It has of late been the fashion to compare the style of Addison and Johnson, and to depreciate, I think, very unjustly, the style of Addison as nerveless and feeble, because it has not the strength and energy of that of Johnson. Their prose may be balanced like the poetry of Dryden and Pope. Both are excellent, though in different ways. Addison writes with the ease of a gentleman. His readers fancy that a wise and accomplished companion is talking to them; so that he insinuates his sentiments and taste into their minds by an imperceptible influence. Johnson writes like a teacher. He dictates to his readers as if from an academical chair. They attend with awe and admiration; and his precepts are impressed upon them by his commanding eloquence. Addison's style, like a light wine, pleases everybody from the first. Johnson's, like a liquor of more body, seems too strong at first, but, by degrees, is highly relished; and such is the melody of his periods, so much do they captivate the ear, and seize upon the attention, that there is scarcely any writer, however inconsiderable, who does not aim, in some degree, at the same species of excellence. But let us not ungratefully undervalue that beautiful style, which has pleasingly conveyed to us much instruction and entertainment. Though comparatively weak, opposed to Johnson's Herculean vigour, let us not call it positively feeble.
- James Boswell, the Life of Samuel Johnson
James Boswell made very detailed observations of his two friends, Samuel Johnson and Joseph Addison, in a passage from the biography, the Life of Samuel Johnson. While it is somewhat doubtful that Boswell would insult Johnson in his own biography, he means no disrespect to Addison. Boswell does in fact believe Addison is an excellent writer, while it is clear he heavily favors Johnson. In this excerpt, he compared the writing styles of the two authors, subtly using diction and literary references to emphasize the writing ability of Samuel Johnson.
Metaphors and similes are probably the most obvious way to compare and contrast Johnson and Addison. The first and most prevalent was the social position of the two authors. Boswell wrote that Addison seemed like a gentleman friend, whereas Johnson speaks from "an academical chair." Reading into this, the most likely interpretation is that although one gets along with and can speak with a friend, one normally respects and looks up to an instructor. Also, he compares the two to liquors. Addison is like "a light wine," compared to Johnson who is like "a liquor of more body." Again, at first the reader is mislead to thinking Addison is better just because it pleases most everyone, and Johnson is harsh. But light wine is also weak and effects the drinker very little, whereas a hard liquor takes time to develop a taste for and a small amount has a rather large impact. Light wine is simple, whilst a stronger liquor is complex. This can be interpreted to say that Addison is simply for amusement, whereas if the reader wants to learn something new or read other ideas and viewpoints that may effect his own he should read Johnson. So indirectly both major metaphors favor Johnson.
Finally, diction is even more subtle, but much more powerful. One needs only to look at the way in which Boswell phrases his statements. When comparing the method the writers use to enlighten the reader, Addison "insinuates," while Johnson "dictates." Immidiately, we can see the stronger word is used for Johnson. With "insinuates," the reader gets a feeling of a weak force suggesting something to him, whereas "dictates" conveys a commanding nature, as if Johnson is telling the reader how it is. Second, the way in which the readers listens to the authors is different. While the readers "fancy" what Addison is telling them, they "attend with awe and admiration" when Johnson is speaking. Boswell believes that the listener may take in a passing enjoyment of Addison's work, but would be impressed, amazed, and astounded by the power of Johnson. Finally, Addison has a "commanding eloquence," which suggests that the listener respects him, admires his gentility, and perhaps believes he is wise. However, with Johnson, his "precepts are impressed upon them." This statement suggests that he has strong ideas which he skillfully forces upon the reader, and the reader considers and even accepts those opinions. Each example of diction suggests how Boswell prefers Johnson.
Although Boswell prefers and flatters Samuel Johnson's work, he does not degrade Joseph Addison's writing at all. After all, a light wine can still be enjoyed if you want a small amount of pleasure and nothing drastic. However, if one wishes to become inebriated by ideas and intoxicated by knowledge, Johnson should be the choice.