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NOBLE English prose, and even noble English essays, had been written long before Addison. But we are justified in regarding Addison and his friend Steele as the founders of the modern English essay and modern English prose ; and the larger share of the achievements was Addison's. It was he, more than any one else, who invented a middle style,”-something between the grave stately diction of formal writing and the free and easy speech of every day; a style suited, therefore, for addressing a wide circle of readers on a wide variety of subjects, unpretentious, admirably clear, dignified, but never stilted. This fact makes him still, as in Dr. Johnson's day, the best model for most of
It is the “middle style” that is needed in almost all human intercourse—in the writing of essays, novels, histories, sermons, speeches, newspapers, letters ; and even as a model for conversation, to prevent it sinking into the merely trivial and slipshod, a petty exchange of personal remarks expressed in indifferent English eked out by slang. None can show us better than “ the dear parson in the tye-wig” how social intercourse may be bright and sparkling, yet elevated and elevating, with a tendency to increase the happiness of those who take part in it, and to check unworthy thoughts and feelings.
But such influence is often best when it is most unconsciously given and received. It is good to read Addison first because he is full of charm; because we soon come to feel an affection for this silent, keen, kindly spectator of men ; because he brings back to us vividly the vanished life of the early eighteenth
century ; because he created in Sir Roger de Coverley one of the most delightful characters in the whole range of English literature. If we sometimes seem to see the Spectator's eyes-grave, but with a twinkle in them—turned upon our own follies, and are willing to receive a playful rebuke or gentle hint from him, that will be another advantage to add to the rest.
JOSEPH ADDISON, son of the Rev. Lancelot Addison, dean of Lichfield, was born on May 1st, 1672, at Milston, Wiltshire. He was educated at Lichfield, and afterwards at Charterhouse, where Steele, whose name was in later years to be associated so closely with his, was a younger schoolfellow. Steele visited him at Lichfield, and has commemorated the charm of his home circle in the Tatler (No. 25). “ The boys behaved themselves very early with a manly friendship; and their sister, instead of the gross familiarities and impertinent freedoms in behaviour usual in other houses, was always treated by them with as much complaisance as any other young lady of their acquaintance. It was an unspeakable pleasure to visit or sit at a meal in that family.. I have often seen the old man's heart flow at his eyes with joy upon occasions which would appear indifferent to such as were strangers to the turn of his mind; but a very slight accident, wherein he saw his children's good-will to one another, created in him the godlike pleasure of loving them because they loved each other.”
In 1687 Addison went to Oxford. At first he was a commoner of Queen's College, but he was given a demyship (i.e. scholarship) at Magdalen for his classical attainments, and in due course proceeded to a fellowship. He won a reputation which extended beyond Oxford for his Latin verses.
In his twenty-eighth year Addison went abroad to perfect his education for political life by a prolonged continental tour. He visited France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, and remained away from England for more than four years.
Soon after his return he wrote his poem of the Campaign to celebrate Marlborough's victory at Blenheim, August 1704, and
was rewarded by the Whig Prime Minister, Godolphin, with a commissionership. Shortly afterwards he received an UnderSecretaryship of State, and in 1708 the Irish Secretaryship, which he held for two years.
In 1709 Steele began the publication of a periodical, the Tatler, which was to appear three times a week. It was published in the name of “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire, Astrologer,” an imaginary character invented by Swift. Addison contributed essays, which Steele, with characteristic generosity, admitted to be superior to his own. He humorously described the way in which he was outshone. “I fared like a distressed prince who calls in a powerful neighbour to his aid; I was undone by my own auxiliary; when I had once called him in I could not subsist without dependence on him."
With the fall of the Whigs Addison lost his secretaryship and much of his income. But he had saved a good deal, and he was now a successful literary man. Steele discontinued the Tatler early in 1711, and on March 1st of that year he and Addison brought out the first number of the Spectator, which appeared daily until Dec. 6, 1712. In 1713 Addison produced at Drury Lane Theatre his tragedy of Cato, which had a great success at the time, though it is now almost forgotten. Steele began another newspaper in that year, the Guardian, to which Addison contributed. In 1714 the Spectator was revived for a time. Addison was married in 1716 to the Countess of Warwick : the marriage has been generally supposed, but on insufficient evidence, to have been an unhappy one. His last years were clouded by a quarrel with Pope and an estrangement from his old friend Steele. He died of asthma and dropsy, June 17, 1719.
II. ADDISON AS A WRITER. 1. Vocabulary.—There are more Latin derivatives than are in common use at the present day, but not so many as we meet with in Dr. Johnson and other writers of the middle and later parts of the eighteenth century. Addison does not avoid homely expressions when they suit his purpose : e.g. “Our preachers stand stock-still” (p. 84). “He had better have let it alone" (p. 86). In grave passages——the Vision of Mirza or the Reflections in Westminster Abbey—the diction is naturally more ornate. Everywhere one is impressed with the writer's easy mastery of language : he chooses words from a full store, and is careful not to weary the ear by repetition of the same sound.
II. Sentences. The construction of these is loose, not periodic; i.e. the qualifying clauses are not, as a rule, included within the sentence, but are “ tacked on ” afterwards. The periodic style has its own advantages over the loose ; but the loose manner suggests the ease of conversation, and is better adapted to informal arguments and descriptions.
III. Paragraphs.-In careful prose-writing each paragraph forms a separate whole : it has a central thought which gives it unity. It will be a good exercise to test our grasp of some of these essays by trying whether we can compress into a single sentence the main substance of each paragraph. But we must remember that Addison's method was deliberately discursive to imitate the freedom with which conversation plays round and about a subject—and we must not expect to condense as successfully as we might. if we applied the same process to a formal treatise.
IV. Ornaments of Style.—These are apt to draw away attention from the matter to the manner, and the “middle style," which aims at simple and clear expression, uses them sparingly. Addison was fully alive to the beauty of Metaphor.
“ A noble metaphor,” he said, “when it is placed to an advantage, casts a kind of glory round it, and darts a lustre through a whole sentence." A good example of a simple metaphor finely used occurs on p. 65, line 27 : “it is very unhappy for a man to be born in such a stormy and tempestuous season. Metaphors are most frequent in such allegorical essays as “ Wisdom and Riches" (No. XXIII.). Very noticeable is his humorous use of Similes : Whigs and Tories “ engage when they meet as naturally as the elephant and the rhinoceros” (p. 46, 1. 32); cp. No. III. through. out. The poetical use of Abstract for Concrete occurs appropriately in the elevated paragraph on p. 42: “How beauty, strength and youth, with old age, weakness and deformity, lay undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.”