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Addison, Joseph

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Barbara M. Benedict

Addison, Joseph 

Joseph Addison (1672–1719) was famous throughout the eighteenth century, not only as a man of letters but as a model of genial rationality. Indeed, for him and his contemporaries, these were two sides of the same coin: his literary persona embodied his political and personal identity. Entering the literary stage at a period just emerging from divisive civil war and still shaken by disruptive fears and plots, he wrote in a range of genres that spoke to very different audiences: classical translation, religious verse, political commentary, historical treatise, drama, and extemporaneous poetry. His greatest contribution to literature, however, is certainly the innovative style of journalism exemplified by his writing in the Spectator, the periodical he founded in 1711 with his friend, the essayist and playwright Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729). Addison and Steele were centrally responsible for transforming reportage into a literary genre and for establishing the eighteenth-century ideal of a polite, public culture occupied with discussions of politics, literature, and art. Addison's blend of classical training, intellectual adventurousness, and middle-class morality shaped the English ideal of the literate gentleman. He was himself eager to change public discourse in order to admit a more refined sensibility than that of the previous age. As the Spectator in his daily periodical, he declared:

“It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee-Houses”

(Spectator, no. 10). His charm and easy wit won some of the greatest accolades and some of the most enduring satire of the eighteenth century, and also helped to make moderate civility the standard of good taste in literature and life.

Joseph AddisonClick to view larger

Joseph Addison Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c. 1703–1712 National Portrait Gallery, London

The Spectator of Middle-Class Life

Addison's great achievement in the Spectator was to transform middle-class values into a standard of gentility and politeness that came to define urbanity itself. As the name itself declares, the Spectator was dedicated to disinterested observation, particularly of the current social scene. This itself was a radically new venture at a time when all literature carried a political agenda and journalism was often openly polemical. Addison himself had already done such political service. In 1710 he began the Whig Examiner to rebut the Examiner, written by the Irish satirist and Tory Jonathan Swift, and later in life he returned to political journalism in the Freeholder and the Old Whig, countering the Plebeian, which was written by his former friend and colleague, Sir Richard Steele. But neither his sensibility nor his ideals welcomed such factionalism. On the contrary, among the extraordinary aspects of the Spectator was its joint authorship, an authorship shared by a Whig and a Tory.

Both Swift and Steele were Addison's friends and fellow members of the literary Kit-Kat Club, which Addison joined in 1704. With the publisher Jacob Tonson, who had first produced Addison's verse, as secretary, the club included the physician and free-thinker Sir Samuel Garth and the Whig playwrights William Congreve and Sir John Vanbrugh. With its atmosphere of congenial, literary fellowship, this club provided a model for the fictional Spectator Club, and it established a tradition of literary camaraderie that shaped literary friendships and production throughout the century. In this cooperative spirit, Addison helped Steele to revise his play The Tender Husband in 1705, and it was Steele who propelled Addison into journalistic fame. Addison contributed forty-two papers to Steele's gossipy thrice-weekly periodical the Tatler, which, like the Spectator, purported to be recounted by a fictional editor; it was published from 1709 until 1711. In the process, he came to find the voice of a detached social observer that marked his later venture. It was after this experience that the two launched the most important journal of the first half of the eighteenth century, the Spectator, in March 1711.

As well as changing the concept of journalism, the Spectator vitally influenced the emerging preeminent genre of the eighteenth century: the novel. The first periodical ever issued daily (six days a week), it ran through 555 numbers (until 6 December 1712), not only enjoying a large circulation of some three to four thousand readers, but also, through dissemination and reprinting, reaching a much larger number throughout the century. Most important, it replaced the topical news and politics that occupied conventional newspapers with reflective discussions of general subjects and a great deal of literary criticism, most of it written by Addison. The paper purported to be the reflections of the titular character, who wandered unobserved through London, recording the gossip, manners, customs, and culture he observed. A melancholy, solitary man, the Spectator embodied a wide-ranging sensual apprehension, a free mind working energetically on the urban materials before it. This prototype came to characterize the voice of the essayist from Samuel Johnson to William Hazlitt. In the periodical, the Spectator belongs to a coterie of Englishmen, known as the Spectator Club, each of whom represents a social type, and whose letters and experiences appear in the paper. These characters had a profound effect on the eighteenth-century imagination. The most important, the sentimental landowner Sir Roger de Coverley, made the personality of the genial, kindly old English Whig a staple in English literature. Other writers developed this character type into the figure of the benevolent gentleman, saddened by experience, that is prevalent in eighteenth-century fiction. At the same time, by presenting a hardheaded alternative perspective through Sir Andrew Freeport, the businessman, Addison dramatized the need for a rational compromise between the landed and mercantile interests, and between social and self-interest. Through these portraits of contemporary sensibility, the Spectator functioned as serialized novel: the characters acted out ideas and values in relationship to each other. By publishing these apparently intimate correspondences, the essays supplied a model of epistolary revelations of intimate feelings that also informed the eighteenth-century novel. The epistolary technique of the novelist Samuel Richardson, the genial narrator of Henry Fielding's novels, and the sentimental protagonists in the novels of Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett all owe a debt to Mr. Spectator.

The Spectator also introduced generic experimentation and variety as aspects of literary entertainment. Thanks to the periodical's astonishingly long run, the authors were stimulated to devise hybrid genres. From the Tatler they had borrowed the devices of printing imaginary and real letters from readers, dream visions, allegories, and social sketches of character types. Addison supplemented these with poems, sermons, hymns, and Oriental tales. In the process, he established journalism as a mode for both conversational exchange among urban readers and literary experimentation among urban writers. Addison briefly revived the Spectator thrice weekly in 1714, with the help of his cousin, the writer Eustace Budgell, and Thomas Tickell, another lifelong friend who acted as his editor, secretary, and executor before abandoning journalism for other interests. The Spectator not only changed journalism from reportage into social commentary, it remained a model of the genteel posture of the urban consumer for over a century, spawning a panoply of imitations, among them Eliza Haywood's the Female Spectator (1744–1746), well into the twentieth century.

If it changed literary forms, the Spectator also changed manners, and it did so by means of its topical reach. Unlike the protagonists of previous journals, the Spectator concerned himself not only with contemporary life, but with philosophical reflection, including comments on his own thoughts and ideas. Addison was strongly influenced by the epistemological theories of the philosopher John Locke, who argued that humans learn entirely through their personal, sensual experiences and their mental reflections upon them, and who analyzed imagination through the concept of the association of ideas. In his essays on wit and on “The Pleasures of the Imagination” (June and July 1712), Addison disseminated Locke's ideas and greatly influenced contemporary notions of the interdependence of aesthetic and philosophical issues. At the same time, these and similar essays demonstrated a serious yet light-handed approach to the complexities of social experience, as well as an omnivorous but polite curiosity about all aspects of culture. Most important, Addison introduced a great deal of literary criticism into the journal. With his informal approach to literature as an exercise of personal taste, Addison's Spectator modeled a wide-ranging intellectual tolerance that admired not only Milton's Paradise Lost (5 January through 3 May 1712), but popular literature like the fifteenth-century Ballad of Chevy Chase (21 and 25 May 1711), which recounts the rivalry of the Percy and Douglas families, representing England and Scotland. As the Spectator, Addison thus changed literature from an esoteric, elite enterprise to a topic for general discussion. Noting how Addison altered polite conversation and introduced learning to high society, Samuel Johnson commented in his Life of Addison, “His purpose was to infuse literary curiosity by gentle and unsuspected conveyance into the gay, the idle, and the wealthy.” The Spectator thus promoted a new ideal of urban consumption and introduced a new form of urban entertainment through light literature.

Poetry, Politics, Friendship, and the Neoclassical Ideal

Although the Spectator overshadows his other writing, in the eighteenth century Addison had a significant role as a literary critic who focused contemporary attention on the importance of style. In his time he was considered an influential, if minor, poet and an impressive classical scholar. These talents, in combination with his literary posture of objective perspective and balanced judgment, manifested in learning lightly worn, helped to define the social and literary ideal of neoclassicism. Early in his life he was renowned for his Latin verses, which won him the attention of Dr. William Lancaster, a fellow (and soon to be provost) of his Oxford College, Queen’s. He rapidly obtained a demyship (scholarship) at Magdalen College, which led to a fellowship that he held from 1698 until 1711. These, and his continual Latin compositions, stamped him as a literary professional, but his social skills also deeply shaped his success.

He first won public attention with his poem “To Mr. Dryden” (1693), a panegyric on the poet's classical translations that appeared in the important Examen Poeticum, which was itself edited by the sometime poet laureate, John Dryden. The third of a multivolume series of poetical miscellanies, this collection established the taste for heterogeneous, light verse that shaped taste for the next half century. It was a coup for Addison to publish in such a collection, but the conglomeration of ballads, prologues, satire, translations, and light verse in these volumes also made them an apt venue for Addison's poetry. His poems characteristically elide genres, merging panegyric with description, and wit with reverence while addressing a diverse range of subjects. He wrote not only on politics and divinity, but also penned verses on a barometer, a puppet-show, and a mock-heroic battle between pygmies and cranes. Four more of his poems, all infusing classical forms with conversational lightness, appeared in subsequent volumes of Tonson's Miscellany Poems, including “An Account of the Greatest English Poets” and “Poem to His Majesty.” This blend of tact, politics, and classical learning characterized the literary man of the time, but Addison's contribution was greater. His concern for stylistic questions, manifested in his translations well as his essays, helped to make aesthetic technique a central criterion for literary evaluation.

In his prose works, too, Addison had an important talent for showing how immersion in classical culture could enrich the perception of contemporary life, even as he also saw all culture and history in a political light. While traveling on the Continent from 1699 to 1703 with the aid of a government grant, he published the verse Letter from Italy, and probably composed Dialogues upon the Usefulness of Ancient Metals, published posthumously. Fusing history, politics, and social observation, Addison's popular travelogue exemplified intellectual reflection and an enthusiastic sense of the power of learning to elucidate experience, features that also appear in his discussion of medals as illustrated by Latin verse. His comments on Italy, nonetheless, are saturated with his advocacy of progress, republicanism, and trade. This ability to infuse political perception into entertaining literary fare was precious in the early eighteenth century. Upon his return in 1703, Addison's political cronies urged him to compose a celebration of Marlborough's victory at Blenheim. The result, The Campaign, written in heroic couplets, and published in December 1704, was so successful that Tonson immediately published Addison's Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, which itself quadrupled in price before the second edition of 1718. In The Campaign, Addison heroicizes Marlborough while retaining a good portrait of his real character. The poem is also an accurate narrative of the battle. Like the Spectator, this blend of fact and fiction demonstrated the emerging technique of literary realism.

Politics also influenced the success of Addison's most famous poetic work. Despite his skill in light verse and heterogeneous forms, Addison's dramatic attempts were generally mixed. His opera, Rosamond, composed in English, ran for only three nights in 1706, although when published in 1707 it earned Tickell's praise. His farcical The Drummer (1715) was likewise a failure, also running only three nights. However, his stylized topical verse drama Cato (1713) won him enormous notoriety. By depicting the suicide of the eponymous republican when faced with submission to the dictator Caesar, the play permitted many political interpretations. Whigs interpreted Cato as the duke of Marlborough resisting a French and Spanish alliance by setting a Bourbon king on the Spanish throne, and thus saw it as supporting the War of Spanish Succession. Tories, however, saw Caesar as Marlborough, ruthlessly advancing British imperialism. In addition, the subplot, in which Cato's Numidian ally Juba falls in love with Cato's daughter Marcia, enabled Addison to voice contemplations on the nature of liberty and empire that spoke to the American colonists. Although its ambiguity infuriated many, it also drew large audiences; the play was a huge success and enjoyed an unusually long run of twenty-five nights. Ironically, it epitomizes the very factionalism Addison disliked, and consequently it stood throughout the century as a standard of political literature.

Addison's literary influence was entangled in the fortunes of the Whigs, and his impressive political success did much to ensure his literary fame. Although he briefly lost office when the Whigs fell in 1711, he returned as chief secretary to Ireland in 1715, commencing a tolerant political newspaper, the Freeholder (December 1715–June 1716). In 1716, he rose to lord commissioner of trade under Lord Sunderland, but his last years were difficult: he married the countess of Warwick, reputedly an unhappy union, and although he retired from office with a huge pension of £1,500 in 1718, he had become alienated from many friends. As Tories out of political favor, Swift and Steele rejected him, and his skill at converting sociability into power drew Alexander Pope to satirize him as the talented but jealous Atticus, who will “Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, / And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer” (Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, 1735: ll. 201 02). Addison's own sense of good manners and strong morals, however, remained: reputedly, he called his stepson, Lord Warwick, to his deathbed to observe “in what peace a Christian can die.” He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Legacy of Liberal Sociability

Addison provided the eighteenth century with a new way of thinking about literature as part of urban sociability. By his generous, idiosyncratic, and expansive literary criticism, and his emphasis on style and classical influences, he did much to replace the value for Restoration coarseness with an ideal of graceful writing, tolerance and politeness. His own curiosity about a range of subjects, manifested by his miscellaneous writings as well as the roving eye of the Spectator, made voracious intellectuality—within the realm of good, middle-class taste—a stamp of urban sophistication. In the Spectator, Addison initiated a variety of character types, an epistolary tone and form, and an inclusive generic mix that informed the development of the novel. In his social persona, too, he greatly influenced the way literature and culture were consumed and performed. For Addison, politics, literature, and manners were intertwined, and in all he advocated moderation, elegance, and geniality; he was a sensitive, charming companion who made cultivated manners fashionable. His ability to convert social skills into political power by establishing a coterie of like-minded writers influenced the way writers and booksellers cooperated throughout the century. Both through the Spectator and as a public figure, Addison reshaped public discourse in the eighteenth century to make middle-class concerns and standards central to culture. Indeed, he made literary conversation the pulse of urban life.

See also The Coffeehouse; Eighteenth-Century Journalism; Epistolary Novel; John Locke; Neoclassicism; Serialization; and Jonathan Swift.

Selected Works

Dissertatio de Insignioribus Romanorum Poetis. Reprinted in Poems on Several Occasions. With a Dissertation upon the Roman Poets (1692, reprinted, 1719)Find this resource:

    “To Mr Dryden.” In Examen Poeticum, being the Third part of Miscellany Poems (1693)Find this resource:

      “A Translation of all Virgil's Fourth Georgick, except the Story of Aristaeus.” In The Annual Miscellany: for the year 1694, being the fourth part of Miscellany Poems (1694)Find this resource:

        “A Song for St. Cecilia Day at Oxford.” In The Annual Miscellany: for the year 1694, being the fourth part of Miscellany Poems (1694)Find this resource:

          “The Story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. From the Fourth Book of Ovid's Metamorphoses.” In The Annual Miscellany: for the year 1694, being the fourth part of Miscellany Poems (1694)Find this resource:

            “An Account of the Greatest English Poets. To Mr. H.S. April 3, 1694.” In The Annual Miscellany: for the year 1694, being the fourth part of Miscellany Poems (1694)Find this resource:

              “Poem to His Majesty. Presented to the Lord Keeper.” (1695)Find this resource:

                “Pax Gulielmi” (1697)Find this resource:

                  “Essay on Vergil's Georgics,” printed as the introduction to Dryden's edition (1697)Find this resource:

                    “Barometri Descriptio” (1698, reprinted 1699)Find this resource:

                      “Praelium inter Pygmaeos et grues comissum” (1698)Find this resource:

                        “Resurrectio, delineata ad altare Coll. Magd. Oxon.” (1698)Find this resource:

                          “Sphaeristerium” (1698)Find this resource:

                            “Machinae Gesticulantes, anglicè, A Puppet Show (1698)Find this resource:

                              “Pax Guglielmi Auspiciis Europae reditta, 1697” (1699)Find this resource:

                                “Cursus Glacialis, Anglicè Scating” (1699)Find this resource:

                                  A Letter from Italy, to the Right Honourable Charles Lord Halifax, MDCCI (written 1701, published 1703)Find this resource:

                                    “Milton's Stile Imitated” (1704)Find this resource:

                                      The Campaign (1704)Find this resource:

                                        “Prologue to The Tender Husband; Or, The Accomplish Fools. A Comedy … Written by Mr. Steele” (1705)Find this resource:

                                          Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, &c.In the Years 1701, 1702, 1703 (1705)Find this resource:

                                            Rosamond. An Opera (1707)Find this resource:

                                              The Present State of the War, and the Necessity of an Augumentation, Considered (1708)Find this resource:

                                                The Tatler, 42 of the 271 numbers (1709–1711)Find this resource:

                                                  The Whig Examiner, 5 numbers (1710)Find this resource:

                                                    The Spectator, 274 out of the 555 numbers (1711–1712)Find this resource:

                                                      Cato. A Tragedy (1713)Find this resource:

                                                        The Late Tryal and Conviction of Count Tariff (1713)Find this resource:

                                                          The Guardian, 51 out of the 175 numbers (1713)Find this resource:

                                                            The Spectator, numbers 556–635 (1714–1715)Find this resource:

                                                              Freeholder, Or Political Essays, 55 numbers (1715–1716)Find this resource:

                                                                The Drummer; Or, The Haunted House. A Comedy (1716)Find this resource:

                                                                  To Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, With the Tragedy of Cato. Nov. 1714. To Sir Godfrey Kneller, on His Picture of the King (1716)Find this resource:

                                                                    Books 2 and 3 of “Ovid's Metamorphoses in fifteen Books Translated by the most eminent hands,” (1717)Find this resource:

                                                                      A Dissertation upon the Most Celebrated Roman Poets. Written originally in Latin by Joseph Addison, Esq.; Mae English by Christopher Hayes, Esq. (1718)Find this resource:

                                                                        The Old Whig, 2 numbers (1719)Find this resource:

                                                                          Dialogues upon the Usefulness of Ancient Metals. Especially in relation to the Latin and Greek Poets (1721)Find this resource:

                                                                            Of the Christian religion (written 1721; published 1730)Find this resource:

                                                                              A Discourse on Ancient and Modern Learning … Now first published from an Original Manuscript of Mr. Addison, Prepared and Corrected by himself (1739)Find this resource:

                                                                                Further Reading

                                                                                Bloom, Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom. Joseph Addison's Sociable Animal: In the Marketplace, on the Hustings, in the Pulpit. Providence, RI, 1971. Detailed, comprehensive study of Addison in the eighteenth-century context, presenting him as dedicated mercantilist with a probing intelligence that admires curiosity confined within social bounds.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Courthope, William J. Addison (1889). New York, 1968. Influential analysis of Addison's liberal response to the social and moral oppositions caused by the political disturbances of the seventeenth century.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Johnson, Samuel. “Life of Addison.” In Lives of the English Poets. London, 1925, vol. 1, pp. 327–368. Primary source of historical opinions on Addison's character and works.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Kay, Donald. Short Fiction in the Spectator. University, AL, 1975. Seminal examination of the fictional techniques in the periodical.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Knight, Charles A. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele: A Reference Guide, 1730–1991. New York, 1994. The authoritative bibliography of works by and about Addison.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Otten, Robert M. Joseph Addison. Boston, 1982. Concise literary analysis of all of Addison works, organized by genre.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Shevelow, Kathryn. Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical. London and New York, 1989. Study of the periodical's rhetoric and readership.Find this resource:

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

                                                                                                Barbara M. Benedict