« PreviousContinue »
son would be suitably rewarded. Before the arrival of
And Oldmixon delights to tell of some alderman of London that he had more money than the exiled princes ; but that which might be expected from Milton's savageness, or Oldmixon's meanness, was not suitable to the delicacy of Addison.
Steele thought the humour of the Frccholder too nice and gentle for such noisy times, and is reported to have said that the Ministry made use of a lute, when they should have called for a trumpet.
This year (1716) he married the Countess Dowager of Warwick, whom hc had solicited by a very long and
anxious courtship, perhaps with behaviour not very unlike that of Sir Roger to his disdainful widow ; and who, I am afraid, diverted herself often by playing with his passion. He is said to have first known her by becoming tutor to her son. “He formed,” said Tonson, " the design of getting that lady from the time when he was first taken into the family.” In what part of his life he obtained the recommendation, or how long, and in what manner he lived in the family, I know not. His advances at first were certainly timorous, but grew bolder as his reputation and influence increased ; till at last the lady was persuaded to marry him, on terms much like those on which a Turkish princess is espoused, to whom the Sultan is reported to pronounce, “ Daughter, I give thee this man for thy slave.” The marriage, if uncontradicted report can be credited, made no addition to his happiness; it neither found them nor made them equal. She always remembered her own rank, and thought herself entitled to treat with very little ceremony the tutor of her son, Rowe's ballad of the “ Despairing Shepherd” is said to have been written, either before or after marriage, upon this memorable pair ; and it is certain that Addison has left behind him no encouragement for ambitious love.
The year after (1717) he rose to his highest elevation, being made Secretary of State. For this employment he might be justly supposed qualified by long practice of business, and by his regular ascent through other offices; but expectation is often disappointed ; it is universally confessed that he was unequal to the duties of his place. In the House of Commons he could not speak, and therefore was useless to the defence of the Government. “In the office,” says Pope, “ he could not issue an order without losing his time in quest of fine expressions." What he gained in rank he lost in credit; and finding by experience his own inability, was forced to solicit his dismission, with a pension of fifteen hundred pounds a year. His friends palliated this relinquishment, of which both friends and enemies knew the true reason, with an account of declining health, and the necessity of l'ecess and quiet. He now returned to his vocation, and began to plan literary occupations for his future life. He purposed a tragedy on the death of Socrates : a story of which, as Tickell remarks, the basis is narrow, and to which I know not how love could have been appended. There would, however, have been no want either of virtue in the sentiments, or elegance in the language.
He engaged in a nobler work, a “ Defence of the Christian Religion,” of which part was published after his death ; and he designed to have made a new poetical version of the Psalms.
These pious compositions Pope imputed to a selfish motive, upon the credit, as he owns, of Tonson; who, having quarrelled with Addison, and not loving him, said that when he laid down the Secretary's office he intended to take orders and obtain a bishopric; “for,” said he, "I always thought him a priest in his heart.”
That Pope should have thought this conjecture of Tonson worth remembrance, is a proof—but indeed, so far as I have found, the only proof--that he retained some malignity from their ancient rivalry. Tonson pretended to guess it; no other mortal ever suspected it; and Pope might have reflected that a man who had been Secretary of State in the Ministry of Sunderland knew a nearer way to a bishopric than by defending religion or translating the Psalms.
It is related that he had once a design to make an English dictionary, and that he considered Dr. Tillotson as the writer of highest authority. There was formerly sent to me by Mr. Locker, clerk of the Leathersellers Company, who was eminent for curiosity and literature, a collection of examples selected from Tillotson's works, as Locker said, by Addison. It came too late to be of use, so I inspected it but slightly, and remember it indistinctly. I thought the passages too short. Addison,
however, did not conclude his life in peaceful studies, but relapsed, when he was near his end, to a political dispute.
It so happened that (1718-19) a controversy was agitated with great vehemence between those friends of long continuance, Addison and Steele. It may be asked, in the language of Homer, what power or what cause should set them at variance. The subject of their dispute was of great importance. The Earl of Sunderland proposed an Act, called the “Peerage Bill ;” by which the number of Peers should be fixed, and the King restrained from any new creation of nobility, unless when an old family should be extinct. To this the Lords would naturally agree ; and the King, who was yet little acquainted with his own prerogative, and, as is now well known, almost indifferent to the possessions of the Crown, had been persuaded to consent. The only difficulty was found among the Commons, who were not likely to approve the perpetual exclusion of themselves and their posterity. The Bill, therefore, was eagerly opposed, and, among others, by Sir Robert Walpole, whose speech was published.
The Lords might think their dignity diminished by improper advancements, and particularly by the introduction of twelve new Peers at once, to produce a majority of Tories in the last reign : an act of authority violent enough, yet certainly legal, and by no means to be compared with that contempt of national right with which some time afterwards, by the instigation of Whiggism, the Commons, chosen by the people for three years, chose themselves for seven. But, whatever might be the disposition of the Lords, the people had no wish to increase their power. The tendency of the Bill, as Steele observed in a letter to the Earl of Oxford, was to introduce an aristocracy : for a majority in the House of Lords, so limited, would have been despotic and irresistible.
To prevent this subversion of the ancient establishment,
Steele, whose pen readily seconded his political passions, endeavoured to alarm the nation by a pamphlet called “ The Plebeian.” To this an answer was published by Addison, under the title of “The Old Whig,” in which it is not discovered that Steele was then known to be the advocate for the Commons. Steele replied by a second “Plebeian ;” and, whether by ignorance or by courtesy, confined himself to his question, without any personal notice of his opponent. Nothing hitherto was committed against the laws of friendship or proprieties of decency ; but controvertists cannot long retain their kindness for each other. The “Old Whig” answered “ The Plebeian,". and could not forbear some contempt of "little Dicky, whose trade it was to write pamphlets.” Dicky, however, did not lose his settled veneration for his friend, but contented himself with quoting some lines of Cato, which were at once detection and reproof. The Bill was laid aside during that session, and Addison died before the next, in which its commitment was rejected by two hundred and sixty-five to one hundred and seventy-seven.
Every reader surely must regret that these two illustrious friends, after so many years passed in confidence and endearment, in unity of interest, conformity of opinion, and fellowship of study, should finally part in acrimonious opposition. Such a controversy was "bellum plusquam civile," as Lucan expresses it. Why could not faction find other advocates ? But among the uncertainties of the human state, we are doomed to number the instability of friendship. Of this dispute I have little knowledge but from the “Biographia Britannica.” “The Old Whig” is not inserted in Addison's works : nor is it mentioned by Tickell in his Life; why it was omitted, the biographers doubtless give the true reason-the fact was too recent, and those who had been heated in the contention were not yet cool.
The necessity of complying with times, and of sparing persons, is the great impediment of biography.