Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 20. Its Literary Criticism: Addison on Paradise Lost, and On the Pleasures of the Imagination

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

§ 20. Its Literary Criticism: Addison on Paradise Lost, and On the Pleasures of the Imagination

Steele had loyally supplemented these more scholarly papers, whenever Addison gave him an opening for a humorous contribution and even succeeded in showing how Raphael’s cartoons are studies in the grandeur of human emotions. But his spontaneous and erratic genius quite failed to keep pace with the dogmatism of Addison’s next and greatest critical effort. This was the series of Saturday papers in which he criticises Paradise Lost by the canons of Aristotle, Longinus and Le Bossu and, though finding faults in Milton, judges him to be equal if not superior, to Homer or Vergil. From the eighteenth century point of view, he was right. The middle classes who read books were not themselves subjected to the great emotions of life, but were bent on methodically building up their own culture. Hence, they could not appreciate the mystery, the passion, the wildness or the pathos of ancient epic, and it is significant that these qualities are not conspicuous in the great translations of the period, which charmed by their rhetoric and polish. The average eighteenth-century reader had somewhat the same point of view as the Italian critics of the renascence and valued what had passed through the crucible of the intellect and smelt of the lamp. When people at this stage of culture consider a work of imagination, they are too prosaic to comprehend the romance of human activity. They want projected shadows of life, which are vaster than reality and bolder in outline, though less searching. Milton met these intellectual requirements more fully than his forerunners, and Addison, in interpreting his poet, seems to have followed Minturno’s line of argument when he championed the epic against the romanzi. Addison contended that Milton dealt with the destiny of the whole world, they but with that of a single nation. His characters, though fewer in number, appear more varied and less earthbound than theirs. The conception of sin and death contains “a beautiful allegory” affecting all humanity. Adam and Eve typify different beings before and after their fall. Their “conferences” are less mundane than the “loves” of Dido and Aeneas; Satan is more wily and more travelled than Ulysses. Besides, Paradise Lost was originally conceived as a tragedy, and, though the dramatic atmosphere which pervades its final form is rightly judged to be a blemish, it is, for this reason, more easily reducible to Aristotle’s rules. After taking a bird’s-eye view of the action, the actors, the sentiments and the language, Addison proceeds to consider each book separately. No greater service could have been rendered to the unformed taste of his time than to point out where Milton is to be admired, and Addison has the wisdom to illustrate his criticisms so copiously that these papers almost constitute a book of selected “beauties.” Much that he praises is of permanent value, such as grandeur of style and loftiness of conception; but, in much again, his literary judgment is unconsciously biassed by a spirit of propaganda. In reality, The Spectator was continuing, after nearly two generations, the same reaction against restoration ideals which Milton had begun in his old age. Thus, Paradise Lost had a hold on Addison’s admiration quite apart from its intrinsic merits. Milton’s tumultuous and overburdened similes seemed perfect, in contrast with the artifices of the little wits. Eve’s purity and modesty exercised an exaggerated charm in view of contemporary looseness, and it was regarded as specially appropriate that her dream, inspired by Satan, should be full of pride and conceits. Moreover, the age saw that learning was its salvation and, in Paradise Lost, enjoyed the quite artificial pleasures of research. Addison no longer holds to Lionardi’s, Fracastor’s and Scaliger’s creed that all erudition is an ornament to poetry; but he experiences a subtle delight in tracing obscure parallels in inspiration—comparing the sword of Michael with the sword of Aeneas, or the golden compasses of the Creator with the Minerva’s aegis, or the repentance of Adam and Eve with the grief of Oedipus. And, finally, The Spectator was furthering a religious revival under the auspices of culture and, therefore, found in Paradise Lost the same kind of superiority that Harington had claimed for Orlando Furioso. Addison reconciles himself even to the speeches of the Almighty, though they are not “so proper to fill the mind with sentiments of grandeur, as with thoughts of devotion”; while the morning and evening hymns, and the use of scriptural phraseology throughout the poem, seemed like a touch of inspiration higher than any of which a pagan could boast.

These Milton papers met with an enthusiastic reception. They exercised an influence throughout the eighteenth century and only became obsolete when Sainte-Beuve had taught Europe that the critic should be less of a judge than a reconstructor—almost an artist who creates a picture of the author’s mind and of the atmosphere in which he wrote. In any case, Addison never attempted to enlarge the bounds of thought. His aim was to gather up the best ideas of his time and put them within reach of the ordinary reader. The same is true of his successive papers on æsthetics, or, as he calls them, “On the Pleasures of the Imagination.” He wanted to show how the emotions can be raised and purified by what men see and read. So, he discussed the intellectual pleasure to be found, first, in landscapes and gardens, then, in statues, pictures and architecture, and, then, in the mirrored views of life which a descriptive writer can call up before the mind’s eye. This difficult and intricate subject involved an inquiry into the psychology of the imagination and a scientific discrimination of the functions and limits of the different arts. Granted his limitations, Addison is more than equal to the task. He draws on his own travels and experiences, he applies the wisdom of the ancients and the more recent discoveries of Descartes, Locke and Berkeley; yet his exposition is lucid and complete within the compass of eleven short essays. But, though he popularises admirably the ideas of his time, he cannot investigate for himself. The thoughts of his contemporaries lead him to the very brink of Lessing’s discovery concerning the relation of poetry to sculpture, but he does not take a step further when his guides leave him. Nevertheless, these papers must have awakened in many a new sense of aesthetic enjoyment. Among other things, he protests against the artificiality of rococo gardens, and shows what a mine of wonder and reflection had been opened up by natural philosophy.