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Lancaster, afterwards provost of Queen's College; by whose recommendation he was elected as a demy (or scholar) into Magdalen College. He took the degree of M. A. Feb. 14, 1693. Here he continued to cultivate poetry and criticism, and grew first eminent by his Latin compositions, which are indeed entitled to particular praise, and seem to have had much of his fondness.
In his twenty-second year he first shewed his power of English poetry, by some verses addressed to Dryden; and soon after published a translation of the greater part of the Fourth Georgic upon Bees; after which, says Dryden, my latter swarm is hardly worth the hiving. About the same time he composed the arguments prefixed to the several books of Dryden's Virgil; and produced an Essay on the Georgics, and a paper of verses containing a character of the principal English poets.
About this time he was introduced by Congreve to Montague, then chancellor of the exchequer: Addison was then learning the trade of a courtier, and subjoined Montague as a poetical name to those of Cowley and Dryden.
By the influence of Mr. Montague, concurring with his natural modesty, he was diverted from his original design of entering into holy orders. Montague alledged the corruption of men who engaged in civil employments without liberal education; and declared that, though he was represented as an enemy to the church, he would never do it any injury but by withholding Addison from it.
In 1695 he wrote a poem to king William and in 1697 another on the peace of Ryswick.
Having yet no public employment, he obtained (in 1699 a pension of 2001. a year, that he might be enabled to travel. He staid a year at Blois, probably to learn the French language: and then proceeded in
his journey to Italy, which he surveyed with the eyes of a poet.-While he was travelling at leisure, he was far from being idle; for he not only collected his observations on the country, but found time to write his Dialogues on Medals, and four acts of Cato. Such is the relation of Tickell. Perhaps he only collected his materials, and formed his plan.
Whatever were his other employments in Italy, he there wrote the Letter to Lord Halifax, which is justly considered as the most elegant, if not the most sublime, of his poetical productions. But in about two years he found it necessary to hasten home, being distressed by indigence, and compelled to become the tutor to a travelling Squire. He soon afterwards published his Travels.
When he returned to England (in 1702), he with a meanness of appearance, which gave testimony of the difficulties to which he had been reduced, he found his old patrons out of power, and was therefore for a time at full leisure for the cultivation of his mind; and a mind so cultivated gives reason to believe that little time was lost. But he remained not long neglected or useless. The victory at Blenheim (1704) afforded him an occasion for the display of his poetical talents, for which he was immediately rewarded by succeeding Mr. Locke in the place of Commissioner of Appeals.
In the following year he was at Hanover with lord Halifax; and the year after was made under-secretary of state, first to Sir Charles Hedges, and in a few months more to the earl of Sunderland.
About this time he wrote the opera of Rosamond, which, when exhibited on the Stage, was either hissed or neglected; but, trusting that the readers would do him more justice, he published it, with an inscription to the dutchess of Marlborough.
When the marquis of Wharton was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, Addison attended him as his secretary, and was made keeper of the records in Birmingham's Tower, with a salary of 3001. a year. The office was little more than nominal, and the salary was augmented for his accommodation. When he was in office he made a law to himself never to remit his regular fees in civility to his friends: "For (said "he) I may have a hundred friends; and if my fee "be two guineas, I shall by relinquishing my right "lose two hundred guineas, and no friend gain more "than two; there is therefore no proportion between "the good imparted and the evil suffered."
Steele published his first Tatler, April 22, 1709, and Addison's contribution appeared May 26. He continued his assistance to December 23, and the paper dropped on January 2. He did not distinguish his pieces by any signature.
To the Tatler, in about two months, succeeded the SPECTATOR; a series of essays of the same kind, but written with less levity, upon a more regular plan, and published daily. Such an undertaking shewed the writers not to distrust their own copiousness of materials, or facility of composition, and their performance justified their confidence. They found, however, in their progress many auxiliaries. To attempt a single paper was no terrifying labour; many pieces were offered, and many were received.
Addison had enough of the zeal of party, but Steele had at that time almost nothing else. The Spectator, in one of the first papers, shewed the political tenets of its authors; but a resolution was soon taken of courting general approbation by general topics, and subjects on which faction had produced no diversity of sentiments; such as literature, morality, and familiar life. To this practice they adhered with very few deviations.
Before the Tatler and Spectator, if the writers for the theatre are excepted, England had no masters of common life. No writers had yet undertaken to reform either the savageness of neglect, or the impertinence of civility; to teach when to speak, or to be silent; how to refuse or how to comply. We wanted not books to teach us our more important duties, and to settle opinions in philosophy or politics; but an arbiter elegantiarum, a judge of propriety, was yet wanting, who should survey the track of daily conversation, and free it from thorns and prickles, which teaze the passer, though they do not wound him. For this purpose nothing is so proper as the frequent publication of short papers, which we read not as study but amusement. If the subject be slight, the treatise likewise is short. The busy may find time, and the idle may find patience.
It has been suggested that the Royal Society was instituted soon after the Restoration, to divert the attention of the people from public discontent. The Tatler and Spectators had the same tendency: They were published at a time when two parties, loud, restless, and violent, each with plausible declarations, and perhaps without any distinct termination of its views, were agitating the nation; to minds heated with political contest, they supplied cooler and more inoffensive reflections; and it is said by Addison, in a subsequent work, that they had a perceptible influence upon the conversation of that time, and taught the frolic and the gay to unite merriment with decency; an effect which they can never wholly lose, while they continue to be among the first books by which both sexes are initiated in the elegancies of knowledge.
The Tatler and Spectator reduced the unsettled practice of daily intercourse to propriety and politeness; they superadded literature and criticism, and sometimes towered far above their predecessors of
Italy and France, and taught, with great justness of argument and dignity of language, the most important duties and sublime truths. All these topics were happily varied with elegant fictions and refined allegories, and illuminated with different changes of style and felicities of invention.
It is recorded by Budsell, that of the characters feigned or exhibited in the Spectator, the favourite of Addison was Sir Roger de Coverley, of whom he had formed a very delicate and discriminated idea, which he would not suffer to be violated; and therefore when Steele had shewn him innocently picking up a girl in. the Temple, and taking her to a tavern, he drew upon himself so much of his friend's indignation, that he was forced to appease him by a promise of forbearing Sir Roger for the time to come.
Of essays thus elegant, thus instructive, and thus commodiously distributed, it is natural to suppose the approbation general, and the sale numerous; yet the number daily sold was not more than sixteen hundred and eighty.
The next year (1713), in which Cato came upon the stage, was the grand climacteric of Addison's reputation. The whole nation was at that time on fire with faction. The Whigs applauded every line of the play in which liberty was mentioned, as a satire on the Tories; and the Tories echoed every clap, to shew that the satire was unfelt. The story of Bolingbroke is well known. He called Booth to his box, and gave him fifty guineas for defending the cause of liberty so well against a perpetual dictator. The play, supported thus by the emulation of factious praise, was acted night after night, for a longer time than the public had allowed to any drama before; and the author wandered through the whole exhibition behind the scenes with restless and unappeasable solicitude.