Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1791
Joseph Addison’s essays should not be read as profound pieces; they are meant as vehicles of instruction with two particular intentions. First, he wished to introduce his readers to the great minds of both classical and contemporary cultures: Homer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, John Milton, and Blaise Pascal, to name a few. In Spectator 10 he wrote, “It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables, and in Coffee-Houses.”
Second, Addison wished to recommend to his readers a golden mean in politics, manners, morality, and religion. Between 1688 and 1714, England experienced great social change, and Addison championed a middle way between the extreme positions that revolutionary change readily engendered. In politics he advocated constitutional monarchy as a median between Stuart absolutism and Puritan commonwealth; in manners he recommended an educated urbanity between aristocratic hauteur and middle-class utilitarianism; in morality he stressed a gentlemanly Christianity as the mean between libertinism and asceticism; and in religion he argued for a rational faith between superstition and atheism. In sum, Addison offered to his contemporaries the model of the cultured, self-disciplined and pious Roman citizen of antiquity.
If Addison’s essays offered in their own time to cultivate the readers’ sensibilities and ideas, they interest modern readers mainly for their mode of expression. When Addison moves from straightforward exposition into imaginative presentation, his modest and moral thinking takes on life. Through the accumulation of vivid detail or through humor and dramatization, Addison at his best dresses (to use the favorite metaphor of the age) his thought in attractive garb. Serious presentations of moral or religious truth wear the gossamer veils of allegory (a traditional device for presenting a religious truth) or the exotic trappings of the Asian tale (a genre then recently made popular by translations of the Arabian Nights stories). Comic or satiric exposure of ridiculous fashions and social opinions wears the bright dress of the character sketch and dramatic scene.
Most often Addison employs an allegory or an Asian tale of paragraph length to illustrate the moral of the expository essay. On several occasions, however, the vision or the tale becomes the whole piece; Addison pays as much attention to the artistic presentation of the setting and events as he does to a clear expression of the lesson. Tatler 119, on the world revealed by the microscope, Tatler 161, on the blessings of Liberty, and Spectators 584-585, about Shalum and Hilpa, are four of Addison’s better full-essay efforts in these genres. His best effort, Spectator 159, combines allegory and the Asian tale: “The Vision of Mizrah” tells of the dream granted to a young prince as he sits fasting and meditating on a hill outside Baghdad.
“The Vision of Mizrah”
“The Vision of Mizrah” is a completely realized story in which the moral lesson emerges from the events and scenes of the tale. Addison accounts for the tale realistically: Supposedly it comes from a manuscript that was purchased in Cairo. The manuscript is Mizrah’s first-person account of the marvelous happenings which occurred when he went to spend a holy day in meditation on the “Vanity of humane life” and on the notion that “Man is but a Shadow and Life a Dream.” Enraptured by the melodies of a shepherd playing a pipe, Mizrah soon discovers that the shepherd is actually a “genius” (or genie) known to haunt this hillside.
The genius offers Mizrah a scene representing the plight of human existence, a vision that Addison sublimely describes with vivid and complete detail. Mizrah sees a valley of which the hills on either side are hidden in fog; through the valley flows a sea and across the sea stands a bridge. The genius explains that the fog-shrouded hills are the beginning and the end of time hidden from human sight. The valley is the Vale of Misery in which humans must live, the bridge is the span of human life, and the sea is the eternity into which all men will be swept. Mizrah is most fascinated by the bridge, which the genius tells him was originally built of a thousand sturdy arches but which has now only seventy ruined sections. Mizrah watches the multitude of humanity as it attempts to cross the bridge but plunges into the water below.
When Mizrah despairs at this inevitable destruction of human beings, the genius comforts him with a vision of the land to which the sea of eternity carries them: It “appeared to me a vast Ocean planted with innumerable islands, that were covered with Fruits and Flowers, and interwoven with a thousand little shining Seas that ran among them.” These islands are the “Mansions of good Men after Death” filled with all the delightful sights and harmonious sounds that men call by the name of paradise. Having comforted Mizrah, the genius withdraws. Skillfully, Addison works the transition from the marvelous to the mundane: “I turned again to the vision which I had been so long contemplating, but instead of the rolling Tide, and Arched Bridge, and the happy Islands, I saw nothing but the long Hollow Valley of Bagdat, with Oxen, Sheep, and Camels, grazing upon the sides of it.”
When Addison turns his attention from religious or moral truth to the condition of society, his favorite device is the character sketch. The traditional Theophrastian character described a social type by heaping generalized qualities of appearance and thought upon him in a somewhat helter-skelter manner. Addison, while depicting a type, describes by giving localizing and particularizing characteristics, and by presenting them in dramatic situation.
Some of Addison’s best Tatlers are elaborated sketches. Tatler 155 on the Political Upholsterer, Tatler 158 on Tom Folio the Scholar, and Tatler 165 on Sir Timothy Tittle, the critic, all achieve success by creating dramatic situations in which a particularized individual exposes his own ridiculousness and that of those who think like him. Tatler 163’s account of Ned Softly, the modish poet, shows how deftly Addison could let character and action suggest rather than state the thesis of the essay.
In Tatler 163, the narrator Isaac Bickerstaff tells how the young poet-about-town Ned Softly cornered him in a coffeehouse and demanded Bickerstaff’s opinion of his latest work, “To Mira on Her Incomparable Poem.” More in love with his own verse than with the young lady to whom it is written, Ned Softly insists on reading the poem line by line, commenting on his literary skill, and demanding Bickerstaff’s reaction. Not wishing to offend, Bickerstaff replies neutrally or ambiguously; Softly interprets all remarks to his own advantage. With exquisite skill Addison lets the would-be poet reveal the superficiality of his art and the pretentiousness of his claims:But now we come to the last, which sums up the whole matter. “For ah! it wounds me like his dart.” Pray, how do you like that ah! doth it make not a pretty figure in the place? Ah!—it looks as if I felt the dart, and cried out at being pricked with it. “For ah! it wounds me like his dart.” My friend Dick Easy (continued he) assured me, he would rather have written that ah! than to have been the author of the Aeneid.
Bickerstaff hardly gets a word in edgewise, but that is part of Addison’s point and method. Tatler 163 is the stuff of which the comedy of manners is made: revelation of social character by dialogue and dramatization. Tatlers like these indicate how, in the eighteenth century, fiction was gradually adopting one of the stage’s most delightful methods of representation.
The possibility of dramatized presentation of particularized social types seems to underlie Addison and Steele’s conception of the Spectator Club, from which Spectator essays supposedly come. Addison described Mr. Spectator in the first issue of the new series as an eccentric character who observes the whole London world from the Haymarket to the Exchange, but who is so shy that he never speaks in public. Richard Steele described the other members of the club in the second Spectator: the country squire Roger de Coverley, the merchant Sir Andrew Freeport, the witty rake Will Honeycomb, and others. Such varied and particularized types, arranged in the dramatic situation of the club, certainly gave Addison and Steele the same material with which later authors would build the novel. Addison and Steele, however, left undeveloped most of the literary possibilities of their material with the one exception of Roger de Coverley, whom they made one of the most memorable characters of English literature.
Sir Roger de Coverley
Like most other things in The Spectator, the character of Sir Roger de Coverley had a didactic purpose. He was intended to represent the class of country squires who constituted a powerful economic and political force in England, a force which Addison and Steele judged reactionary and unchanging. In a long series of essays (Spectators 106-130), Mr. Spectator visited Sir Roger’s country seat and had an opportunity to comment on various aspects of the squire’s life: his relationship with servants and tenants, his ability to manage an estate, and his administration of justice in the country. From all these episodes, Mr. Spectator was to have drawn some useful lessons for other men of property and responsibility.
The Sir Roger whom they intended to tease and use as a vehicle for giving advice, however, took on a life of his own and became lovable. The reader learned through Mr. Spectator how Sir Roger behaved at church, how a “perverse widow” threw him over, and how the values and principles of his ancestors shaped him. The reader also learned little things about Sir Roger: what he liked to eat, the jokes he liked to make concerning Mr. Spectator’s familiarity with chickens and ducks, instances of his generosity to tenants. The new attitude is especially evident in the later Spectators when Sir Roger comes back to the city. Mr. Spectator describes him less to teach a lesson and more for the sheer fun of showing off a friend whom he loves.
Two things testify to the reality Sir Roger assumed in the imaginations of author and readers alike. Before Addison and Steele ended The Spectator, Addison wrote a moving account of the club’s learning that Sir Roger had died; he could not let the series end without rounding off Sir Roger’s life. Since the eighteenth century, the essays in which Sir Roger appears have often been removed from the numbered sequence of essays that masks their continuity and printed together as “The de Coverley papers.”