1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Mark Akenside

George Hardinge, in Nichols, Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 8:521-25.



Millbourne House, June 19 [1813].

Dear Sir,

I have drawn a little sketch for you of AKENSIDE, WALPOLE, and BRYANT; men with whom I had for several years been in habits of the most intimate acquaintance.

Dr. AKENSIDE was known to my Father, as being Mr. Dyson's friend, long before he was known to me. As to Mr. Dyson's knowledge of Mr. Hardinge, it originated in their contract for the succession of Mr. Dyson to the post of Chief Clerk in the House of Commons, when Mr. Hardinge was preparing to resign it; and the intercourse, ripening into mutual esteem, produced a cordial friendship, which lasted as long as Mr. Hardinge lived.

The first I can recollect of my own personal acquaintance with Dr. Akenside's name and Muse was my father's recital to me, when I was a boy at Eton School, of the Invocation to antient Greece, in that celebrated Poem which has been so depreciated by Dr. Johnson, that I fear no error of judgment and of taste, manifest in that criticism, can redeem the censure from heavier imputations. This inspired passage, as I think it still, was recommended additionally to me by the charm of recitation, in which not even Garrick himself could be superior to Mr. Nicholas Hardinge; though he wanted either nerves or powers to make a figure in the House of Commons, and though he had no musical ear. But his reading and repeating Ear, if I may use that phrase, was exquisite; and his accent, prompted by his judgment, uniformly just. It is very singular, but it is true, that Akenside was not a good reader of his own verse.

My Father admired him, as a gifted Poet, as a man of genius, of learning, and of taste — They were upon friendly terms. I have heard Akenside represent my Father as a man of admirable taste and judgment, of perfect honour, and of the kindest affections that ever breathed in a human breast. As I grew up into man, Akenside honoured me with a most affectionate regard; which I forfeited, as you will have occasion to see, a little before his death, to my infinite regret; but, I am sorry to add, with no remorse; for I was more "sinn'd against than sinning."

When I was at College, he sent me a letter of advice and of directions for the course of my academical studies, which in style and conception was the most ingenious and masterly work that ever that arduous topic has produced. In general, to do him justice, he wrote English prose with purity, with ease, and with spirit; in verse, he was occasionally a little quaint, laboured, and inflated; but I never discerned any such vice in his prose.

When I came from College to the Inns of Court, besides the opportunity of seeing him often at Mr. Dyson's house, and with my uncle Dr. Hardinge, I was often his dinner-guest, and generally with him alone. In addition to all his powers, arising from his genius and his eloquence, I had the enjoyment of his portfolio, enriched by capital prints from the most eminent Painters of Italy and Holland, which he illustrated with admirable taste.

He had in general society a pomp and stiffness of manner, not of expression, in which last he was no less chaste than flowing and correct. But the misfortune of this manner was in some degree connected with his figure and appearance. He looked as if he never could be undressed; and the hitch in his gait, whatever gave rise to it (a subject of obloquy too despicable to be answered, and which I am sorry that you have transcribed), compared with a solemn cast in his features, was, at the best, of a kind that was not companionable, and rather kept strangers at a distance from him. Though his features were good, manly, and expressive, a pale complexion of rather a sickly hue, and the laboured primness of a powdered wig in stiff curl, made his appearance altogether unpromising, if not grotesque. But, where he was intimate, we. admired, and was pleased with his party, he conversed most eloquently and gracefully. He had the misfortune, however, to have little or no taste for humour; and he took a jest very ill. Except in his political morality, which I could not admire, Dr. Akenside was a man of perfect honour, friendly, and liberal. His religious opinions were, I believe, a little whimsical and peculiar; but in general he kept them very much to himself. He and Mr. Dyson had both originally been Dissenters. He was irritable; had little restraint upon his temper among strangers; and was either peevish, or too oracular and sententious. He wanted gaiety of heart in society, and had no wit in his Muse or in his eloquence. I don't believe he had much depth of medical science, or much acuteness of medical sagacity; he certainly had no business or fame in that line. His great powers, besides the talent of poetry, were those of eloquent reasoning, historical knowledge, and philosophical taste, enlivened by the happiest and most brilliant allusions. He had an astonishing memory, and a most luminous application of it. I recollect that he read gratis all the modern books of any character, and that he had the right conferred upon him of opening the leaves. His comments were cherished; and if the book struck him with a powerful impression, I believe it was generally given to him by the Bookseller.

He lived incomparably well; and as I knew of no other source to his income but his constant Friend Mr. Dyson's munificence to him, I rejoiced in it, for the honour of them both. I never saw any thing like their friendship and their union of sentiments; yet nothing was more dissimilar than were the two men. Mr. Dyson was quite a man of business, of order, and figures — of parliamentary forms — and of political argument. His character (bating an amiable partiality in the Eulogist) is well drawn by Mr. Hatsell. He had neither fancy nor eloquence; and though he had strong prejudices, he veiled them in obliging manners.

The misfortune of their politics (and I was the victim of it in some degree) was, that, upon the accession of this Reign they entirely and radically changed them; for they became bigoted adherents to Lord Bute and the Tories, having at every earlier period been, as it were, the High Priests of the opposite creed. Mr. Dyson was preferred, and was ultimately pensioned. His friend, whom he always bore in mind, was made Physician to the Queen — Ex illo fluere — from that period both of them were converts, and zealots of course for the New Religion. My uncle Dr. Hardinge, whose wit and penetrating judgment had no delicacy in their blow, often told them both when they were young men (and with an oath which I must not repeat) "that, like a couple of ideots, they did not leave themselves a loop-hole — they could not sidle away into the opposite creed."

As my opinions were naturally upon the same line of politics which Lord Camden uniformly adopted and pursued, I offended my admired friend the Poet by too open a disclosure of my political faith, insignificant, qualified, and perfectly unassuming, as it was. It made a coolness between us — but I believe that his original friendship to me was never essentially impaired.

My uncle Dr. Hardinge was a comic tyrant over all his friends. I shall never be able to forget an evening of Civil War, and another of Peace, between these two Physicians. Dr. Akenside was the guest; and at supper, by a whimsical accident, they fell into a dispute upon the subject of a bilious colic. They were both of them absurdly eager. Dr. Hardinge had a contempt for every Physician but himself; and he held the Poet very cheap in that line. He laughed at him, and said the rudest things to him. The other, who never took a jest in good part, flamed into invective; and Mrs. Hardinge, as clever in a different way as either of them, could with difficulty keep the peace between them. Dr. Akenside ordered his chariot, and swore that he would never come into the house again. The other, who was the kindest-hearted of men, feeling that he had goaded his friend, called upon him the next morning, and, in a manner quite his own, made a perfect reconcilement, which terminated in a pacific supper the following night, when, by a powerful stroke of humour, the Host convulsed the sides of his Guest with laughter, and they were in delightful unison together the whole evening. "Do you kn—kn—know, Doctor,' said he (for he stammered), 'that I b—bought a curious pamphlet this m—morning upon a st—stall, and I'll give you the t—title of it; An Acc—count of a curious dispute between D—Dr. Y. and D—Dr. Z. concerning a b—b—ilious c—colic, which terminated in a d—duel between the two Ph—Physicians, which t—terminated in the d—death of both."

Before I bid farewell to Dr. Akenside, I must leave the dilemma to all Dr. Johnson's admirers (of whom you, Sir, I believe are one) — Are his opinions of Dr. Akenside ingenuous, or simulated? If the former, what shall be said for his taste, when he denies to this great Poet credit for genius of any kind in his great and famous work, except for the rhythm of his verse; but in the Ode (or Lyric in general) gives him credit for nothing, and represents him as insufferably dull? Against this ipse dixit I set up not the opinion of the world, though it has its weight; but the intrinsic evidence of the Odes to the Bishop of Winchester, to the Earl of Huntingdon, to Mr. Hall, to Dr. Hardinge, and the celebrated Charles Townshend. It appears to me that no Lyrics are superior to these in their style (which is various too). The Ode to the Country Gentlemen is unequal; but has noble and glorious passages in it. Mr. Elliott, father of Lord Minto, made an admirable Speech in support of the Scotch Militia which I had the good fortune to hear when I was a boy; and it was reported, that, when commended as he was on every side for that performance, "If I was above myself," he answered, "I can account for it; for I had been animated by the sublime Ode of Dr. Akenside."

In a dignified cast of beautiful simplicity, what can be named superior to the following Inscription for a Column at Runnymede?

Thou, who the verdant plain dost traverse here,
While Thames among his willows from thy view
Retires; O Stranger, stay thee, and the scene
Around contemplate well. This is the place
Where England's ancient Barons, clad in arms
And stern with conquest, from their Tyrant King
(Then rendered tame) did challenge and secure
The charter of thy freedom. Pass not on
Till thou hast blest their memory, and paid
Those thanks which God appointed the reward
Of public virtue. And if chance thy home
Salute thee with a father's honour'd name,
Go, call thy sons: instruct them what a debt
They owe their ancestors; and make them swear
To pay it, by transmitting down entire
Those sacred rights to which themselves were born.

I adopt the opinion of Dr. Johnson, that he murdered Curio by putting him in Lyrics; and I wish to see the original Curio republished. It was an admirable satire.

In the Ode to Dr. Hardinge we find he was no Courtier then. In some of the others to which I allude, his principles are elevated into the heroism of public virtue and spirit — they unite eloquence and poetical effect. As far as I can recollect, his friends, besides Mr. Dyson, were chiefly Dr. Heberden, Dr. Hardinge, Mr. Cracherode, Mr. Thomas Townshend, the first Lord Sydney's father, Mr. Tyrwhitt, the Archbishop of York, and Mr. Wray. He was a most unprejudiced and candid estimator of contemporary Poets, for which I admired him the more on account of its amiable singularity.

But I must not forget here to mention perhaps the most curious feature of his life. It is in the partial but very awkward change which his new Politics at Court made in those of the Poet. You will find a memorable proof to this point. In the first edition of the work these lines appear:

Wilt thou, kind Harmony, descend,
And join the festive train; for with thee comes
Majestic TRUTH; and where TRUTH deigns to come,
Her Sister LIBERTY will not be far.

And in the Second edition:

—for with thee comes
WISE ORDER; and where ORDER deigns to come,
Her Sister LIBERTY will not be far.