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JOSEPH ADDISON was born on the first of May, 1672, at MilIston, of which his father, Lancelot Addison, was then rector, near Ambrosebury, in Wiltshire, and appearing weak and unlikely to live, he was christened the same day. After the usual domestic education, which from the character of his father may reasonably supposed to have given him strong impressions of piety, he was committed to the care of Mr. Naish at Ambrosebury, and afterwards of Mr. Taylor at Salisbury.
Not to name the school or the masters of men illustrious for literature, is a kind of historical fraud, by which honest fame is injuriously diminished: I would therefore trace him through the whole process of his education. In 1683, in the beginning of his twelfth year, his father, being made Dean of Lichfield, naturally carried his family to his new residence, and, I believe, placed him for some time, probably not long, under Mr. Shaw, then master of the school at Lichfield, father of the late Dr. Peter Shaw. Of this interval his biographers have given no account, and I know it only from a story of a barring-out, told me, when I was a boy, by Andrew Corbet, of Shropshire, who had heard it from Mr. Pigot, his uncle.
The practice of barring-out was a savage licence, practised in many schools to the end of the last century, by which the boys, when the periodical vacation drew near, growing petulant at the approach of liberty, some days before the time of regular recess, took possession of the school, of which they barred the doors, and bade their master defiance from the windows. It is not easy to suppose, that on such occasions the master would do more than laugh; yet, if tradition may be credited, he often struggled hard to force or surprise the garrison. The master, when Pigot was a schoolboy, was barred-out at Lichfield; and the whole operation, as he said, was planned and conducted by Addison.
To judge better of the probability of this story, I have inquired when he was sent to the Chartreux; but, as he was not one of those who enjoyed the founder's benefaction, there is no account preserved of his admission. At the school of the Chartreux, to which he was removed either from that of Salisbury or Lichfield, he pursued his juvenile studies under the care of Dr. Ellis, and contracted that intimacy with Sir Richard Steele which their joint labours have so effectually recorded.
Of this memorable friendship the greater praise must be given to Steele. It is not hard to love those from whom nothing can be feared; and Addison never considered Steele as a rival; but Steele lived, as he confesses, under an habitual subjection to the predominating genius of Addison, whom he always mentioned with reverence, and treated with obsequiousness.
Addison, who knew his own dignity, could not always forbear to show it, by playing a little upon his admirer; but he was in no danger of retort: his jests were endured without resistance or resentment. But the sneer of jocularity was not the worst. Steele, whose imprudence of generosity, or vanity of profusion, kept him always incurably necessitous, upon some pressing exigence, in an evil hour, borrowed a hundred pounds of his friend, probably without much purpose of repayment; but Addison, who seems to have had other notions of a hundred pounds, grew impatient of delay, and reclaimed his loan by an execution. Steele felt with great sensibility the obduracy of his creditor, but with emotions of sorrow rather than of anger.t
+ This fact was communicated to Johnson in my hearing by a person of unquestion.
In 1687 he was entered into Queen's College in Oxford, where, in 1689, the accidental perusal of some Latin verses gained him the patronage of Dr. Lancaster, afterwards provost of Queen's College; by whose recommenda tion he was elected into Magdalen College as a demy, a term by which that society denominates those which are elsewhere called scholars; young men, who partake of the founder's benefaction, and succeed in their order to vacant fellowships.* Here he continued to cultivate poetry and criticism, and grew first eminent by his Latin compositions, which are indeed entitled to particular praise. He has not confined himself to the imitation of any ancient author, but has formed his style from the general language, such as a diligent perusal of the productions of different ages happened to supply, His Latin compositions seem to have had much of his fondness, for he collected a second volume of the Musa Anglicana, perhaps for a convenient receptacle, in which all his Latin pieces are inserted, and where his poem on the Peace has the first place. He afterwards presented the collection to Boileau, who, from that time, conceived," says Tickell, an opinion of the English genius for poetry." Nothing is better known of Boileau, than that he had an injudicious and peevish contempt of modern Latin, and therefore his profession of regard was probably the effect of his civility rather than approbation.
Three of his Latin poems are upon subjects on which perhaps he would not have ventured to have written in his own language. "The Battle of the Pigmies and Cranes:" "The Barometer;" and "A Bowling-green." When the matter is low or scanty, a dead language, in which nothing is mean because nothing is familiar, affords great conveniences; and, by the sonorous magnificence of Roman syllables, the writer conceals penury of thought, and want of novelty, often from the reader, and often from himself.
In his twenty-second year he first showed his power of English poetry by some verses addressed to Dryden; and soon after published a translation of the greater part of the Fourth Georgic upon Bees; after which, says Dryden, "my latter swarm is scarcely worth the hiving.' About the same time he composed the arguments prefixed to the several books of Dryden's Virgil ; and produced an Essay on the Georgics, juvenile, superficial, and uninstructive, without much either of the scholar's learning or the critic's penetration. His next paper of verses contained a character of the principal English poets, inscribed to Henry Sacheverell, who was then, if not a poet, a writer of verses ;t as is shown by his version of a small part of Virgil's Georgics, published in the Miscellanies; and a Latin encomium on Queen Mary, in the Muse Anglicance. These verses exhibit all the fondness of friendship; but, on one side or the other, friendship was afterwards too weak for the able veracity, but whose name I am not at liberty to mention. He had it, as he told us, from Lady Primrose, to whom Steele related it with tears in his eyes. The late Dr. Stinton confirmed it to me, by saying, that he had heard it from Mr. Hooke, author of the Roman History; and he, from Mr. Pope. See, Victor's Letters, vol. i. p. 328, this transaction somewhat differently related.
He took the degree of M.A. February 14, 1693.
A letter which I found among Dr. Johnson's papers, dated in January 1784, from a lady in Wiltshire, contains a discovery of some importance in literary history, viz., that by the initials H.S. prefixed to the poem, we are not to understand the famous Dr. Henry Sacheverell, whose trial is the most remarkable incident in his life. The information thus communicated is, that the verses in question were not an address to the famous Dr. Sacheverell, but to a very ingenious gentleman of the same name, who died young, supposed to be a Manxman, for that he wrote the history of the Isle of Man. That this person left his papers to Mr. Addison, and had formed a plan of a tragedy upon the death of Socrates. The lady says, she had this information from a Mr. Stephens, who was a fellow of Merton College, a contemporary and intimate with Mr. Addison in Oxford, who died, near fifty years ago, a prebendary of Winchester.
malignity of faction. In this poem is a very confident and discriminate character of Spenser, whose work he had then never read.* So little sometimes is criticism the effect of judgment. It is necessary to inform the reader, that about this time he was introduced by Congreve to Montague, then Chancellor of the Exchequer : Addison was then learning the trade of a courtier, and subjoined Montague as a poetical name to those of Cowley and of Dryden. By the influence of Mr. Montague, concurring, according to Tickell, with his natural modesty, he was diverted from his original design of entering into holy orders. Montague alleged the corruption of men who engaged in civil employments without liberal education; and declared, that, though he was represented as an enemy to the church, he would never do it any injury but by withholding Addison from it.
Soon after (in 1695) he wrote a poem to King William, with a rhyming introduction addressed to Lord Somers. King William had no regard to elegance or literature; his study was only war; yet by a choice of ministers, whose disposition was very different from his own, he procured, without intention, a very liberal patronage to poetry. Addison was caressed both by Somers and Montague.
In 1697 appeared his Latin verses on the peace of Ryswick, which he dedicated to Montague, and which was afterwards called, by Smith, "the best Latin poem since the Æneid.' Praise must not be too rigorously examined; but the performance cannot be denied to be vigorous and elegant. Having yet no public employment, he obtained (in 1699) a pension of three hundred pounds a year, that he might be enabled to travel. He stayed a year at Blois, † probably to learn the French language; and then proceeded in his journey to Italy, which he surveyed with the eyes of a poet. While he was travelling at leisure, he was far from being idle: for he not only collected his observations on the country, but found time to write his Dialogues on Medals, and four acts of Cato. Such at least is the relation of Tickell. Perhaps he only collected his materials and formed his plan. Whatever were his other employments in Italy, he there wrote the letter to Lord Halifax, which is justly considered as the most elegant, if not the most sublime, of his poetical productions. But in about two years he found it necessary to hasten home; being, as Swift informs us, distressed by indigence, and compelled to become the tutor of a travelling squire, because his pension was not remitted.
At his return he published his Travels, with a dedication to Lord Somers. As his stay in foreign countries was short, his observations are such as might be supplied by a hasty view, and consist chiefly in comparisons of the present face of the country with the descriptions left us by the Roman poets, from whom he made preparatory collections, though he might have spared the trouble, had he known that such collections had been made twice before by Italian authors.
The most amusing passage of his book is his account of the minute republic of San Marino; of many parts it is not a very severe censure to say, that they might have been written at home. His elegance of language, and variegation of prose and verse, however, gains upon the reader; and the book, though a while neglected, became in time so much the favourite of the public, that before it was reprinted it rose to five times its price.
When he returned to England (in 1702), with a meanness of appearance which gave testimony of the difficulties to which he had been reduced, he found his old patrons out of power, and was therefore, for a time, at full leisure for the cultivation of his mind, and a mind so cultivated gives reason to believe that little time was lost. But he remained not long neglected or † Spence.
useless. The victory at Blenheim (1704) spread triumph and confidence over the nation; and Lord Godolphin, lamenting to Lord Halifax, that it had not been celebrated in a manner equal to the subject, desired him to propose it to some better poet. Halifax told him, that there was no encouragement for genius; that worthless men were unprofitably enriched with public money, without any care to find or employ those whose appearance might do honour to their country. To this Godolphin replied, that such abuses should in time be rectified; and that, if a man could be found capable of the task then proposed, he should not want an ample recompense. Halifax then named Addison, but required that the treasurer should apply to him in his own person. Godolphin sent the message by Mr. Boyle, afterwards Lord Carlton; and Addison, having undertaken the work, communicated it to the treasury, while it was yet advanced no further than the simile of the angel, and was immediately rewarded by succeeding Mr. Locke in the place of Commissioner of Appeals.
In the following year he was at Hanover with Lord Halifax and the year after he was made under-secretary of state, first to Sir Charles Hedges, and in a few months more to the Earl of Sunderland. About this time the prevalent taste for Italian operas inclined him to try what would be the effect of a musical drama in our own language. He therefore wrote the opera of Rosamond," which, when exhibited on the stage, was either hissed or neglected; but, trusting that the readers would do him more justice, he published it with an inscription to the Duchess of Marlborough ; a woman without skill, or pretensions to skill, in poetry or literature. His dedication was therefore an instance of servile absurdity, to be exceeded only by Joshua Barnes's dedication of a Greek Anacreon to the Duke. His reputation had been somewhat advanced by "The Tender Husband," comedy which Steele dedicated to him, with a confession that he owed to him several of the most successful scenes. To this play Addison supplied a prologue.
When the Marquis of Wharton was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, Addison attended him as his secretary; and was made keeper of the records in Birmingham's Tower, with a salary of three hundred pounds a year. The office was little more than nominal, and the salary was augmented for his accommodation. Interest and faction allow little to the operation of particular dispositions, or private opinions. Two men of personal characters, more opposite than those of Wharton and Addison, could not easily be brought together. Wharton was impious, profligate, and shameless, without regard, or appearance of regard, to right and wrong;* whatever is contrary to this may be said of Addison; but as agents of a party they were connected, and how they adjusted their other sentiments we cannot know. Addison must however not be too hastily condemned. It is not necessary to refuse benefits from a bad man, when the acceptance implies no approbation of his crimes; nor has the subordinate officer any obligation to examine the opinions or conduct of those under whom he acts, except that he may not be made the instrument of wickedness. It is reasonable to suppose that Addison counteracted, as far as he was able, the malignant and blasting influence of the lieutenant; and that at least by his intervention some good was done, and some mischief prevented. When he was in office, he made a law to himself, as Swift has recorded, never to remit his regular fees in civility to his friends: "For," said he, I may have a hundred friends; and, if my fee be two guineas, I shall, by relinquishing my right, lose two hundred guineas, and no friend gain more than two; there is therefore no
Dr. Johnson appears to have blended the character of the marquis with that of his son the duke.
proportion between the good imparted and the evil suffered." He was in Ireland when Steele, without any communication of his design, began the publication of the Tatler: but he was not long concealed; by inserting a remark on Virgil, which Addison had given him, he discovered himself. is indeed not easy for any man to write upon literature or common life, so as not to make himself known to those with whom he familiarly converses, and who are acquainted with his track of study, his favourite topic, his peculiar notions, and his habitual phrases.
If Steele desired to write in secret, he was not lucky; a single month detected him. His first Tatler was published April 22 (1709); and Addison's contribution appeared May 26. Tickell observes, that the Tatler began and was concluded without his concurrence. This is doubtless literally true; but the work did not suffer much by his unconsciousness of its commencement, or his absence at its cessation; for he continued his assistance to December 23, and the paper stopped on January 2. He did not distinguish his pieces by any signature; and I know not whether his name was not kept secret till the papers were collected into volumes.
To the Tatler, in about two months, succeeded the Spectator; a series of essays of the same kind, but written with less levity, upon a more regular plan, and published daily. Such an undertaking showed the writers not to distrust their own copiousness of materials or facility of composition, and their performance justified their confidence. They found, however, in their progress, many auxiliaries. To attempt a single paper was no terrifying labour; many pieces were offered, and many were received.
Addison had enough of the zeal of party; but Steele had at that time almost nothing else. The Spectator, in one of the first papers, showed the political tenets of its authors; but a resolution was soon taken, of courting general approbation by general topics, and subjects on which faction had produced no diversity of sentiments; such as literature, morality, and familiar life. To this practice they adhered with few deviations. The ardour of Steele once broke out in praise of Marlborough; and when Dr. Fleetwood prefixed to some sermons a preface, overflowing with Whiggish opinions, that it might be read by the Queen,* it was reprinted in the Spectator.
To teach the minuter decencies and inferior duties, to regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal, and remove those grievances which, if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation, was first attempted by Casa in his book of "Manners," and Castiglione in his " Courtier ; two books yet celebrated in Italy for purity and elegance, and which, if they are now less read, are neglected only because they have effected that reformation which their authors intended, and their precepts now are no longer wanted. Their usefulness to the age in which they were written is sufficiently attested by the translations which almost all the nations of Europe were in haste to obtain. This species of instruction was continued, and perhaps advanced, by the French; among whom La Bruyère's Manners of the Age, though, as Boileau remarked, it is written without connexion, certainly deserves praise, for liveliness of description, and justness of observation.
Before the Tatler and Spectator, if the writers for the theatre are excepted, England had no masters of common life. No writers had yet undertaken to reform either the savageness of neglect, or the impertinence of civility; to show when to speak, or to be silent; how to refuse, or how to comply. We
*This particular number of the Spectator, it is said, was not published till twelve o'clock, that it might come out precisely at the hour of Her Majesty's breakfast, and that no time might be left for deliberating about serving it up with that meal, as usual. See edit. of the Tatler with notes, vol. vi. No. 271, note p. 452, &c.