- Joseph Addison - The English Atticus [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
Joseph Addison
by Long, William J.

In Addison we have a pleasant reflection of the new social life of England. Select almost any feature of that life, and you shall find some account of it in the papers of Addison: its party politics in his Whig Examiner; its "grand tour," as part of a gentleman's education, in his Remarks on Italy; its adventure on foreign soil in such poems as "The Campaign"; its new drama of decency in his Cato; its classic delusions in his Account of the Greatest English Poets; its frills, fashions and similar matters in his Spectator essays. He tried almost every type of literature, from hymns to librettos, and in each he succeeded well enough to be loudly applauded. In his own day he was accounted a master poet, but now he is remembered as a writer of prose essays.


Addison's career offers an interesting contrast to that of Swift, who lived in the same age. He was the son of an English clergyman, settled in the deanery of Lichfield, and his early training left upon him the stamp of good taste and good breeding. In school he was always the model boy; in Oxford he wrote Latin verses on safe subjects, in the approved fashion; in politics he was content to "oil the machine" as he found it; in society he was shy and silent (though naturally a brilliant talker) because he feared to make some slip which might mar his prospects or the dignity of his position.

A very discreet man was Addison, and the only failure he made of discretion was when he married the Dowager Countess of Warwick, went to live in her elegant Holland House, and lived unhappily ever afterwards. The last is a mere formal expression. Addison had not depth enough to be really unhappy. From the cold comfort of the Dowager's palace he would slip off to his club or to Will's Coffee house. There, with a pipe and a bottle, he would loosen his eloquent tongue and proceed to "make discreetly merry with a few old friends."

His characteristic quality appears in the literary work which followed his Latin verses. He began with a flattering "Address to Dryden," which pleased the old poet and brought Addison to the attention of literary celebrities. His next effort was "The Peace of Ryswick," which flattered King William's statesmen and brought the author a chance to serve the Whig party. Also it brought a pension, with a suggestion that Addison should travel abroad and learn French and diplomacy, which he did, to his great content, for the space of three years.

The death of the king brought Addison back to England. His pension stopped, and for a time he lived poorly "in a garret," as one may read in Thackeray's Henry Esmond. Then came news of an English victory on the Continent (Marlborough's victory at Blenheim), and the Whigs wanted to make political capital out of the event. Addison was hunted up and engaged to write a poem. He responded with "The Campaign," which made him famous. Patriots and politicians ascribed to the poem undying glory, and their judgment was accepted by fashionable folk of London. To read it now is to meet a formal, uninspired production, containing a few stock quotations and, incidentally, a sad commentary on the union of Whiggery and poetry.

His Path of Roses

From that moment Addison's success was assured. He was given various offices of increasing importance; he entered Parliament; he wrote a classic tragedy, Cato, which took London by storm (his friend Steele had carefully "packed the house" for the first performance); his essays in The Spectator were discussed in every fashionable club or drawing-room; he married a rich countess; he was appointed Secretary of State. The path of politics, which others find so narrow and slippery, was for Addison a broad road through pleasant gardens. Meanwhile Swift, who could not follow the Addisonian way of kindness and courtesy, was eating bitter bread and railing at humanity.

After a brief experience as Secretary of State, finding that he could not make the speeches expected of him, Addison retired on a pension. His unwavering allegiance to good form in all matters appears even in his last remark, "See how a Christian can die." That was in 1719. He had sought the easiest, pleasantest way through life, and had found it. Thackeray, who was in sympathy with such a career, summed it up in a glowing panegyric:

        "A life prosperous and beautiful, a calm death; an immense
        fame and affection afterwards for his happy and spotless

Works of Addison

Addison's great reputation was won chiefly by his poetry; but with the exception of a few hymns, simple and devout, his poetical works no longer appeal to us. He was not a poet but a verse-maker. His classic tragedy Cato, for example (which met with such amazing success in London that it was taken over to the Continent, where it was acclaimed "a masterpiece of regularity and elegance"), has some good passages, but one who reads the context is apt to find the elegant lines running together somewhat drowsily. Nor need that reflect on our taste or intelligence. Even the cultured Greeks, as if in anticipation of classic poems, built two adjoining temples, one dedicated to the Muses and the other to Sleep.

The Essays

The Essays of Addison give us the full measure of his literary talent. In his verse, as in his political works, he seems to be speaking to strangers; he is on guard over his dignity as a poet, as Secretary of State, as husband of a countess; but in his Essays we meet the man at his ease, fluent, witty, light-hearted but not frivolous,--just as he talked to his friends in Will's Coffeehouse. The conversational quality of these Essays has influenced all subsequent works of the same type,--a type hard to define, but which leaves the impression of pleasant talk about a subject, as distinct from any learned discussion.

The Essays cover a wide range: fashions, dress, manners, character sketches, letters of travel, ghost stories, satires on common vices, week-end sermons on moral subjects. They are never profound, but they are always pleasant, and their graceful style made such a lasting impression that, half a century later, Dr. Johnson summed up a general judgment when he said:

    "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not
    coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and
    nights to the volumes of Addison."

Addison and Steele

Of these two associates Richard Steele (1672-1729) had the more original mind, and his writings reveal a warm, human sympathy that is lacking in the work of his more famous contemporary. But while Addison cultivated his one talent of writing, Steele was like Defoe in that he always had some new project in his head, and some old debt urging him to put the project into immediate execution. He was in turn poet, political pamphleteer, soldier, dramatist, member of Parliament, publisher, manager of a theater, following each occupation eagerly for a brief season, then abandoning it cheerfully for another,--much like a boy picking blueberries in a good place, who moves on and on to find a better bush, eats his berries on the way, and comes home at last with an empty pail.

The Tatler and the Spectator

While holding the political office of "gazetteer" (one who had a monopoly of official news) the idea came to Steele of publishing a literary magazine. The inventive Defoe had already issued The Review (1704), but that had a political origin. With the first number of The Tatler (1709) the modern magazine made its bow to the public. This little sheet, published thrice a week and sold at a penny a copy, contained more or less politics, to be sure, but the fact that it reflected the gossip of coffeehouses made it instantly popular. After less than two years of triumph Steele lost his official position, and The Tatler was discontinued. The idea remained, however, and a few months later appeared The Spectator (1711), a daily magazine which eschewed politics and devoted itself to essays, reviews, letters, criticisms,--in short, to "polite" literature. Addison, who had been a contributor to The Tatler entered heartily into the new venture, which had a brief but glorious career. He became known as "Mr. Spectator," and the famous Spectator Essays are still commonly attributed to him, though in truth Steele furnished a large part of them. [Footnote: Of the Tatler essays Addison contributed 42, Steele about 180, and some 36 were the work of the two authors in collaboration. Of the Spectator essays Addison furnished 274, Steele 236, and about 45 were the work of other writers. In some of the best essays ("Sir Roger de Coverley," for example) the two men worked together. Steele is supposed to have furnished the original ideas, the humor and overflowing kindness of such essays, while the work of polishing and perfecting the style fell to the more skillful Addison.]

Addisonian Style

Because of their cultivated prose style, Steele and Addison were long regarded as models, and we are still influenced by them in the direction of clearness and grace of expression. How wide their influence extended may be seen in American literature. Hardly had The Spectator appeared when it crossed the Atlantic and began to dominate our English style on both sides of the ocean. Franklin, in Boston, studied it by night in order to imitate it in the essay which he slipped under the printing-house door next morning; and Boyd, in Virginia, reflects its influence in his charming Journal of exploration. Half a century later, the Hartford Wits were writing clever sketches that seemed like the work of a new "Spectator"; another half century, and Irving, the greatest master of English prose in his day, was still writing in the Addisonian manner, and regretting as he wrote that the leisurely style showed signs, in a bustling age, "of becoming a little old-fashioned."


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