general objects and not at particular persons. Furthermore, it is gentle because its sharpness is tempered by humor. If he had not been humorous or general, there is every evidence that his irony could have been as devastating and deadly as Swift’s or Pope’s. Nowhere in his essays does he attack individuals. Nowhere is his irony offensive or hurtful. He had a formidable power in his hands; he did indeed use irony with great effect, but it does not become bitter and savage in his hands, because he aimed at the correction of society through laughter.

      He is always polite and cultured in his language, refined and civilized in his expression. He did not intend to hurt with his irony. Even in the papers dealing with the dissection of a beau’s head and a coquette’s heart where the wit is truly merciless, there is not the ferocious and virulent quality that would have been brought to the same subjects by Swift. He does indeed “damn with faint praise” and “assent with civil leer” as Pope remarks, of course in a manner typically Pope’s. His irony is. used in a civil manner and does indeed achieve a great effect.

Illustrate The Nature of Addison’s Irony

      A single essay of Addison shows his capacity for the use of this irony. Comic irony finds remarkable expression in the essay Female Orators. The essay is a sustained piece of irony—indeed it is a string of ironical observations. Each paragraph has an ironical remark which causes a shock of surprise. And the essence of the irony lies in the fact that Addison’s remarks are couched in the gravest and serious tone, and yet the implied meaning could not more clear.

      The very first paragraph sets the tone. Addison remarks that the universities should set aside the chair for rhetoric women as they are better qualified than men for this particular field of learning. In the second paragraph, we are told that women are better than men in the art of rhetoric as they are able to talk for hours upon nothing whereas men can perhaps talk for hours only upon some subject. How seriously Addison goes on to tell us about the woman who talked for hours and in all the figures of rhetoric upon the edging of a petticoat, or the breaking of china cup! The irony is pungent. Addison seems to admire, but there can be no mistaking the real intention. He intends to point out the useless and trivial things that a woman talks about but he talks about this drawback in women as if it were a great accomplishment and therein lies the ironical effect.

      Next the author tells us that women would make better lawyers to argue in court. The remark seems innocuous enough; in fact seems a compliment. Then comes the sting in the remark that compares the women’s capacity at legal argument with the rhetorical ability of the ‘ladies of the British Fishery.’ The very phrase ‘ladies of the British fishery’ is a piece of supreme irony. What a grandiloquent term for the fish wives, the shrewd and abusive women who sell fish and bargained and argued in the worst possible language!

      Addison then goes on to the different types of ‘female orators’. Once again the tone is one of factual gravity. He merely seems to be classifying the ‘rhetorician’ in a most scientific manner and talking about each one’s methods and abilities. But the intention of ridicule is clear. In a tone of admiration he talks of the rhetorical skills of some who are able to tell over the same story under different circumstances and in a large variety of phrases. He showers praise on the copiousness of expression and fluency of invention of the ‘censorious’ class of female orators, but the ironical intention is clear when he tells us that these ‘talents’ are employed for enlarging upon “every slip in the behavior of another”. He gives an illustration (an imaginary anecdote). He talks of the old lady who once made an unhappy marriage the subject of a month’s conversation and after she had exhausted all aspects of the subject, went and cultivated the friendship of the unhappy bride and told her that people were talking ever so unreasonably about the marriage. This is irony on two levels. Firstly, it is ironical that the woman should have made the unhappy marriage the subject of a whole month’s conversation. Secondly, it is highly ironical that she should go and make friends with the wife and tell her that other people were talking about the marriage in an unreasonable manner! The old lady was not only loquacious; she was also hypocritical!

      No one could miss the delectable, irony of Mrs. Fiddle-Faddle who could talk for hours upon the wit of her little boy who had not yet learned to speak! and here comes the ironical sting. This is most amusing even while the irony is pungent. The irony is again
clear and pointed in the description of the coquettes who hate and love in the same breath so as to increase the field of conversation. She talks, sighs, laughs, all irrelevantly and merely to give her an opportunity to move her limbs and make gestures. Irony is the mode of attack here where the affectations and incongruous behavior of this class of female orators are made fun of. But we also realize the essential quality of this irony here—Addison makes us laugh at the absurdities but he never rants and rails or arouses disgust as Swift could have done, was he talking upon the same subject.

      The essay reaches the climax of fun and ironical pungency when Addison comes to the possible reasons for this loquacity in women. He analyses in a scientific manner the causes of this garrulity. Perhaps, he says, women speak whatever they think, thus proving the Cartesian dictum that the soul is always thinking. But then, he goes on in the most serious vein as if he were arguing out a grave case, women often do not speak what they in reality think — they often pretend and disassemble. Thus the Cartesian dictum can not explain the garrulity. The irony cannot be missed—he has a dig at women for lying and dissembling, He comes to the suggestion that perhaps there are some special juices in the tongue of female - which make her extra talkative; may be there are some extra pliable fibers in the tongue, or some special muscle which makes it dart up and down at incredible speed. Or perhaps there is a special channel connecting brain, heart and the tongue of the female. This analysis is done in the serious tone of a scientific inquiry and this is what heightens the ironic effect.

      The climax of the essay comes in the comic use of a tragic passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Addison quotes the passage from Ovid in which we are told that when a female’s tongue was cut off it lay quivering on the ground, murmuring with a faint imperfect sound. The essentially tragic passage is used in an ironic context by Addison to prove the point that the females have an irrepressible capacity to talk.

      The essay shows Addison’s mastery over a delicate and flexible irony. Irony is sustained all through the essay upto the last paragraph where, however, the sting of satire is removed with the confession that the author was speaking with a pure moral purpose restoring the female tongue to that natural sweetness which is its rightful quality. We see that his irony was used for his purpose of social and moral reform. We also see that his irony, though pungent and trenchant, never hurts any particular individual woman; it is a general irony. This is irony used humorously—we are always conscious of the funny aspect—never is the irony bitter. It is typically Addisonian because it is irony which is general and humorous.


      In Addison’s hands, irony became “gentle”. He used it for corrective purposes and not for slandering his personal enemies. He attacked vice in general in a humorous manner. He “blackened no man’s character”; he attacked the vice without hurting the person. He uses irony in a refined and cultured manner. His language never becomes coarse, rough or savage. He ridicules people without malignity or ill-will. He does not misuse this powerful weapon, though he employs it constantly. His very style is ironical and irony gives poignancy and sharpness to his criticism. His ironical style was typically his own. Dr. Johnson said of Addison: “It was his practice, when he found any man invincibly wrong, to flatter his opinions by acquiescence and sink him yet deeper into absurdity.” This is a true estimate of Addison’s ironical approach.

University Questions

1. “His irony and urbanity are two of the prominent traits in the essays of Addison.” Explain and substantiate from the prescribed essays of Addison

2. “The essence of Addison’s humor is its irony” Explain with reference to Addison's essays

3. What do you understand by the term Addisonian irony? Explain with illustrations from Addison’s essays

4. Write a note on Addison's use of irony as a stylistic device.

5. “Addison’s irony is gentle only because it is general and is veiled by humour.” Discuss in the context of Addison’s essays.

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