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A higher praise than what belongs to human wit yet remains, and cannot be bestowed in language more appropriate than that of Johnson. “It is justly observed by TICKELL, that Addison employed wit on the side of virtue and religion. He not only made the proper use of wit himself, but taught it to others; and from his time it has been generally subservient to the cause of reason and of truth. He has dissipated the prejudice that had long connected gaiety with vice, and easiness of manners with laxity of principles. He has restored virtue to its dignity, and taught innocence not to be ashamed. This is an elevation of literary character above all Greek, above all Roman fame. No greater felicity can genius attain, than that of having purified intellectual pleasure, separated mirth from indecency, and wit from licentiousness ; of having taught a succession of writers to bring elegance and gaiety to the aid of goodness; and, if I may use expressions yet more awful, of having turned many to righteousness.”—“As a teacher of wisdom, he may be confidently followed. llig religion has nothing in it enthusiastic or superstitions; he appears neither weakly credulous nor wantonly sceptical ; his morality is neither dangerously lax nor impracticably rigid. All the enchantment of fancy and all the cogency of argument are employed to recommend to the reader his real interest, the carc of pleasing the Author of his being."
Many of the subjects discussed in these volumcs may now appear trite, because frequent repetition and successive illustration have rendered them familiar ; but in estimating the value and utility of such instructions, we must take into the account the wants and necessities of the public at the time they were given. Literature did not then pass through so many channels as in our days, nor were the facilities of communication so many: the number of readers was not great, and the books calculated by allurement to increase that number were very few. The demand for instruction, however, increased with the opportunities of supply, and they whom the Essayists taught to know a little, were soon incited by curiosity to know more. The duties of life had never been discussed in a popular manner, nor in portions adapted to the idle or the casual reader. Above all, the niceties of literature were not generally understood, and it is not the smallest merit of Addison, that “he superadded criticism,” prescribed the rules of taste, and introduced a relish for genius that had been depressed or overlooked. His criticisms on PARADISE Lost directed the public admiration to a work which is now justly the boast of the nation; and although his successors in critical labours have been able not only to improve them, but to point out their defects, it ought to be remembered that he wrote without those helps from combined taste and skill which they now enjoy. “ It is not uncommon for those who have grown wise by the labour of others, to add a little of their own, and overlook their masters. ADDIson is now despised by some who, perhaps, would never have seen his defects, but by the lights which he afforded them*.”
Of Addison's style, the commendation of all judges has been uniform, and since the publication of Dr. Johnson's “ Lives of the Poets,” it
Johnson. ADDISON's merit as a critic is ably and impartially considered in the notes to his Life in the Biog. Britannica, 2d edit.
has become almost proverbial to repeat, that “ 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.” That few, however, are willing to bestow this labour, or anxious to obtain the reward, is sufficiently attested by the present state of literary composition. Yet perhaps it would be wrong to blame writers who, as candidates for public favour, aim at excellencies more in demand than familiarity or simple elegance, and who seem to be goaded sometimes by criticism, and sometimes by popular opinion, to produce “ ambitious ornaments," and to try“ hazardous innovations." Since writers of commanding reputation have been multiplied, and the structure of the language better understood, style has been regulated by a fashion to which we know not how to place limits. Of late the demand lias been considerable for lofty periods and splendid imagery, verging sometimes on the excellence of poetry, and sometimes on the ostentation of bombast. The writers of QUEEN ANNE'S reign are oftener, therefore, approved than imitated; we are unwilling to avail ourselves of the services they have rendered to our language; we force luminous periods and splendid passages by the heat of imagination, and are consequently more ambitious to be admired than understood, to be quoted for manner rather than to be useful for matter.
It would be unjust, howerer, to aver that such a taste is universal, although it be gaining more ground than it ought to occupy: we are not without authors who rest their fame on the elegancies of simplicity,“ on a style always agrecable, always easy;" and perhaps we should acknowledge the number of those who have formed themselves on the model of Addison to be greater, if unfortunately, when we look for his style, we did not at the same time look for his wit; and where is that to be found ?* If his style be separated from his wit, he is not perhaps without equals among his contemporaries, and among his sụccessors; but his humour, in all its qualities, is the distinctive characteristic of his genius. A few facetiæ may occasionally be found among his successors, but such a perpetual flow, such a command of temper in ridicule, have never been given to any man in this country, and to any other it would be in vain to look ; for in no foreign language can we find a word to express the talent of which we are now speaking.
As the SpecTATOR, very soon after its being collected into volumes, became one of the « first books by which both sexes are initiated in the elegancies of knowledge,” its increasing influence on the taste as well as the manners of the age rendered it a proper object for the calm examination of criticism, and there are accordingly few critics of eminence, placed in the schools of public instruction, who have not judged it requisite to point out its beauties and detect its blemishes.
* MOLIERE has been frequently named in the same rank with ADDISON. Lord CHESTERFIELD thinks “no man ever had so much humour as MOLIERE, of which his Miser, his Jealous Man, and his Bourgeois Gentilhomme are convincing proofs : and French Comedy,” he adds, “ furnishes a multiplicity of instances besides these." Letter 98. Miscellaneous Works, vol. II. 4to. p. 284. But there appears an essential difference between the humour of a dramatic writer and that of an essayist. The former enjoys advantages from the construction of dramatic composition, and the latitrude it permits, of which the essayist cannot avail himself.
Of these critics Dr. Blair appears to have been most anxious, that while Addison is presented as a model to young writers, they should be guarded against an implicit deference to his authority. He has therefore investigated the merits of his style with great minuteness, and a most scrupulous regard to purity and precision, in four very long lectures on No. 411, 412, 413, and 414, of the SPECTATOR. For this he offers a modest apology, which his high opinion of AdDISON, as well as the duties of his office, rendera ed quite unnecessary; the fair and impartial labours of criticism are direct testimonies in favour of the object. And how well Addison has stood the test of this fastidious scrutiny, may appear on this simple calculation, that out of eighty-seven remarks, of which these lectures consist, thirty-seven are in strong recommendation of his style, and of the remainder, some are so evidently of a trifling nature, that we may adopt as a conclusion what this eminent critic has given as a prefatory apology : “ The beauties of Addison are so many, and the general character of his style is so elegant and estimable, that the minute imperfections pointed out, are but like those spots in the sun, which may be discovered by the assistance of art, but which have no effect in obscuring its lustre.*
However useful verbal and grammatical criticism may be, there seems to be this fatality at
* From inattention to the marks whioh distinguish the different productions of the ESSAYISTS, some critics have censured Addison for that of which he was not guilty. Dr. BLAIR, for example, enters into the defence of Tasso's Sylvia, against Addison, in the GUARDIAN, No. 38. Here are two mistakes in all the editions I have seen of Dr. Blair's Lectures. The passage in question occurs in No. 28: and No. 28 was not written by ADDISON.