Joseph Addison

(1672-1719 / England)

Biography of Joseph Addison

Joseph Addison poet

Joseph Addison, "The Pleasures of the Imagination" in The Spectator, No. 416, July 2, 1712

It is possible this defect of imagination [the inability to get one's brain around the very, very large or the very, very tiny] may not be in the soul itself but as it acts in conjunction with the body. Perhaps there may not be room in the brain for such a variety of impression, or the animal spirits may be incapable of figuring them in such a manner as is necessary to excite so very large or minute ideas. However it be, we may well suppose that beings of a higher nature very much excel us in this respect, as it is probable the soul of man will be infinitely more perfect hereafter in this faculty-as well as in all the rest-insomuch that perhaps the imagination will be able to keep pace with understanding and to form in itself distinct ideas of all the different modes and quantities of space.

The body and the soul are seen as distinct, though influential on each other. The soul might have the capacity to take in the "world" or the "atom" if it weren't for the body's limitations getting in the way. Perfection might come in the form of the body's decreased influence on the soul or, more interestingly, as the finer fusion of body and soul. The animal spirits must better transport feeling and accommodate sensation if the imagination is to be given free reign. Imagination becomes a component of evolution opening up the possibility of, again, nationalist or classed ideas about who can imagine what.


JOSEPH ADDISON was born at Milston, Wiltshire, in 1672. He was a student at the Charter House, which he left in 1687, to enter Queen's College, Oxford. After two years he was transferred to Magdalen, where he was graduated in 1693. He distinguished himself while at college for his shyness and his scholarship. In the year of his graduation he published his Account of the Greatest English Poets. Through Dryden, to whom he addressed some complimentary verses, he was introduced to Tonson, who set him to work translating Juvenal, Persius, Virgil, and Heredotus. While he was still at Oxford, where he remained on a fellowship after his graduation, he was on the point of taking orders, but a royal pension was obtained for him, and he set forth on his travels on the Continent. He started in 1699, spent a year and a half in France, a year in Italy, and another in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany; and after a stay of some months in Holland, he returned to England toward the end of 1703. He was reduced in circumstances, and had little hope of preferment in politics, so that he was forced to join the writers in Grub Street. But, owing to a change in the tide of affairs, and to Addison's popularity after the publication of his poem, The Campaign, he was made Under Secretary of State. Meantime he was engaged in literary work, and in 1706 he produced an unsuccessful opera, Rosamond. Two years later Addison was deprived of his position as Under-Secretary, but was offered a Secretaryship in Ireland under the Lord Lieutenant. In 1711 he lost the post owing to a change of the Ministry. Steele's Tatler papers began to appear in 1709, and Addison's first contribution dates from the same year. In 1711 he and Steele brought out the first number of The Spectator, which continued until 1714. In 1713 his tragedy of Cato was performed and met with great success because rather of its political timeliness than for any dramatic power inherent in it. An unsuccessful play, The Drummer, was produced, anonymously, in 1714. During the winter of 1715-16 Addison was employed by the Whig Party to uphold its interests, and he published The Freeholder, a political paper; his reward was in all probability the position of Commissioner for Trade and Colonies. In 1716 he married the Countess of Warwick. In 1717 he was made Secretary of State. Failing in health, he resigned the position a year later. The next year he engaged in further political controversy, which resulted in a break with Steele. The following year he died.

Of Addison's criticism as a whole it may be said that it represented a commonsense attitude based upon neo-classic ideals. Of his dramatic criticism proper, confined as it was almost wholly to five or six Spectator essays, there is not so much to be said. These essays were written before he had evolved the critical standards which add so materially to the value of his later contributions. However, the drama essays briefly sum up the rationalistic tendency of criticism in the early eighteenth century. Addison condemned English tragedy because it was not sufficiently moral, and he proceeded to write a dull tragedy in order to show what beautiful and stately sentiment should go into tragedy. He was rigidly classic in his denunciation of the tragi-comedy. Not until Johnson published his 156th Rambler (in 1751) was the classic spell broken.

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A Letter from Italy

Salve magna parens frugum Saturnia tellus,
Magna virûm! tibi res antiquæ laudis et artis
Aggredior, sanctos ausus recludere fontes.
Virg. Geor. 2.

While you, my Lord, the rural shades admire,
And from Britannia's public posts retire,
Nor longer, her ungrateful sons to please,
For their advantage sacrifice your ease;

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