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JOSEPH ADDISON was born in the year 1672, about the middle of the reign of Charles II. Like those of many other celebrated men of letters, his early days were in no way remarkable for future promise. So weakly was he as a child, that it was thought necessary to christen him on the day after he was born. Of his brothers and sisters we hear very little. While at school at Lichfield, where his father was Dean, he is said to have been prime mover in a “barring out,” and on another occasion to have run away,
neither story possessing any likeness of truth. From Lichfield he went to Charterhouse School, where he gained great reputation in what was then the most important part of a scholar's training — the writing of Latin verses. His most intimate school-friend was Richard Steele (1672–1729). This friendship was one of those strange connections of opposite characters, which are so frequent, and which last so long. While they were boys they probably did not know what it was that drew them to each the other. As they grew to be men each probably found that the other possessed precisely those parts which he had not, and which he therefore admired. Addison was silent, and a book-worm; Steele a chatterbox, and full of animal spirits: the one was calm, and even phlegmatic; the other impulsive, and the creature of the moment: the one frugal, the other a spendthrift; the one a peacemaker, the other with all an Irishman's love of a frolic. It is barely possible to imagine Addison climbing a tree for a bird's nest; it is impossible to imagine Steele sitting quiet for long over Livy or Virgil. Their very faces,
if Jervas's portraits are true, show the difference. Addison's quiet, somewhat prim countenance forms a striking contrast to the sparkling eyes, laughing mouth, and short round face by virtue of which Steele claimed right of entrance to the “Ugly” Club.
A specially good copy of verses which met the eyes of an Oxford professor gained Addison admission into Magdalen College, while Steele entered at Christ Church. Here, occupied chiefly with the study of the Latin poets, and in the society of men of the same mind, he passed the next ten years of his life, distinguishing himself" by a most profound silence,” and gaining a high reputation for scholarship at home, and, what is more remarkable, abroad. The literature of England was as little known among French scholars then as the literature of Germany was among English scholars at the end of the last century, when Scott and his fellowpupils used to meet and read Gesner's “Death of Abel"; and Addison's "Battle of the Pigmies and Cranes” in Latin hexameters seems to have been the first specimen of English scholarship which aroused attention.
The opinion that a close imitation of classical writers was the highest form of poetry tended naturally to depreciate all originality of conception, thereby lowering the whole standard of literary effort. It was apparently one result of the worship of France and everything French, and in this way. The more polite writers of the age of Louis XIV, especially Boileau, did their best to improve and purify their tongue. The staple of the French language being Latin, they were right in referring back to the best classic authors. English scholars who had the same end in view worked by the same method, forgetting, or not knowing, that the staple of the English tongue is not Latin, but Saxon.
At the age of twenty-two Addison wrote his first English verses, addressed to Dryden, then the foremost writer in England. While they are strong, they express no more
than the natural compliment of a young poet to one whom he reverences as a master of his art.
Addison's active career did not, however, really begin until he was twenty-eight years of age. Had he been left to himself, he would probably have been tempted by the repose of an Oxford life to devote himself to inactive scholarship.
He was on the point of taking orders in the church, when the whole course of his life was suddenly turned into a new channel. At the very end of Charles's reign the press and literature generally had freed itself from Court censorship. They at once became a great power in the country, and either party was anxious to secure writers of ability. It was not the Romance which "every flowery courtier writ” that was wanted, but hard-headed reasoning power joined to a style that would command attention.
Government officials, therefore, applied to the head of Addison's college to allow him to give up his intention of taking orders and to devote himself to the public service. They wished to employ him as a diplomatist, for which post a knowledge of French and of foreign countries was indispensable: a pension of £300 a year was therefore given him in order that he might travel. He employed it well. In France and Italy he won the esteem of the best scholars. The "judicious Mr. Addison,” the "ingenious Mr. Addison,” are terms often applied to him.
The state of the upper classes. had been bad in the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth, and worse during that of James I. But of all the times of degradation through which England has been made to pass by the folly or vices of her rulers, the age of Charles II is the worst. Nor was this altogether Charles's fault. Undoubtedly no king of England ever surpassed him in moral or political profligacy. But it is doubtful whether, had he tried to check where he encouraged, and to hang back where he gave the example, the
downward course could have been stayed by any efforts of his. The reign of the Puritans had been a reign of social tyranny. All enjoyment in life, not only that which was frivolous, but most of that which was harmless or useful, the spontaneous outcome of physical health and vigor, was suppressed. In no country but Scotland, or among the Cal
ists of Geneva, could this joyless discipline have been long endured; least of all in England, full of that animal life and strength which made Erasmus speak of “those English wild beasts,” nourished as it had been for centuries in the freedom which had developed Shakespeare and Raleigh. Accordingly, the moment that the Puritans fell, there fell with them their unnatural system of joylessness and gloom. But if this had been unsightly, how unspeakably foul were the days which came on. “In this great reaction, devotion and honesty, swept away together, left to mankind but the wreck and the mire. The more excellent parts of human nature disappeared: there remained but the animal, without bridle and guide, urged by his desires beyond justice and shame.”
While the whole tone of society, moral and political, was thus lowered, we cannot expect to find a circle of great writers, expressing noble thoughts in noble language. The existence of great writers in any age or country is not a matter of chance. They may have been made great by the circumstances of their age or country. They may have been great writers by nature, and the circumstances may have been such that there was good chance that they would be listened to.
It is difficult for us to realize the condition at this time of men who looked to literature for their living. With us, literature is a profession one of the highest, most respected, and most influential. But the lords and ladies of Charles's Court, while they chatted with Dryden or Butler in the antechamber of Whitehall or at the Club, or when they admitted