14. Addison's Walk


Object type: Engraving entitled "Addison's Walk at Oxford"

Materials: Ink on Paper

Location: John Cassell's Illustrated History (1856).  

© Photo by Curator, from the copy at the University of California, Los Angeles Special Collections.


If ever a place was haunted (but no-one was around to notice) it would be Addison’s grounds in St. Marks’s Parish near Rugby.  Addison was the celebrated author of Cato, essayist responsible for many of the best Spectator papers, and a widely remarked statesman and author of occasional letters and poems.  At the height of his fame, even while madly penning essay after essay for the Spectator, he also turned his mind to quieter pursuits.  It was even then, in the astonishingly busy half-decade from 1710-1715 or so, that he purchased a Tudor-era villa, and began the project of remaking the grounds.  He must have been swamped with work, but he also describes these years some of the happiest in his life.  Country life agreed with him.  He set out the sites for over a thousand trees and began planting.  As he remarked in a letter to Alexander Pope, he “began to take much pleasure in it.”

From an untitled pencil sketch (now lost) of Bilton Hall, included without attribution in D. G. Kingsbury, Bilton Hall (London: Mitre Press, 1957).

Pleasure is a loaded word in Addison’s lexicon.  It was in fact in precisely these years that Addison revisited an essay composed in his youth, retitling it “The Pleasures of the Imagination” and publishing it in The Spectator (see Exhibit 13).  It was one of the papers in the “Pleasures” series that helped to change the course of English gardening—for Addison proposed a relatively new aesthetic that he was among the earliest to practice.  And we know, as well as you can know anything, that he revised this essay at Bilton, for the marked-up manuscript was found there, years later, by an antiquarian doing a bit of research on Addison and his house. 

The lined walk of trees emanating from the central room of the house, which peers over the garden like a lidded eye, is the second of three such paths each called “Addison’s Walk.”  From his days at Oxford, at least, Addison had delighted in walking; he took regular turns in the wooded walks behind Magdalen College, his alma mater, along a lined path.  This is the first path called after Addison.  The third is a walk in Glasnevin, Ireland, planted by Addison’s friend and editor of his posthumous works, the botanist-poet Thomas Tickell (for which there is an audio tour).  This path, a magnificent walk lined with a double row of yews, was planted in memory of the botanist-poet’s lifelong friend.  All three of these paths share some features in common; they all three are long, relatively straight walks, that frame a series of prospects.  That is, each one encourages a walker to proceed, pause, gaze over a view, then proceed again.  Addison’s Walk, in other words, exemplifies many of the things Addison liked about gardens: it is a stroll interrupted by vistas—which more than one walker has found apt for prompting the association-work of the curatorial mind.

Joseph Addison in a grotto, overlooking a garden, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.  Original at the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 3193.

Addison remarked in a number of places that he understood writing to be of two different sorts, and each was like a kind of walk.  In the first, the author stands at the center of a regular park, with its long rows of walks, and can see everything at a glance.  Essays like this are written with regularity and method.  In the other, the author explores a number of different topics, often linked only by association.  Essays like this were capable of more surprising insights and possibly even greater pleasure, but they tended to deliver no clear message.  The walks that he created for himself seem to draw from the advantages of each.  They are clearly arranged with an object in view; they follow the straight path towards some end.  But they also leave ample space for reflection, encouraging the kind of pauses that are typical of the curatorial mind.

To see Addison walking, in other words, was to see him thinking.  I have argued this point in more detail elsewhere in this museum (Exhibit 13).  But the reverse also appears to be true.  Addison thinking, especially when creating, is very much like a walker.  Thinking is in other words the traversing of space.  And this brings me back to the point with which I began, for a surprising number of poets and admirers, especially after Addison’s death, wrote minor chorological poems in his praise.  Addison himself wrote several such chorological works: a sort of tour-guide of Italy, salted with quotes from the classics, a celebration of Oxford, phrased as a long walking-tour pointing out its historical sites, and so on.  And this style, which he helped pioneer, what might be called a curatorial style, prompted numerous imitations from his friends.

I’d like to share just one of these imitations, which must stand for many more.  It is a poem by Thomas Tickell, the same botanist that planted a walk in Glasnevin in Addison’s honor.  It is a eulogy on Addison, written in the weeks after his death, and it is reflecting on the way that Addison’s spirit seemed to Tickell to turn up in certain places:

That awful form (which, so ye Heavens decree,
Must still be lov'd and still deplor'd by me),
In nightly visions seldom fails to rise,
Or, rous'd by fancy, meets my waking eyes.
If business calls, or crowded courts invite,
Th' unblemish'd statesman seems to strike my sight;
If in the stage I seek to soothe my care,
I meet his soul, which breathes in Cato there;
If pensive to the rural shades I rove,
His shape o'ertakes me in the lonely grove;
'Twas there of just and good he reason'd strong,
Clear'd some great truth, or rais'd some serious song;
There patient show'd us the wise course to steer,
A candid censor, and a friend severe;
There taught us how to live; and (oh! too high
The price for knowledge) taught us how to die.

Tickell’s poem is the best I know of at capturing Addison’s spirit.  On the one hand, it captures the way that Tickell himself associated Addison with certain resonant places.  He therefore offers a eulogy that is in fact a tour of the places associated with him, a curatorial walk through court, stage, and wood.  It is a poem, in this sense, about space, rather than a person, about the way that a single person can shape the spaces in which he moved.  But it also, by moving in this very way between spaces, reproduces Addison’s own curatorial style, which, I have been suggesting, was also how he thought.  It’s hard to find a more flattering eulogy, at least in the eighteenth century.  Tickell, who had all along modeled himself after Addison, winds up writing Addison’s spirit into verse.

I’ll wrap up this exhibit with a few remarks on Bilton Hall.  Addison's spirit continues to haunt the place.  There are rumors that a batch of manuscripts are still secreted away in the house (i.e. Court, 2003)-- although, given that the house was recently converted into flats, it seems unlikely to me that anything remains to be found.  But the local legend continues that Addison's spirit abides.  This seems right to me.  After all, Tickle was only one of many who thought to write of Addison's spirit by writing of his house and grounds.  

David Leatherbarrow has recently remarked on an oddity in criticism on Addison's work, especially his writings that touch nearest on gardening.  Although it is well-known that Addison lived at Bilton, and although his remarks on gardening are well-known to have shaped English garden history, almost no-one has invested much time in puzzling out Addison's own garden.  Having made the trip to Bilton, however, I can attest that we can be forgiven for not all making the pilgrimage.  This is because, in large part, the grounds are gone, having been cut down to make way for a set of developments.  A single pencil-sketch, made more than a century after Addison’s death, shows some relics of Addison’s Walk, much overgrown, but the rest is gone.

There is, however, a single line of yews, those ancient trees that often outlive whole dynasties, still standing along the left-hand line of what was once Addison’s walk.  I suspect that they mourn an absent pair-- another line of yews, shown in the anonymous sketch, which were evidently felled to make space for a yard.  When these last survivors fall, perhaps someone will think to count their rings.  My guess is that, were they to fall today, they would prove to be just a touch over 3 centuries old, the very trees that gave Addison so much pleasure as he took to gardening in the summer of 1711.