The Vision of Mirza and Westminster Abbey, by Joseph Addison

by Paul Mathers


While I’ve enjoyed the other essays in this volume, this was the first that made me want to seek out more writings by the author (if I live long enough to finish this series).

The Vision of Mirza claims to be a found manuscript (unlikely) and tells the story of a vision of an allegory of human existence. Perhaps most striking and best remembered is a bridge, veiled in mist on each end, over which people are traveling. Periodically, trap doors open and people fall into the waters below. Some, as they fall, seek to grasp at anything and everything around them. Some look piously upward as the fall. There are some on the bridge who shove other, weaker travelers onto the platforms of these trap doors.

There is not exposition on the meaning of the vision, nor, I think, does there need to be.

Westminster Abbey is a piece in which Addison talks about his penchant for taking physical and spiritual constitutionals in the eponymous place. He reflects on mortality as he walks past stones bearing the names of some of Britain’s famed:

“Though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy; and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones. By this means I can improve myself with those objects, which others consider with terror. When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.”

I know, right? You can just picture me sitting on a park bench with the book scribbling furiously in my notebook, right?

Addison lived in that bridge time between the Puritans and the Age of Reason. Not quite as long lived, but essentially in the same period as J.S. Bach. As you know, I’ve been writing an epic poem about Glenn Gould and last night I was focusing heavily on happy old J.S. At one point I came across Glenn talking about that period:

“But at its most poetic, it was still an age in which the wonderful utilities of science and the proud genius of man could coexist with the magical, mystical, fearful rites of belief.”

I am finding myself increasingly drawn to that period, identifying heavily with it.

Did I enjoy it? Heavens, yes. Likely more than any other essay in this volume so far. Did I get something out of it? A hearty yes! It lead me to some sober reflection, an occasion which I am always grateful for, as well as provided another moment of fellowship with the long-dead, finding the universe slightly less cold on account of knowing that one more simpatico soul once existed. Would I recommend it? If I had the money and a volume of nothing more than these two essays existed, I might stand on a busy street corner passing them out.