Escaping the Dungeon: Addison on Imagination

“A good poet will give the reader a more lively idea of an army or a battle in a description, than if he actually saw them drawn up in squadrons and battalions, or engaged in the confusion of a fight. Our minds should be opened to great conceptions and inflamed with glorious sentiments by what the actor speaks. Can all the trappings or equipage of a hero give Brutus half that pomp and majesty which he receives from a few lines of Shakespeare?”

-Joseph Addison, Spectator No. 42

From March 1711 through December 1712, two English friends collaborated on a unique daily literary journal called The Spectator. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele first developed a long-standing relationship at Charterhouse School in London that was renewed and deepened when they attended Oxford College together. In their adult years, this association blossomed into one of the most celebrated literary partnerships of the 18th century. 

For nearly two years, reviews, satires, criticisms, and essays flowed from their busy pens. And in this bold endeavor, the friends were often aided by literary luminaries of the day, such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. 

By turns frothy, gossipy, poetic, and profound, The Spectator was never dull. The anonymous contributors sought to reinvigorate the English literary scene, which they felt was stagnating under the stultifying influence of Neo-Classicism. 

Steele had previously written several well-received comedies, including The Tender Husband and The Mistake. His contributions to The Spectator show off his flair for wit and often take the form of fictional letters to the editor. Addison’s articles tend more toward serious subjects and criticism. In one series of essays, he made the first sustained attempt at analyzing Milton’s Paradise Lost. Writing of Addison’s passionate engagement with his subject, Harry Blamires notes, “Literature moved him, and he sought to understand why.”1

And while its initial subscription base was small, delighted readers shared back issues from hand to hand, and eventually, these famous sheets were reissued in book form. Thus although it proved short-lived, this publication exerted a lasting influence on English Literature. 

The waves stirred up by Addison and Steele even rolled across the Atlantic to break on the shores of the New World. Several American Founding Fathers, including James Madison and Benjamin Franklin, noted the importance of The Spectator’s influence on their later life and thought. 

One of the most intriguing sections of The Spectator is a series of essays penned by Addison in 1712 on the pleasures of the imagination. The writer approaches his subject by degrees. He speaks first of the joys of sight. “Wide and undetermined prospects are as pleasing to the fancy, as the speculations of eternity or infinitude are to the understanding. But if there be a beauty or uncommonness joined with this grandeur, as in a troubled ocean, a heaven adorned with stars and meteors, or a spacious landskip cut out into rivers, woods, rocks, and meadows, the pleasure still grows upon us, as it rises from more than a single principle.”

Having established the power of visual perception, he moves on to the enjoyment we feel when simply calling these scenes to mind. And finally, as though spying the object of his search, he tramps down into the pleasant valley of imagination in literary works. “But I shall here confine myself to those pleasures of the imagination which proceed from ideas raised by words.”

For Addison, this faculty seems to have a transcendent quality. And even after 300 years, there is a freshness to these observations that still resonates and lingers with us. “Words,” he tells us, “when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a description often gives them more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in stronger colours, and painted more to the life in his imagination, by the help of words, than by an actual survey of the scene which they describe. In this case, the poet seems to get the better of nature.”

Entering into the spirit of his subject, he goes on to discuss his impressions of the classical tradition in vivid and creative language. “Reading the Iliad is like traveling through a country uninhabited, where the fancy is entertained with a thousand savage prospects of vast desarts, wide uncultivated marshes, huge forests, misshapen tocks, and precipices. On the contrary, the Aeneid is like a well-ordered garden, where it is impossible to find out any part unadorned, or cast our eyes upon a single spot, that does not produce some beautiful plant or flower. But when we are in the Metamorphosis, we are walking on enchanted ground, and see nothing but scenes of magick lying round us.”

At one point, Addison even seems to play with the Platonic metaphor of the Cave. But rather than contemplation of eternal forms, it is the imaginative act that liberates captives. “We cannot indeed have a single image in the fancy that did not make its first entrance through the sight; but we have the power of retaining, altering, and compounding those images, which we have once received into all the varieties of picture and vision that are most agreeable to the imagination; for by this faculty a man in a dungeon is capable of entertaining himself with scenes and landskips more beautiful than any that can be found in the whole compass of nature.”

In 1712 Addison left the magazine to pursue his other writing projects and political career. In 1713 he brought out his tragedy Cato which was to remain popular long after his lifetime. Steele briefly revived the publication without him in 1714. Still, without his friend, it proved difficult to sustain. 

The Spectator offered readers both a chance to poke fun and an honest-hearted encounter with the world of literature. And its reflections on the power of imagination still show us a mysterious door by which we may escape the dungeon of our workaday world. And often, when we have wandered for a time in the fantastic gardens we find there, we may return refreshed and renewed to our struggles.  

  1. Blamires, Harry, A History of Literary Criticism, Macmillan Education LTD, p. 137

All other citations are in the public domain

Escaping the Dungeon: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Artwork: The Window on Brehat Island, Marc Chagall, 1924

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