Urban Irony in Addison’s Essays

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Irony: a Corrective in Addison’s Hands

      Irony is the chief instrument in the hands of a satirist. Itz is true of Addison who is fast and foremost a satirist, a satirist who has a moral purpose behind his satire and ridicule. He aimed at the reformation of morals and manners of the reading public of his country and he sought to achieve this through ridicule. He exposed follies and vices and foibles of the public, the various sections of the public, to ridicule so that the readers by seeing the absurdity of the follies would discard them. The very nature of Addison’s satire is humour and the very essence of this humour is irony. “Irony, all delicious in its gravity, forms a large, perhaps the largest, constituent of his humour”, as Deighton remarks.

Irony and Urbanity: Inseparable traits in Addison’s Satire

      Addison’s irony is typical of him. It is a special kind of irony which occurs because of the author’s pretended sympathy with the opposite point of view while all the time he exposes it to ridicule. Addison’s tone is always grave and serious as if he condones the very object he is describing but he leaves no doubt whatsoever about his intention which is to ridicule it. This heightens the ironic effect. The irony is all the more devastating because the victim is approached under the guise of friendship, as Lobban remarks. Pope was not, after all, far off the mark when he says;

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

      In connection with Addison’s writing. This couplet reveals the essential quality of Addison’s irony—the typical mixture of ridicule

See also the chapter on “The Prose Style of Addison.”

      And suavity, a sly suavity, the close combination of urbanity and irony. Indeed if the irony of Addison is called ‘gentle’, it is so because the irony is urbane and general. He is never crude or coarse. Nernier is the personal. Addison’s method is not savagery or virulence; it is urbanity and sly suavity. He never uses bitter language, words that would hurt or offend. Irony is a formidable weapon but Addison uses it for a corrective purpose—to laugh people out of their vices and follies—and hence, he is not savage or ferocious.

      Connected with the urbanity of his irony is its general nature. Addison never indulges in personal satire. His irony is aimed at a class of people and their vices and follies in general.

Irony and Urbanity in the Essays

      In the essay The Scope of Satire, Addison says that his intention is not to attack individuals. He also promises “never to draw a faulty character which does not fit at least a thousand people”. His essays would be written in a spirit of benevolence and with a love of mankind. Such intentions could not but produce a satire of which a chief constituent was ‘urbanity’. He is always polite and refined in his expressions. His aim was to combat with criminals “in a body, and to assault the vice without hurting the person”. In all the essays, we find this urbanity toning down the irony which could easily have become deadly and malicious like that of Swift and Pope.

      In his essays on the stage which ridicule the tastes of the contemporary theatre-goers, we have some delectable digs at the expense of the contemporary stage customs of the day. In Stage Realism, irony is employed to make fun of the absurd devices used for realistic effects. In Nicolini and the Lions, there is the typically ‘grave’ irony of Addison describing the absurd stage conventions of the day as if they were quite natural and reasonable. But the result is quite the opposite of the apparent i.e., the reader is amused and laughs at the ridiculous nature of the conventions. The irony is heightened by the grave tone. But we also note that the irony is urbane. Addison is not biting; non is he crude and coarse in language.

      Irony comes out at its best and most devastating in the essays which deal with the follies and foibles of the females. In the essay Fans, we have irony at its sustained best. The whole essay is an extended metaphor describing the fans as if they were weapons in the hands of the women. How gravely and seriously Addison pretends to be a correspondent who has put up an institution for the training of females in the use of fans. The irony is admirable all through the essay, as he observes: “Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them”. In the essay Female Orators, the irony is again kept up constantly through a collection of ironical remarks and observations. The target in this essay is, obviously enough, what the title itself ironically termed ‘female orators’ who “can talk whole hours together upon nothing”. Once again the irony occurs because of the difference in tone and intention. A pretended admiration hides the intended ridicule. Yet, though the irony is quite pungent, Addison keeps it from becoming bitter. One has just to imagine what it would have become in the hands of Swift if he were to deal with the same subjects to realize how urbane the irony of Addison is. Even in such essays as those dealing with the dissection of a coquette’s heart and a beau's head where the wit is truly merciless, Addison does not lose his refined and polite manner and his satire is not virulent. He never degrades women and his satire is prompted by a reforming intention. We may feel that he is somewhat patronizing but he is always polite as well as general. He shows an “exquisite felicity of gentle ridicule”.

      Nowhere is this combination of urbanity and irony saw better than in the essays which deal with Sir Roger de Cover ley. The characterization of the old knight is a supreme example of a combination of mockery and praise which leads to ridicule as well as respect for the knight. The urbanity and the ironical skill of Addison come out clearly in these De Coverley Papers. In Sir Roger at Church, we have the knight being the strict disciplinarian looking after the welfare of his tenants and expecting good behavior from them in church. He allows, we are told in a serious tone by Addison, no one to sleep in the congregation except himself In the same essay, we have Sir Roger standing up when all the rest are kneeling in prayer in order to see if every one of his tenants was present. In the essay On Witchcraft, we are given an ironical description of Sir Roger’s obvious bewilderment as regards the local witch Moll White. Sir Roger on the Bench tells us of the irrelevant speeches the knight made in the court and the essay has an ironical dig at the ‘country folk’ who are impressed so easily and who look upon Sir Roger as some great personality because he stood up to speak to judge. In these essays, we have the typical quality of Addison’s style, a mixture of urbanity and delightful irony, which induces laughter but never at the cost of respect. It is in the portrayal of Sir Roger that we see the power of ridiculing without malignity. Sir Roger’s ‘‘simplicity of mind is made the medium of much good-natured satire on the manners of the Tory country gentleman of the period”. But we never lose our affection or respect for the dear old knight even while we are amused at his easy gullibility, his innocent vanities and simplicity.

      We see the same subtle mixture of irony and urbanity in his other essays which satirize the tastes and foibles of the contemporary society. He is quite ironic at the expense of Will Wimble and his Irivial occupations. But it is the vice of a class that he is hitting out at and it is for the purpose of reformation. In Rural Manners, he is ironic at the expense of the backwardness of the country folk who tend to look for trends in fashions to the town but are always Hated and hence out of date. In A Grinning Match, we see the power of ridiculing absurdities in a tone of seriousness. Again, we see the the ridicule at the cost of those people who talk very knowingly about things about which they, in reality, know nothing in the essay Coffee House Politicians.


      Addison, we have seen, was always polite and cultured in the use of language. He is refined and civilized in his expressions. Where he could easily, have been virulent, he is only suavely sly. His intention was not to hurt but to improve and thus in his hands irony became urbane. As Macaulay remarks, Addison had in his possession, ‘boundless power’ and it is his virtue that. he never misused this power. He says: “Of Addison, it may be confidently affirmed, that he has blackened no man’s character, nay, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in all the volumes he has left us a single taunt which can be called ungenerous or unkind”. Irony gives poignancy and sharpness to his satire, his ‘corrective’ satire. But it is also ‘gentle’ because it is humorous and general and, above all, it is accompanied by an urbanity that reflects the very nature of Addison’s character itself.

University Questions

Addison’s irony is gentle because it is urbane. Discuss.
‘‘His irony are the two most prominent
traits in the essays of Addison.” Discuss and illustrate.

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