A DEAD HERO
“The soul, secur’d in her
At the drawn dagger, and defies its point.
The stars shall fade away, the sun himself
Grow dim with age, and nature sink in years;
But thou shall flourish in immortal youth,
Unhurt amidst the war of elements,
The wrecks of matter, and the crush of worlds.”
So doth noble Cato philosophise when, in Addison’s stately tragedy, he gazes on his sword and plans to admit the Grim Visitor whom the most of us wish to keep without our threshold until the last fatal moment. How those lines used to thrill the classic hearts of our ancestors; how Barton Booth, who
“shook the stage, and made the people stare,”
could put into this mild plea for suicide a fervour that caused Drury Lane to ring with applause. What mattered it if the actor, as Pope related, wore a long wig and flowered gown? Cato was none the less himself for that, nor did Booth’s elegance of delivery seem unwelcome because his clothes pictured the dandified spirit of the eighteenth century.
“Cato!” The play is forgotten now, but there was magic in its name in the palmy days of its author, gentle, kindly Joseph Addison. So potent was that magic, such vivid impression did the fate of the grand old Roman make on more than one mind, when thus retold in lofty verse, that the tragedy was cited as a justification of self-destruction.
“What Cato did, and Addison approved
Cannot be wrong.”
These lines, written on a scrap of paper by Eustace Budgell, were found shortly after the death of that odd genius. From being an honoured contributor to the Spectator, Budgell descended to the depths of infamy, poverty, and despair, and so one day he threw himself out of a boat under London Bridge, and the waters of the Thames closed over him for ever. He owed his early prosperity to Addison, his cousin, and by way of gratitude he sought to throw upon his benefactor’s memory the odium of this moist and melancholy exit from the world.
Their lies no odium, nevertheless, where Addison is concerned. His own life may have been clouded towards the last by the mists of disappointment, but to us admiring moderns he is all sunshine. Not the fiery sunshine of summer, but the genial, dignified light of an autumn afternoon when nature seems in most reflective mood. For there was nothing impetuous or ardent in the composition of this good-humoured philosopher; and while he railed so well at the petty sins and vanities of the England in which he dwelt, the satire had naught of venom, malice, or uncharitableness.
Nowadays Addison and the Spectator go rolling down to fame together, an indivisible reminder—the very essence indeed—of the virtues, peccadilloes, greatness and meanness of early eighteenth century life. We may forget that Joe was quite a politician in his prime, we are even loth to recall that there was ever such a play as “Cato,” but so long as the English language has power to charm, the dear old volumes of the Spectator will stand out as a delightful landmark of that literature which forms the heritage of American and Briton alike.