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Joseph Addison (1672-1719). Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), circa 1703-1712. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Addison
Born 1 May 1672
Milston, Wiltshire
Died 17 June 1719 (aged 47)
Nationality United Kingdom English
Occupation Writer and politician

Joseph Addison (1 May 1672 - 17 June 1719) was an English poet, essayist, playwright, and politicians. His name is usually remembered alongside that of his long-standing friend, Richard Steele, with whom he founded The Spectator magazine.



Born near Amesbury, Wiltshire, Addison went to the Charterhouse where he met Steele, and then at 15 to Oxford, where was noted for his Latin verse. Intended for the Church, circumstances combined to lead him towards literature and politics. His early attempts in English verse took the form of complimentary addresses, and were so successful as to obtain him the friendship and interest of Dryden, and of Lord Somers, by whose means he received, in 1699, a pension of £300 to travel on the continent with a view to diplomatic employment. He visited Italy, from which he addressed an Epistle to his friend Halifax. On the death of William III, which lost him his pension, he returned to England in 1703. For a time his circumstances were straitened, but the battle of Blenheim in 1704 gave him an opportunity. The government wished the event commemorated by a poem; Addison was commissioned to write it, and produced The Campaign, which gave such satisfaction that he was appointed a Commissioner of Appeals. His next literary venture was an account of his travels in Italy, followed by the opera of Rosamund. In 1705, the Whigs having gained the ascendency, Addison was made Under-Secretary of State, and in 1708 was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland and Keeper of the Records of that country. In 1709 Steele began to bring out the Tatler, to which Addison became almost immediately a contributor: thereafter he (with Steele) started the Spectator, the 1st number of which appeared on March 1, 1711. This paper, originally appearing daily, was kept up (with a break of about a year and a half when the Guardian took its place) until December 20, 1714. In 1713 the drama of Cato appeared, and was received with acclamation by both Whigs and Tories, and was followed by the comedy of the Drummer. His last undertaking was The Freeholder, a party paper (1715-1716). Later events, his marriage in 1716 to the Dowager Countess of Warwick, to whose son he had been tutor, and his promotion to be Secretary of State, did not contribute to his happiness. His wife appears arrogant and imperious; his step-son the Earl was a rake and unfriendly; while in his public capacity his invincible shyness made him of little use in Parliament. He resigned in 1718, and, after a period of ill-health, died at Holland House, June 17, 1719, in his 48th year. The character of Adison, if somewhat cool and unimpassioned, was pure, magnanimous, and kind. The charm of his manners and conversation made him popular and admired; and he showed the greatest forbearance towards his few enemies. His style in his essays is remarkable for its ease, clearness, and grace, and for an inimitable and sunny humor which never soils and never hurts. The motive power of these writings has been called "an enthusiasm for conduct." Their effect was to raise the whole standard of manners and expression both in life and in literature. His only character flaw was a tendency to convivial excess, which must be judged in view of the laxer manners of his time. When allowance has been made for this, he remains one of the most admirable characters and writers in English literature.[1]

Youth and education[]

Addion, the, eldest son of Lancelot Addison (later dean of Lichfield), was born at his father's rectory of Milston in Wiltshire, on 1 May 1672. After having passed through several schools, the last of which was the Charterhouse, he went to Oxford when he was about 15 years old.[2]

He was initially entered as a commoner of Queen's College, but after 2 years was elected to a demyship of Magdalen College, having been recommended by his skill in Latin versification. He earned an M.A. in 1693, and subsequently obtained a fellowship which he held until 1711.[2]

His 1st literary efforts were poetical, and, after the fashion of his day, in Latin. Many of these are preserved in the Musae Anglicanae (1691-1699), and obtained commendation from academic sources. But it was a poem in the 3rd volume of Dryden's Miscellanies, followed in the next series by a translation of the 4th Georgic, which brought about his introduction to Tonson the bookseller, and (probably through Tonson) to Lord Somers and Charles Montagu.[2]

To both of these distinguished persons he contrived to commend himself by An Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694), An Address to King William (1695), after Namur, and a Latin poem entitled Pax Gulielmi (1697), on the peace of Ryswick, with the result that in 1699 he obtained a pension of £300 a year, to enable him (as he afterwards said in a memorial addressed to the crown) "to travel and qualify himself to serve his Majesty."[2]

Grand Tour[]

In the summer of 1699 Addison crossed into France, where, chiefly for the purpose of learning the language, he remained till the end of 1700; and after this he spent a year in Italy. In Switzerland, on his way home, he was stopped by receiving notice that he was to attend the army under Prince Eugene, then engaged in the war in Italy, as secretary from the king. But his Whig friends were already tottering in their places; and in March 1702 the death of King William at once drove them from power and put an end to the pension. Indeed Addison asserted that he never received but one year's payment of it, and that all the other expenses of his travels were defrayed by himself.[2]

He was able, however, to visit a great part of Germany, and did not reach Holland till the spring of 1703. His prospects were now sufficiently gloomy: he entered into treaty, oftener than once, for an engagement as a traveling tutor; and the correspondence in one of these negotiations has been preserved. Tonson had recommended him as the best person to attend in this character Lord Hertford, the son of the duke of Somerset, commonly called "The Proud." The duke, a profuse man in matters of pomp, was economical in questions of education. He wished Addison to name the salary he expected; this being declined, he announced, with great dignity, that in addition to traveling expenses he would give a hundred guineas a year; Addison accepted the munificent offer, saying, however, that he could not find his account in it otherwise than by relying on his Grace's future patronage; and his Grace immediately intimated that he would look out for some one else. In the autumn of 1703 Addison returned to England.[2]

There is good reason for believing that his tragedy of Cato, whatever changes it may afterwards have suffered, was in great part written while he lived in France, that is, when he was about 28. In the winter of 1701, amidst the stoppages and discomforts of a journey across Mt. Cenis, he composed, wholly or partly, his rhymed Letter from Italy to Charles Montagu. While in Germany he wrote his Dialogues on Medals, which, however, were not published till after his death. He wrote an account of hs travels in verse, entitled Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, &c. (1705), which he sent home for publication before his own return.[2]

Early political career[]

With the year 1704 begins a new era in Addison's life, which extends to the summer of 1710, when his age was 38. This was the 1st term of his official career; and though very barren of literary performance, it not only raised him from indigence, but settled definitely his position as a public man. His correspondence shows that, while on the continent, he had been admitted to confidential intimacy by diplomatists and men of rank; immediately on his return he was enrolled in the Kit-Cat Club, and brought thus and otherwise into communication with the gentry of the Whig party.[2]

Although all accounts agree in representing him as a shy man, he was at least saved from all risk of making himself disagreeable in society, by his unassuming manners, his extreme caution and that sedulous desire to oblige, which his satirist Pope exaggerated into a positive fault. His knowledge and ability were esteemed so highly as to confirm the expectations formerly entertained of his usefulness in public business; and the literary fame he had already acquired soon furnished an occasion for recommending him to public employment. Though the Whigs were out of office, the administration which succeeded them was, in all its earlier changes, of a complexion so mixed and uncertain that the influence of their leaders was not entirely lost.[2]

Not long after Marlborough's great victory at Blenheim, it is said that Godolphin, the lord treasurer, expressed to Lord Halifax a desire to have the great duke's fame extended by a poetical tribute. Halifax seized the opportunity of recommending Addison as the fittest man for the duty; stipulating, we are told, that the service should not be unrewarded, and doubtless satisfying the minister that his protege possessed other qualifications for office besides dexterity in framing heroic verse. The Campaign (December 1704), the poem thus written to order, was received with extraordinary applause.[2]

The consideration covenanted for by the poet's friends was faithfully paid. A vacancy occurred by the death of another celebrated man, John Locke; and Addison was appointed one of the 5 commissioners of appeal in Excise. The duties of the place must have been as light for him as they had been for his predecessor, for he continued to hold it with all the appointments he subsequently received from the same ministry. If he had not really shown practical ability in the period now in question, it is not easy to see how he, a man destitute alike of wealth, of social or fashionable liveliness and of family interest, could have been promoted, for several years, from office to office, as he was, till the fall of the administration to which he was attached.[3]

In 1706 he became one of the under-secretaries of state, serving 1st under Sir Charles Hedges, who belonged to the Tory section of the government, and afterwards under Lord Sunderland, Marlborough's son-in-law, and a zealous follower of Addison's early patron, Somers. The work of this office, however, like that of the commissionership, must often have admitted of performance by deputy; for in 1707, the Whigs having become stronger, Lord Halifax was sent on a mission to the elector of Hanover; and, besides taking Vanbrugh the dramatist with him as king-at-arms, he selected Addison as his secretary.[3]

In 1708 Addison entered parliament, sitting for Lostwithiel, but afterwards for Malmesbury, which he represented from 1710 till his death. Here unquestionably he did fail. What part he may have taken in the details of business we are not informed; but he was always a silent member, unless it be true that he once attempted to speak and sat down in confusion.[3]

Lord Wharton, the father of the notorious duke, having been named lord-lieutenant of Ireland, Addison in 1708 became his secretary, receiving also an appointment as keeper of records. This event happened only about a year and a half before the dismissal of the ministry.But there are letters showing that Addison made himself acceptable to some of the best and most distinguished persons in Dublin; and he escaped without having any quarrel with Swift, his acquaintance with whom had begun some time before.[3]

In his literary history those years of official service are almost a blank, till we approach their close. Besides furnishing a prologue to Steele's comedy of The Tender Husband (1705), he admittedly gave him some assistance in its composition; he defended the government in an anonymous pamphlet on The Present State of the War (1707); he united compliments to the all-powerful Marlborough with indifferent attempts at lyrical poetry in his opera of Rosamond; and during the last few months of his tenure of office he contributed largely to theTatler.[3]

His entrance on this new field nearly coincides with the beginning of a new period in his life. Even the coalition-ministry of Godolphin was too Whiggish for the taste of Queen Anne; and the Tories, the favorites of the court, gained, both in parliamentary power and in popularity out of doors, by a combination of lucky accidents, dexterous management and divisions and double-dealing among their adversaries. The real failure of the prosecution of Addison's old friend Sacheverell completed the ruin of the Whigs; and in August 1710 an entire revolution in the ministry had been completed. The Tory administration which succeeded kept its place till the queen's death in 1714, and Addison was thus left to devote 4 of the best years of his life, from his 39th year to his 43rd, to occupations less lucrative than those in which his time had recently been frittered away, but much more conducive to the extension of his own fame and to the benefit of English literature.[3]


Although our information as to his financial affairs is very scanty, we are entitled to believe that he was now independent of literary labor. He speaks, in an extant paper, of having had (but lost) property in the West Indies; and he is understood to have inherited something from a younger brother, who had been governor of Madras. In 1711 he purchased, for £10,000, the estate of Bilton, near Rugby — the place which afterwards became the residence of Mr Apperley, better known by his assumed name of "Nimrod."[3]

During those 4 years he produced a few political writings. Soon after the fall of the ministry, he started the Whig Examiner in opposition to the Tory Examiner, then conducted by Matthew Prior. The paper died after 5 numbers (14 September to 12 October 1710). There is more spirit in his allegorical pamphlet, The Trial and Conviction of Count Tariff.[3]

But from the autumn of 1710 till the end of 1714 his principal employment was the composition of his celebrated periodical essays. The honor of inventing the plan of such compositions, as well as that of 1st carrying the idea into execution, belongs to Richard Steele, who had been a schoolfellow of Addison at the Charterhouse, continued to be on good terms with him afterwards, and attached himself with his characteristic ardor to the same political party.[3]

When, in April 1709, Steele published the 1st number of the Tatler, Addison was in Dublin, and knew nothing of the design. He is said to have detected his friend's authorship only by recognizing, in the 6th number, a critical remark which he remembered having himself communicated to Steele. Shortly afterwards he began to furnish hints and suggestions, assisted occasionally, and finally wrote regularly. According to Mr. Aitken (Life of Steele, i. 248), he contributed 42 out of the total of 271 numbers, and was part-author of 36 more.[3]

The Tatler was dropped in January 1711, but only to be followed by the Spectator, which was begun on 1 March, and appeared every week-day till 6 December 1712. It had then completed the 555 numbers usually collected in its 1st 7 volumes, and of these Addison wrote 274 to Steele's 236. He co-operated with Steele constantly from the very opening of the series; and they devoted their whole space to the essays.[3]

They relied, with a confidence which the extraordinary popularity of the work fully justified, on their power of exciting the interest of a wide audience by pictures and reflexions drawn from a field which embraced the whole compass of ordinary life and ordinary knowledge, no kind of practical themes being positively excluded except such as were political, and all literary topics being held admissible, for which it seemed possible to command attention from persons of average taste and information.[3]

A seeming unity was given to the undertaking, and curiosity and interest awakened on behalf of the conductors, by the happy invention of the Spectator's Club, for which Steele made the 1st sketch. The figure of Sir Roger de Coverley, however, the best even in the opening group, is the only one that was afterwards elaborately depicted; and Addison was the author of most of the papers in which his oddities and amiabilities areThese are certainly the most ill-natured of Addison's writings, but they are neither lively nor vigorous, so admirably delineated. 6 essays are by Steele, who gives Sir Roger's love-story, and 1 paper by Budgell describes a hunting party.[3]

On the cessation of the Spectator, Steele set on foot the Guardian, which, started in March 1713, came to an end in October, with its 175th number. To this series Addison gave 53 papers, being a very frequent writer during the latter half of its progress.[4]

In the last 6 months of the year 1714, the Spectator received its 8th and last volume; for which Steele appears not to have written at all, and Addison to have contributed 24 of the 80 papers.[4]

In April 1713 Addison brought on the stage, very reluctantly, as we are assured, and can easily believe, his tragedy of Cato. Its success was dazzling; but this issue was mainly owing to the concern which the politicians took in the exhibition. The Whigs hailed it as a brilliant manifesto in favor of constitutional freedom. The Tories echoed the applause, to show themselves enemies of despotism, and professed to find in Julius Caesar a parallel to the formidable Marlborough.[4]

The literary career of Addison might almost be held as closed soon after the death of Queen Anne, which occurred in August 1714, when he had lately completed his 42nd year. His own life extended only 5 years longer; and in this closing portion of it we are reminded of his more vigorous days by nothing but a few happy inventions interspersed in political pamphlets, and the fancy of a trifling poem on Kneller's portrait of George I.[4]

Quarrel with Pope[]

In the course of 1715 occurred the 1st of the only 2 quarrels with friends, into which the prudent, good-tempered and modest Addison is said to have ever been betrayed. His adversary on this occasion was Alexander Pope, who, a few years before, had received, with an appearance of humble thankfulness, Addison's friendly remarks on his Essay on Criticism (Spectator, No. 253); but who, though still very young, was already very famous, and beginning to show incessantly his literary jealousies and his personal and party hatreds.[4]

Several little misunderstandings had paved the way for a breach, when, at the same time with the 1st volume of Pope's Iliad, there appeared a translation of the 1st book of the poem bearing the name of Thomas Tickell. Tickell, in his preface, disclaimed all rivalry with Pope, and declared that he wished only to bespeak favorable attention for his contemplated version of the Odyssey. But the simultaneous publication was awkward; and Tickell, though not so good a versifier as Pope, was a dangerous rival, as being a good Greek scholar. Further, he was Addison's under-secretary and confidential friend; and Addison, cautious though he was, does appear to have said (quite truly) that Tickell's translation was more faithful than the other.[4]

Pope's anger could not be restrained. He wrote those famous lines in which he describes Addison under the name of Atticus, and although it seems doubtful whether he really sent a copy to Addison himself, he afterwards went so far as to profess a belief that the rival translation was really Addison's own. Addison, it is pleasant to observe, was at the pains, in his Freeholder, to express hearty approbation of the Iliad of Pope, who, on the contrary, after Addison's death, deliberately printed his matchlessly malignant verses in the "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot."[4]

Return to politics[]

The lord justices who, previously chosen secretly by the elector of Hanover, assumed the government on the queen's demise, were, as a matter of course, the leading Whigs. They appointed Addison to act as their secretary. He next held, for a very short time, his former office under the Irish lord-lieutenant; and, late in 1716, he was made one of the lords of trade.[4]

In 1716 there was acted, with little success, Addison's comedy of The Drummer; or, The haunted house. From September 1715 to June 1716 he defended the Hanoverian succession, and the proceedings of the government in regard to the rebellion, in a paper called the Freeholder, which he wrote entirely himself, dropping it with the 55th number.[4]

In August 1716, when he had completed his 44th year, Addison married Charlotte, countess-dowager of Warwick, a widow of 15 years' standing. She seems to have forfeited her jointure by the marriage, and to have brought her husband nothing but the occupancy of Holland House at Kensington. The assertion that the courtship was a long one is probably as erroneous as the contemporary rumor that the marriage was unhappy. Such positive evidence as exists tends rather to the contrary. What seems clear is, that, from obscure causes,— among which it is alleged a growing habit of intemperance — Addison's health was shattered before he took the last, and certainly the most unwise, step in his ascent to political power.[4]

For a considerable time dissensions had existed in the ministry; and these came to a crisis in April 1717, when those who had been the real chiefs passed into the ranks of the opposition. There was now formed, under the leadership of General Stanhope and Lord Sunderland, an administration which, as resting on court-influence, was nicknamed the "German ministry." Sunderland, Addison's former superior, became one of the 2 principal secretaries of state; and Addison himself was appointed as the other. His elevation to such a post had been contemplated on the accession of George I, and prevented, we are told, by his own refusal; and it is asserted, on the authority of Pope, that his acceptance now was owing only to the influence of his wife.[5]

Even if there is no ground, as there probably is not, for the allegation of Addison's inefficiency in the details of business, his unfitness for such an office in such circumstances was undeniable and glaring. It was impossible that a government, whose secretary of state could not open his lips in debate, should long face an opposition headed by Robert Walpole. The decay of Addison's health, too, was going on rapidly, being, we may readily conjecture, precipitated by anxiety, if no worse causes were at work. Ill-health was the reason assigned for retirement, in the letter of resignation which he laid before the king in March 1718, 11 months after his appointment. He received a pension of £1500 a year.[5]

Last years[]

Not long afterwards the divisions in the Whig party alienated him from his oldest friend. The Peerage Bill, introduced in February 1719, was attacked, on behalf of the opposition, in a weekly paper called the Plebeian, written by Steele. Addison answered the attack in the Old Whig, and this belum plusquam civile — as Samuel Johnson calls it — was continued, with increased acrimony, through 2 or 3 numbers. How Addison, who was dying, felt after this painful controversy we are not told directly; but the Old Whig was excluded from that posthumous collection of his works (1721-1726) for which his executor Tickell had received from him authority and directions.[5]

It is said that the quarrel in politics rested on an estrangement which had been growing for some years. According to a rather nebulous story, for which Johnson is the popular authority, Addison, or Addison's lawyer, put an execution for £100 in Steele's house by way of reading his friend a lesson on his extravagance. This well-meant interference seems to have been pardoned by Steele, but his letters show that he resented the favor shown to Tickell by Addison and his own neglect by the Whigs.[5]

The disease under which Addison labored appears to have been asthma. It became more violent after his retirement from office, and was now accompanied by dropsy. His deathbed was placid and resigned, and comforted by those religious hopes which he had so often suggested to others, and the value of which he is said, in an anecdote of doubtful authority, to have now inculcated in a parting interview with his step-son. He died at Holland House on 17 June 1719, 6 weeks after having completed his 47th year. His body, after lying in state, was interred in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.[5]



It is mostly as an essayist that Addison is remembered today. Addison began writing essays quite casually.[6]

The Tatler[]

In April 1709, his childhood friend, Richard Steele, started The Tatler. Addison contributed 42 essays while Steele wrote 188. Of Addison's help, Steele remarked, "When I had once called him in I could not subsist without dependence on him".[6]

The Tatler exhibited, in more ways than one, symptoms of being an experiment. For some time the projector, imitating the news-sheets in form, thought it prudent to give, in each number, news in addition to the essay; and there was a want, both of unity and of correct finishing, in the putting together of the literary materials.[3]

Addison's contributions, in particular, are in many places as lively as anything he ever wrote; and his style, in its more familiar moods at least, had been fully formed before he returned from the continent. But, as compared with his later pieces, these are only what the painter's loose studies and sketches are to the landscapes which he afterwards constructs out of them. In his invention of incidents and characters, 1 thought after another is hastily used and hastily dismissed, as if he were putting his own powers to the test or trying the effect of various kinds of objects on his readers; his most ambitious flights, in the shape of allegories and the like, are stiff and inanimate; and his favorite field of literary criticism is touched so slightly, as to show that he still wanted confidence in the taste and knowledge of the Public.[3]

The Spectator[]

On March 1, 1712, The Spectator was published, and it continued until December 6, 1712; it was issued daily, and achieved great popularity, exercising a great deal of influence over the reading public of the time. In The Spectator, Addison soon became the leading partner. He contributed 274 essays out a total of 555; Steele wrote 236 for this periodical.[6]

To Addison the Spectator owed the most natural and elegant, if not the most original, of its humorous sketches of human character and social eccentricities, its good-humored satires on ridiculous features in manners and on corrupt symptoms in public taste;[3] these topics, however, making up a department in which Steele was fairly on a level with his more famous co-adjutor. But Steele had neither learning, nor taste, nor critical acuteness sufficient to qualify him for enriching the series with such literary disquisitions as those which Addison insinuated so often into the lighter matter of his essays, and of which he gave an elaborate specimen in his criticism on Paradise Lost.[4]

Still farther beyond the powers of Steele were those speculations on the theory of literature and of the processes of thought analogous to it, which, in the essays "On the Pleasures of the Imagination," Addison prosecuted, not, indeed, with much of philosophical depth, but with a sagacity and comprehensiveness which we shall undervalue much unless we remember how little of philosophy was to be found in any critical views previously propounded in England.[4]

To Addison, further, belong those essays which (most frequently introduced in regular alternation in the papers of Saturday) rise into the region of moral and religious meditation, and tread the elevated ground with a step so graceful as to allure the reader irresistibly to follow; sometimes, as in the "Walk through Westminster Abbey," enlivening solemn thought by gentle sportiveness; sometimes flowing on with an uninterrupted sedateness of didactic eloquence, and sometimes shrouding sacred truths in the veil of ingenious allegory, as in the "Vision of Mirza." While, in short, the Spectator, if Addison had not taken part in it, would probably have been as lively and humorous as it was, and not less popular in its own day, it would have wanted some of its strongest claims on the respect of posterity, by being at once lower in its moral tone, far less abundant in literary knowledge and much less vigorous and expanded in thinking.[4]

In point of style, again, the 2 friends resemble each other so closely as to be hardly distinguishable, when both are dealing with familiar objects, and writing in a key not rising above that of conversation. But in the higher tones of thought and composition Addison showed a mastery of language raising him very decisively, not above Steele only, but above all his contemporaries. Indeed, it may safely be said, that no one, in any age of English literature, has united, so strikingly as he did, the colloquial grace and ease which mark the style of an accomplished gentleman, with the power of soaring into a strain of expression nobly and eloquently dignified.[4]

The breezy, conversational style of the essays later elicited bishop Richard Hurd's reproving attribution of an "Addisonian Termination", for preposition stranding, the casual grammatical construction that ends a sentence with a preposition.[7]

Later essays[]

Addison also assisted Steele with the Guardian which Steele began in 1713.[6] None of his essays in The Guardian aim so high as the best of those in the Spectator; but he often exhibits both his cheerful and well-balanced humor and his earnest desire to inculcate sound principles of literary judgment.[4]

In the revived Spectator (1714), most of Addison's essays form, in the unbroken seriousness both of their topics and of their manner, a contrast to the majority of his essays in the earlier volumes; but several of them, both in this vein and in 1 less lofty, are among the best known, if not the finest, of all his essays. Such are the "Mountain of Miseries"; the antediluvian novel of "Shalum and Hilpa"; the "Reflections by Moonlight on the Divine Perfections."[4]

Hie essays in The Examiner (1715) are certainly the most ill-natured of Addison's writings, but they are neither lively nor vigorous.[4] The Freeholder (1715-1716) is much better tempered, not less spirited and much more able in thinking than his Examiner. The finical man of taste does indeed show himself to be sometimes weary of discussing constitutional questions; but he aims many enlivening thrusts at weak points of social life and manners; and the character of the Fox-hunting Squire, who is introduced as the representative of the Jacobites, is drawn with so much humor and force that we regret not being allowed to see more of him.[4]


His opera Rosamond was performed in 1706;.[8] it united compliments to with indifferent attempts at lyrical poetry.[3] Cato was brought out in 1713.[8] In 1716 was acted Addison's comedy of The Drummer; or, The haunted house. It contributes very little to his fame.[4] Addison also wrote Prologues and Epilogues to various plays; among others the Prologue to The Tender Husband of Steele and the Epilogue to Lord Lansdowne’s British Enchanters.[8]


Addison’s tragedy of Cato was brought out in 1713.[8] Based on the last days of Cato the Younger, it deals with such themes as individual liberty versus government tyranny, Republicanism versus Monarchism, logic versus emotion and Cato's personal struggle to cleave to his beliefs in the face of death.[6]

The action of the play involves the forces of Cato at Utica, awaiting the arrival of Caesar just after Caesar's victory at Thapsus (46 BC). The noble sons of Cato, Portius and Marcus, are both in love with Lucia, the daughter of Lucius, a senatorial ally of Cato. Juba, prince of Numidia, another fighting on Cato's side, loves Cato's daughter Marcia. Meanwhile, Sempronius, another senator, and Syphax, general of the Numidians, are conspiring secretly against Cato, hoping to draw off the Numidian army from supporting him. In the final act, Cato commits suicide, leaving his supporters to make their peace with the approaching Caesar — an easier task after Cato's death, since he has been Caesar's most implacable foe.[6]

The play has a prologue written by Alexander Pope and an epilogue by Samuel Garth.[9]

Even with such extrinsic aids, and the advantage derived from the established fame of the author, Cato could never have been esteemed a good dramatic work, unless in an age in which dramatic power and insight were almost extinct. It is poor even in its poetical elements, and is redeemed only by the finely solemn tone of its moral reflections and the singular refinement and equable smoothness of its diction. That it obtained the applause of Voltaire must be ascribed to the fact that it was written in accordance with the rules of French classical drama.[4]

The play was a success throughout Britain and its possessions in the New World, as well as Ireland. It continued to grow in popularity, especially in the American colonies, for several generations.[6]


Addison's earliest English poem was an address to Dryden on the publication of the latter’s translations of Ovid. This was written in his 22nd year. In 1694 he published, in 1 of Dryden’s Miscellanies, his Account of the Principal English Poets; in 1695 appeared his Address to King William.[8]

The works which belong to his residence on the continent were the earliest that showed him to have attained maturity of skill and genius. His Dialogues on Medals (written in Germany, 1702-1703, but not published until after his death have much liveliness of style and something of the humor which the author was afterwards to exhibit more strongly; but they show little either of antiquarian learning or of critical ingenuity. In tracing out parallels between passages of the Roman poets and figures or scenes which appear in ancient sculptures, Addison opened the easy course of inquiry which was afterwards prosecuted by Spence; and this, with the apparatus of spirited metrical translations from the classics, gave the work a likeness to his account of his travels.[2]

This account, entitled Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, &c. (1705), wants altogether the interest of personal narrative: the author hardly ever appears. The task in which he chiefly busies himsell is that of exhibiting the illustrations which the writings of the Latin poets, and the antiquities and scenery of Italy, mutually give and receive. Christian antiquities and the monuments of later Italian history had no interest for him.[2]

When Godolphin in 1704 was in search of a poet to celebrate in an adequate manner the victory of Blenheim, Halifax directed him to Addison, who in answer to the Treasurer’s application produced The Campaign, and obtained as a reward the post of Under-Secretary of State.[8] It is probably as good as any that ever was prompted by no more worthy inspiration. It has, indeed, neither the fiery spirit which Dryden threw into occasional pieces of the sort, nor the exquisite polish that would have been given by Pope, if he had stooped to make such uses of his genius; but many of the details are pleasing; and in the famous passage of the Angel, as well as in several others, there is something of force and imagination.[2]

Critical introduction[]

by William John Courthope

No English poet illustrates more vividly than Addison the truth of the principle, "Poeta nascitur non fit." Possessed of an inimitable prose style, which makes him the most graceful of all social satirists, the creator of Sir Roger de Coverley rarely succeeds, as a poet, in impressing us with the sense—the true touchstone of poetical art—that what he is saying is expressed better in verse than it could be expressed in prose. Nor is this to be attributed to the comparatively prosaic nature of the subjects he undertakes. Dryden, Pope, and Goldsmith write on themes which seem unpropitious when compared with the materials of the Elizabethan poets; but the best work of these three poets is, in its class, first-rate; Addison’s work is never more than second-rate.

His Account of the Principal English Poets is just but tame; he probably wrote it in metre merely because Roscommon had done something of the same kind before him; at any rate, by the side of the animated judgments of Pope in his Epistle to Augustus, his historical survey of English poetry seems flat and languid. His Letter from Italy is certainly his most successful composition; but those who compare it with Goldsmith’s Traveller will be chiefly struck with the different degrees of fertility a somewhat barren subject may exhibit when treated by an ordinary versifier and a master of poetical design.

The same is true of Addison’s complimentary verse compared with that of Pope. Poems of this kind are seldom very sincere; but some of Pope’s noblest lines of praise were addressed to the not very noble Earl of Oxford. Whether or no Pope really felt as he pretended, he seemed at least to write with ardor, but the style of Addison’s panegyrics on King William III is as artificial as the sentiments by which they were prompted. His sole conception of poetical compliment is hyperbole. When, for instance, he wishes to excuse himself for an inadequate celebration of William’s heroic prowess, he says that, as Troy had perished long before Homer appeared, so perhaps some mighty bard may lie hid in futurity to write an Iliad on the Battle of the Boyne, when that river shall have ceased to flow. If he seeks to represent the terrors of Algiers and Tunis under the British attack, he says —

  ‘Fain from the neighbouring dangers would they run,
         And wish themselves much nearer to the sun.’

We see in such a conceit the evil influence of Dryden; but the large opulence of thought and the noble diction with which Dryden atoned for his extravagances are wanting in his pupil.

Yet with all Addison’s deficiencies in poetical genius, his fine taste and blameless character were not without their effect on the course of our poetry. He never, like Dryden, prostituted his Muse to utterly unworthy objects; if his poetry is not free from ‘courtly stains,’ it is at least animated by a genuine love of freedom; and his lines on Liberty are a fine expression of the Whig spirit of the times. "The Campaign" was called by Warton, not unjustly, a "gazette in rhyme"; the epic style however seems to have been considered indispensable to the subject; and allowing for this preliminary condition, Addison deserves credit for having depicted the character of his hero with some loftiness and dignity.

Addison’s versification is pure though not vigorous; his treatment of the heroic couplet, in its antithesis and careful selection of epithet, marks the period of transition between the large and flowing style of Dryden and the compressed energy of Pope.[8]

Albin Schram letters[]

In 2005 an Austrian banker and collector named Albin Schram died and, in his laundry room, a collection of around 1,000 letters from historical figures was found. 2 were written by Joseph Addison

The 1st reported on the debate in the House of Commons over the grant to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and his heirs, following the Battle of Ramillies. (Following the Duke of Marlborough's highly successful campaigns of 1706, he and George Stepney became the 1st English regents of the Anglo-Dutch condominium for governing the southern Netherlands. On Marlborough's return to London in November, Parliament granted his request that his grant of £5,000 "out of ye Post-Office" be made in perpetuity for his heirs.) The letter was written on the day of the debate, probably to George Stepney.

Addison explains that the motion was opposed by Mr Annesley, Ward, Caesar and Sir William Vevian, "One said that this was showing no honour to His Grace but to a posterity that he was not concern'd in. Casar ... hoped ye Duke tho he had ben Victorious over the Enemy would not think of being so over a House of Commons: wch was said in pursuance to a Motion made by some of the Craftier sort that would not oppose the proposition directly but turn it off by a Side-Wind pretending that it being a money affaire it should be refer'd to a Committee of the whole House wch in all probability would have defeated the whole affaire."

A 2nd letter to his friend Sir Richard Steele was also found, concerning the Tatler and other matters. "I very much liked your last paper upon the Courtship that is usually paid to the fair sex. I wish you had reserved the Letter in this days paper concerning Indecencies at Church for an entire piece. It wd have made as good a one as any you have published. Your Reflections upon Almanza are very good." The letter concludes with references to impeachment proceedings against Addison's friend, Henry Sacheverell ("I am much obliged to you for yor Letters relating to Sackeverell"), and the Light House petition: "I am something troubled that you have not sent away ye Letters received from Ireland to my Lord Lieutenant, particularly that from Mr Forster [the Attorney General] with the Enclosed petition about the Light House, which I hope will be delivered to the House before my Return."


Addison is buried in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, and commemorated by a statue in Poets' Corner by Richard Wesmacott, erected in 1809..[10]

His poem "Hymn" was published in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[11]


Though Addison's play Cato has fallen from popularity and is now rarely performed, it was widely popular and often cited in the 18th century, with Cato as an exemplar of republican virtue and libert]. For example, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were inspired by the play to write a series of letters, on individual rights under the name "Cato," Cato's Letters.<red name=jawp/>

The play was almost certainly a literary inspiration for the American Revolution, being well known to many of the Founding Fathers. In fact, George Washington had it performed for the Continental Army while they were encamped at Valley Forge.[6] Among the Founders, according to John J. Miller, "no single work of literature may have been more important than Cato.[12]

Some scholars have identified the inspiration for several famous quotations from the American Revolution in Cato. These include:

  • Patrick Henry's famous ultimatum: "Give me Liberty or give me death!" (Act II, Scene 4: "It is not now time to talk of aught / But chains or conquest, liberty or death.").
  • Nathan Hale's valediction: "I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." (Act IV, Scene 4: "What a pity it is / That we can die but once to serve our country.").
  • Washington's praise for Benedict Arnold in a letter to him: "It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more — you have deserved it." (Act I, Scene 2: "'Tis not in mortals to command success; but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it.").<red name=jawp/>

Not long after the American Revolution, Edmund Burke quoted the play as well in his "Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont"" (1789) in Further Reflections on the Revolution in France: "The French may be yet to go through more transmigrations. They may pass, as one of our poets says, 'through many varieties of untried being,' before their state obtains its final form." The poet in reference is Addison and the passage Burke quoted is from Cato (V.i. II): "Through what variety of untried being,/Through what new scenes and changes must we pass!"<red name=jawp/>



  • Poetical Works. Glasgow: Robert Urie, 1750.
  • Poetical Works. London: C. Cooke (Cooke's edition), 1796.


  • Cato: A tragedy. Edinburgh: J. Wood, [17--?]; London: J. & R. Tonson, 1713.
  • The Drummer; or, The haunted house: A comedy. London: Jacob Tonson, 1715.
  • Rosamonde: An opera Glasgow: Robert & Andrew Foulis, 1751.

Short fiction[]


Collected editions[]

  • Works. (4 volumes), London: Jacob Tonson, 1721.
  • The Addisonian Miscellany. Boston: Joseph Bumstead, 1801.
  • Miscellaneous Works: In verse and prose. London: Jacob Tonson, 1726.
  • The Works (edited by Richard Hurd). (6 volumes), London: George Bell, 1856. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III
  • Miscellaneous Works (edited by A.C. Guthkelch). London: George Bell, 1914.
  • Cato: A tragedy; and selected essays (edited by Christine Dunn Henderson & Mark E Yellin). Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2004.



  • Letters (edited by Walter James Graham). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1941.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[13]

See also[]


Short Poetry Collection 126 - 6 20. Hope by Joseph Addison


  •  Spalding, William, & Austin Dobson (1911). "Addison, Joseph". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 184-187. . Wikisource, Web, Mar. 16, 2018.


  1. John William Cousin, "Addison, Joseph," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910. Wikisource, Web, Sep. 16, 2017.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 Spalding & Dobswon, 184.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 Spaldint & Dobosn, 185.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 4.18 4.19 Spalding & Dobson, 186.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Spalding & Dobson, 187.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Joseph Addison, Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundatin. Web, Aug. 14, 2011.
  7. William Rose Benet, The Reader's Encyclopedia, s.v. "Addisonian Termination".
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 from William John Courthope, "Critical Introduction: Joseph Addison (1672–1719)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 14, 2016.
  9. Joseph Addison, Cato: A tragedy; and selected essays. ed. Christine Dunn Henderson & Mark E. Yellin. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004. ISBN 0-86597-443-8.
  10. Joseph Addison, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  11. "Hymn", Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 4, 2012.
  12. John J. Miller, "On Life, Liberty, and Other Quotable Matters," Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2011.
  13. Search results = au:Joseph Addison, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Feb. 17 2016.

External links[]

Audio / video

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.. Original article is at Addison, Joseph