ページの画像
PDF
ePub

his own day and among his own countrymen, precisely where Addison stood. The center of the most brilliant literary circle which could be gathered in the metropolis, in what has been called its Augustan age; the friend of Budgell and Phillipps, of Tickell and Steele, who scarcely knew whether they most admired his genius or loved his character; whose opinion was as eagerly asked by the critics at Wills's and the parsons at Childs's, by the politicians at St. James's and the philosophers at the Grecian, as by the more favored circle which met him nightly at Button's and the Kit-Cat; who won the honest praise of Pope, whilst the snarling poet bated him as a rival, and of Swift, whilst the Tory dean hated him as a Whig; who was commended even by Boileau for Latin verses which he pronounced worthy of Vida and Sannazario, if not of Horace and Virgil, and complimented even by the Cynic of Bolt Court in a sentence which has passed into a proverb;-we certainly can point to few writers who have enjoyed among their contemporaries a wider, and to none who have enjoyed a more enviable popularity.

There are two men, however, of world-wide celebrity, the most illustrious Englishman of the generation that was going out and the most illustrious Englishman of the generation that was coming in, over whose names for a moment we may pause.

Dryden had just died. He had been Poet Laureate with a royal pension of a hundred pounds a year. He had sat as “autocrat of letters and oracle of the literary clubs.” He had been pronounced by his own generation the first among living English poets. Yet Dryden went down to his grave hated by all sincere Whigs and detested by all honest men. He had degraded those splendid abilities which have placed him above Cowley, above Prior, above Pope, by vile satires upon virtue and wretched lampoons upon religion. For the paltry pittance of his annuity he had quitted the Church of England and entered the Church of Rome. For the equally paltry pittance of his popularity he had spent a long life in pandering to the vile and fawning on the great. From the pit of Drury Lane Theater to the throne of St. James's, there was no grade of London society which he had not insulted with his mendicancy and his adulation.

Ten years before Addison died, Johnson was born. A great man he certainly was. No one will grudge so cheap an epithet to one who fought his way up with his pen, against fortune, from the deep degradation of a daily drudge who slept in a garret and ate in a cellar, into the society of writers like Robertson and Churchill, like Adam Smith and Sir William Jones; to be praised by Richardson and courted by

[ocr errors]

a

66

a

Chesterfield, and to be acknowledged as the head of that celebrated club which numbered among its members Goldsmith and Gibbon and Burke. But the popularity of Johnson was, after all,—if we may borrow a word from the newspapers-rather the run of a great intellectual monstrosity than the quick, sympathetic admiration of a finely poised and symmetrical mind. Men looked, with sentiments not very different from those with which the Lilliputians are said to have contemplated Gulliver and the original Mexicans to have regarded the cavalry of Cortez, on the author who could write the life of Savage within a fortnight and Rasselas within a week; who dared to publish a Dictionary without a dedication, and who sustained unassisted a series of essays which even threatened to eclipse the Spectator; who rolled across Streatham Park tapping the posts as he passed and muttering like an idiot; who did not hesitate to tell Garrick that “he didn't know what a fool he was making of himself by repeating that story,” and Burke that “ he didn't see his way through the question."

The popularity of Addison was different from the popularity either of Dryden or of Johnson. Unlike that of the former, it was unsoliited; unlike that of the latter, it was uninterrupted; unlike that of both, it was universal. If we except Steele, who was nhappily alienated during his later years from bis old school-fellow of the Charter House, and Pope, who hated him because he envied him, and maligned him because he hated him, we do not find that his name was ever mentioned but with esteem and affection, by the wits who had hung upon his lips at the Coffee houses, by the nobles who had applauded his Cato at Drury Lane Theater, by the gownsmen who had turned with delight the pages of his Treatise on Medals and his Latin poems at Oxford, or by the squires who had grown merry or sad over his Spectators, in every borough from Cornwall to Northumberland.

It was perhaps to be expected that a revulsion of feeling would follow this unmixed admiration; that when the well-known face had disappeared from Russell Street and Shire Lane, the popular feeling towards him would vibrate as far in the opposite direction. And we cannot but admit that this, in some degree at least, has been the case; that whilst men of letters still linger over the pages where the England of Queen Anne is so exquisitely painted-still love to repeat the morning walk with Sir Roger in Spring Gardens, with the glass of Burton ale and the slice of hung beef at the end, and to read for the thousandth time the pathetic letter of Ed. Biscuit which tells the sad story of the old knight's death-even the Spectator has lost its hold on the hearts of the people, whilst the Cato has virtually come to be regarded merely as a collection of stately and eloquent orations, threaded on a narrative, a Thucydides in verse.

That the popularity of the Cato should have sensibly declined is far from strange, and many reasons might be assigned to account for it. We must content ourselves with barely stating two.

The first may be found in the complete revolution which has taken place in the character of the English drama and in the public taste which governs it. That Addison's tragedy, whatever may be its faults, is immeasurably superior as a work of art to the overwrought passion and vapid sentiment which night after night crowd Burton's and Wallack's, no one can well deny ; but even if its heavy declamation were lightened and its long discourses abridged, if its pathos were intensified and Booth himself upon the boards, yet we hazard little in the assertion that no shrewd manager could be induced to bring it out. It would still be a drug in the book-seller's stalls. For even then Addison would be but an imperfect servant of the greatest of masters, and here the master himself has failed. It is a reproach on the times, and yet it is true, that Shakespeare himself can not run against Bourcicault, that Hamlet is empty whilst the Octoroon is packed, that the Merchant of Venice must be withdrawn to make room for the American Cousin. Indeed we may sum up the experience of our day, in the single sentence, “ the success of your play is in inverse ratio to its excellence ;" so that if the Cato were a masterpiece, which it certainly is not, the case would be more hopeless still.

In the second place, it is more than probable that the Cato was overestimated at the time when it first appeared. It was with great

. reluctance, as every reader knows, that its author was induced to hazard a representation, against the very earnest advice of not a few of his friends, and among them of Pope. The success of its first presentation is well known-how an obscure and farfetched analogy, never thought of till after the play had been written, was instantly seized; how the Whigs applauded because it hit the Tories and the Tories because it hit Marlborough, till its triumph was assured and complete. This incident appears laughably absurd to us now, yet it is beyond question that the Cato owed very much of its popularity to this incident alone.

But it is not upon the Cato, nor in fact upon any of his poetical writings, that even the most ardent admirers of Addison have in any considerable degree sought to rest his fame. He is scarcely better known to us as a poet than as a statesman, and as a statesman he is scarcely known to us at all. And yet it is doubtful if even the name of Boswell is more intimately associated with the memoirs of Johnson, than the name of Addison with that series of periodical essays, of which, though not the originator, he was always the soul, which Johnson himself did not scruple to imitate a few years later in the Rambler and the Idler, and which continued for nearly two years, to charm with their mingled humor and wit, with the kindly keenness of their satire and the classic beauty of their style, every literary coterie from the Thames to the Tweed. Nor is the character of Boswell more perfectly preserved to us in his life of his master than the character of Addison in the same memorable papers. As we bend over them the walls of the club-room, like the magician's tent in the Arabian tale, seem to push out on every side, across a thousand leagues of ocean, across a hundred and fifty years. We seem to be sitting in the fortunate circle at the Kit-Cat, round that slight and graceful form which we know so well and love so dearly, to see the placid features lighted up with their own peculiar smile and to hear the gentle voice whose tones enchant us like a spell. A mind so original and so natively genial must of necessity leave its impress on his writings, and even if in his introductory sketch of the Spectator he had not unconsciously painted himself, some at least of the qualities which he there acknowledges might have been discovered with little difficulty in the subsequent papers. We do not need to be reminded in the taciturn philosopher who, during a residence of eight years at the University, “scarce uttered the quantity of a hundred words, and who could not remember that he ever spoke three sentences together in his whole life,” of the retiring modesty of the illustrious author to whom the philosopher himself owes all his immortality. For there is not a page in his writings which does not borrow from this beautiful trait something of its peculiar charm. Nor did it less pervade and beautify his conversation, when he shrank from dinner parties and crowded companies, to sit down apart with some congenial acquaintance and, as he bimself expressed it, “ think aloud.” It rendered him not less cautious in the advancement of his opinions than timid in the publication of his works. We look in vain in his most elaborate articles, in the criticisms of Milton and the celebrated papers on the Pleasures of the Imagination, for anything of the determined dogmatism and the confident assurance, which mark the writings as well as the life of Johnson

In graceful and delicate humor and wit, Addison was inferior to. none of his contemporaries. Indeed Macaulay has pronounced him superior to them all. And surely in nothing else does the Spectator evince more clearly its distinguished pre-eminence over the Tatler, to

which he contributed but rarely, and the Englishman, to which he did not contribute at all, on the one hand, and over the Rambler and the Idler on the other. His humor is not the reckless merriment of the mountebank, but the occasional playfulness of the serious man-as genial round the Yule log on a Christmas eve, as on the pages where it sparkles and foams for all time. His satire is not the snarl of the misanthropist, but the affectionate reproof of the lover of mankind; it is sharp but not barbed. The delicate irony with which he ridicules the popular fancies and follies of the day-making the small wit ashamed of his pun and the fine lady of her party patch-making merry to-day over a commode eighteen inches in height and to-morrow over a hoop almost large enough to fill a pew-reminds us of nothing so vividly as of those elegant satires in which Horace raised his voice in vain against the vices and corruptions of the last days of the Roman Republic.

But not in wit nor in humor, in satire nor criticism, lies that which is to us the one inestimable charm of the Spectator. The critical papers, far they were in advance of their own times, are almost commonplace in ours. The satirical papers have done their work. There may be times, rare indeed, but possible to all of us, when the gayer society of the club-room becomes dull. Even Sir Andrew Freeport may sometimes grow tedious and Will Honeycomb may talk too long. But no such dimness is on those bright pages which introduce us to the old Worcestershire baronet, with his cheerful temper and his large heart, with his delicious self-complacency and his rare humanity; to the landlord who “stands up at church when everybody else is upon his knees to count the congregation and see if any of his tenants are missing," and to the Justice who settles the disputes that are referred to him by gravely announcing that “much might be said upon both sides."

In his portrait of Sir Roger de Coverley and his friends—the venerable chaplain who was better acquainted with backgammon than with Greek, and the entertaining game keeper who “made a Mayfly to a miracle and furnished the whole country with angle rods”Addison discloses some of the finest qualities of his mind and some of the purest instincts of his character. The scenes in which they are severally introduced to us—the visit of the Spectator to Coverley Hall, the parish church and the assizes, of Sir Roger to Spring Gardens, the abbey and the theater--are not singular nor striking. They are such as doubtless occurred every day to some two actual Englishmen, at the beginning of the last century. For it is on these pages as on

« 前へ次へ »