Joseph Addison Poetry: British Analysis
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 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...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)