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Their leader, Bolingbroke, gave to Booth, the personator of Cato, a present of fifty guineas. All parties, in short, concurred in praising the tragedy, and did so for every possible reason but the one which ought to have guided their decisions, namely, its qualities as a play. Though containing many elevated sentiments, nobly and loftily expressed, Cato is deficient in dramatic interest, and gives more enjoyment in the closet than in the theatre. There is in it very little of that individualisation of character, and accompanying distinctiveness of language, which so strongly mark the compositions of our elder dramatists. The love-scenes in the tragedy, above all, are most insipid and unattractive. Yet, through the circumstances alluded to, it was acted thirty-five nights without intermission. As every rule must have the fortifying proof arising from a single exception, so, amid the general applause bestowed on Cato, one voice was heard to speak in loud condemnation. John Dennis, the critic, was the owner of that voice, and his employment of it on this occasion drew down upon him the satire of Pope, who, anxious at the time to gain the favour of Addison, demolished his assailant in a most laughable pamphlet, entitled a “ Narrative of the Madness of John Dennis."
A few political papers in the Whig Examiner, and a pamphlet ridiculing the French-Commerce Bill, came from the pen of Addison about this period, and, in 1714, when the publication of the Guardian ceased, the Spectator was recommenced by its former supporters. The time, however, was not a favourable one for peaceful literature, the family of Hanover having just ascended the throne, and the country being agitated by contending factions. After extending to other eighty numbers, about twenty of which were written by Addison, the periodical was again discontinued, never afterwards to be resumed. The same cause which drove him from his favourite task of essay-writing, carried him again into the arena of politics. The Whigs were restored to power, and he received successively the offices of clerk to the lords justices, of Irish secretary, and of a lord of trade. He fully repaid these obligations, by establishing a paper called the Freeholder, which continued through a series of fifty numbers, and which materially served to maintain the credit of the government at this most critical time. It began in
December 1715, and closed in June 1716. The latter year was signalised by a prominent event of a private nature in the life of Addison, which was his marriage with the Dowager Countess of Warwick, a lady to whose son he had formerly been tutor. Addison had long been a suitor, it is related, for the hand of the Countess, but the happiness which he anticipated did not result from the union. Though by his elevation, in the year following, to the high office of secretary of state, he was placed in some measure on an equality of rank with her, his lady never ceased to regard the man whom she had even honoured with her hand, and whose intellect was of so noble an order, as a being of an inferior nature, and one whom it was her privilege of birth to command and
Addison did not distinguish himself in the post of secretary of state. He possessed no abilities as a public speaker, and was totally incompetent to the task of defending the measures of government in the House of Commons, where he held, of course, a ministerial seat. Speaking of his own deficiencies, oral and oratorical, he used to say justly and forcibly, that, with respect to intellectual wealth, he could “ draw bills for a thousand pounds, though he had not a guinea in his pocket.” Even the extreme polish of his style as a writer, and his nicety in the choice and arrangement of words, detracted from his official and public utility. We are told that when it fell to him, as clerk to the lords justices, to announce the death of Queen Anne to the Elector of Hanover, he was so “ overwhelmed by the greatness of the event, and so distracted by choice of expression,” that the impatient lords were compelled to set a common clerk to the task, and had the dispatch drawn up for them in a few minutes. Through life the merely mechanical penman boasted of having done what was too hard for Addison. The latter, (says Pope) had too “beautiful an imagination to make an efficient man of business.” A depressing consciousness of such disabilities caused him to resign his secretaryship of state, after holding the office for only one year. He retired upon a pension of £1500.
His ostensible plea for seceding from public life was the declining state of his health, and for the plea there was
unfortunately but too much countenance in truth, This most pleasing of English moralists had defects in his character, for which, at this advanced period of his life, he began to suffer severely. Like almost all the literary men of his time, he had contracted an early and strong propensity for what may be called a tavern life. Pope, in alluding to this subject, says that his usual companions were “Steele, Budgell, Philips, Carey, and Davenant, [all literary men of some note), and that he used to breakfast with one or other of them at his lodgings in St James's Place, dine at taverns with them, then to Button's [a celebrated coffee-house], and then to some tavern again to supper ; and this was the usual round of his life.” These tavern sittings seldom endured less than “five or six
at a time, and usually extended “far into the night.” The delicately constituted Pope tells us that he himself was of the society for about a year, but “ found it too much ” for him; the stronger physical constitution of Addison enabled him to pass a great part of his life in this manner, giving only the mornings to composition and study. The consequence was, that he acquired a tendency to frequent, if not habitual excesses in wine, and that his latter years were rendered miserable by the dropsical and asthmatic symptoms which had been thus superinduced. This failing is to be ascribed in part to the unhappy literary habits of the age, and in part to certain peculiarities in the temperament of the man. Addison, in the words of Pope, loved too well to give
“a little senate laws, And sit attentive to his own applause." Wearied out by the proud stiffness of official men, or exhausted by close morning studies, he flew for recreation to the society of his tavern associates, every one of whom, Steele (the ablest of them) not excepted, looked up to him with the deepest veneration. When in their company only, did he make a full display of his colloquial accomplishments, which Steele and Pope describe altogether unequalled at that day.
In his famous poetical character of Addison, Pope paints him as one who,“ too fond to rule alone,” could
“ Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne,"
and relates an anecdote illustrative of this truth. Gildon, a literary skirmisher of the day, published some scandalous falsehoods relative to Pope and his family. From too good authority, that of Lord Warwick, the injured poet learnt that Addison had encouraged the libeller in his attacks, and had given him ten guineas when they came from the press. Pope took a manful revenge by writing the very character alluded to, and sending it to the original, with an open avowal of the reason for its composition. “Addison (says Pope) used me very civilly ever after.” Truth compels us to say that several other anecdotes of a similar kind, hinging all on the same failing of literary jealousy, are told of the subject of this memoir. When on his death-bed, he sent for Gay the poet, and solemnly, though mysteriously, asked pardon for certain great injuries which he had done to his visitor. Gay knew of no evil caused to him by the invalid, but, on mature after-reflection, concluded that the jealousy of Addison must have been the secret cause why he had been so long and so bitterly disappointed in his expectations of court preferment. This was but a conjecture, yet Pope seems to think it correct.
These were but slight specks, however, on a great and bright character. The purity and excellence which shine forth in the writings of Addison, were a reflex of his own mind and heart in their worthier and better phases. In the age immediately preceding his, wit and humour had become the panders to licentiousness and vice. Addison effected a change in this respect, which revived the expiring morality of his country, and which will redound to his honour while that country and its language exist. He employed wit in the service of truth and religion,“ restored virtue to its dignity, and taught innocence not to be ashamed.” As he advanced in years, the higher features of his character acquired greater prominence; and with the exception of some time devoted to the production of one or two political pamphlets, he spent the most of his latter days in preparing a work on the Evidences of the Christian Religion. He left it unfinished. In the commencement of 1719, his health grew more unsettled, and he prepared himself calmly for his end. The composure which he attained is made strikingly apparent by one incident which occurred while he lay on his death-bed. His step-son, Lord Warwick, was a youth of dissipated habits. Addison sent for him, and, on being reverently asked by the Earl what his commands were, replied, “ I have sent for you that you may see in what peace a Christian can die.” He soon after expired, on the 17th of June 1719. One daughter was the fruit of his marriage, and she, who was of somewhat infirm mind, survived up till the year 1785.
The writings of Addison have been briefly adverted to in the order of their appearance, and to the list we have to add the comedy of “ The Drummer,” which appeared anonymously, but was assigned to him on the authority of Steele. It is a piece containing many flashes of wit and humour, though not possessed, on the whole, of such qualities as to have secured for it a lasting place on the stage. The general character of Addison's compositions may now be the subject of a few observations, conclusive of the memoir. He deserves no high rank, assuredly, among the poets of his country, and posterity has instinctively settled the point, by keeping in mind no single line that he ever wrote, with the exception of one or two in Cato. His verses are usually correct and easy, and his sentiments just, but he has none of the daring brilliancy of imagery and expression which constitutes the charm of some poets, or the calm intensity of thought and feeling which forms the still deeper source of interest in others. All is level and tame. He must be ever thought respectable as a poet, but no further praise can be accorded to him.
Very different is the estimation in which he deserves to be held as a prose-writer. “ As a describer of life and manners (says Dr Johnson), he must be allowed to stand perhaps the FIRST OF THE FIRST RANK.
His humour, which is peculiar to himself, is so happily diffused as to give the grace of novelty to domestic scenes and daily occurrences. He never o'ersteps the modesty of nature, nor raises merriment or wonder by the violation of truth. He copies life with so much fidelity, that he can hardly be said to invent; yet his exhibitions have an air so much original, that it is difficult to suppose them not merely the product of imagination. As a teacher of wisdom, he