JOSEPH ADDISON, the son of an eminent clergyman of the Church of England, was born at Milston, in Wiltshire, on the 1st of May 1672. After a preliminary education at various schools, he entered the university at Oxford, when only fifteen years of age, where he greatly distinguished himself, especially by the facility with which he wrote Latin verse. He was originally intended for the church, but various circumstances conspired to draw him aside into literature and politics. In 1699, he received a pension of £300 a year, and then set out on a Continental tour. While in France he perfected himself in the language of the country. Towards the close of 1702, he returned home by way of Switzerland and Germany. The battle of Blenheim, which occurred the next year, presented a brilliant opportunity to him, which he did not fail to make the most of. The ministry wished the victory commemorated in verse, and Addison was appointed to do it. Lord Godolphin, the treasurer, was so excessively delighted with the first half of the triumphal poem, that before the rest was finished, he made Addison Commissioner of Appeals. The poet was now fairly involved in politics. He accompanied Halifax to Hanover; became under-secretary of state in 1706, and in 1709, went to Ireland in the capacity of secretary to the Lord-lieutenant, where he also obtained the office of Keeper of the Records.
In the same year his friend Steele commenced The Tatler, to which Addison soon became a frequent contributor. He also wrote a number of political articles in the Whig Examiner, On the 1st of March 1711, appeared The Spectator, the most popular and elegant miscellany in English literature. It ceased to appear on the 6th of December, 1712, Addison's fame is inseparably associated with this periodical. He was the animating spirit of the magazine, and by far the most exquisite essays and criticisms that appeared in it are the work of his hand. In 1716, Addison married the Dowager-countess of Warwick, and in the following year was appointed Secretary of State. He was so extremely awkward and timid in large companies, that it was out of the question for him to attempt debating in parliament - a thing indispensable to one in his position. He consequently resigned in 1718. His health had been for some time in a precarious state; and at length after an illness of a few months, he died at Holland House, Kensington, on the 17th of June, 1719, in the 48th year of his age.
He left an unfinished work on The Evidences of the Christian Religion. But the most delightful and original of all his productions, is that series of sketches in The Spectator of which Sir Roger de Coverly is the central figure. Sir Roger is an absolute creation; the gentle yet vivid imagination, the gay and cheerful spirit of humor, the keen, shrewd observation, the fine raillery of foibles which Addison has displayed in this felicitous characterization, render it a work of pure genius. But Addison in prose is always excellent. He has given a delicacy to English sentiment, and a modesty to English wit, which it never knew before. Elegance, which in his predecessors had been the companion of immorality, now appeared as the advocate of virtue. Every grace was enlisted in the cause of a benign and beautiful piety. His style too is perfect in its fashion. There are many nobler and grander forms of expression in English literature than Addison's, but there are none comparable to it in sweetness, propriety, and natural dignity.