Joseph Addison Prose Style as Essayist

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Introduction: Addison’s greatness due to his Essays

      Addison wrote poetry and drama and essays. His poetry, as one critic remarks, was never great at any time, though graceful, scholarly, and facile. His play Cato was very much over-estimated in his times. If Addison’s literary merits were to be judged on the basis of his poetry and drama, we would undoubtedly arrive at the conclusion that he was a writer of mediocrity. His true contribution to the world of literature (and to society too) lay in another sphere of letters, namely his essays. It was through his essays that he contributed to the social reform as well as to the world of letters.

Aim of Writing Essays: Reflected in the Themes

      The essays which Addison wrote for the Spectator, were prompted by the aim of their co-editors, Addison and Steele, to reform society. Thus the motivating force behind these essays was a moral and didactic one. Addison desired to reform the manners of his readers and impart to them information which would go towards dispelling their general ignorance. But he had no intention of imparting political news; he was to give them knowledge and advice which would help them to make them better human beings. But this desire to reform was accompanied by an intention of making this morality lively and attractive through a humorous presentation.

      For the first time someone was trying to bring together two objects which the age had made into sheer opposites. He wished to combine wit and morality whereas all this time after the Restoration wit had been associated with vice morality or virtue with dullness. He chooses themes and topics which would interest his readers while at the same time give him an object to criticize and an opportunity to reform the taste of the reader. It was a courageous aim to reform the society and combine wit with morality.

Wide Range of Themes

      The themes of his essays cover a wide range. Completely moral or didactic subjects, literary subjects, the stage and opera, manners and fashions of the day—these are a variety of subjects. There are also the de Coverley papers. But one noteworthy thing about all these subjects is that they are not too high-brow or beyond the comprehension of the average reader. The subjects are not philosophical or profound and nor is the treatment too learned and scholarly. As Deighton remarks: “Nothing is too trivial for him if so be that the men and women of his time may find a healthy interest in it... Popular superstitions, personal whims, caprices, idiosyncrasies, social manners, pursuits, fashions in their turn within his hold, to be examined, handled, caressed, rebuked, sentenced.”

      All the topics of the essays are closely related with life. This adds to their popularity. Addison excluded “news”; political happenings found no place in his essays in the Spectator. His concern was with human nature and behavior. The wide variety of themes and subjects are broadly related under the major aim of the writer to attack bad manners and bad taste and ignorance and immorality. Within this scheme, came the idea of improving the status and education of women. And it is not a little achievement on the part of Addison and Steele to have called attention to the pathetic situation of women and their intellects which had been allowed, in fact, encouraged, to continue to be shallow and unenlightened. Many of the essays are therefore addressed for the welfare of women.

Not Very Original: “he thinks justly, but he thinks faintly”

      What he writes is “correct” and his approach is most rational and balanced. But this cannot blind us to the fact that there is really nothing too profound in his writings. The lessons he gives are not deep or of great creative or intellectual force. Hugh Walker remarks that his style is lacking in that energy which expresses the highest intellectual and moral conviction and force. This is because Addison himself lacks this kind of force. When we look at the essays of Addison, we see the truth of this statement—the subjects of the essays are too trivial and, in truth, quite commonplace. There is not much of original thinking either in Addison’s writings. But then Addison’s very aim conditions his themes. He was aiming at castigating those vices and follies which were below and beyond the very cognizance of law and the pulpit. And satire by itself is not a profound form of writing.

Picture of The Times

      The essays offer the best picture of the times of Addison—the new social order and its many new interests of the England of the times. The editors of the Spectator were able to reflect the thought of the day; sometimes were able to direct it, and never lost touch with it. It is true that the essays do not give a comprehensive picture of England of the period in the sense that they exclude from their sphere the low classes or the underworld of criminals. But there is no other piece of literature which gives so clear a picture of the “genteel” society and the manners prevalent in it.

Literary Essays: the art of Literary Criticism Advanced

      Addison’s literary criticism becomes important when we consider that it was addressed to the lay reader, the man in the street, the common and average person and the scholar at the same time. And what is noteworthy is that he did manage to advance the art of literary criticism to a much higher stage than it had ever before reached. As one critic remarks, we may not quite agree with what he says on Milton, and we may not concur with his interpretation of Milton’s works but we cannot deny that he did a great service by leading his countrymen to gain a better sense of appreciation and knowledge of their own literature.

Characterization: the germ of the English Novel

      In the process of writing the Spectator essays, Addison has made another important contribution to the world of letters. The de Coverley papers are remarkable for their wonderful characterization. In them, Steele also shares the honors but the greater credit goes to Addison because it was he who took the sketches and developed them into the characters that they are now. Addison seized upon the idea of the club and “gave it life, interest and adventure; (and) cast over it the charm of his pleasant nature.” These essays coming in between other essays in the Spectator add to the popularity of the whole. None of the characters are made into lifeless representations of a single trait. They live in our imagination and are immortal because they have once been inspired “with the authentic breath of life.”

      Addison’s skill at characterization has been remarked, upon by every critic. In the characterization of Sir Roger lies Addison’s greatest achievement according to Hugh Walker. In this concept of characterization, in making the character act and move against different scenes and in different circumstances, lay the germ of the English novel. It is this ability to make a character live which makes critics regard Addison as a possible pioneer of the English novel. Though we cannot say that he was a pioneering novelist, we can easily see that his characterization was a big step toward the beginning of the eighteenth-century novel.

The Weapons of the Social Reformer: Wit, Humour, Irony

      Addison, the essayist, was closely connected with Addison the social reformer, for the very purpose of his writing essays was to reform society of its vice and folly. He had declared his aim of enlivening morality with wit and tempering wit with morality—a brave intention considering that the age had separated wit and morality into apparently irreconcilable polarities. He proceeds to combine the two in a remarkable manner in his essays. It was Addison’s aim to use wit and humor to laugh men out of their vice and folly whereas, till then, it was used to laugh men out of virtue and good sense.

      Addison also implies that morality would be made more palatable and acceptable if it were presented in a humorous and interesting manner. It was his intention to bring the wisdom and philosophy and great ideas out of the colleges and closets to the common man and this he was to do in a lively and interesting language so that they could form a part of the discussions in coffee houses and clubs, and the tea tables.

Sense of Humour

      All his essays (except the completely didactic ones) exhibit a fine sense of humor. But one might note that this humor is seldom of the pure kind, though there are instances of this too. Mostly it is used for a purpose—that of reforming society and its manners and fashions. He made people realize the full possibilities of humorous satire. His aim was to reform people of their vice and folly. This he did, not by attacking them and the vice fiercely and savagely or by denouncing them in a purely didactic manner, but, by holding them up to ridicule so that people would see the absurd aspect and desist from vice and folly.

      Irony is the very essence of his humor. But the irony is of a general kind. It is used to ridicule general folly, i.e., folly which common to a class or a set of people in general and not belonging to some particular individual. It is a humor and this general aspect, that makes his irony gentle and urbane. His irony can be sharply effective, as well as sustained, as is shown in the essays which deal with female foibles and fashions such as Fans and Female Oraiors. Here the ridicule is made pungent because the tone is grave and serious. This is the employment of the grave Addisonian irony, which is refined and urbane even while it is so effective in ridiculing its object. But the best and most likable use of irony comes in the essays dealing with Sir Roger. In these one comes across the subtle mixture of ridicule and respect through the use of gentle irony, sympathy and light-hearted.

Humorous Satire

      Having proclaimed his intention to hunt vice relentlessly and in whatever quarter it is to be found he qualified this statement with the remark that he would only attack the vice and not the person. This he considered to be the proper scope of satire. His satire would be general; it would attack and ridicule the vice without hurting the person. He would not touch upon particular follies of particular individuals which would cause them hurt. His satire is also humorous and not savage and biting like Swift’s. He is always smooth and cool and refined, never coarse or disgusting. His satire based itself on) the contention that it was better “to amuse ourselves with such writings as tend to wearing out of ignorance, passion, and prejudice, than such as naturally conduce to inflame hatreds, and make enmities irreconcilable.

Prose Style

      Addison is regarded by most eminent critics to have created and “wholly perfected English prose as an expression of social thought.” There had been writers before Addison who contributed a great deal to the development of English prose style. Bacon, Hooker, Hobbes, Milton and Dryden had, in their own ways, done a great deal for English prose. But Addison developed a style which has become famous in Dr. Johnson's words as the “middle style’’, a style that is “familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious”, a style that “always equable, always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences”. It has been said to be a model style.

      Addison was a fastidious artist and chose his words carefully and correctly. His use of words is precise and his writing is correct and fluent. It is refined and polished as well. But the middle style is flexible enough to adapt itself to a variety of subjects Everywhere the matter and manner blend and harmonize. And everywhere there is a sense of order and lucidity and elegance of expression and cultivated ease. It is style that is neither grave, stately and excessively formal nor completely easy and familiar like everyday speech. It lies in the middle of the two extremes and is hence most suitable for the addressing of a vast company of readers on a wide range of subjects. It is clear and refined, dignified but never stilted.

Personal Note

      Another important aspect of Addison as an essayist is the establishment of the personal or intimate note with the reader. It is true that the intimacy of the Spectator papers is not the close and confidential one of the Essays of Elia. But if we compare the essays of Addison with previous essayists, we can readily see the difference. The earlier essayists used to declaim whereas we see in the Spectator essays the beginning of the genial intimacy between writer and reader. Undoubtedly, Addison does not reveal himself like Lamb or speak in as familiar tone as Hazlitt, but the champion of moderation that he was, he strikes a fine balance between friendly familiarity and refined dignity.


      Addison set out as a social reformer, a reformer of tastes and manners of society. He wanted to bring together wit and morality and strike a note of moderation in everything. That he succeeded in associating wit with virtue, and was able to present morality in a lively fashion and make it accepted by the readers, speaks a great deal for his skill, considering the age which thought morality and wit to be two irreconcilables. Addison deserves praise for having made the possibilities of humorous satire clear to everyone. He attacked the general and trivial follies and effected a great change in the tastes of the day.

      Addison deserves credit for being one of the founders of modern prose style. To him goes the credit of inventing the middle style. His style was flexible and yet correct and refined. It was the style which made possible the emergence of the novel. The characterization of Sir Roger has in it the seed of the future novel. The Spectator essays are the first attempts to give form and consistency to public opinion, as Arthur Compton-Rickett remarks. Last but not least the essays of Addison present that delectable humor and irony which are yet another evidence of the essential urbanity and refinement of the man who was not blind to the follies and the absurdities of society but was tolerant enough to laugh at them sympathetically rather than bitterly and savagely.

University Questions

1. Give an estimate of Addison’s contribution to the development of English prose and essay.

2. What are the salient features of Addison as an essayist?

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