« ElőzőTovább »
A LITERARY CONTRAST.
sketch of English literature would be complete without such a view. Laying down the last number of the “Quarterly" or the
Cornhill,” we bethink us of the little leaf, on which, a hundred and fifty years ago, poor Dick Steele and stately Mr. Addison wrote the first magazine and review articles, that deserve the name in English literature; and are filled with wonder at the vast increase of the kind. There are many Addisons and very many Steeles among the literary men of our day; but so great is the supply of healthy, graceful English writing, and so much have matters altered in the way of remunerating literary men, that the Commissioners of Stamps and the Secretaries of State are not chosen by Lord Palmerston from among the contributors to Blackwood or All the Year Round. Then, there is the pleasant thought to compensate for this want of fame and of political promotion, that every man of letters, who can use his pen well, and can sit steadily at his desk for some hours a day, is sure of earning a comfortable livelihood, and holding a respectable place in society. In Queen Anne's day, it was Addison and Steele, Pope and Swift, and a few more, who got all the fame and the guineas, who drank their wine, and spent their afternoons in the saloons of the great; while the great majority of authors starved and shivered in garrets, or pawned their clothes for the food their pens could not win. In Victoria's reign there are few political prizes, but there is widespread comfort; and the man qualified to live by pen-work, is sure of finding that work to do, if to his ability he but adds the all-important qualities of industry and common sense.
WHEN Joseph Addison was born in 1672, his father was rector of Milston, near Amesbury in Wiltshire. He received the best part of his education at the Charter-house in London, a school which has sent forth many of our first wits and literary men. It was there that he met Dick Steele, à good-hearted, mischief-loving Irish boy; and the juvenile friendship, cemented no doubt by numerous tart transactions and much illegal Latin-verse making, was renewed at college and in later life. At the age of fifteen Addison left school for Queen's College, Oxford; two years later he obtained a scholarship in Magdalen, where his Latin poems won for him considerable renown.
His first flight in English verse was an Address to Dryden (1694), by which he gained the great man's friendship,—no slight matter to a newly fledged poet, whose face was hardly known in the coffee-houses. Dryden admitted his Translation of part of the . Fourth Georgic into a book of Miscellanies. Other poems followed from the same pen. Some verses in honour of the King, though poor enough, won the favour of Lord Somers, through whom they reached the royal hand; and the fortunate writer
received a pension of £300 a year, that he might cultivate 1699 his classic tastes by travel on the Continent. So, with a
full purse and the reputation of being the most elegant ·
scholar of his day in England, Addison set out upon the grand tour. From Italy he wrote a poetical Letter to Lord Halifax, which is looked upon as the finest of his works in English verse.
APPEARANCE OF "THE SPECTATOR."
King William's death, however, stopping his pension, cut short his travelled ease; and home he came, a poor yet cheerful scholar, to wait quietly for fortune in a shabby lodging up two pair of stairs in the Haymarket. While he lay thus under eclipse, the great battle of Blenheim was fought; and being employed by Treasurer Godolphin to write a poem in praise of the event, his performance of the task gave such satisfaction to the Ministry, that he was soon made Commissioner of Appeals. The lucky poem, known as The Campaign, chanted loudly the praises of Marlborough, who is compared, in a passage that took the whole town by storm, to an angel guiding the whirlwind. Mr. Commissioner Addison changed by-and-by into Mr. Under-Secretary of State ; Mr. Under-Secretary, into the Secretary for Ireland; the Secretary for Ireland, into one of His Majesty's principal Secretaries of State (1717), the last being the greatest eminence reached by Addison in that most slippery profession of politics.
To mount so many rounds of the ladder took him a full dozen of years, during which his pen had been doing its finest work. Though he made his literary début as a poet, he achieved his highest fame as the writer of some of the sweetest and most artless prose that adorns our literature.
In the spring of 1709 his old school-fellow, Steele, started a triweekly sheet called The Tatler, which for a penny gave a short article and some scraps of news. Addison, who was then in Ireland, wrote occasionally for this leaf. But when the "Tatler," after living for nearly two years, gave place to the more famous daily sheet, called The Spectator, Addison became 1711 a constant contributor, and by his prose papers exalted the A.D. periodical to the highest rank among the English classics. There, on the tray beside the delicate porcelain cups, from which beauty and beau sipped their fragrant chocolate or tea by the toilette-table in the late noonday, lay the welcome little sheet of sparkling wit or elegant criticism, giving a new zest to the morning meal, and suggesting fresh topics for the afternoon chat in the toyshops or on the Mall. Addison's papers were marked with one of the four letters, C. L. I. 0.-taken either from the Muse's name,
THE TRAGEDY OF “CATO."
or from the initial letters of Chelsea, London, Islington, and the Office, places where the papers were probably written. The Essays on Milton, the Vision of Mirza, and the account of Sir Roger de Coverley's Visit to London, may be taken as some of the finest specimens of what Addison's graceful pen could do. The “Spectator" lasted for 635 numbers, continuing to appear, with one break of eighteen months during which The Guardian ran its course, until the end of 1714. The first sketch of Sir Roger we owe to the pen of Steele; but it was a character such as the gentle Addison loved, and Addison is certainly the painter, in full length, of the good old bachelor baronet, full of whims and oddities, simple as a child and gentle as a woman, who lives in our hearts among the most prized of the friends we make in books, and whom we always honour as a true gentleman, though we sometimes steal a goodnatured laugh at his rustic softness.
Since Addison's return from Italy, four acts of a Roman drama had been lying in his desk. Profiting by the temporary stoppage of the “Spectator," upon the completion of the seventh volume in 1712, he set to work upon the unfinished play, and soon gave Cato
to the stage. It was performed for the first time at Drury 1713 Lane in April 1713, to a house crammed from pit to ceiling
with all the wits and statesmen of the capital. We,
who live in days when Kean writes himself F.S.A., and every buckle and shoe-tie of the wardrobe, in our better theatres at least, must pass the scrutiny of men deeply skilled in all the fashions of antiquity, smile at the incongruity of Cato in a flowered dressing-gown and a black wig that cost fifty guineas; and the brocaded Marcia in that famous hoop of Queen Anne's time, which has revived in the crinoline of Victoria's gentle reign. But Cato, thus attired, was not laughed at; for it was the theatrical fashion of the day to dress all characters in wig and hoop, exactly like those worn by the people of quality, who took snuff or flirted the fan in the resplendent box-row. A similar anachronism was committed by the old Norman romancers, who turned every hero—no matter whether he was Abraham or Alexander-into a steel-clad knight of the Middle Ages. “ Cato" was a great success.
A COLD, UNGENIAL SPLENDOUR,
Addison's friends were in ecstasies of delight; and even the Tories allowed that the author was a man of too pure and elevated genius to be mixed up with common political quarrels. People stood knocking at the theatre doors at noon, and for more than a month the play was performed every night. Time has greatly abated the reputation of this drama. Like Addison's own nature, it is calm and cold; undeniably excellent as a piece of literary sculpture, full of fine declamation and well-chiselled dialogue, but falling far below the natural greatness of “ Macbeth” or Julius Cæsar.” We remember Addison chiefly as the kindly genius who wrote the most charming papers of the “Spectator;" his own generation idolized him as the author of “ Cato."
Almost a year before his appointment as Secretary of State, he married the Countess-Dowager of Warwick, and took up his abode in Holland House. The union was not a happy one between the cold and polished scholar, and the gorgeous, dashing woman of rank, who probably never found out how sweet and pure a spirit burned beneath the ice of her husband's outward manner.
The quiet, lonely man, loved to escape from the gilded saloons of Holland House into the city, where he wandered through the clubs, or sat with some old friend over a bottle of wine. And here it must be said-gladly would we avoid it if we could—that the great Joseph Addison was often in his lifetime the worse for wine. The same hand that wrote “ Mirza," and won for the “Spectator" its honoured place on English book-shelves, is found writing gleefully to a friend at Hamburg about the choice old hock that had set it shaking. Let us be gentle in our blame, for it was the vice of the age. The pity is, that so fair a reputation should suffer from this sorry stain.
Addison's power lay in his pen; as a public speaker he broke down completely. This defect, coupled with the decay of his health, induced him to retire from office with a pension of £1500 a year.
Asthma rapidly weakened him ; symptoms of dropsy appeared; and he soon lay upon his death-bed. “ See,” said he to his son-in-law, “ how a Christian can die!” And then this gentle spirit, that, ainid many faults and weaknesses, had ever