Paradigm, No. 13 (May, 1994)


Addison’s Essays as Models for Composition in School Anthologies and Textbooks of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Peter Mack,
Department of English,
University of Warwick,
Coventry CV4 7AL


In a previous paper I have argued that eighteenth-century teachers of composition chose a not altogether representative selection from Joseph Addison’s (1672-1719) work to be the "model" for the school essay. For this paper I have examined a range of school anthologies and textbooks (see Appendix one) to discover how often Addison’s essays were included, which types of essay appeared most frequently (see Appendix two), and what role they played. First I shall attempt a general survey, and then I shall look in more detail at seven authors who use Addison explicitly to teach composition.

For the purpose of this survey I have decided to concentrate on Addison’s contributions to the Spectator, the most famous of the early eighteenth-century periodicals. Though this is unfair to Richard Steele, who contributed many fine essays to the Spectator, and to the Tatler, their earlier collaboration where the quality is equally high, this bias in fact reflects the practice of the school anthologists, who chose almost exclusively from Addison’s contributions to the Spectator.

In general terms the Spectator is used much more often in anthologies which first appeared before 1800. Before 1800 it was almost obligatory to include a group of papers from the Spectator. After 1800, apart from three important special cases, representation is restricted to a few "anthology pieces": the comparison between planetary and terrestrial worlds, "Reflections in Westminster Abbey", and the "Tale of a Dervish". It should be borne in mind, however, that these traditional titles (which give an idea of content) were supplied by early editors. Addison and Steele gave no titles. Since each Spectator is less than a thousand words long it is usual to refer to them by number.

Some pre-1800 anthologies continued to be reprinted into the 1860s (Elegant Extracts, The Speaker), while some authors found Addison old-fashioned even in the 1760s.

In 1804 Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who produced many readers and schoolbooks for children, edited a three-volume selection from the periodicals, which reprints almost 700 pages from the Spectator including most of Addison’s contributions. In her introduction she reflects on changes in taste:

When those were young who now are old, no books were so popular, particularly with the female sex. They were the favourite volumes in a young lady’s library . . . . From the papers of Addison we imbibed our first relish for wit; from his criticisms we formed our first standard of taste, and from his delineations we drew our first ideas of manners.

Barbauld’s cornments help confirm a sense of generational change around 1800. Her introduction suggests a classification of the essays: (1) on criticism, (2) on moral and religious subjects, (3) fancy pieces, and (4) those that exhibit character, life and manners. Her book reminds us of a further educational genre: the one-volume selection of Addison intended as a school text. This type of work emerges in the 1820s and becomes common in the last five decades of the nineteenth century, at least to go by the Bodleian catalogue.

The briefest glance at Appendix two will show that the moral and religious essays are most frequently anthologised. Spectators 565, 571 and 580, which are explicitly linked as a discussion of God’s omniscience and its consequences for humanity, are often reprinted together, though without the fourth paper in the set, Spectator 590. They often appear alongside other religious essays like Spectators 111 and 519. These inclusions illustrate the value which eighteenth-century anthologists placed on Addison’s popular theology. These essays are also examples of the tightly structured methodical arguments which Addison in Spectator 476 distinguished from "the wildness of those compositions which go by the name of essays".

Several of the moral essays are also very popular, notably paper 381, "On Cheerfulness", which appears in nine anthologies and paper 458, "On Modesty", which is in four. The essays in this group represent the "just and proper sentiments" approved by the anonymous preface to the Moral Miscellany. They are, in general, as serious and methodically argued as the religious essays.

Less frequent but still quite often found is a group of stories and moral allegories, such as Spectator 76, the "Mountain of Miseries", and Spectator 159, the "Vision of Mirza". Although these pieces are all moralising, they at least show a more obviously narrative and imaginative side of Addison’s art. Imagination and morality are also the two qualities most in evidence in the later "anthology pieces": the comparison between planetary and terrestrial worlds (not from the Spectator) and reflections in Westminster Abbey.

For Addison’s modern readers the omissions are even more striking. None of his Sir Roger de Coverly papers appears in the anthologies, none of the observations of London life, none of the papers which combine narrative and argument, not "The Tale of a Shilling", and only one of the critical essays. Since the late nineteenth-century on the other hand the most commonly available selections from the Spectator have been the de Coverly papers and the critical essays.

The rather sober choice of essays is echoed in the comments which the anthologists make about the work. Lindley Murray’s English Reader aims "to assist young persons . . . to improve their language and sentiments and to inculcate some of the most important principles of piety and virtue" (titlepage); while John Hamilton Moore’s The young gentleman and lady’s monitor is "calculated to promote the principles of religion, to render youth vigilant in discharging . . . social . . . duties . . . and at the same time habituate them to an elegant manner of expressing themselves". Just as in learning Latin schoolboys exercised their understanding of grammar on Cato’s pithy moral sentences which laborious repetition impressed on their minds, so young people read the English periodicals for matter, moral instruction, and a model of good writing. This model is provided by the methodical, argumentative side of Addison rather than by his humour or his imagination.

Hugh Blair addressed his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), which he had given at the University of Edinburgh since 1762, "to such as are studying to cultivate their taste, to form their style or to prepare themselves for public speaking or composition". The work was highly successful and had been published in over 50 editions by 1873 as well as being translated into the major European languages. Blair devotes four lectures to a minute stylistic analysis of four of Addison’s papers on the pleasures of the imagination, Spectators 411-414. He selects Addison as the "highest, most correct and ornamented degree of the simple manner", which he regards as the pre-eminent form of English style.

Perspicuous and pure he is in the highest degree; his precision, indeed, not very great; yet nearly as great as the subjects which he treats of require; the construction of his sentences easy, agreeable, and commonly very musical; carrying a character of smoothness, more than of strength. In figurative language, he is rich; particularly, in similies and metaphors; which are so employed, as to render his style splendid without being gaudy.

Blair goes through the papers sentence by sentence, commenting on diction, word order, figures, and musical effects. He criticises unnecessary words and lack of clarity. For Blair, Addison is an acknowledged classic, whose writing he analyses in order to teach style. In general Addison is a model for excellence but even his "mistakes" can be used for purposes of instruction. There is no doubting Blair’s influence on teachers of composition and university students.

Alexander Bain’s English Composition and Rhetoric first appeared in 1866. The appendix contains extracts from well-known authors, among them the first few paragraphs of Spectator 411, with Bain’s stylistic commentary. Bain pays more attention to the logical structure of sentences and paragraphs than Blair had. He is prepared to debate Addison’s choice of words and to try out different word order. In one way this is taking English seriously, applying to an English classic the kind of detailed verbal analysis which before would have been applied mainly to Latin. But commentary is also becoming an art in itself, an arena for professorial competition; the goal of teaching composition is overlooked. The whole appendix and most of the other references to Addison were dropped in the revised (and much more influential) edition of 1887, in which Bain concentrates on the principles of style and above all on its emotional qualities.

The stylistic analysis of Addison favoured by Blair and Bain is reflected in at least one school-level manual, David Irving’s The Elements of English Composition (1801), which cites Addison for the clarity of his sentences and which provides, in chapter 26, a critical analysis of Spectator 39, "On Tragedy". John Rippingham’s Rules for English Composition and particularly for themes (1816) is concerned with a practical union of logic and rhetoric which teaches order and elegance in the conception and arrangement of ideas". 10 He uses Addison to exemplify argument, especially arguments from comparison and contrast. His pupils are supposed to read essays by Addison and others in order to discover the plan underlying each.

My last three examples of educational books which drew on Addison’s essays are works addressed to teachers. William Milns’s The Well-bred Scholar (1794) divides the Theme into five parts: amplification, argument, example, simile and conclusion. In each case after discussing the principles of each part he gives a commented example. Many of these examples are from Addison, particularly from "On Modesty" and "On Cheerfulness". The moral part of Addison is Milns’s model for the execution of the parts of the Theme, and to some extent for its structure as well.

G. F. Graham in English or the Art of Composition (1842) distinguishes the strict form of the Theme from the freer structure of the essay. Under "themes" he quotes and analyses the fifth paragraph of Spectator 411, "On the Pleasures of the Imagination", as an example of an introductory paragraph. In his subsequent discussion of teaching essay writing he explains:

It will be the teacher’s duty to direct the attention of the learner not only to the modes of argument used in each consecutive division of the essay, but also to the chain of reasoning by which the whole composition is held together. 11

His example is an analysis of Spectator 411, for which he provides first a discussion of the argument of each paragraph, and then the seven stages he finds in the essay:

1. The superiority of the sight over the other senses.

2. The pleasures of the imagination derived from the sight.

3. The definition of the author’s meaning in the expression "the pleasures of the imagination".

4. A comparison with other pleasures.

5. The extent of these pleasures.

6. The advantages of these pleasures.

7. How they are preferable to purely intellectual pleasures. 12

This is then moralised into a general essay-writing procedure:

A subject now being proposed to the pupil, he should be first required to divide it into as many as may be convenient, and to lay down in the manner above shown, the heads under which the subject is to be considered in the various divisions of the composition. 13

For Graham Spectator 411 is a model both of the structure. of an essay and of the procedure by which a student should set about writing.

Robert and Thomas Armstrong’s A Practical Introduction to English Composition: part 2 (1853) consists of models and exercises in style and in a range of literary forms. Like Graham they regard the Theme as a rigid form in which seven topics have to be considered in a fixed order, whereas in the Essay the writer is "unrestrained as to choice of topics or method of illustration".14 The essay is confined by no other consideration than that of maintaining a mutual dependence between the different parts of his discourse so that the main idea may not be lost sight of. 15 The Armstrongs provide five essays (four of them by Addison) for their pupils to analyse. In the manner of Graham, they first discuss the argument of each paragraph and then provide a skeleton of the whole argument of Spectator 225, "On Discretion".

1 and 2. Introductory, in which the subject is considered in a partial aspect.

3. Definition extended.

4. The internal character and influence of the subject.

5. Its external influence.

6. Confirmatory of the two preceding paragraphs.

7. Subject illustrated by contrast.

8. Subject morally considered.

9. Retrospect, with explanatory and preceptive remarks, and quotation. 16

This skeleton has been written in such an abstract way that it could serve as a general model for any essay. For the Armstrongs the methodical popular moralising side of Addison is the model for the organisation of essays.

In this paper I have been tracing the educational fortune of an English literary classic, and asking how perceptions concerning Addison contributed to ideas about how to teach essay-writing. It is clear that the Spectator was regarded as a classic almost from the moment it ceased its brief run of publication (1711-12, with a brief revival in 1714). Although Addison was more often represented in anthologies compiled before 1800 the continuing printing of such anthologies kept his work available to schoolteachers. In the second half of the nineteenth century selections of Addison’s essays were printed in cheap single-volume editions suitable for use as set books.

It would be an exaggeration to say that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century people in general learned to write essays by reading Addison. It is even likely that some teachers and anthologists chose Addison more because they admired his moral attitudes than because they saw him as a model of essay-writing. Some editors comment that his language is archaic or that he is an unsuitable model for children (which I suppose would be the modern view).

Nevertheless, some influential writers treat Addison as a model of construction as well as (and this was the general view) a master of English style. Those who took Addison as a model for teaching the construction of essays tended to choose a rather restricted part of his oeuvre: the methodical pieces, especially Spectator 411, and moralising pieces like "On Discretion" and "On Cheerfulness". It is interesting that Addison himself did not regard these papers as "essays". We might also note that in the later nineteenth century and afterwards quite different aspects of Addison were admired and reprinted: the Sir Roger de Coverly papers, other humorous essays, and the critical essays. A classic needs to be different things to different people, but Addison had the foresight. to provide a range of materials from which later generations could make (different) choices.

1. Peter Mack, ‘Rhetoric and the essay’ Rhetoric Society Journal [forthcoming].

2. Priestley, 1768 edition, p. xi.

3. Anna Laetitia Barbauld (ed.) Selections from the Spectator, Tatler, Guardian and Freeholder 3 vols. (London, 1804) pp. iii.

4. Ibid. p. xix.

5. Anonymous, Moral Miscellany 1798 ed. p. A2r.

6. Moral Miscellany, 1798 ed, p. A3r.

7. Moral Miscellany, 1785 ed, p. A2r.

8. Hugh Blair Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres 1785 ed. p. 49.

9. Ibid p. 49.

10. Rippingham p. viii.

11. Graham pp. 303-4.

12. Ibid p. 308.

13. Ibid. p. 308.

14. Ibid. p. 309.

15. Armstrong, p. 103.

16. Ibid. p. 128.


* Armstrong, Robert and Armstrong, Thomas Classbook of English Literature (London, 1865)

* Bain, Alexander, English Composition and Rhetoric (London, 1866)

Bain, Alexander English Composition and Rhetoric, 2nd edn (1887)

* Barbauld, Anna Laetitia (ed.) Selections from the Spectator, Tatler, Freeholder, 3 vols (London, 1804).

Brewer, Ebenezer, A Guide to English Composition (London, 1852)

Buchan, A. W., The Advanced Prose and Poetical Reader (Glasgow, 1854)

* Carpenter, J.E. The Public School Speaker and Reader (London, 1869)

* Carpenter, J.E. The Popular Elocutionist and Reciter (London, 1894)

Mack, P. ‘Rhetoric and the essay’ Rhetoric Society Journal (forthcoming)

Mongan, Roscoe, The Practical English Grammar (London, 1864)

Smith, T. B., Masterpieces of Literature in Prose and Poetry (London, 1858)


Appendix One: Short-title list of textbooks consulted

Works are listed in chronological order. Further details in all cases can be found in Ian Michael The Teaching of English (Cambridge University Press, 1987) which made this article possible. In the following appendices and references, an asterisk indicates that the textbook includes material by Addison.

Anon, The Edinburgh Entertainer (Edinburgh, 1750)

* Buchanan, James The Complete English Scholar (London, 1753)

* Fisher, Ann The Pleasing Instructor (London, 1756)

* Anon, The Moral Miscellany (London, 1758, 1765)

* N., J. Select Lessons in Prose and Verse (London, 1765)

Priestley, Joseph The Rudiments of English Grammar, enlarged edition (London, 1768)

* Enfield, William The Speaker (London, 1774)

* Barrie, Alexander A Collection of English Prose and Verse (Edinburgh, 1781)

* Blair, Hugh Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (London, 1783)

* Knox, Vicesimus Elegant Extracts (London, 1783)

* Knox, Vicesimus The Prose Epitome (an abridgement) (London, 1791)

* Moore, John Hamilton The young gentleman and lady's monitor and English Teachers Assistant (London, 1784)

* Scott, William Beauties of Eminent Writers (Edinburgh, 1793)

* Milns, William The Well-bred Scholar (London, 1794)

* Scott, William Lessons in Elocution (Edinburgh, 1799)

* Murray, Lindley The English Reader (London, 1799)

Murray, Lindley Introduction to the English Reader (London, 1801)

* Irving, David The Elements of English Composition (London, 1801)

Walker John, English Themes and Essays (London, 1805)

* Rippingham, John Rules for English Composition and particularly for themes (London, 1816)

* Carpenter, Thomas The School Speaker (London, 1825)

* Parker, R. G. Progressive Exercises in English Composition (London, 1836)

* Graham, G. F. English or The Art of Composition (London, 1842)

Draper, Bourne Hill The Evergreen or a Selection of Religious and Preceptive pieces in Prose (London, 1847)

* Bell, David Charles The Modern Reader and Speaker (Dublin, 1850)

* Armstrong, Robert Armstrong, and Armstrong, Thomas A Practical Introduction to English Composition, part 2 (Edinburgh, 1851)


Appendix Two: Essays frequently printed or discussed

While not authorial, the traditional titles generally give a good idea of content.


"On the Pleasures of the Imagination" (S411): Blair, Bain, Scott 2, Graham


"On Discretion" (S225): Alexander, Murray
"On Pious Gratitude", Alexander
"On Cheerfulness" (S381): Alexander, Milns, MM, Fisher, Moore, Enfield, Elegant Extracts, Scott 1, Scott 2, Armstrong
"On Modesty". Milns, Moore, Enfield, Elegant Extracts
"On Virtue" (S375): MM., Fisher
"How to Spend Time" (S93): MM, Fisher, Moore
"On Contentment" (S574): Scott 2, Murray
"Westminster Abbey" (S26): J.N., Scott 2


"Omniscience of the Deity" (S565): MM, Buchanan, Elegant Extracts
"Piety and Virtue from God" (S571): MM, Buchanan, Elegant Extracts
"Reflections on the Third Heaven" (S580): MM, Buchanan, Elegant Extracts
"On the Immortal Soul" (S111): MM, Fisher, Moore, Murray, Scott 2
"Animal Work/Scale of Being" (S519): MM, Buchanan, Fisher, Murray
"Planetary and Terrestrial Worlds": Murray, Scott 1, Bell, Carpenter J.


"On Pleasure and Pain" (S183): MM, Enfield
"Vision of Mirza" (S159): MM, Fisher, Barrie
"Mountain of Affliction" (S76): MM, Fisher, Moore
"Tale of a Dervish": Enfield, Carpenter J.


"On Planting": Alexander


[Based on a paper given at the Warwick Colloquium, November 1993]