1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Mark Akenside

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 488-89.



It may be easy to point out in Akenside a superfluous pomp of expression; yet the character which Pope bestowed on him, "that he was not an every day writer," is certainly apparent in the decided tone of his moral sentiments, and in his spirited maintenance of great principles. His verse has a sweep of harmony that seems to accord with an emphatic mind. He encountered in his principal poem the more than ordinary difficulties of a didactic subject.

To paint the finest features of the mind,
And to most subtle and mysterious things,
Give colour, strength, and motion. — Book I.

The object of his work was to trace the various pleasures which we receive from nature and art to their respective principles in the human imagination, and to show the connection of those principles with the moral dignity of man, and the final purposes of the creation. His leading speculative ideas are derived from Plato, Addison, Shaftesbury, and Hutchinson. To Addison he has been accused of being indebted for more than he acknowledged; but surely in plagiarisms from the Spectator it might be taken for granted, that no man could have counted on concealment; and there are only three passages (I think) in his poem where his obligations to that source are worthy of notice. Independent of these, it is true that he adopted Addison's threefold division of the sources of the pleasures of the imagination; but in doing so he properly followed a theory which had the advantage of being familiar to the reader; and when he afterward substituted another, in recasting his poem, he profited nothing by the change. In the purely ethical and didactic parts of his subject he displays a high zeal of classical feeling, and a graceful development of the philosophy of taste. Though his metaphysics may not always be invulnerable, his general ideas of moral truth are lofty and prepossessing. He is peculiarly eloquent in those passages in which he describes the final causes of our emotions of taste: he is equally skillful in delineating the processes of memory and association; and he gives an animated view of Genius collecting her stores for works of excellence. All his readers must recollect with what a happy brilliancy he comes out in the simile of art and nature, dividing our admiration when he compares them to the double appearance of the sun distracting his Persian worshiper. But "non satis est pulchra esse poemate, dulcia sunto." The sweetness which we miss in Akenside is that which should arise from the direct representations of life, and its warm realities and affections. We seem to pass in his poem through a gallery of pictured abstractions rather than of pictured things. He reminds us of odours which we enjoy artificially extracted from the flower instead of inhaling them form its natural blossom. It is true that his object was to teach and explain the nature of mind, and that his subject led him necessarily into abstract ideas, but it admitted also of copious scenes, full of solid human interest, to illustrate the philosophy which he taught. Poetry, whatever be its title, should not make us merely contemplate existence, but feel it over again. That descriptive skill which expounds to us the nature of hour own emotions, is rather a sedative than a stimulant to enthusiasm. The true poet renovates our emotions, and is not content with explaining them. Even in a philosophical poem on the imagination, Akenside might have given historical tablets of the power which he delineated; but his illustrations for the most part only consist in general ideas fleetingly personified. There is but one pathetic passage (I think) in the whole poem, namely, that in which he describes the lover embracing the urn of his deceased mistress. On the subject of the passions, in book ii., when our attention evidently expects to be disengaged from abstraction, by spirited draughts illustrative of their influence, how much are we disappointed by the cold and tedious episode of Harmodius's vision, an allegory which is the more intolerable, because it professes to teach us resignation to the will of Heaven, by a fiction which neither imposes on the fancy nor communicates a moral to the understanding. Under the head of "Beauty" he only personifies Beauty herself, and her image leaves upon the mind but a vague impression of a beautiful woman, who might have been anybody. He introduces indeed some illustrations under the topic of ridicule, but in these his solemn manner overlaying the levity of his subjects unhappily produces a contrast which approaches itself to the ridiculous. In treating of novelty he is rather more descriptive; we have in the youth breaking from domestic endearments in quest of knowledge, the sage over his midnight lamp, the virgin at her romance, and the village matron relating her stories of witchcraft. Short and compressed as those sketches are, they are still beautiful glimpses of reality, and it is expressly from observing the relief which they afford to his didactic and declamatory passages, that we are led to wish that he had appealed more frequently to examples from nature. It is disagreeable to add, that unsatisfactory as he is in illustrating the several parts of his theory, he ushers them in with great promises, and closes them with self-congratulation. He says,

Thus with a faithful aim have we presumed
Adventurous to delineate nature's form:

when, in fact, he had delineated very little of it. He raises triumphal arches for the entrance and exit of his subject, and then sends beneath them a procession of a few individual ideas.

He altered the poem in maturer life, but with no accession to its powers of entertainment. Harmodius was indeed dismissed, as well as the philosophy of ridicule; but the episode of Solon was left unfinished, and the whole work made rather more dry and scholastic; and he had even the bad taste, I believe, to mutilate some of those fine passages, which in the primitive state, are still deservedly admired and popular.