Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay.

Critical, historical, and miscellaneous essays online

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Addison.

As a man, he may not have deserved the adoration
wliich lie received from those who, bewitched by his
fascinating society, and indebted for all the comforts of
life to his generous and deUcate friendship, worshipped
Qim nightly, in his favourite temple at Button's. But,
after full inquiry and impartial reflection^ we have long
been convinced that he deserved as much love and es-
teem as can be justly claimed by any of our infirm and
erring race. Some blemishes may undoubtedly be de-



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824 LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISUN.

tected in his character ; but the more carefully it is ex-
amined, the more will it appear, to use the phrase of the
old anatomists, sound in the noble parts, free firom all
taint of perfidy, of cowardice, of cruelty, of ingratitude,
of envy. Men may easily be named, in whom some
particular good disposition has been more conspicuous
than in Addison. But the just harmony of quahties, tlie
exact temper between the stem and the humane virtues,
the habitual observance of every law, not only of moral
rectitude, but of moral grace and dignity, distinguish
him from all men who have been tried by equally strong
temptations, and about whose conduct we possess
equally full information.

His father was the Reverend Lancelot Addison,
who, though eclipsed by his more celebrated son, made
some figure in the world, and occupies with credit two
folio pages in the Biographia Bricannica. Lancelot
was sent up, as a poor scholar, from Westmoreland to
Queen's Ccilege, Oxford, in the time of the Common-
wealth, made some progress in learning, became, like
most of his fellow students, a violent Royalist, lam-
pooned the heads of the University, and was forced to
ask pardon on his bended knees. When he had Icfl
college, he earned a humble subsistence by reading the
liturgy of the fallen Church to the families of those
sturdy squires whose manor houses were scattered over
the Wild of Sussex. After the Restoration, his loyalty
was rewarded with the post of chaplain to the garrison
of Dunkirk. When Dunkirk was sold to France, he
lost his employment. But Tangier had been ceded by
Portugal to England as pait of the marriage portion
of the Infanta Catharine; and to Tangier Lancelot
Addison was sent. A more miserable situation can
hardly be conceived. It was difficult to say whether



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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON. 325

die unfortunate settlers were more tormented by the
heats or by the rains, by the soldiers within the wall or
by the Moors without it. One advantage the chaplain
had. He enjoyed an excellent opportunity of studying
the history and manners of Jews and Mahometans ; and
of this opi>ortunity he appears to have made excellent
use. On his return to England, after some years of
banisliment, he published an, interesting volume on the
Polity and Religion of Barbary, and another on the
Hebrew Customs and the State of Rabbinical Learning.
He rose to eminence in his profession, and became one
of the royal chaplains, a Doctor of Divinity, Archdea-
con of Salisbury, and Dean of Lichfield. It is said
that he would have been made a bishop after the Revo-
hition, if he had not given offence to the government
by strenuously opposing, in the Convocation of 1689,
the liberal policy of William and Tillotson.

In 1672, not Iwig aft»r Dr. Addison's return from
Tangier, his son Joseph was bom. Of Joseph's child-
hood we know little. He learned his rudiments at
schools in his father's neighbourhood, and was then sent
to the Charter House. The anecdotes which are poj)u-
larly related about his boyish tricks do not harmonize
very well with what we know of his riper years.
There remains a tradition that he was the ringleader
in a barring out, and another tradition that he ran
away from school and hid himself in a wood, where he
fed on berries and slept in a hollow tree, till after a
long search he was discovered and brought home. If
these stories be true, it would be curious to know by
what moral discipline so mutinous and enterprising a
lad was tranrformed into the gentlest and most modest
of men.

We have abundant proof that, whatever Joseph's



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826 UFK AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON.

pranks may have been, he pursued his studies vigor-
ously and successfully. At fifteen he was not only fit
for the university, but earned thither a classical taste
and a stock of learning which would have done honour
to a Master of Arts. He was entered at Queen's Col-
lege, Oxford ; but he had not been many montlis there,
when some of his Latin verses fell by accident mto the
hands of Dr. Lancaster, Dean of Magdalene College.
The young scholar's diction and versification were al-
ready such as veteran professors might envy. Dr.
Lancaster was desirous to serve a boy of such promise ;
nor was an opportunity long wanting. The Revolution
had just taken place ; and nowliere had it been hailed
with more delight than at Magdalene College. That
great and opulent corporation had been treated by
James, and by his Chancellor, with an insolence and
injustice which, even in such a Prince and in such
a ♦Minister, may justly excite amazement, and which
had done more than even the prosecution of the Bish-
ops to ahenate the Church of England from the
throne. A president, duly elected, had been vio-
lently expelled from liis dwelling: a Papist had
been set over the society by a royal madate: the
Fellows who, in conformity with their oaths, had
refused to submit to this usurper, had been driven forth
fi*om their quiet cloisters and gardens, to die of want or
to live on charity. But the day of redress and retribu-
tion speedily came. The intruders were ejected : the
venerable House was again inliabited by its old inmates :
learning flourished under tlie rule of the wise and vir-
tuous Hough ; and with learning was united a mild and
liberal spirit too often wanting in the princely collies
of Oxford. In consequence of the troubles through
which the society had passed, there had been no valid



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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON, 827

election of new members during the year 1688. In
1689, therefore, there was twice the ordinary number of
vacancies ; and thus Dr. Lancaster found it easy to pro-
core for his young friend admittance to the advantages
of a ibondation then generally esteemed the wealthiest
in Europe.

At Magdalene Addison resided during ten years.
He was, at first, one of those scholars who are called
Demies, but was subsequently elected a fellow. His
college is still proud of his name: his portrait still
liangs in the hall ; and strangers are still told that his
fiivourite walk was under the elms which fringe the
meadow on the banks of the CherweU. It is said, and
is highly probable, that he was distinguished among
his fellow students by the delicacy of his feelings, by
the shyness of his manners, and by the assiduity with
which he often prolonged his studies &r into the night.
It is certain that his reputation for abiUty and learn-
ing stood high. Many years later, the ancient doc-
tors of Mf^dalene continued to talk in their conunon
room of his boyish compositions, and expressed their
sorrow that no copy of exercises so remarkable had
been preserved.

It is proper, however, to remark that Miss Aikin has
committed the error, very pardonable in a lady, of over-
rating Addison's classical attainments. In one depart-
ment of learning, indeed, his proficiency was such as it
is hardly possiUe to overrate. His knowledge of the
Latin poets, from Lucretius and Catullus down to Clau-
dian and Prudentius, was singularly exact and profound.
He understood them thoroughly, entered into their
spirit, and had the finest and most discriminating per-
ception of all their peculiarities of style and melody ;
nay, he copied their manner with admirable skill, and



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328 IJFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON.

surpassed, we think, all their British imitators wlio liaa
preceded him, Buchanan and Milton alone exceptecL
This is high praise ; and beyond this we cannot with
justice go. It is clear that Addison^s serious attention
during his residence at the university, was almost entirely
concentrated on Latin poetry, and that, if he did not
wholly neglect other provinces of ancient literature, he
vouchsafed to them only a cursory glance. He does not
appear to have attained more than an ordinary acquaint-
ance with tlie poUtical and moral writers of Rome ; nor
was his own Latin prose by any means equal to his
Latin verse. His knowledge of Greek, though doubt-
less such as was, in his time, thought respectable at
Oxford, was evidently less than that which many lads
now carry away every year from Eton and Rugby. A
minute examination of his works, if we had time to make
such an examination, would fully bear out these remarks.
We will briefly advert to a few of the facts on which
our judgment is grounded.

Great praise is due to the Notes which Addison ap-
pended to his version of the second and third books of
the Metamorphoses. Yet those notes, while they show
him to have been, in his own domain, an accomplished
scholar, show also how confined that domain was. They
are rich in apposite references to Virgil, Statins, and
Olaudian ; but they contain not a single illustration
drawn from the Greek poets. Now, if, in the whole
compass of Latin literature, there be a passage which
stands in need of illustraticm drawn from the Greek
poets, it is the story of Pentheus in the third book of
the Metamorphoses. Ovid was indebted for that story
to Euripides and Theocritus, both of whom he has
sometimes followed minutely. But neither to Emnpi-
des nor to Theocritus does Addison make the faintest



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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON, 829

allnsioii ; and we, therefore, believe that we do not
wrong him by supposing that he had little or no knowl-
edge of their works.

His travels in Italy, again, abound with classical
quotations happily introduced ; but scarcely one of
those quotations is in prose. He draws more illus-
trations from Ausonius and Manilius than from Cicero.
Even his notions of the poUtical and militaiy affairs
of tbe Romans seem to be derived from poets and
poetasters. Spots made memorable by events which
Iiave changed the destinies of the world, and which
have been worthily recorded by great historians, bring
to his mind only scraps of some ancient versifier. In
the gOTge of the Apennines he naturally remembers
the hardships which Hannibal's army endured, and
proceeds to dte, not the authentic narrative of Polyb-
ius, not the picturesque narrative of Livy, but the
languid hexameters of Silius Italicns. On the banks
of the Rubicon he never thinks of Plutarch's lively
description, or of the stem conciseness of the Commen-
taries, or of those letters to Atticus which so forcibly
express the alternations of hope and fear in a sensitive
mind at a great crisis. His only authority for the
events of the civil war is Lucan.

All the best ancient works of art at Rome and Flor-
ence are Greek. Addison saw them, however, with-
out recalling one single verse of Pindar, of Callimachus,
or of the Attic dramatists ; but they brought to his
recollection innumerable passages of Horace, Juvenal.
Statius, and Ovid.

The same may be said of the Treatise on Menials.
In that pleasing work we find about three hundred
passages extracted with great judgment from the Ro-
man poets ; but we do not recollect a single passage



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830 LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON.

taken from any Roman orator or historian ; and we
are confident that not a line is quoted from any Greek
writer. No person, who had derived all liis informa-
tion on the subject of medals from Addison, would
suspect that the Greek coins were in historical interest
equal, and in beauty of execution far superior to those
of Rome.

If it were necessary to find any further proof that
Addison's classical knowledge was confined within
narrow limits, that proof would be fiimished by his
Essay on the Evidences of Christuinity. The Roman
poets throw little or no light on the Uterary and his-
torical questions which he is under the necessity of
examining in that Essay. He is, therefore, left cchp-
pletely in the dark ; and it is melancholy to see how
helplessly he gropes his way from blunder to blunder.
He assigns, as grounds for his religious belief, stories
as absurd as that of the Cock-Lane ghost, and forgeries
as rank as Ireland's Yortigem, puts faith in the lie
about the Thundering Legion, is convinced tliat Tibe-
rius moved the senate to admit Jesus among the gods,
and pronounces the letter of Agbarus King of Edessa
to be a record of great authority. Nor w^?e these
errors the eifects of superstition ; for to super^tion
Addison was by no means prone. The truth is that he
was writing about what he did not understand.

Miss Aildn has discovered a letter from which it
appears that, while Addison resided at Oxford, he
was one of several writers whom the booksellers en-
gaged to make an English version of Herodotus ; and
she infers that he must have been a good Greek
scholar. We can allow vary Uttle weight to this ar-
gument, when we consider that his foUow-labourers
were to have been Boyle and Blackmore. Boyle is



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LIFK AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON. S3 1

reineml>ered chiefly as the nominal author of the worst
book on Greek history and philology that ever was
printed ; and this book, bad as it is, Boyle was un-
able to produce without help. Of Blackmore's attain-
ments in the ancient tongues, it may be sufficient to
say that, in his prose, he has confounded an aphorism
with an apophthegm, and that when, in his verse, ho
treats of classical subjects, his habit is to regale his
readers with four ialse quantities to a page.

It is probable that the classical acquirements of
Addison were of as much service to him as if they had
been more extensive. The world generally gives its
admiration, not to the man who does what nobody else
even attempts to do, but to the man who does best what
multitudes do well. Bentley was so immeasurably
superior to all the other scholars of his time that few
among them could discover his superiority. But the
accomplishment in which Addison excelled his contem-
poraries was then, as it is now, highly valued and
assiduously cultivated at all English seats of learning.
Everybody who had been at a public school had written
Latin verses ; many had written such verses with
tolerable success, and were quite able to appreciate,
though l)y no means able to rival, the skill widi which
Addison imitated Virgil. His lines on the Barometer
and the Bowling Green were applauded by hundreds,
to whom the Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris
was as unintelligible as the hieroglyphics on an obe-
lisk.

Purity of style, and an easy flow of numbers, are
commcm to all Addison^s Latin poems. Our favourite
piece is the Battle of the Cranes and Pygmies ; for in
that |Hece we discern a gleam of the fancy and humour
which many years later enlivened thousands of break



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332 LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON.

fiist tables. S\vifl boasted tliat he was never known to
steal a hint; and he certainly owed as little to his
predecessors as any modem writer. Yet we cannot
help suspecting that he borrowed, perhaps uncon-
sciously, one of the happiest touches in his Voyage
-to LilUput from Addison^s verses. Let our readers
judge.

** The Emperor," says Gulliver, " is taller by about
the breadth of my naU than any of his court, whicl
alone is enough to strike an awe into the beholders."

About thirty years before GulUver's Travels ap*
peared, Addison wrote these lines :

** Jumque acies inter medios sese arduus iufert
Pypneadum ductor, qui, majestate verendas,
Incessuque gravis, reliquoe saperemlnet omnes
Mole gigantea, mediamque exsurgit in olnam.*'

The Latin poems of Addison were greatly and justly
admired both at Oxford and' Cambridge, before his
name had ever been heard by the wits who thronged
the coflFeehouses round Drury-Lane theatre. In his
twentynBecond year, he ventured to appear before the
public as a writer of English verse. He addressed
some complimentary Unes to Dryden, who, after many
triumphs and many reverses, had at length reached a
secure and lonely eminence among the lit^*ary meti
of that age. Dryden appears to have been much
gratified by the young scholar's praise ; and an intei^-
change of civiUties and good offices followed. Addison
was probably introduced by Dryden to Congreve, and
was certainly presented by Congreve to Charles Mon-
tague, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and
.eader of the Whig party in the House of Commons.

At this time Addison seemed inclined to devote
himself to poetry. He published a translation of part



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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON. 333

of the fourth Georgic, Lines to King William, and
other performances of equal value, that is to say, of
no value at all. But in those days, the public was in
the habit of receiving with applause pieces which
would now have Uttle chance of obtaining the Newdi -
gate prize or the Seatonian prize. And the reason is
obvious. The heroic couplet was then the favourite
measiure. The art of arranging words in that measure,
so that the lines may flow smoothly, that the accents
may fall correctly, that the rhymes may strike the ear
strongly, and that there may be a pause at the end of
every distich, is an art as mechanical as that of mend-
ing a kettle or shoeing a horse, and may be learned
by any human being who has sense enough to learn.
But, like other mechanical arts, it was gradually im-
proved by means of many experiments and many fail-
ures. It was reserved for Pope to discover the trick,
to make himself complete master of it, and to teach it
to everybody else. From the time when his Pastorals
appeared, heroic versification became matter of rule
and compass; and, before long, all artists were on a
level. Hundreds of dunces who never blundered on
one happy thought or expression were able to write
reams of couplets which, as far as euphony was con-
cerned, could not be distinguished from those of Pope
himself, and which very clever writers of the reign of
Charles the Second, Rochester, for example, or Marvel,
or Oldham, would have contemplated with admiring



Ben Jonson was a great man, Hoole a very small
man. But Hoole, coming after Pope, had learned how
to manu&cture decasyllabic verses, and poured them
forth by thousands and tens of thousands, all as well
turned, as smooth, and as like each other as the blocks



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884 LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON.

which have passed through Mr. Brunei's mill in the
dockyard at Portsmouth. Ben's heroic couplets resem-
ble blocks rudely hewn out by an unpractised hand
with a bhint hatchet. Take as a specimen his transla-
tion of a celebrated passage in the Mneid :

•* This child our parent earth, stirred up with spite
Of all the godSf brought forth, and, as some write,
She was last sister of that giant race
That sought to scale Jove's court, right swift of pace.
And swifter far of wing, a monster vast
And dreadfoL Look, how many plumes are placed
On her huge corpse, so many waking eyes
Stick underneath, and, which may stranger rise
Id the report, as many tongues she wears."

Compare with these jagged misshapen dbtichs the
neat fabric which Hoole's machine produces in un-
limited abundance. We take the first lines on which
we open in his version of Tasso. They are neither
better nor worse than the rest :

** thou, whoe'er thon art, wboee steps are led,
By choice or fate, these lonely shores to tread,
No greater wonders east or west can boast
Than yon small island on the pleasing coast.
If e'er thy sight would blissful scenes explore,
The current pass, and seek the further shore."

Ever since the time of Pope there has been a glut of
lines of this sort, and we are now as little disposed ti>
admire a man for being able to write them, as for being
able to write his name. But in the days of William
the Third such versification was rare ; and a rhymer
who had any skill in it passed for a great iK)et, just as
in the dai*k ages a person who could write his name
passed for a great clerk. Accordingly, Duke, Stepney,
Granville, Walsh, and others, whose only title to fame
was that they said in tolerable metre what might have
been as well said in J>rose, or what was not wortfi say-



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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON. S85

ing at all, were honoared with marks of distinction
which ought to be reserved for genius. With these
Addison must have ranked, if he had not earned true
and lasting glory by performances which very little
resembled his juvenile poems.

Dryden was now busied with Virgil, and obtained
from Addison a critical preface to the Georgics. In re-
turn for this service, and for other services of the same
kind, the veteran poet, in the postscript to the translation
of the ^neid, compUmented his young friend with great
liberality, and indeed with more hberality than sincer-
ity. He affected to be afraid that his own performance
would not sustain a comparison with the version of
the fourth Georgic, by ^' the most ingenious Mr. Addi-
son of Oxford." " After his bees," added Dryden,
** my latter swarm is scarcely worth the hiving."

The time had now arrived when it was necessarv for
Addison to choose a calling. Every thing seemed to
point his course towards the clerical profession. His
habits were regular, his opinions orthodox. His col-
lege had large ecclesiastical preferment in its gift, and
boasts that it has given at least one bishop to almost
every see in England. Dr. Lancelot Addison held an
honourable place in the Chnrch, and had set his heart
on seeing his son a clerg}rman. It is clear, from some
expressions in the young man's rhymes, that his inten-
tion was to take orders. But Charles Montague inter-
fered. Montague had first brought himself into notice
by verses, well timed and not contemptibly wi*itten, but
never, we think, rising above mediocrity. Fortunately
for himself and for his country, he early quitted poetry,
in which he could never have attained a rank as high
as that of Dorset or Rochester, and turned his mind to
official and pariiamentary business. It is written that



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836 LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON.

tlie ingenious person who undertook to instruct Ra»-
selas, prince of Abyssinia, in the art of flying, ascended
an eminence, waved his wings, sprang into the air, and
instantly dropped into the lake. But it is added that
the wings, which were unable to support him through
the sky, bore him up effectually as soon as he was in
the water. This is no bad type of the feite of Charles
Montague, and of men like him. When he attempted
to soar into the regions of poetical invention, he alto-
gether fmled ; but, as soon as he had descended from
that ethereal elevation into a lower and grosser element,
his talents instantly raised him above the mass. He
became a distinguished financier, debater, courtier, and
party leader. He still retained his fondness for the
pursuits of his early days ; but he showed that fondness
not by wearying the public with his own feeble per-
formances, but by discovering and encoura^ng literary
excellence in others. A crowd of wits and poets, who
would easily have vanquished him as a competitor, re-
vered him as a judge and a patron. In his plans for
the encouragement of learning, he was cordially sup-
ported by the ablest and most virtuous of his colleagues.
Lord Chancellor Somers. . Though both these great
statesmen had a sincere love of letters, it was not solely
from a love of letters that they were desirous to enlist
youths of high intellectual quaHfications in the public
service. The Revolution had altered the whole system
of government. Before that event the press had been
controlled by censors, and the Parliament had sat only
two months in eight years. Now the press was free,
and had begun to exercise unprecedented influence on
the public mind. Parliament met annually and sat
long. The chief power in the State had passed to the
House of Commons. At soeh a conjuncture, it w9M



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I.IFK AND WRITINGS OF ADDISON. 837

natural that literary and oratorical talents should rise
in value. There was danger that a Government which
neglected such talents might be subverted by them. It
was, therefore, a profound and enlightened policy which



Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 25 of 84)