Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. J. Courthope
Joseph Addison (16721719)
[Joseph Addison was born 1672, died 1719. His first published composition in prose was his Remarks on Italy, which appeared after his return from his travels in 1701. In the same year he wrote, but did not publish, his Dialogue on Medals. From 17091711 he co-operated with Steele in the Tatler; and in the latter year, with the aid of his friend, founded the Spectator, the last papers in which appeared in 1714. He wrote in the Guardian, which was started in 1713, in which year he also published The late Trial of Count Tariffa jeu d esprit directed against the financial clauses of the Treaty of Utrechtand began a work, never completed, on the Evidences of Christianity, which was not published till after his death. The Freeholder, a series of papers written entirely by himself, appeared in 171516. His last work was the Old Whig, a controversial pamphlet, published in 1719, in opposition to Steeles Plebeian.]
IT is easy to perceive that the prose style of Addison is an extension of that of Dryden, in so far as it embodies the thought of an author directly addressing an audience. But we see also, from the mode and method of Addisons writing, how vast a change in the composition of the audience has taken place since the closing years of the seventeenth century. Those turns of traditional courtliness, which so constantly, in Drydens writings, indicate the personal influence of the sovereign, have disappeared from the style of his successor. A very large proportion of Drydens prose consists of epistles dedicatory, addressed to great noblemen and courtiers, and full of adulation, but in the few dedications written by Addison the old exuberance of flattery is much subdued. On the other hand, the appeal to that great middle class, to which Dryden discoursed in his Prefaces, is in Addison, so conscious and direct, that even if all records of the Revolution had perished, we should be able to infer, from the Spectator alone, that the English nation, in the early years of the eighteenth century, was beginning to exercise a public opinion in matters relating to religion, politics, manners, and taste.
The spirit of this Revolution, as far as relates to taste and manners, may best be divined by contrasting the English society of the period with the contemporary society of France. In France, authority had prevailed over liberty, and a well-defined standard of order had been for some time established in all the forms and ceremonies of life. French manners and conversation had been formed by the joint operation of two social forces, the court and the drawing-room. I have spoken in another preface of the uniformity of taste produced by monarchical centralisation, in the various departments of public culture over which the kings authority naturally extended. An influence more subtle, but still intimately connected with the progress of absolutism, moulded the art of conversation. The French nobility, though they had been deprived by the Crown of so many of the powers and privileges of feudalism, had strictly preserved the social customs of their order. Nor had they forgotten the literary tradition, embracing the whole casuistry of love and the deification of women, in which the troubadours had embodied the poetical elements of the feudal system. Condemned to idleness during their attendance at court, the nobility now converted this tradition into a code of manners, and, in numerous societies modelled on that of the Hotel Rambouillet, under the presidency of the most accomplished women in the capital, a constant war of raillery was carried on between the two sexes, almost as scientific in its extravagance as the old love poetry of Provence. The art of conversation, developed by feminine genius, was thus carried in France to the height of perfection, and French prose became a matchless instrument for the purposes of criticism, analysis of character, and letter-writing. On the other hand, as the masculine spirit nourished by political liberty decayed, the refinement of the French language and manners served as a veil to disguise the progress of social corruption. That exquisite irony of style, which could convey at one time thoughts full of feminine sentiment and delicacy, was used at another to recommend the morals of Petronius and Aretino. External order, however, was preserved in both spheres of art. The course of French conversational prose, flowing on in a broadening stream from Voiture to La Bruyère and Madame de Sévigné, descended to the amazing performances of M. de Crébillon fils, and never was its surface more smooth and limpid than on the brink of the cataract of Revolution.
In England this condition of things was exactly reversed. Nearly two centuries of religious and political dissension, while they had taught Englishmen how to live in obedience to law, had proved a rough school for manners, and every centre of social authority, qualified to exercise a refining influence, had been weakened in the long struggle. The court, which had hitherto given a direction to all movements of taste, after being first demoralised by its rapid changes of fortune, was at the close of the seventeenth century in almost complete eclipse. The energies of the nobility, now the real rulers of the country, were absorbed in politics and warped by party: they had no longer a common rallying-place at court; so that, though many of them had a genuine love of art and literature, they could not make their corporate influence on them felt, as in the brilliant days that followed the Restoration. Whatever religious and moral control over the manners of society would naturally have been exercised by the Established Church was weakened by sectarian feeling. As regards the influence of women, the tragic history of England since the Reformation had developed what was heroic in female character: but such spirits as Lady Fairfax, Lady Russell, and Lady Clancarty were not formed in the drawing-room; and a comparison of the average English lady of the period, as her portrait is painted in the tenth number of the Spectator, with her French contemporary, as seen in the letters of Madame de Sévigné, gives us an accurate measure of the respective degrees of refinement in the two nations after the Revolution of 1688. If Englishmen were a hundred years in advance of their neighbours in the art of self-government, they were nearly as far behind them in the art of conversation.
It is the supreme distinction of Addison, as the chief founder of English essay-writing, to have created in England a school of literary taste which, without sacrificing any of the advantages derived from liberty, has raised our language almost to a level with the French in elegance and precision. The rule of order in the department of manners, imposed on French society at court by kingly authority, grew up, thanks to Addison and his fellow-workers, in the coffee-houses of England, by means of reason and free discussion. All that delicacy of thought and expression, which, in France, was inspired by women, and was so much the freemasonry of a few select drawing-rooms that it became a literary dialect, was circulated by Addison, wherever the English language was spoken in educated society, through the channel of the press. He had lived for more than a year in France, and must have felt the full charm of the French style of conversation. A weaker man would have endeavoured to imitate it. But Addison knew that such a frail exotic must perish in the open air, and that it would be an almost hopeless task to graft any branch of culture springing out of absolutism on the wild stock of English freedom. Whatever influence the example of French elegance may insensibly have exercised on his mind, the standard of expression he adopted was as entirely the reflection of his own nature, as the Tatlers and Spectators were the product of the peculiar conditions of English life. And it was just because the essay in his hands held up so clear a mirror to the different opposing elements in the life of the nation; because, without identifying itself with any party, it reflected whatever was vital in the spirit of chivalry and the spirit of Puritanism, in the interests of town and country, of art and literature, in a word, of men and women; that it became in England so powerful an instrument for the improvement of taste and manners. The Spectator did not attempt to lecture his audience, but rather to bring them over to his ideas by reason, raillery, and gentle insinuation; and his hearers, on their side, insensibly won by the charm of his familiar discourse, began to detach themselves from the particular sects in which they had been educated, and gradually to form round him a solid body of public opinion.
In estimating the merits of Addison as a writer of English prose, it is necessary to make allowance for the moral purpose of his essays, and the social conditions under which they were produced. We cannot analyse our tastes; but if any reader is inclined to undervalue the speculative portions of Addisons writings, as superficial and commonplace, he should remember that many imaginative truths, which we now accept instinctively, were not established without painful efforts of thought in earlier generations. Those short sermons, for example, like the essays on cheerfulness, in the Spectator, which in this day seem little more than collections of elegant platitudes, had a different meaning for readers who had been nourished from youth on the prison fare of Puritanism. Homilies on the various duties of life are not now very enlivening literature, but they exercised a powerful influence on an age which, educated in the school of manners formed by the Restoration, was in some doubt whether either religious principle or conjugal fidelity was quite in keeping with the character of a gentleman. As to the critical papers in the Spectator there were some, even in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, who held them cheap; but Johnson thought otherwise of them; and we who recollect that they were written when the minds of men were as yet scarcely weaned from admiration of rhymed tragedies and metaphysical wit, and who observe in our own time a certain revival of similar tastes, may even now be of Johnsons opinion.
It is, however, no doubt, as a humourist, and a painter of manners, rather than as a critic; as a master of that familiar conversational style, midway between the personal discourse of Drydens prefaces and the anonymous expression of opinion in a modern newspaper, that Addison has secured imperishable fame. This side of his genius is marked, in respect of thought, by three prevailing characteristics. One is irony; in other words, an inimitable air of gravity which sets before the reader some folly or absurdity, as if it were entirely consistent with nature and reason. Good examples of this kind of writing may be found in Spectators, Nos. 13, 28, 34, 44, 72. A not less remarkable feature in Addisons style is the richness and delicacy of his fancy. This sometimes clothes itself in allegory, one of the few literary traditions of the Middle Ages which he appears to have been anxious to preserve. But a far finer and more subtle expression of his fancy is found in those essays, where he surrounds with the rainbow hues of language and the brilliancy of literary allusion the manners of the men, and, more particularly the women of his time. The follies of the fan, the patch, the hoop, the headdress, and all those mysteries of the toilet, which Pope at the same period immortalised in the Rape of the Lock, are embalmed in Addisons essays with unrivalled sweetness and delicacy. Finally, the fullest scope was given to the exercise of these qualities by the dramatic fiction of the Club, which furnished a framework for the Spectator, and enabled Addison, in an assumed character, to describe, without any appearance of egotism, the various scenes of life as they came under his observation.
These characteristics of Addisons thought are reproduced in his style, which reflects in the most refined and beautiful form the conversational idiom of his period. He is, indeed, far from attaining that faultless accuracy which has been sometimes ascribed to him. It was his aim to make philosophy popular, and always to discourse with his readers in familiar language; but it is observable that, when writing on abstract subjects, he frequently becomes involved and obscure. Since the circulation of the blood, he says in one essay, has been found out, and many other great discoveries have been made by our modern anatomists, we see new wonders in the human frame, and discern several important uses for those parts, which uses the ancients knew nothing of.1 Here, in the first place, he must intend the words those parts to refer to the human frame, which he has just spoken of in the singular number, and as a whole; in the next place he leads us to expect that the relative pronoun, which, refers to those parts; and lastly, as this is not his meaning, he is reduced to the awkward shift of repeating after this relative the antecedent word which actually belongs to it. The difficulty he found in expressing abstract thought is illustrated by his frequent but faulty use of the conjunction as; for example: We should sufficiently weigh the objects of our hope, whether they be such as we may reasonably expect from them what we propose in their fruition;2 where it is plain that he ought either to have written such, that, or such as may give us reason to expect from them, etc. The following sentence is even more awkward and incorrect: But there will be such a mixture of delight in the very disgust it gives us, as any of these qualifications are most conspicuous and prevailing:3 where he means to say: There will be a mixture of delight in the very disgust it gives us, in proportion as any of these qualifications are conspicuous and prevailing.
(1) Elliptical sentences, especially in the use of relative pronouns as: This was a reflection upon the popes sister, who before the promotion of her brother was in those mean circumstances that Pasquin represented her [to be in].4
(2) Occasionally we meet with one of those false concords, caused by attraction, into which the most careful of writers is always liable to fall: e.g., And it is plain that each of those poems have lost this great advantage.6
(4) One word or phrase is sometimes wrongly substituted for another, as: He was dictated [prompted] by his natural affection as well as by the rules of prudence, to make himself esteemed and beloved by Florio.8
It is instructive to take note of these small blemishes, not only because they show how far the most finished writers come short of complete accuracy, but also because many of them seem to spring naturally out of Addisons conversational manner of writing. They are but specks in the midst of the ease, beauty, and simplicity of his familiar style. The prose of Addison marks the disappearance of that long tradition of Euphuism, which had left distinct traces of its influence even on so idiomatic a writer as Dryden, in whose style, as I have already shown, two prominent features are metaphor,used for the expression of ideas not associated with each other by nature,and verbal antithesis. Addisons style on the other hand is mainly distinguished by a crystal clearness of expression, a beautiful propriety in the choice of words, and such a balance in the distribution of them as, without the aid of antithesis, leaves the ear at the close of each period with a sense of satisfaction. Instead of those unnatural or far-fetched resemblances, in the discovery of which the Euphuist showed his wit, Addison sought to bring out by fancy paradoxes really hidden in nature. Here for example is a series of thoughts on the manufacture of paper: It is pleasant enough to consider the change that a linen fragment undergoes by passing through the several hands above mentioned. The finest pieces of Holland, when torn to pieces, assume a new whiteness more beautiful than their first, and often return in the shape of letters to their native country. A ladys shift may be metamorphosed into billet-doux, and come into her possession a second time. A beau may peruse his cravat after it is worn out, with greater pleasure and advantage than ever he did in a glass. In a word, a piece of cloth, after having officiated for some years as a towel or a napkin, may by this means be raised from a dunghill, and become the most valuable piece of furniture in a princes cabinet.12
Again, in place of the tricks of verbal antithesis practised by the Euphuists, Addison sought rather to charm mind and ear simultaneously by displaying the varied aspects of a single thought in a rising climax of rhythmical sentences. A good example of this style is furnished in the conclusion of his essay on the tombs in Westminster Abbey: When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me: when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out: when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion: when I see the tombs of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow: when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind.13
In a word, it may be said that the essay in the hands of Addison acquired that perfection of well-bred ease which arises from a complete understanding between an author and his audience. Writing in an age when opinion on all questions of art and manners was greatly divided, while at the same time there was a general desire for intellectual agreement, he treated of a variety of matters, which he was able, through the happiness of his genius, to present in a form pleasing to the imagination of the people. In later essayists we observe that, as their materials are less abundant, and their own personality becomes in consequence more prominent, their style begins to show less of the genius of conversation. When Johnson, for instance, moralises in the Rambler he discourses with the reader, as he himself allows, in the spirit of a dictator. On the other hand, in the Essays of Charles Lamb, everything depends on the writers own point of view; his fancy has to be followed, like the rays of the sun from the face of a mirror, into whatever odd nooks and crannies its whimsical caprice may happen to flash at the moment. In Addison the moral has not yet been pushed into the lecture, nor has humour yet departed from the work-a-day world: thought in him instinctively clothes itself in the common language of refined society, and fancy, grace, and beauty seem to spring out of the nature of things.