Joseph Addison

It is hard to speak of English poets and playwrights, and not mention the name Joseph Addison. Known best for founding The Spectator magazine with his friend Richard Steele, he was one of the most foremost essayists of the 18th century, and his works are studied in much depth even today.

In his career, he wrote more than three hundred essays, most of which were for his magazine The Spectator, which achieved great commercial success and fame. However, it was the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 that provoked him to write a commemorative poem, The Campaign, which made him the Commissioner of Appeals in the First Earl of Halifax’s government, a very high post of that time. He continued to write, producing works like an opera libretto titled Rosamund. He continued to rise in the government, becoming the Under Secretary of the State and accompanying Halifax on several missions to places like Hanover.

His literary career started again when he met Jonathan Swift, and renewed his association with Richard Steele. Together, they brought out Tatler, which got discontinued later, and more importantly The Spectator, which become the foremost magazine of its time, alongside The Guardian and others.

Perhaps his most famous work is Cato, a tragedy, which was based on themes like individual liberty and governmental tyranny, Republicanism and Monarchism, logic and emotion, and Cato’s own personal struggle to bow to his beliefs in the face of death. It was a huge success all throughout Britain, as well as Ireland. Its popularity rose among the Western Countries for several generations. Also, it provided literary inspiration for the American Revolution, proving to be a huge milestone in literature.

Another of Addison’s famous essays regard Will Wimble, which first appeared in The Spectator. Will Wimble is the youngest son in a family of aristocrats where only the oldest son inherits land and titles. Will is extremely interested in fishing, and soon becomes skilled at creating fishing lures and other devices for hunting and trapping. However, his aristocratic family frown upon his decision to take up such a lowly trade, believing such a career is beneath him. Addison highlights the problems that arise when people of noble birth are forced to abandon their opportunities and talents to pursue a narrow range of careers or else remain forever dependant on their families, whole wealth was often dwindling with the rise of the middle class.

“Will Wimble” is a highly satirical essay that highlights the foolishness of social conventions. It deals with the distinctions of occupations and classes that society tends to draw, especially aristocratic families who believe many tasks to be beneath them, which in Will’s case in fishing. This is regardless of a person’s own will to do that particular occupation, hence Will’s predicament of getting caught between his social obligations and personal passion.

The character of Will Wimble has been described and brought out very carefully. He is a very perfect gentlemen, and yet he is conflicted and flawed in his own ways. His love for fishing clashes with his family’s wishes, which results in an internal conflict in his mind. This was in tune with the rest of the articles in The Spectator, most of which dealt with social issues and satirical commentaries. They were all presented by the specially created, fictional social observer, “Mr. Spectator”.

Together, Addison and Steele made a huge impact on British literature. However, Addison’s fame transcends that of The Spectator. It is mostly as an essayist that he is remembered, but he wrote much more than just essays. His works included tragic plays, operas and poems. Ultimately, we can say that Joseph Addison was one of the most important literary figures, not just of the 18th century, but all time.

Anirudh Gupta