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[Addison's attention had been called to the Opera during his travels in Italy, and on returning to England, where it had recently been introduced in Italian, he was struck with the seeming absurdity of an audience listening, during a whole evening, to a piece written in a language which not fifty of them understood. To oppose it, he wrote an opera himself, taking his subject from the well-known story of “Rosamond's Bower," to which the recent donation of “Woodstock” to the Duke of Marlborough, as an acknowledgment of his services, “not to his own country and sovereign only, but to all Europe,” gave a new interest. It was this circumstance also, which suggested the dedication to the Duchess of Marlborough, at which Johnson snarled with more than his usual harshness. The music, according to a report cited by Sir John Hawkins, in his “History of Music,” was a "jargon of sounds." After two or three cold or unsuccessful representations, it was dropped. Addison then published it, one would almost suppose in self-justification. Among the marks of attention which it drew forth, was a copy of verses from a young Oxonian, Thomas Tickell, then unknown to fame, but whose name is now inseparably connected with Addison's. The reader will readily recall the humorous history of the Italian Opera in England, which appeared a few years afterwards in the 5th and 18th numbers of the Spectator.
Of this piece Johnson says:-"The Opera of Rosamond, though it is seldom mentioned, is one of the first of Addison's compositions. The subject is well chosen, the fiction is pleasing, and the praise of Marlborough, for which the scene gives an opportunity, is, what perhaps every human excellence must be, the product of good luck, improved by genius. The thoughts are sometimes great, and sometimes tender; the versification is easy and gay.
There is, doubtless, some advantage in the shortness of the lines, which there is little temptation to load with expletive epithets. The dialogue seems commonly better than the songs. The two comic characters of Sir Trusty and Grideline, though of no great value, are such as the poet intended. Sir Trusty's account of the death of Rosamond is, I think, too grossly absurd. The whole drama is airy and elegant; engaging in its progress, and pleasing in its conclusion. If Addison had cultivated the lighter parts of poetry, he would probably have excelled.”
Macaulay, who in most of his criticisms agrees with Johnson, says:“His Travels were followed by the lively Opera of “Rosamond.” This piece was ill set to music, and therefore failed on the stage; but it completely succeeded in print, and is, indeed, excellent of its kind. The smoothness with which the verses glide, and the elasticity with which they bound, is, to our ears at least, very pleasing. We are inclined to think, that if Addison had left heroic couplets to Pope, and blank verse to Rowe, and had employed himself in writing airy and spirited songs, his reputation as a poet would have stood far higher than it now does. Some years after his death, “Rosamond' was set to new music by Doctor Arne, and was performed with complete success. Several passages long retained their popularity, and were daily sung, during the latter part of George the Second's reign, at all the harpsichords in England.”
Warton condemns the introduction of the comic characters. This story furnished Niccolini the subject of his beautiful tragedy of “Rosmunda.”
Addison's choice of his subject may be considered as another proof of his fondness for the old English ballad, to which he has paid so beautiful a tribute in the Spectator. On this occasion he has altered the story to avoid the tragic catastrophe: and, perhaps, with the feeling, that while a Queen was on the throne, it would hardly do to paint a British Queen as she appears in this ballad, and in the still stronger story of Queen Eleanor's confession. For both these ballads see Percy's Rcliques of Ancient English Poetry.--G.]
The opera first Italian masters taught,
No charms are wanting to thy artful song,
Landscapes how gay the bow'ry grotto yields, Which thought creates, and lavish fancy builds !