Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

sions not grovelling : 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 connections, and sometimes descends too much to the language of conversation ; yet if his language had been less idiomatical, it might have lost somewhat of its genuine Anglicism. What he attempted, 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 periods, though not diligently rounded, are voluble and easy. 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 *.

The public has in a great measure sanctioned the opinions of these truly learned and discerning critics; and the style of Addison is to this

* Lives of the Poets, vol. ii. p. 140.

[merged small][ocr errors]

day justly held forth to the candidates for lite. rary fame as a model of elegant simplicity. It has, however, been more admired than imitated; and very few since the publication of the Spectator have been able to imbue their composition with any considerable portion of Addisonian sweetness and grace.

The taste of the literary world, indeed, has lately, through the seductive influence of some powerful writers, been thrown into a very dif. ferent channel. The splendid and elaborated diction of Johnson, Burke, and Gibbon, though exhibiting great strength and richness, and therefore admirably adapted to sustain the tone of very lofty subjects, has been indiscriminately, and therefore generally very improperly, assumed as the garb for almost every theme which life and literature afford; whilst the clear, the unaffected yet graceful language of Addison, calculated to clothe with exquisite propriety by far the greater part of moral and literary topics, has been seldom adopted even in the very departments where it ought more especially to have been employed. Of those who have cultivated a diction emulating the chaste beauties which distinguish the style of Addison, I can enumerate but three or four. Hume and Goldsmith have in their Essays made the nearest approach to this model; some of the papers in the Mirror, likewise, are composed in a vein of great sweetness and delicacy, with regard both to selection and arrangement of language ; and the moral and critical writings of Dr. Aikin display a style which unites the rare qualities of great accuracy, simplicity, and taste.

If we now look back upon the period included in this Essay, involving not less than one hundred and thirty years, we shall find, that from the era of Sidney to the publication of the Spectator, the English language, with few exceptions, had been gradually and successively improving, and at length acquired, in the compositions of Addison, a high degree of classical elegance and purity. The steps by which this near approach to perfection became attainable, will be accurately seen through the medium of the quotations that I have given, and which it has been my endeavour to select with a view as well to the interest of the matter as the illustration of style.

The attentive reader will soon discern that Addison, who was assiduous in preserving as much of the idiom of our ancient writers as his subject and the progress of refinement would allow, has imbibed much of the flavour and colouring of the best authors of our first period, of Hooker, Raleigh, and Bacon; and, on the other

hand, may be sometimes, though not often, traced in the lax and diffuse sentences of Sidney. Of the second era Cowley, Tillotson, and Temple, as hath already been observed, were his prototypes ; and how much of sweetness, of beauty, and of grace, he has added to the improvements which they had already engrafted on composition, must be strongly felt by every person who contrasts their various productions.

It may, in short, without the least charge of partiality, be said, that, though with regard to the minutiæ of grammar and composition Addison may be found less accurate than the best writers of the present day,-in all the great qualities of style, in perspicuity, simplicity, and ease, in harmony, elegance, and amenity, he has been surpassed by none and equalled but by few.

PART III.

ESSAY III.

ON THE CRITICAL ABILITIES AND TASTE OF

ADDISON.

To discriminate with accuracy the beauties and defects of composition, and to establish laws for its conduct, consonant to the general feelings of nature, and the practice of the best writers, form the basis of an art which has ever been highly esteemed in proportion to the progress of civili. zation and refinement.

In the early stages of society, though genius of the first-rate quality may exist, its efforts, though brilliant, are seldom under the controul of taste and judgment. The mighty name of Homer is usually pointed out as an exception; but the assistance which this great poet derived from his predecessors or contemporaries, and the state of literature of the period in which he flourished, are still involved in almost impenetrable obscurity. The internal evidence of his works proves

« VorigeDoorgaan »