Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Addison, Josephlocked

(1672–1719)
  • Pat Rogers

Joseph Addison (1672–1719)

by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c. 1703–12

Addison, Joseph (1672–1719), writer and politician, was born on 1 May 1672 at the rectory, Milston, a hamlet north of Amesbury in Wiltshire, the son of Lancelot Addison (1632–1703) and his wife, Jane, née Gulston (c.1635?–1684). His father was at that time vicar of Milston, and Joseph is said to have been baptized on the same day, indicating that there were doubts about the baby's survival. His mother came like his father from a clerical and royalist background; her brother William Gulston had held the living at Milston prior to Lancelot, and became bishop of Bristol in 1679. Joseph was the oldest child in the family to survive infancy. His sister Dorothy, born in 1674, was twice married, while his two brothers achieved minor note in the world. Gulston (1673–1709) entered the service of the East India Company and was briefly governor of Fort St George (Madras) prior to his sudden death, and Lancelot (1680–1710), a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, followed him to India in 1710.

The young Addison spent his first eleven years at Milston, although he may have received some private schooling at Amesbury and Salisbury. In June 1683 his father was elected dean of Lichfield, and the family moved to a substantial deanery in the cathedral close there. Joseph attended the ancient Lichfield grammar school, where Samuel Johnson studied a generation later. Although Addison's father soon received preferment as archdeacon of Coventry and gained increasing renown as an author of theological books, he was evidently a poor financial manager and the family enjoyed no great prosperity.

Despite the loss of Jane Addison, the Addisons seem to have been a close-knit and harmonious group according to Richard Steele, who made holiday visits to them at the deanery. The celebrated friendship of Addison and Steele began when Joseph was sent to the Charterhouse School in London at thirteen. From 1685 the boys were under the direction of a new master of the Charterhouse, the speculative and unorthodox Thomas Burnet. Steele was the older of the two by just seven weeks. Both young men were bound for Oxford at the end of their schooldays.

Oxford

On 18 May 1687 Addison matriculated at Queen's College, his father's alma mater. Two years later, as Steele was entering Christ Church, Addison moved to Magdalen College, having been elected to a demyship on 30 July 1689 thanks to the efforts of one of the tutors at Queen's, William Lancaster. This mark of recognition came because of the young man's attainments in classical learning, and above all for his skill in composing Latin verse. Lancaster had seen a poem entitled Tityrus et Mopsus in a collection published by the university to welcome the new king, William III; against the grain of his ancestry, Addison had taken sides in opposition to the Stuart cause. Also admitted to Magdalen on the same election were three individuals who would later achieve prominence in the church. Two of them, with orthodox and whiggish views, would achieve bishoprics: these were Hugh Boulter, a future dean of Christ Church and archbishop of Armagh, and Richard Smalbroke. The third was the notorious high-church preacher Henry Sacheverell, who never progressed beyond an opulent living which his tory friends found for him, but who served as the lightning rod around which politics and religion flashed during the second decade of the eighteenth century. Sacheverell was Addison's closest ally in this group, and the two men may have been room-mates at Magdalen. Little is known of the young Joseph's days as an undergraduate, except that he evidently prospered as a student under his tutor William Cradock, and that he acquired the habit of strolling in the huge park surrounding the college. A riverside path named Addison's Walk still commemorates his fondness for solitude among the scenes of well-manicured nature. Nor is there any evidence of contacts between Addison and his old friend Steele, who left the university in 1692 without a degree and joined the army.

By this time Addison was already taking the first steps to academic success and so potentially towards clerical eminence. On 6 May 1691 he became bachelor of arts; on 14 February 1693 he proceeded to the master's degree; and on 30 July 1697 he was made a probationer fellow. Finally, exactly one year later, he became a full fellow of the college. All this indicated high talent and a measure of social adroitness. He had kept the support of important figures such as Lancaster, and he was on sufficiently good terms with the authorities to be allowed to retain his fellowship without entering on holy orders, as was normally required. Here he may have had the assistance of the college president, John Hough, who had been installed by the fellows in defiance of James II, and who moved on in 1699 to Lancelot Addison's diocese of Lichfield as bishop. Joseph cemented his good relations in the university when he assembled a collection of Latin poems, Musarum Anglicanarum analecta (1699), mostly contributed by members of Magdalen and Christ Church. Eight of the editor's own works appeared in this anthology.

Moreover, the young man had made astute contacts outside Oxford. Addison's main coup came when he attracted the interest of John Dryden, still the greatest man of letters in the nation despite a loss of court patronage following the revolution of 1688. Addison's first step was to write a congratulatory poem, laying special emphasis on Dryden's skills as a translator—one side of the poet's work comparatively unappreciated until the latter part of the twentieth century. This poem appeared in Dryden's miscellany Examen poeticum in June 1693. Soon afterwards Addison made the acquaintance of the great publisher Jacob Tonson senior, who had issued the miscellany. Next year the fourth volume of Tonson's series contained four items by Addison, including versions of Ovid and Virgil. There were also two English poems, the more notable being 'An Account of the Greatest English Poets', dedicated to Sacheverell. In the manner of the age, this work finds most writing previous to the seventeenth century crude and artless, with the highest praise reserved for John Milton, Abraham Cowley, and Dryden. There followed negotiations with Tonson concerning a translation of Ovid, and subsequently plans for a version of Herodotus, neither of which came to fruition. However, in 1697 Addison resumed his links with Dryden when he supplied an essay on the Georgics to the great translation of Virgil; this was anonymous, but in a postscript Dryden paid tribute to the contribution of 'the most Ingenious Mr. Addison of Oxford'.

As a writer Addison did his long-term prospects no harm when he established contact with Dryden and Tonson. In the process, too, he got to know the ablest among their younger associates: this was William Congreve, already a well-respected poet and translator, as well as the brightest star in the dramatic firmament. From a worldly point of view Addison scored two direct hits of even greater significance. He managed to attract the support of the greatest patrons of the age, men who occupied at the same time a major position in the world of politics. One was John, Baron Somers, at this time lord keeper: in 1695 Addison composed a 'Poem to his Majesty', to which he sensibly added a dedicatory letter to Somers, and thus laid the basis for a long-lasting intimacy with one of the pillars of the post-revolution establishment. The other was Charles Montagu, later Lord Halifax, who had made a name for his poems: now, as chancellor of the exchequer, he was spearheading an overhaul of Treasury affairs which gave rise to the financial revolution. In 1697 Addison dedicated to Montagu his most admired Latin poem, Pax Gulielmi auspiciis Europeae reddita, that is 'Peace restored to Europe under the guidance of William'. The king could have made little of this effusion, celebrating the recently signed treaty of Ryswick, but it proved effective in gaining Montagu's support.

As a result, Montagu arranged a Treasury grant of £200 allowing Addison to make an extended stay on the continent. The idea was that he should take advantage of his travel abroad to learn languages and equip himself for a diplomatic career. In addition he required leave of absence from his fellowship at Magdalen, and on 17 August the college granted permission for him not to take holy orders during the time he was away. According to Steele's later account, this was helped by a letter from Montagu to the outgoing college president, John Hough, in which he emphasized that he had no desire to do the church any injury 'other than keeping Mr. Addison out of it' (Smithers, 43).

Travels

Armed with his stipend, as well as copies of the collection of Latin verse to distribute on his journeys, Addison made his way from Dover to Calais in August 1699. He had been briefed in the office of the secretary of state by Abraham Stanyan, a near contemporary who had already begun to make his mark as a diplomat. Stanyan was to remain an important contact in the political world; he could easily give the untravelled Addison a better sense of power struggles which were threatening the fragile peace achieved in 1697. Once in Paris, Addison tasted a careful selection of the pleasures of the town, including opera, and wrote dutiful letters to his patrons Halifax and Somers. At Versailles he noted a picture of Louis XIV represented as Jupiter blasting the Danube and Rhine with thunderbolts, an image which seems a few years later to have inspired his best-known line, in the poem on Blenheim. However, he still had very little command of spoken French, and by December he had moved to Blois, in order to acquire what was regarded as the purest spoken form of the language. A series of masters since the sixteenth century had made the town a centre for teaching the renowned Tourangeau accent. This meant that the place, lying low on the Loire, was 'very much infested with fogs & German Counts', as Addison informed Stanyan (Letters). According to a story told by a priest many years later, Addison lived a retired and austere existence during almost a year at Blois: 'He had his masters generally at supper with him, kept very little company beside, and had no amour whilst here that I know of—and I should have known if he had had any' (Spence, 1.331). There was however time for a brief tour of central France with a new acquaintance, Edward Wortley Montagu. Wortley is now known almost entirely as the husband of the formidable Lady Mary, but in his youth he seemed to hold promise as a diplomat and whig politician, besides being the heir to a great business fortune. Both Wortley and his wife remained loyal friends to Addison.

By late summer 1700 Addison, now more fluent in conversation, had returned to Paris and was able to see more of Stanyan, who had been appointed secretary at the embassy there. Interviews were arranged with leading figures in French culture, notably the philosopher Nicolas Malebranche and the poet Boileau, then at the peak of his influence throughout the western world as a living embodiment of all that was classical and therefore best. Though Boileau was sixty-four, considered elderly in those days, and somewhat deaf, he impressed his visitor with his comments on literature, including a preference for Homer's unselfconscious manner of narrative over the preachy manner of his fashionable imitator Fénelon—a valuation of showing rather than telling, in modern terms. Addison was grateful for the advice and his later criticism shows how much he learned from Boileau's precepts and example.

Soon it was time to move on again: the ideology of the grand tour discouraged lingering too long. After travelling south to Marseilles Addison took ship for Italy on 12 December 1700, but was driven back by a storm. In the end he reached Genoa by land, and then proceeded through Pavia to Milan and then Venice, after which he followed the accustomed route south, choosing to go via San Marino and Loreto as he journeyed briefly to Rome and then on to Naples. He climbed Vesuvius, sailed round Capri, and sailed back up the coast to Rome. Here he passed a more extended sojourn, visiting churches, annotating architecture and antiquities, and undertaking trips out to literary shrines such as Tivoli and Frascati. There were poetic echoes on almost every corner for a man as deeply imbued in the ancient corpus as Addison, and he was to coin the phrase 'classic ground' to express a pervading atmosphere of ageless accomplishment, as the familiar texts sprang unbidden into his mind.

At length Addison was obliged to leave these congenial scenes, and journeyed via Siena to Florence. As the war with France intensified and the manoeuvres of the French and imperial armies came closer, the pace of his journey quickened. He crossed the Alps by Mount Cenis in December 1701, working on the poem 'A Letter from Italy', which he would dedicate to Montagu (now Lord Halifax) and which would prove one of his most popular works. In the safety of Geneva, he paused for some time, going on expeditions round the lake while anticipating his nomination as secretary to Prince Eugène, the imperial commander. Then came the unexpected news of the death of King William on 8 March 1702. Halifax, Somers, and other whig patrons were dismissed from office, and Addison's prospects suddenly looked bleak, after he had enjoyed a decade of steady ascent. He decided to continue his travels, and in the autumn journeyed through Switzerland and the Tyrol to Vienna. At the end of the year he proceeded on another snowbound journey to Dresden (much of the entire tour was carried out in winter), and thence to Hamburg, where he may have met the youthful Handel. The final stages of his odyssey took him through Leiden and Amsterdam. While in Holland he belatedly learned of the death of his father, which had occurred more than a year before. On hearing the news he wrote a letter to Bishop Hough, not without a certain eye for his own self-interest as he reminded the bishop of his 'just sense of duty and gratitude' (Letters). While he hovered uncertainly in the Dutch cities, Jacob Tonson concocted a plan to have him act as tutor to a son of the proud duke of Somerset. But Addison's acceptance was not couched in sufficiently humble terms, and the chance was lost. Finally, he was forced to return to England early in 1704, with no job lined up and no obvious career path beckoning.

Public office

During Addison's absence on his travels the whigs had lost political control, at least for a short time. But their leaders had not given up all the levers of cultural power. One of the sites in which they continued to exert influence was the Kit-Cat Club, formed at the beginning of the century with Tonson as its secretary. This was a group of aristocrats, socialites, writers, and intellectuals, whose official business ran to little more than inscribing fanciful toasts to the reigning beauties of the town, but whose sphere of patronage extended very widely. Somers and Halifax were among the founding figures, along with their junto colleague Lord Wharton, the duke of Somerset, and the earl of Carlisle. Literature and drama were represented by Congreve, John Vanbrugh, William Walsh, and Samuel Garth. Other younger aspirants to the fame and fortune which admission to the society conferred were Abraham Stanyan and Richard Steele, who had stolen a march on his old schoolfriend by establishing his career as a dramatist. It was within this circle that Addison now attempted to make his presence felt.

Addison's chance came after he had been back in England for a few months. The Letter from Italy was published in this year, and made safe the interest of Halifax. Through another Kit-Cat member, Henry Boyle, now chancellor of the exchequer, it was arranged that Addison should be appointed a commissioner of appeal in excise, on condition that he wrote a poem to celebrate the battle of Blenheim, where in August Marlborough had enjoyed his greatest triumph of the entire war. The appointment was gazetted early in November, and a month later the verses were ready. On 14 December 1704 Tonson published The Campaign, a Poem, to His Grace the Duke of Marlborough. By Mr. Addison in a folio of twenty-four pages. It was a defining moment in the author's career: second and third editions were soon required, and even the notorious jealousies of the literary world were suspended as he basked in praise from all quarters. As time went on, the tories felt a need to set up a rival hero such as the mediocre Admiral George Rooke, and John Philips tried to put a different spin on events with a poem addressed to Robert Harley. But it was to no avail: Addison had seized his great opportunity.

Though Addison's shapely couplets have come to seem bland to later generations, they caught the right note at this juncture. One image above all struck the imagination of the public, when the general is likened to an angel, 'calm and serene' in the midst of tumult, who 'rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm'. The line recalls the picture Addison had seen at Versailles, but he managed to give the idea an immediately topical ring, with a reference to 'rising tempests' shaking 'a guilty land'. Everyone knew what this referred to—the great storm which had flattened much of southern England just a year before, on 26–7 November 1703. Unlike most of his readers, Addison had not been on hand to witness the destruction; but he knew how easily this natural disaster could serve as an emblem of national decline, which must be halted by the quasi-divine intervention of the duke and his allies. Queen Anne, by comparison, receives only half-hearted plaudits.

Gradually during 1705 the political climate changed. Somers and Halifax were back in the privy council, high-church tories like the earl of Nottingham and Sir Edward Seymour were ousted from government, and the whigs did well in a general election. All this brightened the prospects for Addison, and in July he was appointed under-secretary in the office of the secretary of state for the southern department, Sir Charles Hedges. It was an administrative as much as a political position, but it confirmed Addison, still in his early thirties, as a coming man. He retained his job when Marlborough's son-in-law the earl of Sunderland took over as secretary in early December 1706. By that time Addison had embarked on a more momentous task, when he accompanied Halifax to Hanover in summer 1706. The declared purpose of the mission was to invest the young electoral prince with the Order of the Garter, but the real business on hand was to keep the Hanoverian court apprised of what was happening about the succession to the English throne—an issue which constantly lay behind the day-to-day manoeuvres of domestic politics.

All this time Addison had not neglected his career as a man of letters. His Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, based on his grand tour experience and larded with poetic allusions, reached the public in November 1705, with a dedication to Somers. By the standards of modern travel writing, this is deficient in picturesque human detail: a reader would hardly know that Addison was serving as a bear leader, conducting on their passage to manhood two youths, one of them the nephew of Charles Montagu. But the book is often eloquent on art, history, and literature. After this Addison turned to the musical theatre, with one of the first attempts to produce a full-blown English opera. His libretto for Rosamond was set by Thomas Clayton, who had recently enjoyed some success with Arsinoë. It was based on the legend of fair Rosamond Clifford, the mistress of Henry II. Addison chose this subject because the plot was laid around Woodstock Park, where Blenheim Palace had just begun to take shape, so that the narrative could use features of the landscape such as Rosamond's Bower. The opera proved a failure on its first performance at Drury Lane on 4 March 1707, and has never entered the repertory in Clayton's setting. Nevertheless Tonson published Addison's words in a quarto of thirty-six pages, with the text 'humbly inscribed' to Sarah Churchill, duchess of Marlborough. The opera was reprinted once or twice, but not staged again until the youthful Thomas Arne produced a new musical setting at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1733. It is unfortunate that little of the music survives, since it enjoyed considerable success in its own time.

Addison's personal qualities enabled him to achieve a central position in the literary world quite early in his career. He had made friends with Jonathan Swift, he came to know Thomas Tickell and Ambrose Philips, and he retained the esteem of Congreve and Steele. At this stage none seems to have resented his seemingly irresistible rise, which is a tribute to his talents for good fellowship. He assisted other writers, as when he supplied a prologue for a tragedy Phaedra and Hippolytus, composed by Edmund Smith, an old friend from Oxford days, in 1706. Further help was given to Steele, in revising a play The tender husband (1705), and more concrete aid when he loaned Steele the large sum of £1000 a year later. Perhaps in an effort to limit the need for further hand-outs, Steele was made editor of the government newspaper the London Gazette on 1 May 1707. Most of the information this staid organ relayed would have come from the office of the secretaries of state, and it is virtually certain that his old schoolfriend played some part in gaining the appointment for Steele.

Meanwhile, Addison's own star continued to rise. He wrote a pamphlet entitled The present state of the war and the necessity of an augmentation considered, which came out late in 1707. This set out the standard whig objectives in pursuing the war against France, and the reasons for driving it on to a decisive conclusion, thus preventing a solid French and Spanish alliance against British trading interests. In March 1708 the ministry had its hand strengthened by successful measures against a planned invasion by the Pretender, and soon afterwards the whigs gained a resounding victory in the general election. The moderate tory Robert Harley was squeezed out of office, and in due course Somers and Wharton regained a major role in affairs. This was naturally good for Addison, described by a contemporary about this time as 'really a very great man with the juncto' (Smithers, 150). He was himself elected to parliament for the small Cornish borough of Lostwithiel, having gained enough of the two dozen or so voters to satisfy the mayor, who was a far from impartial returning officer. Eventually, on petition, the Commons decided through its committee of privileges that he had not been duly elected. It took little time to find another pliable constituency, and in March 1710 the thirteen accommodating voters of Malmesbury in Wiltshire (a town where Wharton held a strong interest) sent Addison back to Westminster. He remained member for the borough until his death. When re-elected in 1710, he was so popular that according to Swift 'if he had a mind to be chosen king he would hardly be refused' (Swift, Journal to Stella, 1.52).

By this time Addison had made further progress in the world of politics. In December 1708 he was appointed secretary to the new lord lieutenant of Ireland, who happened to be Wharton, at a salary of about £2000 per year. Along with this job came appointment to the Irish privy council, and when the new team arrived at Dublin in April 1709 Addison shared in a grand ceremony of welcome. He was soon elected to the Irish House of Commons as member for Cavan, and took a large role in the business of the state for the next few months. Despite parliamentary quarrels, government measures were forced through in the ensuing session, until parliament was prorogued at the end of August. Addison now had time to visit the site of the battle of the Boyne and also to drop in briefly on his friend Swift at Laracor, near Belfast Lough. In May 1710 he came back with the lord lieutenant for a further session of parliament, but by this time the political tide was turning, and both Wharton and Addison could see that their hold on office was fragile. For his part Addison tried to insure his future by obtaining the patent for a post as keeper of the records in Bermingham's Tower, in effect curator of the Irish public records. Later, when estranged, Swift claimed that Addison had been forced to purchase 'an old obscure Place … of Ten Pounds a Year, and to get a salary of £400 annexed to it, though all the Records there are not worth Half a Crown, either for Curiosity or Use' (Prose Works, 10.58). In fact Addison paid £230 to his predecessor in May 1710 to gain the patent, and in return he was promised £400 annually from the royal establishment.

When Addison returned to London in August 1710 he entered a world of politics which had been completely transformed. The whigs and the Marlborough faction were in retreat, with Harley and more uncompromising tories installed in government. Wharton was about to be dismissed, which meant that Addison too would be out of a job. Following the deaths of two brothers in India, he had expected a sizeable inheritance; but legal disputes and the neglect of the trustees meant that Gulston Addison's considerable fortune was whittled down by the time it belatedly reached Joseph. To cap these things, he had resigned his Oxford fellowship. Soon he would be writing glumly to Wortley Montagu, 'I have within this twelvemonth lost a place of £2000 per ann. An estate in the Indies of £14,000, and what is worse than all the rest, my mistress' (Letters). Nothing is known of the mistress, but Addison faced a bleaker prospect on the political front than he had known since he first entered public life. Fortunately, his literary career had taken off in the most spectacular fashion.

The Tatler, The Spectator, and Cato

It was chiefly through Richard Steele that Addison was able to devote himself to periodical literature, the department of writing on which his fame has subsequently rested. Steele had founded The Tatler on 12 April 1709; it ran for 271 issues, appearing every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday until 2 January 1711. Presented as the work of 'Isaac Bickerstaff Esq.', it occupied two sides of a folio sheet, printed in two columns, with news stories as well as advertisements diversifying the contents at first. Gradually the focus of the paper became a single long essay, which might deal in social satire, dramatic criticism, or moral reflection. Mildly reformist in outlook, the journal directed its attacks mainly against affectation, vanity, and complacence in the world of politics and society. The Tatler quickly gained a following, and after a year was selling in the region of 3000 copies per issue. Addison contributed his first essay on 20 May 1709, and in all wrote almost fifty papers unaided, as well as more than twenty in collaboration with Steele. From the start his manner is slightly more polished and urbane than that of his friend, and even in his humorous pieces Addison brings a dignified port alien to Steele.

After the closure of The Tatler, a yawning gap in the market must have been as obvious to Addison and Steele as it was to the reading public at large. They responded by initiating The Spectator on 1 March 1711, thus embarking on one of the most triumphant literary projects of the age. Before the paper closed on 6 December 1712, it had gone through 555 issues, had regularly sold up to 4000 copies (indeed even larger figures for a few numbers), and had transformed periodical writing in English. The Spectator came out six days a week, Monday to Saturday. This time the work was more equally shared, with both Addison and Steele contributing about 250 essays each. Their main assistant was Eustace Budgell, who wrote about thirty papers. As with The Tatler, collected volumes of papers were published to mop up demand in subsequent months and years, and these too sold well. Even the imposition of a government stamp tax on journals in August 1712 could do no more than temporarily slow down the irresistible rise in The Spectator's cultural and commercial fortunes. From this time onwards the title became one of the most famous in the annals of publishing: hundreds of editions appeared over the next two centuries, there were selections and translations into several languages, and its pages were dotted with familiar sayings which found their way into every dictionary of quotations.

In the case of The Tatler, Steele had taken the initiative, and his relaxed satire of coffee-house concerns had defined the tone of the journal as that of a knowing man about town. Little use was made of the ostensible author, Isaac Bickerstaff (an elderly astrologer). With The Spectator, the guiding hand is generally agreed to have been that of Addison. It was he who wrote the opening number, introducing readers to the 'Spectator'—an observant and well-travelled individual, whose detached viewpoint and shrewd reflections on life inform the journalistic discourse throughout the paper's run. He may also have invented the club of friends and associates frequented by the Spectator, although Steele composed the second paper in which the members first appear. Among this group the most regular figures included the whig merchant Sir Andrew Freeport and the superannuated beau Will Honeycomb, with a great knowledge of the 'gallantries and pleasures of the age'—which appear to date back to the Restoration in their content and manner. However, the most popular character by far was the bluff tory squire Sir Roger de Coverly, up from the Worcestershire country to enjoy the social round in London. He became a byword for traditional rural virtues, with his combination of naïvety, honesty, and benevolence.

As well as creating this enduring group of men, Addison achieved an even greater success by his innovatory use of the journal to publish some of the most important literary criticism in English before the time of Samuel Johnson. In a daring coup, he ventured to write extended series of papers, stretched over a number of issues, on serious themes such as tragedy and Paradise Lost; and then, most audaciously of all, on a topic of large aesthetic import throughout the eighteenth century, the pleasures of the imagination. In other critical papers, Addison wrote influential discussions of true and false wit; of the attraction of old ballads like 'Chevy Chase'; and of the absurdities, as they were then seen, of Italian opera. Another vein lay in allegorical visions and dreamscapes, where Addison dramatized the glamour and danger of commerce and credit. Perhaps his most characteristic piece occurs in Spectator no. 69, in which he portrays the royal exchange as a theatre of global trade, and the mercantile community as a beneficent fraternity who 'knit Mankind together in a mutual Intercourse of good Offices'.

The last years of Queen Anne, though unpropitious for Addison in his political capacity, saw him prominent in society. He dominated the gatherings at a coffee house near Covent Garden where he had set up in business a former servant, Daniel Button. This was both a meeting place for the literary crowd, and the office of Steele's periodical The Guardian. Here Addison's ‘little senate’ congregated, with the regular clientele including Ambrose Philips, Thomas Tickell, Eustace Budgell, Samuel Garth, and of course Addison and Steele themselves. Alexander Pope sometimes visited the coffee house, but he was soon estranged by the resolutely whiggish tone of the place. These years also had one more triumph in store for Addison as a writer. It came unexpectedly in the field of drama, where his talents had hitherto scarcely appeared to lie. In fact his surprise hit Cato may have been first drafted at Oxford, and revised during his grand tour; it is thought to have undergone surgery at the hands of such distinguished play-doctors as Dryden, Colley Cibber, and Swift. Only four acts had been completed, however, until the success of Ambrose Philips's play Distrest Mother in 1712 apparently convinced Addison that his own work easily matched this stiff recension of Racine's Andromaque. He wrote the final act quickly and friends such as George Berkeley began to puff the forthcoming dramatic attraction. The rising poet Pope was consulted and gave muted encouragement. Steele remained determined to see the play staged, and took an 'officious' role in promoting its success.

Cato was premièred at Drury Lane on 14 April 1713, a first night which has gone down in theatrical history with a notoriety scarcely matched until the opening of The rite of spring two centuries later. Both whigs and tories were keen to appropriate to their cause the sententious lines of lofty political declamation: rival claques set up a chorus of cheers and jeers at every key moment in the drama. After the final curtain, Lord Bolingbroke called the leading actor Barton Booth to his box and presented him with 50 guineas for 'defending the cause of liberty so well against a perpetuall dictator' (A. Pope, Correspondence, ed. G. Sherburn, 5 vols., 1956, 1.175). On this tory reading, Caesar represented the duke of Marlborough. The play ran for twenty nights and could have held the stage longer, but the star actress, Anne Oldfield, who played the rather vapid role of Cato's daughter, seems to have become pregnant. The managers were able to clear £1350 each by the end of the year, and there were equally crowded audiences to witness performances at Oxford. Before June was out seven editions had appeared, with piracies and a translation into French not far behind. Orange women hawked the work to grand personages driving through the park, and the prologue and epilogue (by Pope and Samuel Garth respectively) were peddled in the streets. Even the queen, it appeared, would have been glad to receive the dedication, but Addison with his habitual caution baulked at such a gesture of commitment.

It was a prudent move. Similarly, the fifty-two papers which Addison contributed to a new journal, The Guardian, which Steele began in March 1713, mixed bland satire in the old vein with essays on social reform. He managed to avoid the scabrous political conflicts in which Steele had become involved, even when a general election was called and he had to spend a short time in what passed for electioneering at Malmesbury. But it was impossible to remain always on the sidelines in this moment of fierce partisan strife: the commercial clauses attached to the treaty of Utrecht aroused opposition in the City of London from whigs and tory merchants alike. Addison weighed into the attack on Bolingbroke, the architect of the treaty, with a pamphlet entitled The trial and conviction of Count Tariff, allegorizing the debate over international trade which the clauses had provoked. He also wrote several papers for a revival of The Spectator which began a short run in June 1714. This suffered the fate of most sequels: not even some lively contributions by Addison and his colleague, Budgell, could breathe life into this project, and it failed to capture the market which its predecessor had won over so easily. In any case, when Addison wrote his last essay for the series on 29 September 1714, such amiable diversions had come to seem irrelevant to the great matters in hand.

A new era

On 1 August 1714 the queen died. Less than a week before this, Harley had been forced to relinquish power, and the other members of his administration were too shell-shocked by these sudden turns of events to react effectively. The elector of Hanover was duly proclaimed as George I, and made a triumphal entry into London a few weeks later. Tories of every persuasion lost their posts at court and in the government; military and ecclesiastical promotions were now reserved for loyal whigs. A general election in the following January confirmed the new political realities. In 1715–16 came the ill-managed rising of the Old Pretender, which left Jacobites in a still more marginal and exposed position, one they would continue to hold so long as the Stuart cause maintained its tottering existence. Addison was perfectly placed to reap the benefit of this situation, as an experienced administrator and a Hanoverian of unquestioned fidelity.

As early as 3 August Addison was appointed as secretary to the lords justices, a body of regents set up to handle the change of regime. His first duties included supervising the arrangements for the queen's funeral and the new king's arrival. There was a general expectation that he would become a secretary of state, especially as his patron Halifax took a leading role in the affairs of the justices. However, when the monarch was settled in England and the interim group disbanded, the new council of state included only grandees such as Halifax, Somers, and Wharton. The earl of Sunderland was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, and Addison had to go back to his former post as secretary in this department. It must have seemed like a comedown. He had no success in efforts to obtain some more senior role in government, such as a place on the Board of Trade, despite vigorous solicitations he had directed to Halifax. His prospects, which had appeared so bright when the whigs' day dawned, now grew dim once more. In quick succession Wharton and Halifax died; although Somers lingered for another year, he was no longer an active force. In August 1715 Sunderland moved on and Addison lost office with him. Paradoxically, he seemed for a time to be almost as sharply cut off from political patronage as he had been under the rule of the tories.

More resilient as he aged, Addison kept himself in the public eye with a new journal, The Freeholder, which ran twice weekly between December 1715 and June 1716. The period coincided with the collapse of the Jacobite rising and the trial of the rebel lords; naturally such matters dominated the contents of The Freeholder. Addison's fortunes moved back into the ascendant: in January 1716 he became a commissioner of trade and plantations, although as this was a place of profit he had the inconvenience of taking a trip to Malmesbury to get himself re-elected to parliament. Meanwhile, his stalled dramatic career resumed with the production of a comedy, The drummer, put on by Steele, now manager at Drury Lane, on 10 March 1716. Despite a good cast and extensive lobbying on its behalf by the author's loyal friends at Button's Coffee House, the play enjoyed only moderate success at the box office.

Addison's private life was now blossoming. In 1713 he had been able to buy for £8000 an estate just outside what was then the small town of Rugby named Bilton Hall. This comprised a stone house with Tudor origins and 1000 acres of land, permitting Addison to launch himself as a lord of the manor, country gentleman, and improver of the landscape, even though he had previously been a resolute townee. A relative named Edward Addison, a half-pay officer, looked after the planting of trees and the stocking of fish ponds in the absence of the owner. The estate bordered on Dunsmore Heath and its poor soil created problems for the inexperienced gardener. Another more significant leap into the unknown came when, in middle age, Addison married Charlotte Rich, née Myddleton, countess of Warwick [Charlotte Addison (bap. 1680, d. 1731)]. The wedding took place in the City of London on 9 August 1716; the groom was forty-four and the bride thirty-six. The couple had known each other since at least 1705, when Thomas Hearne reported a rumour that they were to be married. Lady Warwick had been left a widow at twenty-one, on the death of her first husband, Edward Rich, earl of Warwick (1673–1701), with a son aged three who was to become a protégé of Addison. Eighteen months after the remarriage of his mother, the young earl would attain his majority and enter the House of Lords; after some rakish moments he gave promise of settling down into a man of promise. Sadly he did not get the chance to repay Addison for all the kindness shown to him in his youth, for his stepfather had only a short time to live.

It appears that Addison was reasonably happy in his marriage (though some gossips alleged he was treated disdainfully by his wife) and in his role as a landowner. However, he faced occasional set-backs in his private life. The estate of his brother Gulston in India was finally settled, but not much if anything remained for Joseph. There were also unpleasant exchanges with old friends. He was now estranged from Pope, with whom relations had been strained since Addison's protégé Tickell embarked on a rival translation of the Iliad in 1714. Although this version did not proceed beyond the first book of the epic, Addison seems to have led the chorus of Buttonians in expressing a preference for Tickell's translation over Pope's. An immediate result was that Pope drafted a devastating portrait of Addison as the time-serving 'Atticus', first undertaken in 1715 and sent to the subject of the lines in the following year, apparently as a kind of warning to be held over the head of Addison. Much later the lines squirmed into print and became the basis for a famous passage in Pope's 'Epistle to Arbuthnot' (1735). The two men were never fully reconciled, although Pope wrote an appreciative epistle in verse, 'To Mr. Addison, Occasioned by his Dialogues on Medals'. This work was first published in 1720, and went into the posthumous collection of Addison's Works in the following year. It concerns dialogues on the study of ancient coins which Addison had written at the time of his continental tour in 1702. Pope had seen these in manuscript, but they appeared in print only after Addison's death as a portion of his Works.

Last years

At this time Addison still had in store his highest political attainment, but also a rapid decline in health and a bitter struggle with his lifelong friend Steele. Currently the dominant whig party was split between two factions, led respectively by Sunderland and James Stanhope, and by Viscount Townshend and Robert Walpole. Addison naturally sided with his former chief Sunderland, who was trying to convince the king that his rivals were unreliable. When this faction came to the fore early in 1717 Addison was rewarded with the post of secretary of state for the southern department. He took the oaths on 6 April. His responsibilities included southern and Catholic Europe, as well as large areas of the wider world. Addison took his duties seriously, but he suffered from the fact that he had never shone as a public speaker, as well as from his lack of a parliamentary following or interest group, excluding a few unimportant individuals such as his under-secretary Tickell. In addition there were excruciating moments caused by rifts in the royal family, which came to a head when the king became embroiled in an absurd quarrel with the prince and princess of Wales over the birth of their son in October 1717. It is understandable that Addison, elderly in his ways at forty-five, had little stomach for such hostilities. In December he appears to have suffered a slight stroke. By early 1718 the leaders of the Stanhope faction wished to ease their leader back into the management of foreign affairs and Addison had to sacrifice his position as secretary of state to achieve this end. With his health severely impaired by his brief spell at the head of government, he was happy to accept a pension of £1600 per year. He left office on 13 March 1718.

Sadly, Addison's retirement was neither long-lasting nor free from trouble. Sunderland had introduced a controversial bill to limit the creation of peers in future, except where an old peerage was extinguished by death. Steele attacked this measure in the first issue of a paper named The Plebeian on 14 March 1719. Addison felt obliged to come to the aid of his leader in two essays called the Old Whig, on 19 March and 2 April, even though he may have recognized that the measure had much to do with the king's desire to block the avenues of power for the prince of Wales when he came to the throne. The outcome was a sharp volley of angry words in which the two old friends traded unpleasant personal slurs. By now the decline in Addison's health was even more apparent. He made his will on 14 May, leaving most of his possessions to his wife, expressing the hope that she would take good care of their infant daughter Charlotte, who had been born on 30 January. He had tried Bath, but the waters proved unavailing for what may have been a failure of the heart and lungs. Two weeks before he died, according to a story told by Pope, Addison asked his stepson Lord Warwick to summon John Gay, so that he could apologize for some mysterious injury he had once done to Gay; but this remains unexplained. On his deathbed he is said to have sent for Warwick, and said to the young man in a low voice, 'See in what peace a Christian can die' (Smithers, 460). He died at Holland House, Kensington, the home his wife had brought to him, on 17 June 1719. His body was taken to lie in state at the Jerusalem Chapel at Westminster Abbey, where he was buried on the evening of 26 June.

The earl of Warwick did not long survive his stepfather; he died in 1721, aged twenty-three, allegedly worn out by his excesses. The countess lived until 1731, while her daughter Charlotte lasted to the age of seventy-eight, dying in 1797. Charlotte, who never married, suffered from deafness and other ailments; the suggestion that she was feeble-minded seems to be unwarranted.

Addison enjoyed an immense contemporary reputation, and it was augmented when Tickell's edition of his Works came out in four volumes (1721). Although his term at the highest echelons of power was brief and undistinguished, his hold on literary fame was much more secure. Despite the barbs of the 'Epistle to Arbuthnot', he came to be regarded as one of the most eminent writers in the language; Pope himself acknowledged that 'No whiter page than Addison remains'. Macaulay actually considered him about the most admirable single figure in recent British history. Such views rested mainly on the enduring currency of The Tatler and, especially, The Spectator, for Cato had gradually disappeared from view. Until the end of the nineteenth century the periodical essays were among the most widely read documents in the language, with an immense influence at home and abroad (witness the debt which Benjamin Franklin admitted to these works). The papers were liked for their mildly whiggish, progressive tone, but even more for their humour, warmth, and empirical good sense. Not for nothing had Addison claimed in Spectator no. 10 that he had 'brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee-Houses'. In the twentieth century Addison rapidly lost ground after he was discovered to be the first Victorian. His belief in trade as an agent of progress has been found complacent, his appeals to women readers have seemed patronizing, and his comic episodes have been regarded as facetious by-play. However, his stock has risen a little in recent decades, as his criticism has been reassessed for its innovative role in developing approaches through the psychology of literary response and through popular culture. He will never again loom as large as once he did, but he possesses qualities as a writer which will ensure his survival, above all his spare, precise, and equable prose style.

Sources

  • P. Smithers, The life of Joseph Addison, 2nd edn (1968)
  • The letters of Joseph Addison, ed. W. Graham (1941)
  • L. Aikin, The life of Joseph Addison, 2 vols. (1843)
  • The correspondence of Richard Steele, ed. R. Blanchard, 2nd edn (1968)
  • J. Swift, Journal to Stella, ed. H. Williams, 2 vols. (1948)
  • J. Spence, Observations, anecdotes, and characters, of books and men, ed. J. M. Osborn, new edn, 2 vols. (1966)
  • The prose works of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. Davis and others, 16 vols. (1939–74)
  • J. Sutherland, Background for Queen Anne (1939)
  • N. Ault, ‘Pope and Addison’, New light on Pope (1949), 101–27

Archives

  • BL, corresp., Add. MSS 61101–61710
  • BL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers, Add. MSS 3540, 7058, 7121, 9828, 12113, 21110, 22908, 33441, 36193, 36201, 36772, 37349, 37364, 38728
  • BL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers, Stowe MSS 227, 241–242; Harley MS 6944; Sloane MS 34075
  • BL, family letters and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., literary MSS and papers; letters and papers
  • Magdalen College, Oxford, letters and papers
  • TNA: PRO, corresp., SP 35/1 & 3, SP 78/161/48–183
  • BL, letters to George Bubb, Egerton MSS 2174–2175
  • NA Scot., letters to John Dalrymple, first earl of Stair
  • TCD, corresp. with William King

Likenesses

  • G. Kneller, oils, 1703–1712, NPG [see illus.]
  • C. Jervas, oils, 1714, Knole, Kent
  • G. Kneller, oils, 1716, Yale U.
  • M. Dahl, oils, 1719, NPG
  • J. Simon, mezzotint, 1719 (after M. Dahl), BM, NPG
  • J. Faber junior, mezzotint, 1733 (after G. Kneller), BM, NPG
  • J. Houbraken, line engraving, 1748 (after G. Kneller), BM, NPG
  • G. Kneller, oils, second version, Bodl. Oxf.
  • J. Richardson, oils, Althorp, Northamptonshire
  • mezzotint (after G. Kneller), NPG
  • pencil drawing, NPG

Wealth at Death

most property left to wife and swallowed up in her larger property: will

G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)