2 May, 2021

Joseph Addison – publicist, playwright, esthete, politician, and poet

The difference between Addison and other writers of the early 18th century was that he belonged to the elite of English society, not only by talent, but also by birth and upbringing. His father, Lancelot Addison, is the abbot of the cathedrals in Lichfield and Coventry. At school, Addison became close friends with a peer, Richard Steele, who would become his co-author for most of his life.

The last years of the 17th century, Addison spent in Oxford, where he first studied and then taught himself. There has been preserved Addison’s Alley, along which the writer liked to walk. His poetic message to King William (1695) drew the attention of the Lord Keeper of the Seal and the Earl of Halifax, two influential representatives of the Whig party.

With the financial support of his patrons, Addison undertook in 1699-1704. long journey across Europe. During his stay in Italy, Addison sent poetic messages and notes in prose to his homeland.

During Addison’s stay in Ireland, his comrade Steele began publishing the satirical and moralizing magazine Tatler three times a week, designed to present the London public with examples of gentlemanly behavior and good taste. Addison sent his own material from time to time to Steele for publication, and after returning to London in the winter of 1709 he took on the burden of writing all the articles published in the Tatler. The journal continued to be published until the end of 1710.

The success of Tatler inspired Steele and Addison to publish a new magazine in the same vein. This time, the initiative belonged to Addison, who saw the task of the publication in “taking the Enlightenment out of closets and libraries, schools and universities and settling it in klobs and assemblies, in coffee houses and at tea tables.”

This fashion magazine, published under the name “Spectator” (“Observer”, “Spectator”) almost daily from March 1711 to December 1712, presented readers not only political news, literary novelties, reviews of the latest trends in the fashion world, but also serious critical reviews. The publishers sought not so much to indulge the tastes of the public, but to raise their level. The readers of the Observer saw galleries of fashionable eccentrics accompanied by amusing cartoons. Particularly successful were Addison’s weekly essays on Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work nearly forgotten at the time.

Up to 3,000 copies of The Observer were distributed daily in London, which was a record at that time, and after the magazine was closed, its 555 issues were reissued in seven books. In 1714, with the assistance of two assistants, Addison composed and published 80 more issues of The Observer. Throughout the 18th century, the publication of Addison and Steele remained the model of a public journalism – it was imitated in France, Russia and other parts of Europe.

In April 1713, the Royal Theater Drury Lane staged Addison’s tragedy Cato. The production made a lot of noise and did not leave the English stage until the end of the century.

Joseph Addison died in London at the age of 47. They buried him in Westminster Abbey near the grave of Lord Halifax. Dr. Johnson’s accolades for Addison’s essays have posthumously ranked him among the most authoritative and, by the Encyclopedia Britannica, influential masters of English-language prose.