Essays and Tales

Author: Joseph Addison

Next Essay

Operose nihil aguat. SENECA.

Busy about nothing.

There is nothing more certain than that every man would be a wit if he could; and notwithstanding pedants of pretended depth and solidity are apt to decry the writings of a polite author, as flash and froth, they all of them show, upon occasion, that they would spare no pains to arrive at the character of those whom they seem to despise. For this reason we often find them endeavouring at works of fancy, which cost them infinite pangs in the production. The truth of it is, a man had better be a galley-slave than a wit, were one to gain that title by those elaborate trifles which have been the inventions of such authors as were often masters of great learning, but no genius.

In my last paper I mentioned some of these false wits among the ancients; and in this shall give the reader two or three other species of them, that flourished in the same early ages of the world. The first I shall produce are the lipogrammatists or letterdroppers of antiquity, that would take an exception, without any reason, against some particular letter in the alphabet, so as not to admit it once into a whole poem. One Tryphiodorus was a great master in this kind of writing. He composed an "Odyssey" or epic poem on the adventures of Ulysses, consisting of four-and-twenty books, having entirely banished the letter A from his first book, which was called Alpha, as lucus a non lucendo, because there was not an Alpha in it. His second book was inscribed Beta for the same reason. In short, the poet excluded the whole four-and-twenty letters in their turns, and showed them, one after another, that he could do his business without them.

It must have been very pleasant to have seen this poet avoiding the reprobate letter, as much as another would a false quantity, and making his escape from it through the several Greek dialects, when he was pressed with it in any particular syllable. For the most apt and elegant word in the whole language was rejected, like a diamond with a flaw in it, if it appeared blemished with a wrong letter. I shall only observe upon this head, that if the work I have here mentioned had been now extant, the "Odyssey" of Tryphiodorus, in all probability, would have been oftener quoted by our learned pedants than the "Odyssey" of Homer. What a perpetual fund would it have been of obsolete words and phrases, unusual barbarisms and rusticities, absurd spellings and complicated dialects! I make no question but that it would have been looked upon as one of the most valuable treasuries of the Greek tongue.

I find likewise among the ancients that ingenious kind of conceit which the moderns distinguish by the name of a rebus, that does not sink a letter, but a whole word, by substituting a picture in its place. When Caesar was one of the masters of the Roman mint, he placed the figure of an elephant upon the reverse of the public money; the word Caesar signifying an elephant in the Punic language. This was artificially contrived by Caesar, because it was not lawful for a private man to stamp his own figure upon the coin of the commonwealth. Cicero, who was so called from the founder of his family, that was marked on the nose with a little wen like a vetch, which is Cicer in Latin, instead of Marcus Tullius Cicero, ordered the words Marcus Tullius, with a figure of a vetch at the end of them, to be inscribed on a public monument. This was done probably to show that he was neither ashamed of his name nor family, notwithstanding the envy of his competitors had often reproached him with both. In the same manner we read of a famous building that was marked in several parts of it with the figures of a frog and a lizard; those words in Greek having been the names of the architects, who by the laws of their country were never permitted to inscribe their own names upon their works. For the same reason it is thought that the forelock of the horse, in the antique equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, represents at a distance the shape of an owl, to intimate the country of the statuary, who, in all probability, was an Athenian. This kind of wit was very much in vogue among our own countrymen about an age or two ago, who did not practise it for any oblique reason, as the ancients above-mentioned, but purely for the sake of being witty. Among innumerable instances that may be given of this nature, I shall produce the device of one Mr. Newberry, as I find it mentioned by our learned Camden in his Remains. Mr. Newberry, to represent his name by a picture, hung up at his door the sign of a yew-tree, that has several berries upon it, and in the midst of them a great golden N hung upon a bough of the tree, which by the help of a little false spelling made up the word Newberry.

I shall conclude this topic with a rebus, which has been lately hewn out in freestone, and erected over two of the portals of Blenheim House, being the figure of a monstrous lion tearing to pieces a little cock. For the better understanding of which device I must acquaint my English reader that a cock has the misfortune to be called in Latin by the same word that signifies a Frenchman, as a lion is the emblem of the English nation. Such a device in so noble a pile of building looks like a pun in an heroic poem; and I am very sorry the truly ingenious architect would suffer the statuary to blemish his excellent plan with so poor a conceit. But I hope what I have said will gain quarter for the cock, and deliver him out of the lion’s paw.

I find likewise in ancient times the conceit of making an echo talk sensibly, and give rational answers. If this could be excusable in any writer, it would be in Ovid where he introduces the Echo as a nymph, before she was worn away into nothing but a voice. The learned Erasmus, though a man of wit and genius, has composed a dialogue upon this silly kind of device, and made use of an Echo, who seems to have been a very extraordinary linguist, for she answers the person she talks with in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, according as she found the syllables which she was to repeat in any of those learned languages. Hudibras, in ridicule of this false kind of wit, has described Bruin bewailing the loss of his bear to the solitary Echo, who is of great use to the poet in several distiches, as she does not only repeat after him, but helps out his verse, and furnishes him with rhymes:-

He raged, and kept as heavy a coil as Stout Hercules for loss of Hylas; Forcing the valleys to repeat The accents of his sad regret; He beat his breast, and tore his hair, For loss of his dear crony bear: That Echo from the hollow ground His doleful wailings did resound More wistfully by many times, Than in small poets’ splay-foot rhymes, That make her, in their rueful stories, To answer to int’rogatories, And most unconscionably depose Things of which she nothing knows; And when she has said all she can say, ’Tis wrested to the lover’s fancy. Quoth he, "O whither, wicked Bruin, Art thou fled to my"—Echo, Ruin? "I thought th’ hadst scorn’d to budge a step For fear." Quoth Echo, Marry guep. "Am I not here to take thy part?" Then what has quell’d thy stubborn heart? Have these bones rattled, and this head So often in thy quarrel bled? Nor did I ever winch or grudge it, For thy dear sake." Quoth she, Mum budget. Think’st thou ’twill not be laid i’ th’ dish, Thou turn’dst thy back?" Quoth Echo, Pish. To run from those th’ hadst overcome Thus cowardly?" Quoth Echo, Mum. "But what a-vengeance makes thee fly From me too as thine enemy? Or if thou hadst no thought of me, Nor what I have endured for thee, Yet shame and honour might prevail To keep thee thus from turning tail: For who would grudge to spend his blood in His honour’s cause?" Quoth she, A pudding.

Part I., Cant. 3, 183.


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Chicago: Joseph Addison, "Next Essay," Essays and Tales, trans. Evans, Sebastian in Essays and Tales Original Sources, accessed June 16, 2024,

MLA: Addison, Joseph. "Next Essay." Essays and Tales, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in Essays and Tales, Original Sources. 16 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Addison, J, 'Next Essay' in Essays and Tales, trans. . cited in , Essays and Tales. Original Sources, retrieved 16 June 2024, from