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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

§ 14. Character of his contributions to The Tatler

The Tatler gave him just the opportunity which he needed. After discovering, by a remark on Vergil, that Steele was the author of the paper, Addison became an occasional contributor and, despite the distractions of his official life, began to adapt his talents to the new literary art. Like Steele, he had to feel his way, and seems to have gradually realised what was in his mind, by the process of writing. His first paper bids good-bye to pedantry by declaring that

  • men of wit do so much employ their thoughts upon fine speculations, that things useful to mankind are wholly neglected: and they are busy in making emendations upon some enclitics in a Greek author, while obvious things, that every man may have use for, are wholly overlooked;
  • and then, as if dissatisfied with the recondite studies of his manhood, he reverts to his boyish interest in signposts and writes and essay on the inconveniences arising from their misspellings. But his own habits of thought had been formed by the great teachers of antiquity, and, the more he watched Bickerstaff’s attempts at sugaring the didactic pill, the more their arts suggested themselves to him. Steele did, indeed, carelessly try his hand at allegory; and Addison, acting on a hint from Swift, revived the classical myth, taking Plato and Ovid for his chief models. These visions and dreams point very commonplace morals, but they astonish by their boldness of fancy and compel belief by their realism of detail. Steele had drawn realistic pictures of Grobianism and immorality; Addison, by nature, was averse to anything primitive, but had learnt from Theophrastus, Terence and Horace to expect proportion in the most trivial details of conduct. Accordingly, the more he studied men, the more he cultivated an eye for the little inconsistencies and perversions of his fellow creatures. This acquired appreciation of “the golden mean” blended with a natural gift for genial caricature. Wherever his abnormally keen sense for proportion had detected some eccentric or unreasonable penchant, he pictured a man completely under its domination, gravely worked out the irrational tendency to its logical conclusion and then left his reader to laugh at the result. The wellworn theme of bucolic self-importance is developed into the delightful portrait of Sir Harry Quickset; the self-absorption of the half-educated appears in the comical account of the dancing-master who made the house shake while he studied “orchesography”; women’s passion for pets is illustrated by the admirable story of the maidservant (really “an arch baggage”) sent to consult the astrologer on the health of Cupid, her mistress’s lap-dog; pedants are defined as “all men of deep learning without common-sense,” and their absurdities are exposed in the vagaries of Tom Folio and the entomologist’s will. The Londoner’s passion for news is caricatured in the person of the political upholsterer.

    Addison indulged in many other graceful flights of fancy, which gave his satire a charm of its own; but he showed little originality of thought. And yet, though he was content to follow Bickerstaff or, rather, the public opinion of coffee-houses, his few contributions are a turning point in the history of the essay. These familiar topics became full of a new vitality under his pen. His work, if anything, is less vigorous and less searching than Steele’s; but it has the other eloquence of form which turns human utterance into literature. Until now, the essay had not completely established itself as a literary type. In the hands of Bacon, it was little more than a string of meditations, while the inventiveness of popular writers had been lavished on character sketches, epigrams, satires and revivals of medieval thought. Cowley, and, after him, Temple, had, largely under the influence of Montaigne, given a new turn to the essay, which had thus come to exercise an important effect upon the transformation of English prose. Steele and Addison entered into an inheritance which increased and multiplied in their hands. With the first few numbers of The Tatler, pre-restoration humour had been abandoned after a few attempts, and Steele addressed himself to the intellect of the middle class in the unliterary guise of a news-sheet, though his ideas had long outgrown so restricted a compass. As has been shown, his material was unmistakably leading him towards the novel of domestic life. Addison probably retarded the transition, by giving to an irresponsible and inadequate medium a completeness and dignity which satisfied the intellectual and artistic needs of his generation. For Addison not only endowed the essay with the airs and graces of cultured writing—he discovered the prose style which suits the genre. Steele had rightly conceived that The Tatler must be written in a colloquial vein, and had dashed off his papers with the freedom and effusiveness of his own conversation. Addison was too reserved ever to be a voluble talker; he never became communicative except in a small circle of kindred spirits. Thus, the riches of his mind had found expression only in polished and confidential intercourse, and when, following the example of Steele, he began to talk on paper, his subtle and unaffected personality found free play with his pen as in conversation. And so, he created a perfect style for detached literature—lucid, colloquial, full of individuality and yet chastened by that careful choice of words which, like other scholars, he had already cultivated in writing Latin verse.