Joseph Addison as an Essayist

Joseph Addison contributed to English Literature as a pamphleteer poet, dramatist and essayist. Though his drama Cato and poem " The Campaign" won march acclaim and popularity during his lifetime, it is as an essayist that Joseph Addison has secured a unique place for himself in the history of English Literature. He wrote most of his essay for the periodicals , The Spectator, The Tatler and The Guardian with his co editor Richard Steele. Their motive behind these essays was moral and didactic: their aim was to Reform British society.

Joseph Addison as an Essayist


There are nearly 400 essays written by Addison, which are of almost uniform length, excellence of style and on a wide variety of subjects. He is an objective, dispassionate observer of the lifestyle of his time, which he exposes faithfully and unerringly to his readers. He became a mild critic of the morals of his age and most of his essays deal with contemporary issues like popular superstitions, social manners, polite conversation, fashion, practical jokes and so on. Though he touched on the subject of politics, he dealt with it cautiously, without hunting sentiments. Literary criticism also found a distinctive place in his essays; several editorials maintained a conversational tone with his readers. They enjoyed them because he punctuated his essays with wit and humour. His best creation however is the famous series dealing with the fictitious The Spectator club.

Steele created an imaginary sir Rodger De Coverley, an eccentric old country knight who is the member of the Spectator Club at London. There are other characters created in contrast to him like a city merchant - Sir Andrew Freeport, a middle aged man - Will Honey Comb, the sophisticated and fashionable young man of the town - Will Wimble, a soldier - Captain Sentry and a shy introvert - Mr Spectator. Addison infused life into those characters, made them adventurous and interesting, so much so that some scholars have regarded the Coverley papers as the forerunner of the novel.

In Addison's words, his aim in his essays was to point out, ' those vices which are to trivial for the chastisement of the law, and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit..... All agreed that I should be at liberty to carry the war into quarters I pleased; provided I continued to combat which criminals in a body, and to assault the vice without hunting the person'. Addison was so successful that his essays became the range of the day. Only men but women also read his essays, which was a real achievement. His essays definitely influenced the 18th century reading public.

Though modern day reader may not be able to comprehend this adulation accorded to his essays today when we have become a lot more complex in politics as well as in social matters, one must have a proper knowledge of the century in which Addison stood out alone as an individual withstanding the follies and vices of his time.

Addison and Steele perceived this tension in society. They took the first courageous step towards bringing two extreme two extreme sections of society closer to each other. A huge gap existed between the rural and urban, the landed gentry and the new prosperous middle class. However, Addison's essays were acceptable to the strictness of the Puritan as well as the refinement of the Restoration. He sincerely advocated a middle path or moderation in every walk of life. He observed life with a keen but objective eye, making it possible to hold up the vices and follies of his society with the intention of banning them from Britain. He tempered wit with morality and vice verse. His language was simple, his subject matter was topical and he wrote to inspire people to rectify their defects.

As an essayist, Addison influenced British society. The 'middle style' which he perfected has been criticised as being weak, lacking the energy and force which can be provided by passion and intellectual energy. Yet, this attitude which seeks to be just, humane and moderate helped him to acquire his goal for bringing diverse people reading, thinking and talking about his essays. Most importantly, people responded to the sincere affection and simple but logical advice, which his essays communicate to his reading public.
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