Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

triot, a great philosopher, or a general, or some whimsical person, who fancied himself all these? and whether the people, who belonged to the family, would think that such a person had a design upon their midriffs or his own?

“In short, that Cato should sit long enough in the aforesaid posture, in the midst of this large hall, to read over Plato's treatise on the Immortality of the Soul, which is a lecture of two long hours; that he should propose to himself to be private there upon that occasion; that he should be angry with his son for intruding there; then, that he should leave this hall upon the pretence of sleep, give himself the mortal wound in his bedchamber, and then be brought back into that hall to expire, purely to shew his good-breeding, and save his friends the trouble of coming up to his bedchamber; all this appears to me to be improbable, incredible, impossible.”

Such is the censure of Dennis. There is, as Dryden expresses it, perhaps “ too much horse-play in his raillery;" but if his jests are coarse, his arguments are strong. Yet, as we love better to be pleased than be taught, “Cato" is read and the critic is neglected.

Flushed with consciousness of these detections of absurdity in the conduct, he afterwards attacked the sentiments, of Cato; but he then amused him. self with petty cavils and minute objections.

Of Addison's smaller poems, no particular men. tion is necessary; they have little that can employ or require a critic. The parallel of the princes and gods, in his verses to Kneller, is often happy, but is too well known to be quoted.

His translations, so far as I have compared them, want the exactness of a scholar. That he understood his authors cannot be doubted; but his versions will not teach others to understand them, being too licentiously paraphrastical. They are, however, for the most part, smooth and easy; and,

what is the first excellence of a translator, such as may be read with pleasure by those who do not know the originals.

His poetry is polished and pure ; the product of a mind too judicious to commit faults, but not sufficiently vigorous to attain excellence. He has sometimes a striking line, or a shining paragraph; but in the whole he is warm rather than fervid, and shews more dexterity than strength. He was howeverone of our earliest examples of correctness.

The versification which he had learned from Dryden he debased rather than refined. His rhymes are often dissonant; in his “Georgic” he admits broken lines. He uses both triplets and Alexandrines, but triplets more frequently in his translations than his other works. The mere structure of verses seems never to have engaged much of his care. But his lines are very smooth in Rosamond,". and too smooth in “Cato."

Addison is now to be considered as a critic; a name which the present generation is scarcely will. ing to allow him. His criticism is condemned as tentative or experimental, rather than scientific; and he is considered as deciding by taste * rather than by principles.

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 afford. ed them. That he always wrote as he would think it necessary to write now, cannot be affirmed: his instructions were such as the characters of his readers made proper. That general knowledge which now circulates in common talk was in his time rarely to be found. Men not professing learning were not ashamed of ignorance; and, in the

* Taste must decide. Warton.-C.

His purpose

female world, any acquaintance with books was distinguished only to be censured. was to infuse literary curiosity, by gentle and un. suspected conveyance, into the gay, the idle, and the wealthy; he therefore presented knowledge in the most alluring form, not lofty and austere, but accessible and familiar. When he shewed them their defects, he shewed them likewise that they might be easily supplied. His attempt succeeded ; inquiry was awakened, and comprehension ex. panded. An emulation of intellectual elegance was excited; and, from this time to our own, life has been gradually exalted, and conversation pu. rified and enlarged.

Dryden had, not many years before, scattered criticism over his prefaces with very little parsi. mony; but though he sometimes condescended to be somewhat familiar, his manner was in general too scholastic for those who had yet their rudi. ments to learn, and found it not easy to understand their master. His observations were framed rather for those that were learning to write, than for those that read only to talk.

An instructor like Addison was now wanting, whose remarks, being superficial, might be easily understood, and being just, might prepare the mind for more attainments. Had he presented “ Paradise Lost” to the public with all the pomp of system and severity of science, the criticism would perhaps have been admired and the poem still have been neglected; but by the blandishments of gentleness and facility he has made Milton an universal favourite, with whom readers of every class think it necessary to be pleased,

He descended now and then to lower disquisitions; and by a serious display of the beauties of “Chevy-Chase,” exposed himself to the ridicule of Wagstaffe, who bestowed a like pompous character on Tom Thumb;" and to the contempt of Dennis, who, considering the fundamental position of his criticism, that “ Chevy-Chase" pleases, and ought

to please, because it is natural, observes, that “there is a way of deviating from nature, by bombast or tumour, which soars above nature, and enlarges images beyond their real bulk; by affecta. tion, which forsakes nature in quest of something unsuitable; and by imbecility, which degrades nature by faintness and diminution, by obscuring its appearances, and weakening its effects.” In“ Chevy Chase" there is not much of either bombast or affectation, but there is chill and lifeless imbecility The story cannot possibly be told in a manner that shall make less impression on the mind.

Before the profound observers of the present race repose too securely on the consciousness of their superiority to Addison, let them consider his Remarks on Ovid, in which may be found speci. mens of criticism sufficiently subtle and refined: let them peruse likewise his “Essays on Wit" and on the “ Pleasures of Imagination," in which he founds art on the base of nature, and draws the principles of invention from dispositions inherent in the mind of man with skill and elegance,* such as his contemners will not easily attain.

As a describer of life and manners, he must be allowed to stand perhaps the first of the first rank. His humour, which, as Steele observes, is peculiar to himself, is so happily diffused as to give the grace of novelty to domestic scenes and daily oc

He never “outsteps the modesty of nature," nor raises merriment or wonder by the violation of truth. His figures neither divert by distortion nor amaze by aggravation. He copies life with so much fidelity that he can be hardly said to invent; yet his exhibitions have an air so much original, that it is difficult to suppose them not merely the product of imagination.

As a teacher of wisdom, he may be confidently

currences.

* Far, in Dr. Warton's opinion, beyond Dryden.-C.

followed. His religion has nothing in it enthusiastic or superstitious; 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 read. er his real interest, the care of pleasing the Author of his being. Truth is shewn. sometimes as the phantom of a vision; sometimes appears half-veiled in an allegory; sometimes attracts regard in the robes of fancy; and sometimes steps forth in the confidence of reason. She wears a thousand dresses, and in all is pleasing.

Mille habet ornatus, mille decenter habet.

His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration ; always equable and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences. Addison never deviates from his track to snatch a grace: he seeks no ambitious ornaments and tries no hazardous innovations. His page is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendour.

It was apparently his principal endeavour to avoid all harshness and severity of diction; he is therefore sometimes verbose in his transitions and connexions, and sometimes descends too much to the language of conversation; get if his lauguage had been less idiomatical, it might have lost somewhat of its genuine Anglicism. What he attempt. ed, he performed: he is never feeble, and he did not wish to be energetic;* he is never rapid, and he never stagnates. His sentences have neither studied amplitude nor affected brevity: his pe

But, says Dr. Warton, he sometimes is so; and in another MS, note he adds, often so, -C,

[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »