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they wear but one impertinence out of human life, destroy a single vice, or give a morning's cheerfulness to an honest mind; in short, if the world can be but one virtue the better or in any degree less vicious, or receive from them the smallest addition to their innocent diversions; I shall not think my pains, or indeed my life, to have been spent in vain.”
“He has restored virtue to its dignity, and taught innocence not to be ashamed. This is an elevation of literary character, above all Greek, above all Roman fame. . . . 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."
- DR. JOHNSON.
- POPE's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.
Joseph Addison, one of the most charming of English prose-writers, and one of the wisest and most kindly of social reformers, was born at his father's rectory at Milston, Wiltshire, in 1672. His father, who became Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, was a kindly scholar of some literary ability, and Addison's earliest impressions of life were gained in a refined and happy home. He went to the Charterhouse School, where he formed his memorable friendship with “Dick" Steele, and thence to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he led a quiet, studious life. He had a liking for Latin literature, and was fond of walking on the shaded path now known as Addison's Walk -- along the banks of the river Cher
well. The Church seemed the natural career for a young man of Addison's position and character, but an unforeseen opportunity turned the course of his life in another direction. His scholarship and his literary gifts had attracted the notice of two leaders of the Whig
party, who, anxious no doubt to secure for the Whigs the services of a promising young writer, obtained a pension for Addison which he was to use in foreign travel in preparation for a public career. Accordingly, in 1699, he left for the Continent, visiting France, Italy, and Switzerland, writing a little and observing much. But the political changes which followed King Wil
liam's death in 1702, lost Addison his pension; he returned home in the following year with no certain prospects, and, as Dr. Johnson quaintly says, “at full leisure for the cultivation of his mind.” But it was not long before Addison's opportunity came. In 1704, Marlborough, the most brilliant soldier of the age, won the great battle of Blenheim against the French; and Addison was chosen by the government to write a poem that should fittingly celebrate the great victory. Addison at this time was miserably poor; he lived, we are told, up three flights of stairs over a small shop in the Haymarket; his friends were out of power, and he was almost unknown. But his poem, The Campaign, which he composed on this occasion, not only brought him fame, but relieved his poverty. As a reward for his services to the party, he was made one of the Commissioners of the Excise, that is of the domestic taxes, in 1704. Two years later he became Under Secretary of State.
The Periodical Essays. — Shortly after this, as we have seen, Addison became a contributor to Steele's new enterprise, the Tatler, finding through his friend a fresh and congenial field for his talents, and entering on what was to prove his most brilliant and useful sphere of work. In the succeeding periodical, the Spectator (1711), his fine qualities are seen at their best.
The wonderful essays in these periodicals, and in a few others of their kind, performed for the English of the eighteenth century the same service that the players, as Hamlet said, did for the sixteenth; they were the "abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” The world read them, and saw itself reflected in the mirror of art. Others had held up mirrors to life, — Chaucer, the poet, to his world of the fourteenth century; Shakespeare, the dramatist, to his world of the sixteenth; and
now, in the early eighteenth-century world, came the essayists also, holding up in their turn their mirror to the human comedy about them. And that world remains; these little essays, slight and trifling as they seem, not only revealed it to the men of the age that produced them, but they show it to us also, if we read them with sympathetic understanding. It is full of men and women more real to us than many of the great personages of history: the immortal country squire, the amiable and eccentric Sir Roger de Coverley; Will Honeycomb, the elderly man of gallantry; Sir Andrew Freeport, the representative of the rising merchantclass; and poor, aimless, idle Will Wimble. There, too, is Ned Softly, haunting the coffee-houses for a chance to read his verses; Tom Folio, the pedantic bibliographer, the type of those who glorify the outward details of scholarship while incapable of appreciating its spirit; and Addison himself, the Spectator, the shy, silent man, who sits by and watches and records all. There are all these and many more painted with such truth and distinctness that, like the pilgrims of Chaucer's worthy company, they remain the living representatives of their time.
Cato. --- With the production of his ponderous tragedy of Cato, in 1713, Addison reached the summit of his success. The play is of little interest to us, but in the eyes of Addison's contemporaries it was the crowning triumph of its author's career.
Last Years. - Addison's last years show us what a great social and political eminence a man of high character, sound judgment, and literary ability could then attain. In 1716 he married the Dowager Countess of Warwick, and in the year following he became Secretary of State. Failing health soon compelled him to resign this great office, and he died in 1719.