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— by his lambent humor, his playful fancy (he was very slenderly endowed with imagination), and the healthy tone of his mind, the writers of his own generation and those of the succeeding half century placed him upon a pedestal, in his right to which there has been since almost unquestioning acquiescence. He certainly did much for English literature, and more for English morals and manners, which in his day were sadly in need of elevation and refinement. But, as a writer of English, he is not to be compared, except with great peril to his reputation, to at least a score of men who have flourished in the present century, and some of whom are now living. R. G. White.
On the second of January 1711 appeared the last Tatler. At the beginning of March following appeared the first of an incomparable series of papers, containing observations on life and literature by an imaginary Spectator.
The Spectator himself was conceived and drawn by Addison; and it not easy to doubt that the portrait was meant to be in some features a likeness of the painter. The Spectator is a gentleman who, after passing a studious youth at the university, has traveled on classic ground, and has bestowed much attention on curious points of antiquity. He has, on his return, fixed his residence in London, and has observed all the forms of life which are to be found in that great city, has daily listened to the wits of Will's, has smoked with the philosophers of the Grecian, and has mingled with the parsons at Child's, and with the politicians at the St. James's. In the morning, he often listens to the hum of the Exchange; in the evening, his face is constantly to be seen in the pit of Drury Lane Theater. But an insurmountable bashfulness prevents him from opening his mouth, except in a small circle of intimate friends.
These friends were first sketched by Steele. Four of the club, the templar, the clergyman, the soldier, and the merchant, were uninteresting figures, fit only for a background. But the other two, an old country baronet and an old town rake, though not delineated with a very delicate pencil, had some good strokes. Addison took the rude outlines into his own hands, retouched them, colored them, and is in truth the creator of the Sir Roger de Coverley and the Will Honeycomb with whom we are all familiar.
The plan of the Spectator must be allowed to be both original and eminently happy. Every valuable essay in the series may be read with pleasure separately; yet the five or six hundred essays form a whole, and a whole which has the interest of a novel. It must be remembered too that at that time no novel, giving a lively and powerful picture of the common life and manners of England, had appeared. Richardson was working as a compositor. Fielding was robbing birds' nests. Smollett was not yet born. The narrative, therefore, which connects together the Spectator's Essays, gave to our ancestors their first taste of an exquisite and untried pleasure. That narrative was indeed constructed with no art or labor. The events were such events as occur every day. Sir Roger comes up to town to see Eugenio, as the worthy baronet always calls Prince Eugene, goes with the Spectator on the water to Spring Gardens, walks among the tombs in the Abbey, and is frightened by the Mohawks, but conquers his apprehension so far as to go to the theater when the Distressed Mother is acted. The Spectator pays a visit in the summer to Coverley Hall, is charmed with the old house, the old butler, and the old chaplain, eats a jack caught by Will Wimble, rides to the assizes, and hears a point of law discussed by Tom Touchy. At last a letter from the honest butler brings to the club the news that Sir Roger is dead. Will Honeycomb marries and reforms at sixty. The club breaks up; and the Spectator resigns his functions. Such events can hardly be said to form a plot; yet they are related with such truth, such grace, such wit, such humor, such pathos, such knowledge of the human heart, such knowledge of the ways of the world, that they charm us on the hundredth perusal. We have not the least doubt that if Addison had written a novel, on an extensive plan, it would have been superior to any that we possess. As it is, he is entitled to be considered not only as the greatest of the English essayists, but as the forerunner of the great English novelists.
We say this of Addison alone; for Addison is the Spectator. About three sevenths of the work are his; and it is no exaggeration to say that his worst essay is as good as the best essay of any of his coadjutors. His best essays approach near to absolute perfection; nor is their excellence more wonderful than their variety. His invention never seems to flag; nor is he ever under the necessity of repeating himself, or of wearing out a subject. There are no dregs in his wine. He regales us after the fashion of that prodigal nabob who held that there was only one good glass in a bottle. As soon as we have tasted the first sparkling foam of a jest, it is withdrawn, and a fresh draught of nectar is at our lips. On the Monday we have an allegory as lively and ingenious as Lucian's Auction of Lives; on the Tuesday an Eastern apologue, as richly colored as the Tales of Scheherezade; on the Wednesday, a character described with the skill of La Bruyère; on the Thursday, a scene from common life, equal to the best chapters in the Vicar of Wakefield; on the Friday, some sly Horatian pleasantry on fashionable follies, on hoops, patches, or puppet shows; and on the Saturday a religious meditation, which will bear a comparison with the finest passages in Massillon. Macaulay.
Any comparison of these two masters of the EighteenthCentury Essay is as futile as it will probably be perpetual. While people continue to pit Fielding against Smollett, and Thackeray against Dickens, there will always be a party for Addison and a party for Steele. The adherents of the former will draw conviction from Lord Macaulay's famous defiance in the “Edinburgh” apropos of Aikin’s “Life”; those of the latter from that vigorous counterblast which (after ten years' meditation) Mr. Forster sounded in the 'Quarterly.” But the real lovers of literature will be content to enjoy the delightfully distinctive characteristics of both. For them Steele's frank and genial humor, his chivalrous attitude to women, and the engaging warmth and generosity of his nature, will retain their attraction, in spite of his literary inequalities and structural negligence; while the occasional coldness and restraint of Addison's manner will not prevent those who study his work from admiring his unfailing good taste, the archness of his wit, his charming sub-humorous gravity, and the perfect keeping of his character-painting. ***
About four fifths of the “Tatler,” “Spectator,” and “Guardian” was written by Addison and Steele alone. The work of their coadjutors was consequently limited in extent, and, as a rule, unimportant. Budgell, Addison's cousin, whose memory survives chiefly by his tragic end, and a malignant couplet of Pope, was one of the most regular. Once,' working on Addison's lines, and aided, it
may be, by Addison's refining pen, he made a respectable addition to the “Coverley" series. Austin Dobson.
But it is not for his reputation as the great author of “Cato" and the “Campaign,” or for his merits as Secretary of State, or for his rank and high distinction as my Lady Warwick's husband, or for his eminence as an Examiner of political questions on the Whig side, or a Guardian of British liberties, that we admire Joseph Addison. It is as a Tatler of small talk and a Spectator of mankind that we cherish and love him, and owe as much pleasure to him as to any human being that ever wrote. He came in that artificial age, and began to speak with his noble, natural voice. He came, the gentle satirist who hit no unfair blow; the kind judge who castigated only in smiling. While Swift went about, hanging and ruthless a literary Jeffreys in Addison's kind court only minor cases were tried: only peccadillos and small sins against society; only a dangerous libertinism in tuckers and hoops; or a nuisance in the abuse of beaux' canes and snuff-boxes. It may be a lady is tried for breaking the peace of our sovereign lady Queen Anne, and ogling too dangerously from the side-box; or a Templar for beating the watch, or breaking Priscian's head; or a citizen's wife for caring too much for the puppet-show, and too little for her husband and children: every one of the little sinners brought before him is amusing, and he dismisses each with the pleasantest penalties and the most charming words of admonition.
1 Three times, nos. 116, 331, 359.
Addison wrote his papers as gaily as if he was going out for a holiday. When Steele’s Tatler first began his prattle, Addison, then in Ireland, caught at his friend's notion, poured in paper after paper, and contributed the stores of his mind, the sweet fruits of his reading, the delightful gleanings of his daily observation, with a wonderful profusion, and as it seemed an almost endless fecundity. He was six-and-thirty years old; full and ripe. He had not worked crop after crop from his brain, manuring hastily, sub-soiling indifferently, cutting and sowing and cutting again, like other luckless cultivators of letters. He had not done much as yet: a few Latin poems – graceful prolusions; a polite book of travels; a dissertation on medals, not very deep; four acts of a tragedy, a great classical exercise; and the “Campaign,” a large prize poem that won an enormous prize. But with his friend's discovery of the “Tatler," Addison's calling was found, and the most delightful talker in the world began to speak. He does not go very deep; let gentlemen of a profound genius, critics accustomed to the plunge of the bathos, console themselves