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JOSEPH ADDISON, the son of Lancelot Addison, D. D. and of Jane, the daughter of Nathaniel Gulston, D. D., and sister of Dr. William Gulston, bishop of Bristol, was born at Milston, near Ambrosebury, in the county of Wilts, in the year 1671. His father, who was of the county of Westmoreland, and educated at Queen's College in Oxford, passed many years in his travels through Europe and Africa, where he joined, to the uncommon and excellent talents of nature, a great knowledge of letters and things; of which several books published by him are ample testimonies. He was rector of Milston above-mentioned when Mr. Addison, his eldest son, was born; and afterwards became archdeacon of Coventry, and dean of Lichfield.
Mr. Addison received his first education at the Chartreux, from whence he was removed very early to Queen's College in Oxford. He had been there about two years, when the accidental sight of a paper of his verses, in the hands of Dr. Lancaster, then dean of that house, occasioned his being elected into Magdalen College. He employed his first years in the study of the old Greek and Roman writers; whose language and manner he caught at that time of life, as strongly as other young people gain a French accent or a genteel air. An early acquaintance with the classics is what may be called the good-breeding of poetry, as it gives a certain gracefulness which never forsakes a mind that contracted it in youth, but is seldom or never hit by those who would learn it too late. He first distinguished himself by his Latin compositions, published in the Musa Anglicane, and was admired as one of the best authors since the Augustan age, in the two universities and the greatest part of Europe, before he was talked of as a poet in town. There is not, perhaps, any
harder task than to tame the natural wildness of wit, and to civilize the fancy. The generality of our old English poets abound in forced conceits and affected phrases; and even those who are said to come the nearest to exactness, are but too often fond of unnatural beauties, and aim at something better than perfection. If Mr. Addison's example and precepts be the occasion that there now begins to be a great demand for correctness, we may justly attribute it to his being first fashioned by the ancient models, and familiarized to propriety of thought and chastity of style. Our country owes it to him, that the famous Monsieur Boileau first conceived an opinion of the English genius for poetry, by perusing the present he made him of the Musa Anglicana. It has been currently reported, that this famous French poet, among the civilities he showed Mr. Addison on that occasion, affirmed, that he would not have written against Perrault, had he before seen such excellent pieces by a modern hand. Such a saying would have been impertinent and unworthy Boileau, whose dispute with Perrault turned chiefly upon some passages in the ancients, which he rescued from the mis-interpretations of his adversary. The true and natural compliment made by him was, that those books had given him a very new idea of the English politeness, and that he did not question but there were excellent compositions in the native language of a country, that possessed the Roman genius in so eminent a degree.
The first English performance made public by him, is a short copy of verses to Mr. Dryden, with a view particularly to his translations. This was soon followed by a version of the fourth Georgic of Virgil, of which Mr. Dryden makes very honourable mention, in the postscript to his own translation of all Virgil's works; wherein I have often wondered that he did not at the same time acknowledge his obligation to Mr. Addison, for giving him the Essay upon the Georgics, prefixed to Mr. Dryden's translation. Lest the honour of so exquisite a piece of criticism should hereafter be transferred to a wrong author, I have taken care to insert it in this collection of his works.
Of some other copies of verses, printed in the Miscellanies, while he was young, the largest is An Account of the greatest English Poets; in the close of which he insinuates a design he then had of going into holy orders, to which he was
strongly importuned by his father. His remarkable seriousness and modesty, which might have been urged as powerful reasons for his choosing that life, proved the chief obstacles to it. These qualities, by which the priesthood is so much adorned, represented the duties of it as too weighty for him; and rendered him still the more worthy of that honour, which they made him decline. It is happy that this very circumstance has since turned so much to the advantage of virtue and religion, in the cause of which he has bestowed his labours the more successfully, as they were his voluntary, not his necessary employment. The world became insensibly reconciled to wisdom and goodness, when they saw them recommended by him with at least as much spirit and elegance, as they had been ridiculed for half a century.
He was in his twenty-eighth year, when his inclination to see France and Italy was encouraged by the great Lord Chancellor Somers, one of that kind of patriots, who think it no waste of the public treasure to purchase politeness to their country. The poem upon one of King William's campaigns, addressed to his Lordship, was received with great humanity, and occasioned a message from him to the author to desire his acquaintance. He soon after obtained, by his interest, a yearly pension of three hundred pounds from the Crown, to support him in his travels. If the uncommonness of a favour, and the distinction of the person who confers it, enhance its value, nothing could be more honourable to a young man of learning, than such a bounty from so eminent a patron.
How well Mr. Addison answered the expectations of my Lord Somers, cannot appear better, than from the book of Travels he dedicated to his Lordship at his return. It is not hard to conceive, why that performance was at first but indifferently relished by the bulk of readers; who expected an account, in a common way, of the customs and policies of the several governments in Italy, reflections upon the genius of the people, a map of their provinces, or a measure of their buildings. How were they disappointed, when, instead of such particulars, they were presented only with a journal of poetical travels, with remarks on the present picture of the country, compared with the landscapes drawn by classic authors, and others the like unconcerning parts of knowledge! One may easily imagine a reader of plain sense, but
without a fine taste, turning over these parts of the volume, which make more than half of it, and wondering how an author, who seems to have so solid an understanding, when he treats of more weighty subjects in the other pages, should dwell upon such trifles, and give up so much room to matters of mere amusement. There are, indeed, but few men so fond of the ancients, as to be transported with every little accident, which introduces to their intimate acquaintance. Persons of that cast may here have the satisfaction of seeing annotations upon an old Roman poem, gathered from the hills and valleys where it was written. The Tiber and the Po serve to explain the verses that were made upon their banks; and the Alps and Apennines are made commentators on those authors to whom they were subjects so many centuries ago. Next to personal conversation with the writers themselves, this is the surest way of coming at their sense: a compendious and engaging kind of criticism, which convinces at first sight, and shows the vanity of conjectures made by antiquaries at a distance. If the knowledge of polite literature has its use, there is certainly a merit in illustrating the perfect models of it, and the learned world will think some years of a man's life not misspent in so elegant an employment. I shall conclude what I had to say on this performance, by observing, that the fame of it increased from year to year, and the demand for copies was so urgent, that the price rose to four or five times the original value, before it came out in a second edition.
The Letter from Italy to my Lord Halifax may be considered as the text upon which the book of Travels is a large comment, and has been esteemed by those who have a relish for antiquity, as the most exquisite of his poetical performances. A translation of it by Signor Salvini, professor of the Greek tongue at Florence, is inserted in this edition, not only on the account of its merit, but because it is the language of the country which is the subject of this poem.
The materials for the Dialogues upon Medals, now first printed from a manuscript of the author, were collected in the native country of those coins. The book itself was begun to be cast into form at Vienna, as appears from a letter to Mr. Stepney, then minister at that court, dated in November, 1702.
Some time before the date of this letter, Mr. Addison had designed to return to England, when he received advice from
his friends, that he was pitched upon to attend the army under Prince Eugene, who had just begun the war in Italy, as secretary from his Majesty. But an account of the death of King William, which he met with at Geneva, put an end to that thought; and as his hopes of advancement in his own country were fallen with the credit of his friends, who were out of power at the beginning of her late Majesty's reign, he had leisure to make the tour of Germany in his way home.
He remained for some time, after his return to England, without any public employment, which he did not obtain till the year 1704, when the Duke of Marlborough arrived at the highest pitch of glory, by delivering all Europe from slavery, and furnished Mr. Addison with a subject worthy of that genius which appears in his poem called The Campaign. The Lord Treasurer Godolphin, who was a fine judge of poetry, had a sight of this work, when it was only carried on as far as the applauded simile of the Angel; and approved the poem, by bestowing on the author, in a few days after, the place of Commissioner of Appeals, vacant by the removal of the famous Mr. Locke to the Council of Trade.
His next advancement was to the place of Under Secretary, which he held under Sir Charles Hedges, and the present Earl of Sunderland. The Opera of Rosamond was written while he possessed that employment. What doubts soever have been raised about the merit of the music, which, as the Italian taste at that time begun wholly to prevail, was thought sufficiently inexcusable, because it was the composition of an Englishman; the poetry of this piece has given as much pleasure in the closet, as others have afforded from the stage, with all the assistance of voices and instruments.
The Comedy called The Tender Husband appeared much about the same time, to which Mr. Addison wrote the Prologue. Sir Richard Steele surprised him with a very handsome dedication of this play, and has since acquainted the public, that he owed some of the most taking scenes of it to Mr. Addison.
His next step in his fortune, was to the post of Secretary under the late Marquis of Wharton, who was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the year 1709. As I have proposed to touch but very lightly on those parts of his life which do not regard him as an author, I shall not enlarge