Abbildungen der Seite

with its guineas only on receiving a heavier golden weight of glory. This kind of liberality may be found in any age; any one will trade on those advantageous terms. But if genius, even in Addison's time, expected a more disinterested bounty, it was apt to be disappointed; it was well if its demand for bread was answered with a single stone; it might consider itself too happy if it was not pelted with them.

Addison appears to have been originally destined for the church, and his thoughtful and contemplative spirit might have found a home in the sacred profession, where it is not, as in England, dependent on patronage, and therefore married to worldliness by law. For some reason now unknown, perhaps by unconsciously yielding to circumstances, he inclined to the paths of literature; and while yet at Oxford, he is found in communication with Tonson, the bookseller, whose name is as familiar in the annals of the time as that of Monsieur Tonson at a later day. His essay on the Georgics, which he affixed to the translation of Dryden, who appears to have been pleased and flattered by his attentions, was not considered as promising much strength and originality, though its style was unexceptionable, and its criticism just. Of a translation of the fourth Georgic, which he attempted, the elder poet courteously observed, that, after it, his own swarm would not be worth the hiving. He engaged also in a translation of Herodotus, to be superintended and partly executed by himself; which implies that he had more acquaintance with Greek than Johnson was disposed to allow. This work never reached the press, but his translations from Ovid were published, with notes which eclipse the poetry, and, as the great critic admitted, gave full promise of that discriminating taste and talent which were afterwards so brightly manifested, and admired as widely as they were known. He also produced a work which, at a later period, he seemed very willing to suppress. It was an account of English poets from Chaucer to Dryden, in which he treats the patriarch and his successor, Spenser, without the reverence which they so well deserve, and which is clamorously asserted for them by some, who, admiring without having read, are vengeful against those who have read without admiring.

The truth was, that the French classical taste was then coming into England, teaching its poets to care rather more

for polished elegance of language and measure than for the more substantial elements of truth and nature. The new fashion prevailed, and, as usual, the fashion which it displaced was treated with unmerited scorn. In this way it is that the public taste is always swinging, like a pendulum, far on one side or the other. This fancy came to its height of finish and excellence in Pope; another age has seen him, with all his beauty and power, treated with profane derision, while a passion for infantine simplicity rises and reigns for a time; this, too, after keeping the stage for its permitted season, is destined to give place to some other excess. But sufficient to the day is its own evil; what this excess is to be we are not yet unfortunate enough to know.

Addison, with no small share of talent for poetry, was of course under the influence of the day, and, while his natural tendency was to nature, he was drawn aside by cultivation, and thus inclining one way while he walked in another, he could not be expected to reach the height of success. It is a little remarkable, that the effort which brought him at once into notice was made to order. Such productions generally have small attraction, except to those whose exploits they commemorate and flatter; if they betray any other inspiration than that of necessity or ambition, their flame, like a fire of shavings, is soon spent, leaving no permanent brightness in the literary sky. His courtly career commenced with lines on the king's return from his European campaign in 1695, which gained him the favorable regard of Lord Somers, whose approbation was an honor. In 1697, he again sang the praise of William, who had no ear for such matters, in some lines on the Peace of Ryswick. These were addressed to Montagu, then a leading public character, eminent in literature as well as in the public councils. That statesman, in acknowledgment of the attention, procured him a grant of three hundred pounds a year, to give him the means of travelling, - a favor which would have been more to the purpose, had the money ever been paid; but the king died soon after, and the little which he ever did for literature came at once to a close.

The young poet also gained reputation by Latin verses on the Peace. Johnson allows them to have been vigorous and elegant; and when Addison went abroad, the volume, published with a preface of his own writing, served as an intro

duction to learned and accomplished men. Among others, he presented it to Boileau, then in the height of his fame. The Frenchman replied, that the work had given him a new idea of English cultivation ; and truly there was room for new ideas, if we may judge from his remark to a traveller, who told him what honor the English had paid to the memory of Dryden. He said he was happy to learn it, but be bad never heard the gentleman's name before. Alas for glorious John! The truth was, the French at that time lorded it over the political and literary world like undisputed and rather supercilious masters. King William bad done something to break their civil and military sceptre, and Marlborough was in a fair way to finish what he had begun. But it was long before any literary changes let sufficient light into France to see the names of Shakspeare and Milton, so completely eclipsed were they by certain French luminaries, — lost Pleiads, too, which have long since perished, and never been missed from the skies.

Whatever Addison's timidity and reserve may have been in England, he appears to have left them behind him when he travelled; for we find him making acquaintance with all those who were distinguished in literature. He remarks, in one of his letters, that he had not seen a blush since he landed in France ; probably it is with blushes as with other matters, that the supply is regulated by the demand. · Being but impersectly acquainted with the French language, he took up his residence for a time at Blois, where it was thought to be spoken in great purity, in order to learn it ; and we happen to know something of his habits of life while there, from a French Abbé, a careless but impartial observer.

This worthy speaks of him as lying in bed all the forenoon, according to the London fashion, which has its origin in the circumstance, that the sun, in that dark atmosphere, brings no light which makes it worth while to rise. He was not talkative, and was often so lost in thought, that the ecclesiastic would be in his room some time before Addison was aware of his presence ; which may be true, though it is hard to conceive how the Abbé should have endured so long constraint upon his own active tongue. He says, too, with an air of some surprise, and as if it brought the Englishman's morals into suspicion, that he had no amour while he resided there; if there was any thing of the kind, he must have known it, which is very likely to be true. But the reproach of this deficiency is one that can be forgiven by those who do not regard morals and refinement as inconsistent things. The Nine were the only ladies of his acquaintance, and they appear to have received his devoted attentions. While preparing himself by the acquisition of modern languages for his European tour, he was diligently studying the allusions of classical writers to Italy and its antiquities, those being the subject of interest on which he had set bis heart. His letters, written at the time, are short, but they have some touches of his peculiar manner, particularly one in which he congratulates a friend who tells him that he has lost ten pounds by a copy of verses. Addison assures him that every time he meets with such a loss, the more like a true poet he will be. In the spelling of his letters there is something which would fill a Phonographer with delight ; the word “ bin” always represents the preterite of the verb to be ; and there are sundry other graces of the kind, which show how little importance was then attached to what is now considered essential in a well-educated writer.

On his second visit to Paris, he was able to enjoy the society in which it abounded ; and if it seems strange, that, with his acknowledged reserve, he could ever make himself at home in it, we must remember that such persons are very much influenced by the prevailing social spirit. In England, such a man would need to be furnished with an ice-breaker, to make his way in their arctic circles ; but where there is no reserve to meet reserve, but all are at their ease, a bashful man forgets bimself, ceases to think of his own words and motions, and therefore is unconstrained and free. He was very much struck with the cheerfulness of the French, and the excellent terms with themselves on which they all stood. Sometimes their self-exaltation was disagreeable to an Englishman, who of course had as good an opinion of his own country as they could possibly have of France; but their familiar courtesy was always pleasing ; and among their men of letters he found these whom he considered it a privilege to know. Among others, he visited Malebranche, who was much admired by the English. The French nation at the time had taken a religious turn, and apprehended that there might be something unchristian in speculations which they did not understand. Malebranche was therefore

better acquainted with the great men of England than some others of his countrymen; and though he said nothing of glorious John, who was out of his line, he had heard of Newton, and also of Hobbes, at whom he shook his head.

Addison waited afterwards on Boileau, who was old and a little deaf, but conversed incomparably well, though he was very severe in his strictures on the present times, and flew into a passion with all who did not share his reverence for the past. Johnson thinks, that, as Boileau had "an injudicious and peevish contempt for modern Latin," the flattering things which he said of Addison, whom he knew only through his edition of the Muse Anglicanæ, were proofs of his civility, not of his approbation. It might rather have been regarded as a testimony to the classical excellence of Addison's Latin, and also of his taste, that the unsparing criticisms which the learned Frenchman made on other modern attempts were not considered as applying to his. When Boileau was freely berating his own time and all its literary productions, Addison asked him if he would not except Telemachus, which was then in the height of its fame. He allowed that it gave a better idea of Homer's way than any translation, and that some passages of it were superior to Virgil; but he had no patience with the eternal preaching of Mentor, and, on the whole, admitted nothing in its favor which it was possible to deny. As Boileau, after the death of his friend Racine, lived in retirement, his reception of Addison was a distinguished favor. It implied a high opinion of the traveller, and we are told by Tickell, that his friend had gained a very high and extensive reputation in other nations, before he was known or talked of in his own.

But Italy is the country in which such a traveller must feel most at home. He reached it in the usual way, by the tour through Switzerland, where the scenery impressed him as it does all others. His indifference, amounting to contempt, for the Gothic architecture, which appears in some passages of his work, has given an impression to the disadvantage of his taste. But this preference was of the conventional kind; it was one in which he was educated; it was not to be overcome by general cultivation, like a mistaken choice in literary works, nor had it any thing to do with that love of nature, which often is found mature and faultless in those who do not know one picture, statue, or building from another.

« ZurückWeiter »