The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

II. Steele and Addison

§ 13. The Campaign

The year before, he made a name for himself throughout London, and thus assured his future, by producing The Campaign. The origin of this celebrated piece was political. The whigs had just vindicated their policy by the victory of Blenheim, and Godolphin was looking for a party poet who should give voice to the wave of triumph and patriotism which was passing over the nation. Halifax suggested the distinguished writer of Latin verse who had already produced a few scholarly verse translations and some complimentary addresses to patrons in the courtly style. To most writers, a theme such as the battle of Blenheim would naturally have suggested an elegy or a pindaric ode. But Addison, with characteristic judgment, cast his effusion into the form of an epic; for, in this poetic form, a store of poetic imagery and poetic exaggeration presented itself ready-made, and the author of The Campaign found that his task was to select and apply expressions such as would shed heroic grandeur on the achievements of the British arms. In fact, he treated his subject as if it were an academic exercise in rhetoric; and, although the versification is often prosaic and the vigorous passages are balanced by lapses into platitude, he acquitted himself with remarkable ingenuity and tact. While paying extravagant tributes to “Anna’s royal cares” and to “Marlborough’s mighty soul,” he succeeded in addressing the nation at large. He flattered their most cherished boasts—their pride in British freedom, their hero-worship, their love of fighting—in phrases consecrated by Homer, Vergil, Lucan, Statius, Silius Italicus, while the exigencies of the heroic couplet almost necessarily involved “turns” and “points” such as the polite age admired. The pamphlet in verse took the town by storm, and the author, who had been given a commissionership of appeals as a retaining fee, was now rewarded with an undersecretaryship of state.

From this time forth, Addison was one of the elect. In 1706, he became undersecretary of state to Lord Sunderland; in 1707, he accompanied Lord Halifax to Hanover; in 1709, he became chief secretary to the marquis of Wharton, lord lieutenant of Ireland, and, besides these experiences in administration, he held a seat in parliament from 1708 till his death. So, he was never again in want, and at no time passed through the stormy and varied experiences which bring sympathy with human nature and insight into character. Even during the lean years, he had been too reticent and polite to become a bohemian, and, in the years of plenty, it seemed inevitable that he should settle down to the leisurely discharge of his public functions and keep up his literary studies merely as a polite and elegant pastime. And yet, it was during this period of his life that Addision immeasurably enlarged his intellectual outlook. He made the acquaintance of Pope and Swift, renewed his school and college friendship with Steele and, like other men of culture, frequented the coffee-houses. Gradually, he came under the full influence of the great social movement, and, as his thoughts centred round questions of morals and manners, he achieved the feat of bringing his vast classical learning to shed light on these modern problems. Instead of using ancient literature to illustrate medals, he discovered how to make it illustrate the weaknesses and peculiarities of his contemporaries. He learned to refer the perplexities and doubts of his own day to the wisdom and experience of antiquity. His scholarly instincts, instead of drawing him into the library, sharpened his natural gift of silent observation and provided unlimited material for his sense of humour.