Joseph Addison wished to incorporate the style and qualities of classical Greek and Roman poetry, with appropriate adjustments, into English. The adaptation met with some success: His poetry brought him literary recognition and political favor, but—unlike his prose—it has not endured. The reasons are clear: His ideas about poetry were limited, his comic talent found better expression in other genres, and popular taste turned away from classicizing when it grew sated. Addison’s ideas about poetry were simple ones and commonplace in his time. He defined poetry as ornamented thought, as a truth, which the poet wished to teach, made pleasant to the mind by the images created through elegant language. He judged the most important kind of poetry to be public poetry that treated moral and heroic topics.
These criteria were derived from classical Roman poetry, which Addison praised highly in his youthful essays for its power to raise “in our minds a pleasing variety of scenes and landscapes, whilst it teaches us.” Addison especially admired the concept of the poet as a teacher who expressed to his society its highest ideals and principles. He wished England to have its Vergils and Horaces who would be the familiar acquaintances of the nation’s leaders and would sing the glory of their country. Finally, Addison found in the classical Roman poets an urbane and cultured tone that stressed simplicity and civility. To a nation that had undergone a political revolution in 1688 and would experience two decades of intense Whig and Tory rivalry for office, such virtues seemed appropriate for the whole society as well as for individuals.
Addison first published in Latin and first achieved note among his contemporaries for a series of Latin poems written in the 1690’s and issued collectively in Musarum Anglicanarum Analecta (1699). Two are complimentary odes to Oxford professors, two are descriptions (of an altar and a barometer), three are comic verses (on a puppet show, on a bowling match, and on an imaginary war), and one is a celebration of peace with France. They are, for the most part, elegant pieces designed to show off the author’s stylistic ability to ornament mundane as well as special topics.
The best of these Latin poems is the Praelum Inter Pygmaeos et Grues Commisum (the war between the pygmies and the cranes), a mock-heroic poem whose humor derives from applying the conventions of epic poetry to the strife between foot-and-a-half-tall men and a flock of birds. Filled with descriptions of the combatants, landscapes, and fighting, the poem nevertheless hinges on the reader’s appreciation of the incongruity between epic conventions and unheroic matter, and Addison wisely does not prolong the narration; the tale comprises one hundred fifty-nine lines.
Latin verse, however, could please only an academic audience. If Addison wished to reach a wider audience, he would have to try his hand at English verse. His success in Latin verse won for him a chance to translate passages of Vergil and Ovid for an anthology. While keeping the original stories intact, Addison did not hesitate to add running explanations to his translations or to substitute familiar allusions for unfamiliar ones. In these poems and in subsequent translations, Addison strove to make classical literature accessible to an audience whose knowledge of the originals was often perfunctory and polite.
Poetry of personal compliment
One classical poetic form that Addison imitated in English was the poem of personal compliment to an important person. Most of his major poems are in this mode: “To Mr. Dryden,” “To the King,” “A Letter from Italy,” “To Her Royal Highness,” and “To...
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Sir Godfrey Kneller on His Portrait of the King.” Each addresses some personage at a crucial moment in that personage’s or the nation’s life. Each expresses the writer’s admiration for the subject with the implication that the writer speaks on behalf of the larger public. Because the occasion is noteworthy, the writer achieves dignity by finding an appropriate classical parallel.
Holding these works together as dignified statements is the poetic line. Addison’s consistent verse form is the iambic (a pair of ten-syllable, rhyming lines), which he writes almost prosaically. His couplets have been called “correct” or “polite” because they are obviously arranged and proceed logically. They are not difficult to follow, either alone or in groups; single couplets seldom invert word order, and pairs or triplets tend to restate central themes or images. Addison’s poetry requires little effort from reader or listener; rather, it suggests authoritative and declarative statements that are already within the reader awaiting expression.
“A Letter from Italy”
Addison’s use of ornamental but subdued poetic structures reflects his belief that on important public occasions, “Poetry in higher thoughts is lost.” Clear expression of important ideas outweighs virtuoso technique. In each of his compliment poems, Addison mixes personal admiration, classical ornament, and public sentiment. The best of them is “A Letter from Italy,” which Addison addresses, while on his European tour, to his patron Charles Montagu, who helped secure the pension that allowed him to travel. The poem was highly regarded in the eighteenth century because of its easy mixing of personal experience and political themes.
The first forty lines report the pleasure of the Latin scholar looking for the first time at the actual landscape depicted in the poems he knows so well: “I seem to tread on Classic ground.” The poet realizes that the landscape, while attractive, does not possess in reality the greatness which the ancient poets attributed to it in their verse. Their words have worked on the reader’s imagination, revealing an importance or meaning in the landscape undetected by the senses.
The next section applies this insight to Charles Montagu, who himself had written a poem praising King William’s victory over James II in the Battle of the Boyne. Montagu’s verse brings out the significance of a clash that in numbers appears minor but in meaning is crucial. The battle reminds all Englishmen that they are the maintainers of European liberty against the French and their Stuart lackeys.
The rest of the poem contrasts the warm climate and natural fertility of Italy with the cool climate and rocky soil of England. The former appears more fortunate but suffers under the oppression of French occupation, while the latter is happily free under a brave king and wise statesmen. The most vigorous lines in the poem are those describing the political liberty that Englishmen enjoy. When Addison wrote the poem, his patron had just been removed from the ministry, and the traveler must have wondered whether his tour of the Continent would ever lead to a government position. “A Letter from Italy” offers the consolation that both poet and patron, exiles of different sorts, are suffering for a good cause.
Addison tried his hand once at an epic poem, The Campaign, written to celebrate the duke of Marlborough’s victories over the French army in the summer of 1704. The poem was popular on publication, gained Addison a government post, and remained in circulation for most of the century, but a growing sense that it was little more than “a gazette in rhyme,” to use Joseph Warton’s famous phrase, gradually eliminated it from the ranks of great English poems. It is not, however, a mean performance; it demonstrates how Addison applied classical poetic conventions and values to English material. Of many poems written about Marlborough’s victory, only The Campaign comes close to being remembered. Although modern readers seldom appreciate poems that make warfare seem gallant—especially if that gallantry is expressed in polite couplets—this poem is an accurate and just celebration of one of England’s most extraordinary generals, John Churchill.
Addison might have written a great poem because the situation boasted “a theme so new” that it could have revolutionized heroic poetry. Churchill was not a typical epic hero; he was a commoner whose father’s loyalty to Charles II and whose own military prowess had brought him into aristocratic rank. Addison intends to praise a man who achieves princely honors more on “the firm basis of desert” than by birth.
Unfortunately, despite this new theme, Addison had difficult material with which to work. Churchill had indeed won two crucial and bloody battles over the French in that summer of 1704, but important to his success was the skillful way he had marched his troops into enemy territory and seized tactical advantages in the field. Marching and maneuvering are not the stuff of great epic poetry, yet Addison could hardly omit them, because his readers knew all the details from newspaper accounts.
Addison is therefore restricted to obvious sequences of march, fight, march, fight, march. Classical conventions help elevate this mundane structure: The marches rise in dramatic intensity by epic similes of the hunt as Marlborough’s army stalks the French. The battles are similarly pictured in heroic metaphors that describe them as clashes of elemental powers in nature. Around and in between these sections, Addison recounts the context of the battles of Blenheim and Schellenberg: England’s struggle against France for European leadership. As does any epic hero, Marlborough fights (as England does) with divine sanction. In the style of his complimentary poems, Addison finds a classical parallel for the new kind of hero: the Roman general Flavius Stilicho who, although not a patrician, won honor by marching from frontier to frontier to protect the empire against barbarian invasion.
The Campaign may be likened to a series of tableaux that verbally depict the crucial episodes of that summer; to make sure that no observer misses the importance of the occasion, Addison arrays all the mighty personages there, and the hero is dressed resplendently. Such dignified and static description is not to modern taste, but in his time Addison’s adaptation of classical trappings to English materials was fresh and novel.
Ironically, Addison’s most lasting poems are those least concerned with public statements. In the late summer and early fall of 1712, Addison published, as part of five Spectator essays, five original hymns. Each hymn appeared as an illustration of the essay’s thesis. For example, the topic of Spectator 444 is the vulnerability of human beings to unexpected catastrophes that can be countered only by humankind’s reliance on God’s supporting grace. As a model of reliance, Addison offers a rendering of the Twenty-third Psalm, in which David trusts the Lord, his shepherd.
Addison’s hymns have none of the drama of the religious poetry of John Milton or John Donne, but they offer common Christian attitudes in beautifully simple language. They were frequently anthologized in hymnals after their publication. The hymn of Spectator 465, “The Spacious Firmament on High,” expresses what might be called Addison’s “classical Christianity,” that rational piety that found its motive for faith in the magnificence of the world instead of in the preachings of churchmen:
The spacious firmament on highWith all the blue ethereal sky,And spangled heavens, a shining frame,Their great original proclaim. . . .
Such hymns have neither the insight nor the form to capture the drama of spiritual struggle, but there are many occasions on which a community prefers to celebrate its faith rather than express its doubts or review its struggles. For those occasions Addison’s hymns are just right.