Literary Criticism of Joseph Addison

Though he was also a poet and dramatist, Joseph Addison (1672–1719) is best known as an essayist, and indeed he contributed much to the development of the essay form, which, like the literary form of the letter, flourished in the eighteenth century. Together with his friend and colleague Richard Steele whom he had known since his schooldays, he authored a series of articles in the periodicals the Tatler (1709–1711) and the Spectator (1711–1714). It was his ambition to bring philosophical, political, and literary discussion within the reach of the middle classes. He was a politician as well as a writer, holding positions of undersecretary of state, lord lieutenant, and then chief secretary for Ireland, as well as being a member of the Whig or Liberal Party from 1708 until his death. Steele too was a political liberal, and the two men used their periodicals for literary, moral, and educational purposes. To these ends, they offered character sketches of fictional personages which commented on contemporary issues and manners, and offered satiric portraits from a broadly humanitarian and largely middle-class framework of values. The “essay” as developed by these two writers – who wrote anonymously for their periodicals – was both a personal document as well as an attempt to probe the truth of things, in a dramatic and witty manner but ultimately for the moral enlightenment of their readers. The essays were journalistic inasmuch as they addressed a cross-section of topical events and concerns, ranging from codes of conduct, fashions in dress, marriage conventions, to political propaganda. Catering as it did for an increasingly literate middle-class readership, the Tatler was immediately popular and its undoing was its involvement in political partisanship; committed to Whig or Liberal causes, it saw the downfall of the Whig Party and was increasingly attacked by the Tory press, as the Conservative Party rose to power. Only two months after its demise in January 1711, the two writers launched the Spectator, which they managed to keep free of political partisanship. This latter periodical became famous for its characterizations of fictitious personae, such as Sir Roger, Sir Andrew, and Will Honeycomb, which were conducted with a vitality and coherence that affected subsequent novelistic writing.

joseph-addison-3After the closing of the Spectator in 1712, Addison and Steele launched the Guardian. This, however, never achieved the popularity of its predecessors, and it was the Tatler and the Spectator in their reprinted forms which continued to command a significant reading public through the nineteenth century. Most of the valuable literary criticism is contained in the pages of the Spectator, which had included extended series of essays on more serious issues, including philosophy and literature, in an attempt to mold and refine the critical tastes of its readership. These tastes were partly confined within a neoclassical scheme of values, drawing on Aristotle and Longinus, as evident in the essays on wit, tragedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet they also made use of more recent observations, such as those on psychology by John Locke.

Indeed, although these periodicals were addressed to the middle classes, their function was to reform the values of this class rather than merely to propagate or expound them. In the Spectator No. 6, Steele referred to his age as “a corrupt Age,” devoted to luxury, wealth, and ambition rather than to the virtues of “good-will, of Friendship, of Innocence.”1 Steele urges that people’s actions should be directed toward the public good rather than merely private interests, and that these actions should be governed by the dictates of reason, religion, and nature (Spectator, 68–70). In the Spectator there are several essays or articles dealing with specifically literary-critical issues, such as the nature of tragedy, wit, genius, the sublime, and the imagination. As far as tragedy goes, Addison and Steele advise following the precepts of Aristotle and Horace. Their general prescription is to follow nature, reason, and the practice of the ancients (Spectator, 87).

In 1711, the year in which Pope’s Essay on Criticism attempted to distinguish between true and false wit, Addison attempted the same task in Nos. 61 and 62 of the Spectator. In the first of these, he argues that puns and quibbles are species of “false” wit; with the exception of Quintilian and Longinus, none of the ancient writers, he says, made a distinction between puns and true wit. In his second piece on wit, Addison finds Dryden’s definition of wit as “a Propriety of Words and Thoughts adapted to the Subject” to be too broad: it could apply to all good writing, not merely to wit (Spectator, 108). He prefers John Locke’s distinction, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, between wit and judgment, cited above. Locke had argued that those endowed with wit and those capable of judgment are not usually the same persons, since these involve diverse procedures. Wit consists in bringing together ideas which resemble one another, with “quickness” and “variety.” Under this general procedure fall the various rhetorical tropes such as metaphor and allusion. Judgment, on the other hand, lies in separating ideas carefully, such that one idea is not mistaken for another (Essay, II, xi, 2). Addison himself adds that not every resemblance of ideas can be termed wit: the resemblance must give delight and surprise to the reader (Spectator, 105). He includes under Locke’s definition of wit not only metaphor but also similes, allegories, parables, fables, dreams, and dramatic writing. He further adds that resemblance of ideas is not the only source of wit: the opposition of ideas can also produce wit (Spectator, 110).

On the basis of Locke’s definition of wit, Addison produces a definition of false wit: whereas true wit consists in the resemblance and congruity of ideas, false wit is produced by the resemblance and congruity of single letters, as in anagrams; of syllables, as in doggerel rhymes; of words, as in puns and quibbles; and of entire sentences. Addison suggests that, in addition to true and false wit, there is a hybrid species, which he calls “mixed wit,” which consists partly in the resemblance of words and partly in the resemblance of ideas. Such mixed wit, which he finds in writers such as Cowley and Ovid (but not in Dryden, Milton, the Greeks, and most Roman authors), is a “Composition of Punn and true Wit . . . Its Foundations are laid partly in Falsehood and partly in Truth” (Spectator, 107–108). Addison cites with approval the French critic Bouhours’ view that “it is impossible for any Thought to be beautiful which is not just, and has not its Foundation in the Nature of Things: That the Basis of all Wit is Truth; and that no thought can be valuable, of which good Sense is not the Ground-work” (Spectator, 108–109). These remarks come strikingly close to Pope’s definition of true wit as  “Nature to advantage dress’d”: both formulations ground wit in truth, the similarity here revealing the profoundly neoclassical disposition adopted by Addison. In No. 65 of the Spectator, Steele similarly states: “I shall always make Reason, Truth, and Nature the Measures of Praise and Dispraise,” urging the use of these standards rather than the “generality of Opinion” (Spectator, 111).

However, while Addison and Steele assume a neoclassical stance in invoking absolute standards rather than public opinion, they do in later essays somewhat anticipate the more modern tendency to appeal to the collective taste of a community of readers. In No. 409 of the Spectator, Addison defines taste as “that faculty of the Soul, which discerns the Beauties of an Author with Pleasure, and the Imperfections with Dislike.” The test of whether someone possesses this faculty, he says, is to read the “celebrated Works of Antiquity” which have withstood the test of time, as well as those modern works which “have the Sanction of the Politer Part of our Contemporaries” (Spectator, 202). The person of taste will appreciate the beauties of these texts. Like Dryden, and later writers such as Arnold and Eliot, Addison appeals here to the authority of a cultured community of readers, as well as to the “timeless” principles embodied in the classics. His position appears to straddle both a classical disposition centered on the authority of the text and a modern attitude that accords the readership an integral role in the assigning of literary value. With similar ambivalence, he views the faculty of taste as “in some degree born with us,” but as capable of cultivation through exposure to refined writings, to conversation with cultured people so as to rectify the partiality of our assessment, and to the best critics of both ancient and modern times (Spectator, 203– 204). Deepening this ambivalence still further, Addison states that although in poetry the unities of time, place, and action, as well as other classical precepts, are “absolutely necessary,” he also insists that “there is still something more essential to the Art, something that elevates and astonishes the Fancy, and gives a Greatness of Mind to the Reader, which few of the Critics besides Longinus have considered” (Spectator, 204). The insistence of the appeal to fancy as more essential than merely observing the classical rules, as well as the appeal to Longinus, suggests a dissatisfaction with the view of art as a purely rational, wholly explicable process. This kind of dissatisfaction, somewhat amorphous at this transitional stage of literary-critical history, will later blossom into certain Romantic formulations of art.

Such blossoming has one of its germs in Addison’s essay in No. 411 of the Spectator on the pleasures of the imagination. Addison suggests here that our sigh  is the most perfect and delightful sense: “It fills the Mind with the largest Variety of Ideas, converses with its Objects at the greatest Distance, . . . spreads itself over an infinite Multitude of Bodies, comprehends the largest Figures, and brings into our reach some of the most remote Parts of the Universe” (Spectator, 205–206). It is the sense of sight that furnishes the imagination with its ideas. Addison defines the pleasures of imagination (a term he uses interchangeably with “fancy”) as arising “from visible Objects, either when we have them actually in our View, or when we call up their Ideas into our Minds” by various forms of art. While Addison acknowledges that there can be no image in the imagination which we do not first receive through our sight, he also points out that “we have the Power of retaining, altering and compounding those Images, which we have once received, into all the varieties of Picture and Vision that are most agreeable to the Imagination.” And through this faculty we can create scenes “more beautiful than any that can be found in the whole Compass of Nature” (Spectator, 206). These comments anticipate the formulations of many Romantic writers, suggesting as they do that we have a powerful faculty in imagination for transcending and transforming nature.

Addison obliquely anticipates Coleridge in distinguishing between the “primary pleasures” of imagination, which proceed from objects that lie before us, and “secondary pleasures” which flow from the ideas of visible objects, called up in our memories, in the absence of the objects themselves (Spectator, 206–207). Like Kant, Addison situates imagination somewhere between sense and understanding; it is higher than sense but lower than understanding. The pleasures of understanding are more “preferable” because they are based on new knowledge; yet the pleasures of imagination, Addison adds, are just “as great and as transporting”; they are also more accessible, inciting our immediate assent to beauty (Spectator, 207). Moreover, someone possessed of refined imagination “looks upon the World, as it were, in another Light, and discovers in it a multitude of Charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of Mankind” (Spectator, 207). He also points out that the pleasures of the fancy or imagination, derived from scenes of nature or art, have a healthful and restorative influence on our bodies and minds (Spectator, 208). Here we seem to reach a precarious balance between classical or neoclassical insistence on the superiority of reason and intellect and a Romantic insight into the transformative powers of imagination, a power that is potentially infinite, that can raise our insight above conventional perceptions of the world, and that can even exert a morally beneficent influence on our sensibilities.

In a second essay on imagination, in No. 412 of the Spectator, Addison deals briefly with both beauty and sublimity. The primary pleasures of imagination, he says, arise from the sight of objects that are great, uncommon, or beautiful. The first of these attributes, greatness, he defines as the “Largeness of a whole View, considered as one entire Piece,” as exemplified by vast uncultivated stretches of desert or mountain. Again, somewhat anticipating Kant, he suggests that our imagination “loves to be filled with an Object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its Capacity.” At such unbounded views, we experience a stillness and amazement of the soul, in virtue of our hatred of confinement and our profound desire for freedom. Kant’s view will be somewhat different, but nonetheless grounded on our desire for freedom: while the immensity of nature exceeds the power of imagination, that immensity is itself comprehended by a higher power, the faculty of reason. For Addison, the pleasure in such unlimited views derives from the fact that the eye can expatiate on the immensity of its vision and lose it self amidst the Variety of Objects” (Spectator, 209). While Kant thus restrains the boundaries of imagination, subordinating this faculty to reason, Addison postulates a more Romantic attitude, almost Keatsian, whereby the perceiving subject merges with the objects of its vision.

Also Romantic is Addison’s view that we derive imaginative pleasure from whatever is new or uncommon; such novelty offers “agreeable Surprise” and gratifies our curiosity because we are “tired out with so many repeated Shows of the same Things,” and welcome “Strangeness of . . . Appearance” (Spectator, 210). We enjoy scenes that are perpetually shifting and dynamic rather than static. This insistence on novelty, strangeness, and the dynamism of nature was to be an integral element of many Romantic visions of the world. The third kind of primary pleasure of imagination is caused by beauty. Again, like Kant, and anticipating modern Romantic conceptions, Addison views the perception of beauty not in the objective terms inherited from medieval aesthetics – harmony, proportion, order – but as a process bypassing reason entirely and as governed by imagination. The effect of beauty is immediate and definite: beauty “diffuses a secret Satisfaction . . . through the Imagination . . . there are several Modifications of Matter which the Mind, without any previous Consideration, pronounces at first sight Beautiful or Deformed” (Spectator, 211). However, Addison acknowledges that there is a second kind of beauty that consists in “the Gaiety or Variety of Colours, in the Symmetry and Proportion of Parts, in the Arrangement and Disposition of Bodies, or in a just Mixture and Concurrence of all together” (Spectator, 212). What is interesting about this definition is that it preserves some of the elements of classical notions of beauty (symmetry, order, proportion) but locates these not exclusively in objects but in our subjective response, which he characterizes as a “secret Delight,” a pleasure beyond the explanatory range of reason. Finally, he points out that, while objects that are great, uncommon, or beautiful all produce pleasure, this pleasure is multiplied and intensified when these qualities merge, and when the senses on which they are based, such as sight and sound, enter the mind together.

All in all, the views of Addison and Steele express an interesting combination of neoclassical values with dispositions that, in their more sustained treatment by later writers, will be articulated into elements of a Romantic vision of the world and the human self. Addressing themselves to a broad middle-class public immersed in the materialist and pragmatist ideologies of bourgeois thought, their insistence on classical values might be seen as part of their endeavor to cultivate the moral, religious, and literary sensibilities of this class; they were nonetheless obliged, however, to accommodate the more recent attitudes toward beauty and the imagination, attitudes gesturing in the direction of Romanticism, which equally undermined the conventional values of this political class.


1. Addison and Steele, Selections from the Tatler and the Spectator, ed. Robert J. Allen (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), pp. 67–68. Hereafter cited as Spectator.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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