Joseph Addison: The Fairy Way of Writing

The_Quarrel_of_Oberon_and_Titania

From Joseph Addison’s The Spectator No. 419 (1 July 1712).

There is a kind of Writing, wherein the Poet quite loses sight of Nature, and entertains his Reader’s Imagination with the Characters and Actions of such Persons as have many of them no Existence, but what he bestows on them. Such are Fairies, Witches, Magicians, Demons, and departed Spirits. This Mr. Dryden calls the Fairie may of Writing, which is, indeed, more difficult than any other that depends on the Poet’s Fancy, because he has no Pattern to follow in it, and must work altogether out of his own Invention.

There is a very odd turn of Thought required for this sort of Writing, and it is impossible for a Poet to succeed in it, who has not a particular Cast of Fancy, and an Imagination naturally fruitful and superstitious. Besides this, he ought to be very well versed in Legends and Fables, antiquated Romances, and the Traditions of Nurses and old Women, that he may fall in with our natural Prejudices, and humour those Notions which we have imbibed in our Infancy. For, otherwise, he will be apt to make his Fairies talk like People of his own Species, and not like other Setts of Beings, who converse with different Objects, and think in a different manner from that of Mankind;

Sylvis deducti caveant, me Judice, Fauni
Ne velut inanti triviis ac paene forenses
Aut nimium teneris juvenentur versibus—

I do not say with Mr. Bays in the Rehearsal, that Spirits must not be confined to speak Sense, but it is certain their Sense ought to be a little discoloured, that it may seem particular, and proper to the Person and the Condition of the Speaker.

These Descriptions raise a pleasing kind of Horrour in the Mind of the Reader, and amuse his Imagination with the Strangeness and Novelty of the Persons who are represented in them. They bring up into our Memory the Stories we have heard in our Child-hood, and favour those secret Terrours and Apprehensions to which the Mind of Man is naturally subject. We are pleased with surveying the different Habits and Behaviours of Foreign Countries, how much more must we be delighted and surprised when we are led, as it were, into a new Creation, and see the Persons and Manners of another Species? Men of cold Fancies, and Philosophical Dispositions, object to this kind of Poetry, that it has not Probability enough to affect the Imagination. But to this it may be answered, that we are sure, in general, there are many Intellectual Beings in the World besides our selves, and several Species of Spirits, who are subject to different Laws and Oeconomies from those of Mankind; when we see, therefore, any of these represented naturally, we cannot look upon the Representation as altogether impossible; nay, many are prepossess with such false Opinions, as dispose them to believe these particular Delusions; at least, we have all heard so many pleasing Relations in favour of them, that we do not care for seeing through the Falshood, and willingly give our selves up to so agreeable an Imposture.

The Ancients have not much of this Poetry among them, for, indeed, almost the whole Substance of it owes its Original to the Darkness and Superstition of later Ages, when pious Frauds were made use of to amuse Mankind, and frighten them into a Sense of their Duty. Our Forefathers looked upon Nature with more Reverence and Horrour, before the World was enlightened by Learning and Philosophy, and loved to astonish themselves with the Apprehensions of Witchcraft, Prodigies, Charms and Enchantments. There was scarce a Village in England that had not a Ghost in it, the Churchyards were all haunted, every large Common had a Circle of Fairies belonging to it, and there was scarce a Shepherd to be met with who had not seen a Spirit.

Among all the Poets of this Kind our English are much the best by what I have yet seen, whether it be that we abound with more Stories of this Nature, or that the Genius of our Country is fitter for this sort of Poetry. For the English are naturally Fanciful, and very often disposed by that Gloominess and Melancholly of Temper which is so frequent in our Nation, to many wild Notions and Visions, to which others are not so liable.

Among the English, Shakespear has incomparably excelled all others. That noble Extravagance of Fancy, which he had in so great Perfection, throughly qualified him to touch this weak superstitious Part of his Reader’s Imagination; and made him capable of succeeding, where he had nothing to support him besides the Strength of his own Genius. There is something so wild and yet so solemn in the Speeches of his Ghosts, Fairies, Witches, and the like Imaginary Persons, that we cannot forbear thinking them natural, tho’ we have no Rule by which to judge of them, and must confess, if there are such Beings in the World, it looks highly probable they should talk and act as he has represented them.

There is another sort of Imaginary Beings, that we sometimes meet with among the Poets, when the Author represents any Passion, Appetite, Virtue or Vice, under a visible Shape, and makes it a Person or an Actor in his Poem. Of this Nature are the Descriptions of Hunger and Envy in Ovid, of Fame in Virgil, and of Sin and Death in Milton. We find a whole Creation of the like shadowy Persons in Spencer, who had an admirable Talent in Representations of this kind. I have discoursed of these Emblematical Persons in former Papers, and shall therefore only mention them in this Place. Thus we see how many ways Poetry addresses it self to the Imagination, as it has not only the whole Circle of Nature for its Province, but makes new Worlds of its own, shews us Persons that are not to be found in Being, and represents even the Faculties of the Soul, with her several Virtues and Vices, in a sensible Shape and Character.

I shall, in my two following Papers, consider in general, how other kinds of Writing are qualified to please the Imagination, with which I intend to conclude this Essay.


Beginning to collect lore and essays on the heritage of the fantastic… In this famous essay on pleasures of imagination arising from horror, Joseph Addison regards the taste for gothic in literature to be a particularly modern and English phenomenon: “we find a whole creation of the like shadowy persons in Spenser.” The phrase “fairy way of writing” comes from Dryden’s preface to King Arthur.

Already we see in this early essay the Idealist notions of the artificial, the inner gaze, the unreal the power of Invention, the abstract mind’s power over the natural – imagination as deceiver and tempter to the Unreal realms. Strangeness and Novelty, horror of the unknown: the Fantastic Sublime. For Addison it was as allogoriesis that such worlds exist to provide figures suitable for morality plays of the passions. Being a man of his age the notion of these things being anything more than fancy was to enter that sphere of madness. Like many of his time Reason not Imagination ruled the course of human destiny, not to be challenged by the old folklore of past ages of superstition. Yet, he still read such tales so one wonders if under the silence of reason he was not after all a believer in the Old Ways…

4 thoughts on “Joseph Addison: The Fairy Way of Writing

    • Don’t have time to comment on the whole essay, today (will need too in another post at some future time!) – which, yes, I’ve read a few times before, but will comment only on the central passages relating to sub-creation:

      “The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

      Ridiculous though it may be for one so ill-instructed to have an opinion on this critical matter, I venture to think the verbal distinction philologically inappropriate, and the analysis inaccurate. The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Subcreative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose: in a sense, that is, which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic. I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only “not actually present,” but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.”

      Tolkien reinstates the older Kantian/Romantic notion of Imagination as creative faculty as proper and central over the faculty of Reason as ratio/fancy in his metaphysics. He divides the conscious aspect of our mind in some ways into a three-fold form: image-making, fancy, expression (art, sub-creation). The first, the image-making faculty seems to follow the older Platonic distinctions of the Mind as Demiurge – with one caveat, in Tolkien the Mind-as-Demiurge can create rather than shape existing (Fancy) ideas, objects, events into new objects that can then be expressed through “art” or the final form of “sub-creation” in imitation of the Creator. So in this sense he’s enacting Kant’s basic map of the mind.

      Yet, as you see his distinction is that the Mind, as in Deleuze, is productive and sub-creative rather than empty or lacking (Lacan: desiring as needful, not productive); that as he says at the end “the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent”. So that for him the distinction between God’s power of invention and creation, which for him is pure and continuous “creation,” humans are bound to manipulating “images” as he says: “I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only “not actually present,” but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there.” This is Plato’s two-world theory of the pure realm of Ideas set against our lower or shadow world in which the human can manipulate and form images/copies of the pure world like the demiurge and produce “art” as “sub-creation”. Sub-creation as techne: as Bernard Stigler defines as “A way of revealing … [that] brings into being what is not.’1

      But unlike Addison and the Enlightenment gang he never speaks of logic, Reason, etc. which is a narrow faculty; or, circular and instrumental. Like most Romantics and Idealists he is reinstating Imagination as primary faculty above Fancy etc.; as creative, while Reason (Fancy:Ratio) is only able to manipulate primary world artifacts. This is the two-world distinction: Imagination can like Prometheus steal the fire of Ideas, and manifest them through the power of sub-creative Imagination to produce art/techne as sub-creation in the primary world.

      In fact in that very next paragraph he admits it:

      “Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being “arrested.” They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.”

      This sense of “arresting strangeness,” which goes with the Figurative sense of “to catch and hold” (the attention, etc.), being awed by that which is different and numinous – not of this primary world. So for him “art” is creative in a sub-creative fashion, enabled to bring those Ideas out of the Other into the Primary sub-world…

      And, as you see he sees this a difficult to achieve:

      “Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” ”

      For him the real artist, unlike the journeyman worker who manipulates objects from the Primary world to produce decorative effects (“Fancy”), the real artist is able to take his copies/Ideas from the pure realm of continuous creation and produce something new that is not found in the Primary world.

      Of course you have to buy into this Platonic Idealism of the Real vs. the Unreal of our Primary World, etc. for all this to work. Which Tolkien defends as sub-creation, etc. He’s following a long line of Idealism…

      1. 1. Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. trans. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998:9

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