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N the previous chapter was traced the con
nection between the immoral literature of the theatre and those moral essayists who did their best to form the age. The
period of Queen Anne, called by some the Augustan age of English literature, certainly afforded to writers a more open career than they had hitherto shared. The Revolution of 1688 had the effect of other revolutions, and brought shining talent somewhat to the fore. England had long been not only ungrateful, but unmindful of her great men; but Addison, Prior, Swift, and a few others, were allowed some little share in state offices and power. In France they have long done, and now do, things better. "At the present moment," wrote Macaulay, in his essay on Addison, most of the persons whom we see at the head of both the Administration and of the Opposition have been Professors, Historians, Journalists, Poets. The influence of the Literary Class in England during
the generation which followed the Revolution was great but by no means so great as it has lately been in France; for in England the aristocracy of intellect had (and has) to contend with a powerful and deeply-rooted aristocracy of a very different kind. France had no Somersets and Shrewsburies to keep down her Addisons and Priors."
Certainly the great debt which England owes is not altogether to the territorial aristocracy, which, in many cases, simply dwells on the land which others improve, but to the |Aristocracy of the heart and the brain, which. has never failed her, and in all her struggles and battles has fought on the side of Liberty and Progress. The success of the moral essayists to whom reference has been made brought forward a great number of didactic writers, who not only published their lay sermons in small weekly papers, but also invaded the columns of the News Letters, and gradually formed the daily newspaper as it now is; for before this it was merely a dry epitome of news from this or that country, without any editorial comment: truly a mere record of facts, without any opinion whatever. Now, if there is one thing certain in literature more than another, it is that readers look for guidance, advice, and opinion. It is quite true that a very powerful writer may, in a popular journal, entirely overbear opposition and beat down original thought; still, it is necessary that opinion should have a leader, and one generally felt to be sound, worthy, and conscientious; and, if such does not exist, society to some extent loses its power of acting in masses, and becomes feeble, neutral, and emasculated.
Joseph Addison, the son of a well-known divine, Dean Lancelot Addison, was educated at Queen's and Magdalen Colleges, Oxford, where he distinguished himself. He was employed by the Ministry, and wrote a poem, “The Campaign," of which only one line is now fairly remembered. He was one of the young wits who admired the great John Dryden, and was permitted to contribute to his “Miscellanies," when, in 1709, his friend Steele formed “a literary project, of which he was far indeed from foreseeing the consequences.” So says Macaulay, and we may well agree with him. Periodical papers had been during many years published in London, but most of them were political. In others, questions of morality, taste, love, theology, casuistry, history, &c., were discussed.
One of these, overlooked by most writers on English literature, deserves to be mentioned. In 1690, John Dunton, the bookseller, published the “ Athenian Mercury," afterwards called, when printed in volumes, the “Athenian Oracle,” by a company of gentlemen calling themselves “the Athenian Society," who were no doubt poor scholars and clergymen, most of them booksellers' hacks of the famous J. D. These papers, consisting of a single sheet, and printed once, twice, and lastly four times a week, continued to be issued for some years, and contain answers similar to those found in the correspondence columns of the periodical press, only chiefly manufactured on the premises, and giving the matter the form of question and answer. In the Supplement to the “ Athenian Oracle” there is a curious frontispiece, representing the oracular society in the dress rendered so familiar to us by Hogarth's pictures, sitting behind a large table, to which many approach and proffer their queries; a veil which hangs from the ceiling obscures the faces of the mysterious
THE ATHENIAN ORACLE. society, and at once indicates their wisdom and the fact of their being unknown. At the corners of the plate are sketches of the cities of Cambridge, Oxford, Rome, and Geneva ; and a cat, employed by a monkey to pull chestnuts out of the fire, shows us pretty fairly in what relation the suggestor, Mr. John Dunton, regarded the public. Some verses, explanatory of this plate, will assist in the reader's comprehension of the work :
Behind the scenes sit mighty we,
While we find chat for them, they work for us ! These rhymes then proceed to sketch the characters of the lady, sailor, divine, citizen, soldier, and others who come to ask questions, and the great popularity of the work is attested by its republication, and by its continuance until it made nineteen thin volumes. Charles Gildon, one of the authors satirized by Pope and other gentlemen, contributed to this casuistical “ Mercury;" and, to tell the truth, the work is extremely well and conscientiously done, and must have been of great service in widening and educating the minds of the country people. Advice on dreams, ghosts, Arminianism, the personality of the Deity, the origin of evil, &c., is given fairly and honestly, and up to the lights of the most advanced of the age, and generally according to the doctrines of the Church of England. The success of this publication no doubt urged Steele to publish his own, adding thereto moral essays, and cutting down as much as possible the correspondence.
Steele called in Addison, and the effect this accomplished penman had was to raise the work enormously. "I fared,” said Steele, always modest and ready to praise others rather than himself,“ like a distressed prince who calls in a powerful neighbour to his aid. I was undone by my auxiliary. When I had once called him I could not do without dependence on him.” Addison's style is indeed simple, beautiful, clear, and expressive. It has the greatest ease possible. Even when the matter is small and insignificant, one reads on and on with pleasure, because a master holds the pen. “ The mere choice and arrangement of his words,” says Macaulay, “would have sufficed to make his essays classical ; for never, not even by Dryden, not even by Temple, had the English language been written with such sweetness, grace, and facility. But this was the smallest part of Addison's praise. Had he clothed his thoughts in the half-French style of Horace Walpole, or the half-Latin style of Dr. Johnson, or the half-German jargon of the present day, his genius would have triumphed over his faults of manner. As a moral satirist he stands unrivalled. If ever the best “ Tatlers” and “Spectators" were equalled in their own kind, we should be inclined to guess that it must have been in the lost comedies of Menander."
That is, they are unsurpassed. But truth compels it to be said that the present generation will find many of them dry, notwithstanding their surpassing style. Addison was a man who loved the company of the great, and might be characterised as essentially the fine gentleman. At any rate there is a great deal of the fine gentleman style about him. St. Augustine tells us that when Terence's celebrated line was first heard, “ Homo sum; humani nihil à me alienum puto,” (I am a man, and everything tirat concerns mankind touches me,) the manliness of the sentence caused the whole