Addison, Joseph


b Milston, nr Amesbury, Wilts 1672, d Kensington, Middx (W London) 1719. Charterhouse Sch; Queen’s and Magdalen Coll Oxford (BA/MA, later Fellow of Magdalen). He was a classical scholar whose Lat poems attracted Dryden’s attention. From 1699 to 1703 he travelled widely in Europe. As a son of the Dean of Lichfield he was intended originally for ordination, but devoted himself instead to law and politics, and later to journalism and literature, with success in each case. An MP from 1708 onwards, he became an Under-Sec of State; Sec to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1710; Chief Sec of State for Ireland, 1711. That year saw the first number of the Spectator magazine which he founded and promoted with his former school friend Richard Steele; he also wrote for The Tatler, The Guardian and The Freeholder. As a minor dramatist he wrote a successful political tragedy Cato and a failed comedy. Renowned more for his prose than for his verse, he gained the famous approbation of Dr Johnson in 1781 (Lives of the Poets): ‘Whoever wishes to attain an English style familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison’. To a lady who complained of his sparse conversation, he said, ‘Madam, I have but ninepence in ready money, but I can draw for a thousand pounds’; this is one of many references to him in Boswell’s 1791 classic The Life of Samuel Johnson.

But he gains a place in the latest Oxford Book of English Verse (1999) with his version of part of Ps 19 which appears in many traditional hymn-books (some two dozen of those currently available), The spacious firmament on high. The 5 hymns attributed to Addison all appeared in the Spectator between July and Oct 1712; one is a ‘Travellers’ Psalm’ with the lines, ‘In foreign realms and lands remote,/ supported by thy care,/ through burning climes they pass unhurt,/ and breathe in tainted air’. Julian gives much space to defending his genuine authorship. Addison also helped to re-instate respect for the popular traditional ballad, and he so opposed any signs of coarseness in public taste that he has been anachronistically dubbed ‘the first Victorian’. He retired from public office in 1718. Montgomery said of his hymns what is not said of many, that ‘It is only to be regretted that they are not more in number’. But qualifying his ‘only’, he then added, ‘and that the God of grace, as well as the God of providence, is not more distinctly recognised in them’. No.263.

Hymns and songs by Addison, Joseph

Number Hymn Name
263 When all your mercies, O my God