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Addison, Joseph

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment

John D. Baird

Addison, Joseph 

(1672–1719), English writer and statesman.

Addison, the son of an Anglican clergyman, was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and the Charterhouse School in London, where he befriended his eventual collaborator, Richard Steele (1672–1729).

As an undergraduate at Oxford, he won a reputation within the university and beyond as a gifted writer of Latin verse. Addison's talents and his political views won him patrons in the government, then dominated by members of the Whig party, who obtained a grant of two hundred pounds to enable him to prepare himself for diplomatic service by making the Grand Tour of Europe, normally undertaken only by aristocratic youths.

At the center of Addison's tour (1699–1704) were the two years he spent in Italy—“classic ground,” as he called it in his poem A Letter from Italy (1703). The visible remains of Roman civilization gave a new dimension to his academic learning, inspiring his Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705), long popular as a literary guidebook for English travelers. When he returned to England, more or less penniless, his political patrons had fallen out of power and his prospects appeared bleak; however, his poem The Campaign (1704), which celebrated the duke of Marlborough's recent victory over the French at the battle of Blenheim, won him both a respectable sinecure and distinction as a writer. In later years, he became a member of Parliament and held several important government positions.It was during the years 1710 to 1714, when the Tory party controlled the government, that Addison made his most important contributions to literature. His friend Steele, in The Tatler (1709–1711), had pioneered the literary periodical, a 1500-word essay printed on a single sheet of paper. The two writers, dismissed from their posts by the Tories, launched The Spectator (March 1711–December 1712), which was similar in format but was published daily. Their purpose was to improve the social mores and aesthetic taste of their society. To this end, they developed a flexible and informal prose style equally suited to narratives concerning the members of the “Spectator Club” (the friends of the supposed author of the essays) and to Addison's discussion, extended over several numbers, of Milton's Paradise Lost. His series on the Pleasures of the Imagination was a major contribution to aesthetic theory in England. The Spectator confirmed Addison's status as the arbiter of literary merit; at Button's coffee house, in the words of Alexander Pope (1688–1744), he “gave his little Senate laws” (Epistle to Arbuthnot, v. 209).

In 1713, Addison's tragedy Cato was produced with huge success. This study of personal integrity and public virtue appealed to people of all political persuasions at a time when party feeling ran high but when most subscribed to the ideal of government without parties. The accession of George I in the following year brought the Whigs back into power, and Addison resumed his political career. He married the dowager countess of Warwick in 1716, but his health began to fail from overwork, and he died on 17 June 1719.

[See also Clubs and Societies; Coffeehouses and Cafes; Journals, Newspapers, and Gazettes, subentry on Great Britain; Pope, Alexander; Popularization; and Sociability.]


Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele. The Spectator. Edited by Donald F. Bond. 5 vols. Oxford, 1965. Thorough annotation and indexing enhance the reader's experience.Find this resource:

    Ellison, Julie K. Cato's Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion. Chicago, 1999. Shows the long-lasting importance of the play in English-speaking culture.Find this resource:

      Ketcham, Michael G. Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in the Spectator Papers. Athens, Ga., 1985. An excellent study of rhetoric and style.Find this resource:

        Nablow, Ralph Arthur. The Addisonian Tradition in France: Passion and Objectivity in Social Observation. Rutherford, N.J., 1990. In tracing Addison's influence, Nablow brings out important aspects of his writing.Find this resource:

          Smithers, Peter. The Life of Joseph Addison. 2d ed. Oxford, 1968. The standard biography.Find this resource:

            John D. Baird