Addison deserves a place in any history of literary criticism not because he made
any significant contribution to critical theory or because he had the revealing insights of a major writer, but because he was
the first to the practise criticism in the form which is now most familiar to us. Addison set himself
up as an intermediary between authors and their readers, who are no longer potential authors themselves but men of average taste and
education who want guidance on what to read and what to look for in their reading.
All Addison's most influential critical writing appeared in the first run of The spectator(1711-12),
the periodical which he and Richard Steele* introduced as a successor to
The Tatler, offering essays mainly on manners, morals and literature.
He began with six issues on general topics concerning the poem, and followed with twelve more, each reviewing one of ots
books. He makes a bold bid to break out of the whole neoclassical obsession with 'rules' and definitions:
- There is nothing in Nature so irksome as general discourses, especially when they turn chiefly upon words.
For this reason I shall waive the discussion of that point which was started some years since, whether
Milton's Paradise Lost may be called an herioc poem? Those who will not give it that title, may call it (if they please)
a Divine Poem. It will be sufficient to its perfection, if it has in it all the beauties of the highest kind of poetry; and as for those
who say it is not an heriock poem, they advance no more to the diminution of it than if they should say Adam is not Aeneas, nor Eve Helen. (Spectator, No.267)
Addison declares that his job is 'to point out [the poem's] particular beauties, and to determine
wherein they consist', which turns out in practice to mean that he acts as a kind of enthusiatic tour-guide, pointing out notable beauty-spots and
labelling them as 'sublime' or 'natural' (rather in the manner of Longinus), but making no efforts to explain how these
effects are achieved or even to elucidate the obscurer parts of the text.
*Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) was an Anglo-Irish playwright, journalist and political commentator.