Archive for November 2013

Feast of Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope (May 21)   3 comments


Above:  The First Page of The Spectator, June 2, 1711

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USZ62-70444


JOSEPH ADDISON (MAY 1, 1672-JUNE 17, 1719)

English Poet and Literary Critic


ALEXANDER POPE (MAY 21, 1688-MAY 30, 1744)

English Poet, Moralist, and Satirist


Whoever writes to attain an English style familiar yet not coarse, and elegant yet not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.

–Dr. Samuel Johnson


Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Alexander Pope (1688-1744) were major literary figures whose paths crossed.  Scholars have written about them at great length and detail, understandably.  Thus I refer any reader of this post who desires such reading to those works.  I have, in fact, provided hyperlinks to two of them.  My purpose in this post is to cover some of the major points of these saints’ lives from a theological angle.

Joseph Addison was a son of Lancelot Addison, the Church of England clergyman at Milston, Wiltshire.  One might have assumed that Joseph would follow in his father’s footsteps; some did.  The younger Addison, who attended Queen’s College then Magdalen College, Oxford, distinguished himself in Latin poetry at university.  Thus his literary career, supplemented by a series of political appointments, began.  His early main patron, through whom employment came frequently, was Charles Montague, the Earl of Halifax.  And, since the political fortunes of the Whig Party varied over time, so did those of Halifax and Addison, both Whigs.

Addison wrote much original work and translated many Greek and Latin texts.  His first published work was Account of the Greatest English Poets (1693).  He also worked on two periodicals, The Tatler (1709-1711) and The Spectator (1711-1712, 1714).  The former contained essays on life, not politics.  The latter offered literary criticism, philosophy for the public, texts for men and women, and some of Addison’s hymns.  The purpose of The Spectator, according to Addison, was

to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges; to dwell in the clubs and assemblies, at tea tables and in coffee houses.

He labored on these periodicals while serving as a Member of Parliament, a body to which he belonged from 1708 until his death.

Among the texts Addison published in The Spectator was The Messiah, by Alexander Pope (1688-1744).  Five hymns have come from that poem.  Among them is this one.

Pope, born in London to a Roman Catholic family, was the son of a wealthy and retired linen merchant who retired to Windsor Forest in 1700.  Addison’s father, although well-to-do, was of a lower social status than the great poet’s mother.  The father died in 1817.  The poet, who had never married, remained devoted to his mother until she died in 1733, aged 91 years.  He suffered from poor health–a curved spine, severe headaches, and Pott’s Disease, a tubercular condition.  Thus Pope focused more on poetry than he might have done otherwise.  And he excelled at it, creating an impressive body of work, to which I have provided a link.

Pope, mainly self-educated, benefited from the encouragement of neighbors, who included writers and retired statesmen.  By age thirteen he had translated much Latin poetry and written a tragedy about St. Genevieve.  At age sixteen he was familiar with Greek, Latin, Italian, and French.

Details of the difficult professional relationship between Addison and Pope are not as plentiful as a careful student of history might like.  Yet we do know that the trigger was the reality of rival translations of Homer’s Iliad; Pope had published the first part of his version in 1715 yet Addison preferred a rival translation.  This seems to have offended Pope, who wrote a scathing criticism of Addison then sent a copy to him.  Addison chose not to respond.  Pope, however, published that text in 1735, after Addison had been dead for sixteen years.  And the younger poet praised Addison in print in 1721 and 1737.

Addison married Charlotte, Countess of Warwick, in 1716.  It was an unhappy marriage, one which his death ended three years later.  He was forty-seven years old.  One of Addison’s great regrets was that he had yet to reconcile with a friend, Richard Steele (founder of The Tatler), who had argued with him over a bill limiting the number of peers.

Among Addison’s hymns are “When All Thy Mercies, O My God” and this classic:

The spacious firmament on high,

With all the blue ethereal sky,

And spangled heavens, a shining frame,

Their great Original proclaim.

The unwearied sun, from day to day,

Does his Creator’s power display,

And publishes to every land,

The work of an almighty hand.


Soon as the evening shades prevail,

The moon takes up the wondrous tale,

And nightly to the listening earth

Repeats the story of her birth;

While all the stars that round her burn,

And all the planets in their turn,

Confirm the tidings, as they roll,

And spread the truth from pole to pole.


What though in solemn silence all

Move round the dark terrestrial ball?

What though no real voice nor sound

Amidst their radiant orbs be found?

In reason’s ear they all rejoice,

And utter forth a glorious voice.

Forever singing, as they shine,

“The hand that made us is divine.”

Addison, on his deathbed, told his wayward nephew, Lord Warwick,

See in what peace a Christian can die.

Pope, who had a mixed opinion of Addison, contributed much to the body of English literature and helped people in distress.  His legacy, like that of Addison, is impressive and edifying.





Eternal God, light of the world and Creator of all that is good and lovely:

We bless your name for inspiring Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and all those who

with music have filled us with desire and love for you;

through Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit

lives and reigns, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

1 Chronicles 29:14b-19

Psalm 90:14-17

2 Corinthians 3:1-3

John 21:15-17, 24-25

–After Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 728



Joseph Addison:

Collected Works:


Alexander Pope:

Complete Works: