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

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 19. Thomas Tickell

Thomas Tickell was born in 1688, at his father’s vicarage, Bridekirk, in Cumberland, and, in April, 1701, entered Queen’s college, Oxford, of which he became a fellow in November, 1700—a poetaster preferred over better men, according to the relentless tory, Thomas Hearne. In 1711, he acted as deputy professor at Oxford, where, according to the same authority, he delivered a “silly” course on bucolics, in which what was good was taken from Scaliger. Tickell, who was not “one of these scholars who wear away their lives in closets,” found a stepping-stone into the outer world through the patronage of Addison. While still at Oxford, he had expressed his admiration of Addison (To Mr. Addison on his Opera of Rosamond) in extravagant terms. On arriving in London, he made Addison’s acquaintance. Tickell was an accomplished poetiser and man of letters, and a graceful, though not profound, scholar, by no means the vain conceited coxcomb of Hearne’s imagining. Addison was pleased with a homage that was worth accepting. In October, 1712, Tickell published his Poem to his Excellency the Lord Privy Seal on the Prospect of Peace, and, though the piece supported the tory peace of Utrecht, Addison, in The Spectator, spoke warmly of its “noble performance.” Pope praised its poetical images and fine painting—now undecipherable. Tickell repaid these compliments with compound interest. Verses by him were prefixed to Addison’s Cato, and, as Addison rose, his admirer rose with him. Addison, as is well known, incurred Pope’s enmity mainly in his protégé’s behalf. In October, 1714, he asked to be excused reading the first two books of Pope’s Iliad, on the ground that his interest in an English version of The Iliad had been forestalled by Tickell, whose first book he had “corrected.” (He consented, however, according to Pope, to read the second book.) In June, 1715, Pope’s first volume and Tickell’s first book of The Iliad in English appeared almost simultaneously. Addison described Tickell’s version as the best ever done in any language. Pope wrote bitterly of Cato’s “little senate” at Button’s coffee-house. Meanwhile, Pope’s own like senate unmasked their batteries. Parnell and Arbuthnot criticised the scholarship, Jervas and Berkeley the verse, of Tickell’s translation. Pope himself, in his Art of Sinking in Poetry, cites illustrative passages from Tickell’s version. Apart from this quarrel, the chief interest attaching to Tickell in literary history is in his character as satellite, executor and panegyrist of Addison, and as supplanter of Steele in Addison’s estimation. In 1717, upon his appointment as chief secretary in Ireland, Addison took Tickell with him. When he became secretary of state, he appointed Tickell under-secretary; and, shortly before his death, made him his literary executor, instructing him to collect his writings in a final and authentic edition. Tickell addressed himself to this most difficult and delicate task with so much loyalty and assiduity that, by 3 October, 1721, the collective edition of Addison’s works was ready for the public, in four sumptuous quarto volumes. It was prefaced by an unpretending notice, to which was appended the noble and pathetic elegy (characterised by Johnson as “sublime and elegant”) To the Earl of Warwick on the Death of Mr. Addison, which furnishes Tickell’s sole but sufficient title-deed to the poetical estate. Of its thirty-two lines, the most familiar, though not entirely the best, are, perhaps, the following:

  • Can I forget the dismal night that gave
  • My soul’s best part for ever to the grave!
  • How silent did his old companions tread
  • By midnight lamps, the mansions of the dead
  • Through breathing statues, then unheeded things,
  • Through rows of warriors, and through walks of kings!
  • What awe did the slow solemn knell inspire;
  • The pealing organ, and the pausing choir;
  • The duties by the lawn-rob’d prelate paid;
  • And the last words, that dust to dust conveyed!
  • Tickell did fair and, some think, ample justice to Steele in his references to him. There can, however, be little doubt that Steele had been distressed and grievously hurt by the rupture; while the fact that Tickell should have taken his place in Addison’s affections must have been inexpressibly galling. His natural irritation had, no doubt, been intensified by Addison appointing Tickell under-secretary, and, still more, by his making Tickell his literary executor, offices which Steele might, naturally, have expected, had all gone well, to fill himself. The omission of The Drummer from Addison’s works gave him the opening he desired. Steele objected to Addison’s essays being separately printed, while some of their joint work was ignored. It seems certain that Addison contemplated a collective edition of his writings, in which his own personal contributions could be identified. Steele’s ambition, we must infer, was that he and his friend should go down to posterity together. This hope was dashed to the ground by the appointment, in his place, of Tickell as Addison’s literary executor.