Probing Addison’s Prose Style

Addison is ranked among the great prose writers in English literature. His distinctive prose style adds up to his literary credit. His style consists of clarity, lucidity, and naturalness. 

Addison does not try to produce effects by straining. It comes to him spontaneously because he has mastery of language is effortless. No pretentiousness, affectation, pompousness, or verbosity characterize his essays. 

In consonance with his graceful character, his essays are rich in sincerity, moderation, and purity of style. So, his essays have become the expression of his character. Hugh Walker has rightly observed that “Few English writers have revealed themselves more accurately and exactly in their writings than Addison.” 

“Addison’s style is inimitable,” says Deighton, “…because in order to write like Addison, one must possess the qualities of character which Addison possessed- his loving nature, his placid temper, his careful avoidance of excess of any kind.”

Addison’s Vocabulary Choice and Sentence Length

Addison shows a felicitous choice of vocabulary and an equally felicitous arrangement of words in appropriate combination. It notes his remarkable prose style.

The illustration of his mastery over language is very apt in his essay “Meditations in the Abbey.” Here, we find his clarity and the happy selection of his words. He writes:

“Upon this I began to consider with myself what innumerable multitudes of people lay confused together under the pavement of that ancient Cathedral, low beauty, strength, and youth, with old age, weakness, and deformity lag undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.”

The above sentence also illustrates Addison’s power of handling long sentences deftly. However, his sentences are not always so lengthy. When the occasion demands it, Addison can write in compact and succinct styles. Many of his sentences are short and have a quotable quality. In “Uncharitable judgment,” he speaks of religion in the following way: 

“In this case, therefore, it is not religion that sours a man’s temper, but it is the temper that sours his religion.”

This type of sentence echoes this Baconian manner of presentation. In “Wealth and Poverty,” how beautifully he expresses the characteristics of the poor and the rich in short but compact sentences. He says: 

“Humility and Patience, industry and temperance are often, the qualities of a poor man. Humanity and good nature, magnanimity and a sense of honor are as often the qualities of the rich.”

The Figure of Speech in Addison’s Prose Style

Addison has not used high figurative expressions. The fanciful or the high-flown similes are almost absent in his essays. However, he uses similes, metaphors, and antitheses in his own homely and modest way. Such figurative expressions have been helpful for him to drive a point home to the reader. 

Addison is almost laconic and terse in the use of figures of speech. In the essay “Periodical Essays,” he describes that “an essay-writer must practice in the chemical method and give the virtue of a full draught in a few drops.” On Cheerfulness, he says, “Mirth is short and transient, cheerfulness fixed and permanent.” 

Quotations and Allusions in Addison’s Writing Style

Addison has often indulged in moralizing, but he never grows vehement or passionate like a pulpit orator. He maintains restraint and never becomes intense or vehement. He is eloquent without being rhetoric. Like Bacon, his essays are full of allusions– historical, literary, Biblical, and mythological; quotations from various sources, parables, fables, anecdotes. Addison employs his analogies freely to clarify and reinforce his arguments. 

In “Friendship,” Addison quotes a lot from Tully, Bacon, Confucius, Cicero, and Martial. His essays show his power to enrich his writings with allusions and quotations from ancient and modern literature.

Humor and Satire in Addison’s Prose Style

One of the striking qualities of Addison’s writing style is his humor, which becomes, in effect, a delicate irony. The “Female Orator” is a masterpiece of his humor. His study of society, especially that of women’s character, is mildly satirical. His humor does not evoke serious laughter and is, therefore, neither offensive nor stinging. 

Nevertheless, Addison has attacked social vices and follies, no doubt, but it is not directed to any individual man or woman. He uses irony not to hurt but to make others aware of their characteristic faults. He was not as furious as the other writers of his age.

Final Words

Addison is said to have been very fastidious in the choice of his words. True, he took much pain to polish and balance his sentences and achieved thus a refined style. He faithfully maintains the rules of art and never deviates from them.

To sum up, critics have almost unanimously and lavishly praised Addison for his prose style. The classic words that Dr. Johnson has used to praise him have, as a matter of fact, brought out the underlying grace and quality of his prose style, 

“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.”

Now, let’s have a look at the figure below that summarizes Addison’s prose style covered in the above article:

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