Authors: Joseph Addison

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English essayist, poet, playwright, and statesman

May 1, 1672

Milston, Wiltshire, England

June 17, 1719

London, England


Joseph Addison is perhaps best remembered today as the journalistic partner of Richard Steele and as the creator of that quaint and fascinating country gentleman Sir Roger de Coverley. To his contemporaries, however—his friends, the fellow members of the Kit-Cat Club, and even his political and literary enemies, among whom, eventually, were both Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope—and to the generation following his, he was considerably more. In the opinion of the eighteenth-century reading public, he was an outstanding poet, a penetrating critic, a major playwright, and a consummate master of style. He was, in short, one of the brilliant literary figures of his time, quite in keeping with the spirit of an age that produced a greater wealth of brilliant literary figures than of lasting literary work. {$I[AN]9810000672} {$I[A]Addison, Joseph} {$S[A]Myrtle, Marmaduke;Addison, Joseph} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Addison, Joseph} {$I[tim]1672;Addison, Joseph}

Joseph Addison

(Library of Congress)

However, he was more than a literary figure. From the time of his return to England, after the completion of a continental tour in 1703, until his death in London following a severe attack of asthma and dropsy sixteen years later, he was an active and articulate member of the Whig Party. He was a Whig member of Parliament from 1708 until his death, and, at other times, according to the vicissitudes of political fortune, he held such high positions as those of commissioner of appeals (1704–8), undersecretary of state (1706–8), and secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1708–10); moreover, from his first arrival on the London scene as an erudite young scholar fresh from Oxford University until his marriage in 1716 to the dowager countess of Warwick, he made it his business to ingratiate himself with the rich and the powerful. Because his career was advanced through preferment, and a politic caution governed all his personal relationships, he was immortalized by Alexander Pope as “a tim’rous foe, and a suspicious friend.”

Addison’s beginnings were not particularly humble. His father, the rector of Milston at the time of his son’s birth in 1672, became shortly afterward the dean of Lichfield Cathedral, and he was also a theological writer of some reputation. Addison’s education began in the town that later was to produce, in Samuel Johnson, the greatest figure of the age. In 1686, Addison was sent to Charterhouse School, where his friendship with Richard Steele began, a friendship that was to last until the final year of his life.

From Charterhouse he went directly to Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1687. There, he began his literary activities with the composition of scholarly Latin verse, winning enough acclaim to be awarded a probationary fellowship after he had received his master of arts degree in 1693. He remained at Oxford University five further years, writing classical translations and his own poetry, and in 1698 he was awarded a permanent fellowship at Magdalen College.

By this time his reputation as a poet and as a rising man of letters had spread to London. With his characteristic genteel opportunism, he began to take advantage of his fame. He won the patronage of Charles Montagu (later the earl of Halifax) and with it a pension of three hundred pounds a year—enough to allow him to spend the next four years making a leisurely tour of France and Italy.

The pension ceased with the fall of the Whig government in 1703, and Addison was forced to return to England and to find new sources of preferment. He joined the Whigs’ famed Kit-Cat Club and in 1705 published a poem, The Campaign, in honor of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim. Upon the Whigs’ return to power, he was rewarded with his first government appointment. A book of travel sketches and impressions, Remarks upon Italy, also appeared in 1705.

His literary career developed in parallel with his political career, and before long he joined the two in his periodical writings. First came an abortive attempt to write for the stage, but after the failure of the opera, Rosamond, for which he had written a libretto, he joined Steele in the production of The Tatler from 1709 to 1711 (the last of its 271 issues appeared on January 2, 1711). Addison also turned out five numbers of his own periodical, The Whig Examiner, but soon rejoined Steele, this time to begin work on their most successful extended publication, the famous Spectator papers.

The Spectator, which was, according to Samuel Johnson, the best and most “humorous, urbane and decorous” of all their writings, continued an interrupted existence from 1711 until 1714, running, finally, to 635 numbers, 298 of which (including those on Sir Roger de Coverley) were contributed by Addison. The collaboration with Steele continued through The Guardian, The Lover, and The Reader, but their close relationship, begun in boyhood, ended in a quarrel over Steele’s indebtedness just before Addison’s death in 1719. With that, the name Steele was added to those of Jonathan Swift and Pope on the list of Addison’s onetime friends who had become enemies.

In spite of his being “willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,” Addison’s literary stature continued to grow, reaching its greatest proportions with the success of his tragedy Cato in 1713. The play, which came to be regarded primarily as an interesting landmark of literary history, secured Addison a reputation as the greatest poet and tragedian of his age, a reputation that lasted for more than a century.

Author Works Nonfiction: Remarks upon Italy, 1705 The Tatler, 1709–11 (with Richard Steele) The Whig Examiner, 1710 The Spectator, 1711–12, 1714 (with Steele) The Guardian, 1713 (with Steele) The Lover, 1714 (as Marmaduke Myrtle, Gent.; with Steele) The Reader, 1714 (with Steele) The Freeholder: Or, Political Essays, 1715–16 The Old Whig, 1719 Dialogues upon the Usefulness of Ancient Medals, 1721 The Letters of Joseph Addison, 1941 (Walter Graham, editor) The Spectator, 1965 (Donald Bond, editor) Drama: Rosamond, pr., pb. 1707 (libretto; music by Thomas Clayton) Cato, pr., pb. 1713 The Drummer: Or, The Haunted House, pr., pb. 1716 Poetry: “To Mr. Dryden,” 1693 A Poem to His Majesty, 1695 Praelum Inter Pygmaeos et Grues Commisum, 1699 “A Letter from Italy,” 1703 The Campaign, 1705 “To Her Royal Highness,” 1716 “To Sir Godfrey Kneller on His Portrait of the King,” 1716 Translation: Fourth Georgic, 1694 (of Vergil’s Georgics) Miscellaneous: The Miscellaneous Works, 1914 (A. C. Guthkelch, editor) Bibliography Addison, Joseph. The Letters of Joseph Addison. Edited by Walter Graham. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1941. Reprint. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1976. About seven hundred of Addison’s letters are represented here, covering a twenty-year period from 1699 to 1719. Among the addressees are William Congreve, Jonathan Swift, and the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Forty letters to Addison are included. Addison, Joseph, et al. The Spectator. Edited by Donald F. Bond. 5 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. This standard edition includes ample introductory material and notes that will not intrude on the reading process. Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Addison and Steele: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. This invaluable collection reprints critical estimates of the authors and their journals from the early 1700s onward. It contains many of the famous as well as hard-to-find evaluations by eighteenth-century commentators. These entries help the student trace the rise and fall of Addison and Steele’s reputation. Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Joseph Addison’s Sociable Animal: In the Market Place, on the Hustings, in the Pulpit. Providence: Brown University Press, 1971. The lengthiest study of Addison’s contribution to the worldview of the emerging British middle class. By connecting ideas scattered throughout the periodical essays, the Blooms systematize Addison’s economic, political, and religious thinking. Bond, Richmond P. The Tatler: The Making of a Journal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. Bond investigates the day-to-day problems involved with writing, composing, printing, and selling a journal in early eighteenth-century London. The book is a salutary reminder of the pressures that literary enterprises face in a commercial era. Carritt, E. F. “Addison, Kant, and Wordsworth.” Essays and Studies 22 (1937): 26–36. This landmark study reveals Addison’s anticipation of the succeeding era of poets. Shows how Immanuel Kant, often connected with the first Romantic generation in England, was influenced by Addison and how Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the catalyst between Kant and William Wordsworth. Dammers, Richard H. Richard Steele. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. Dammers takes seriously Steele’s efforts to reform manners through literature and to promote a general philosophy of benevolence. In his discussion of the journals, Dammers pays special attention to Steele’s attitudes toward men and women in the married state. Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. “The Significance of Addison’s Criticism.” Studies in English Literature 19 (1979): 421–30. Shows Addison’s humanistic viewpoint and concentrates on Addison’s own view of the critic as aid to the reader for purposes of clarification, rather than the deviser of meaning for a text. Elioseff, Lee Andrew. The Cultural Milieu of Addison’s Literary Criticism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963. Addison’s development of a critical posture and his critical interests are revealed in their historical setting. His interest in theory as well as in individual judgments of writers and of works is discussed, with an emphasis on his attempts at innovative approaches to genres, such as recognizing the ballad’s appeal, psychological problems, as well as political and even cosmological issues. Ellison, Julie. Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Taking issue with what Ellison sees as a dominantly Americanist criticism that has studied sentiment as a female, and specifically domestic, possession, Ellison instead theorizes sentiment as a widely circulating and historically contingent discourse in canonical and lesser-known Anglo-American literature of the eighteenth century. Such a critical position produces an intense discursive exploration of the changing literary trope of the sentimental man. Evans, James E., and John N. Wall, Jr. A Guide to Prose Fiction in the “Tatler” and the “Spectator.” New York: Garland Publishers, 1977. The authors provide a number-by-number summary of both journals. The general reader will find the guide useful for tracing themes or topics among the 826 issues. The literary student will discover how much these periodical essays relied upon fictional devices and conventions. Gay, Peter. “The Spectator as Actor: Addison in Perspective.” In The Augustan Age: Approaches to Literature, Life, and Thought, edited by Ian Watt. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1968. Gay reviews Donald F. Bond’s edition of The Spectator and includes a survey of critical views of Addison’s thought as well as style. In seeing Addison as a journalist with the public audience in mind, Gay does not denigrate Addison’s didactic purpose but points out the writer’s dramatic sense of himself and his mission. Goldgar, Bertrand. The Curse of Party: Swift’s Relations with Addison and Steele. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. This book focuses on the complications caused by the political affiliations of writers in Augustan London. In the case of Jonathan Swift, Addison, and Steele, political differences created personal as well as professional enmity among writers who shared important cultural ideals, a vision of literature’s importance, and a willingness to experiment with traditional genres. Johnson, Samuel. “Addison.” In Lives of the English Poets, edited by George Birkbeck Hill. Vol. 2. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1905. Reprint. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1968. This fine edition is replete with helpful notes. Johnson’s praise is high: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” Ketcham, Michael G. Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in the “Spectator” Papers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. The author argues that The Spectator reshaped the eighteenth-century vision of society—in which public activity and private life were radically separated—into a social vision which blended the public and private spheres. He concludes that this new vision shaped not only the explosion of periodical journalism in the century but the rise of the novel as well. Knight, Charles A. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele: A Reference Guide, 1730–1991. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Contains history, criticism, and bibliographies to the two writers. Knight, Charles A. “The Spectator’s Moral Economy.” Modern Philology 91 (November, 1993): 161–79. Examines principles of moral economy presented by Addison and Sir Richard Steele in The Spectator to control dreams of endless financial gains. Argues that Addison and Steele found in the economic order a secular basis for moral behavior that emphasized the common good over individual gain. Suggests that they connected commercial values to values of politeness and restraint. Nablow, Ralph Arthur. The Addisonian Tradition in France: Passion and Objectivity in Social Observation.Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Examines Addison’s influence on French writers. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Otten, Robert M. Joseph Addison. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. This study appreciates Addison’s achievement as a writer who constantly adapted to the changing demands of audience and circumstance. It discusses Addison’s inventiveness in approaching familiar topics or repeated themes through a variety of techniques and perspectives. Smithers, Peter. The Life of Joseph Addison. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. Smithers is Addison’s most comprehensive, sympathetic, and judicious biographer. Smithers appreciates that Addison’s vision of citizenship underlies both his own career and his effort to bring “Philosophy into Clubs and Assemblies.” The book is especially good at placing Addison’s literary works in their historical context. Varney, Andrew. “The Lascivious Nightingale: Mild Impropriety in The Spectator.” Notes and Queries 41 (June, 1994): 189–91. Discusses a passage in the sequence of papers on the “Pleasures of the Imagination” in The Spectator, in which Addison argues that physical beauty arouses the sexual passion in order to assure reproduction and survival.

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