MARK AKENSIDE, the son of a butcher, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was born there on November the 9th, 1721. His parents were dissenters, and, being intended for a minister of that sect, he was, in 1739, sent to the University of Edinburgh, after having completed the first part of his education at the grammar-school of his native town. Preferring, however, the study of physic to that of divinity, he honourably returned a sum he had received from the dissenters' fund for the assistance of young men of scanty fortune, about to become pastors; and, in 1741, he went to Leyden, where, on the 16th of May, 1744, he took his degree of M.D. His thesis upon this occasion, was published, entitled De Ortu et Incremento Foetus Humani; and in the same year appeared his Pleasures of Imagination. When the copy was first presented to Dodsley, the publisher, for the price of £120, he consulted Pope as to the value of the work, who, having looked into it, advised him not to make a niggardly offer, for "this was no every-day writer." His poem was received with great applause, and at once established his poetical fame; but a portion of it, in which he had adopted Shaftesbury's assertion of the efficacy of ridicule for the discovery of truth, drew upon him the attack of Warburton, against whom he was defended by an anonymous friend, afterwards discovered to be Mr. Jeremiah Dyson.
His next publication was An Epistle to Curio, under which name he attacked Pulteney, Earl of Bath, on account of his political conduct, with great vehemence. Johnson calls it "a very acrimonious epistle;" whilst Hutchinson, in his Biographia Medica, terms it an "impressive, moral, and sensible production." In 1745, he published his first collection of odes, and shortly afterwards he commenced the practice of his profession at Northampton. From hence he removed to Hampstead, where he continued about two years and a half, and then fixed his residence in London, where he would, in all probability, have fallen into indigence, but for the assistance of Mr. Dyson, who allowed him £300 a-year. In time, however, he acquired a tolerable share of practice, and considerable medical reputation; and he was successively appointed a fellow of the Royal Society, physician to St. Thomas's Hospital, and one of the physicians to the queen, having been previously admitted, by mandamus, to the degree of M.D. at Cambridge, and elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in London. In his medical character, however, he never attained to considerable eminence, though he might probably have done so, had not a putrid fever cut short his existence, and deprived him of life on the 23rd of June, 1770, in the forty-ninth year of his age. In addition to the works already mentioned, Akenside published several professional treatises, most of which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions; besides his Dissertatio de Dysenteria, which has been justly commended as an elegant specimen of Latinity, and was twice translated into English. His poems were collected and published in a quarto volume in 1772.
As a poet, Akenside's reputation rests solely upon his Pleasures of Imagination, which, for chasteness of design, purity of moral, and richness of imagery, must ever be admired. The remark however, of Johnson, is in some measure just, that "the reader wanders through the gay diffusion, sometimes amazed, and sometimes delighted; but, after many turnings in the flowery labyrinth, comes out as he went in." His versification is one of the most perfect models of blank verse; "his periods," says Mrs. Barbauld, "are long but harmomious; the cadences fall with grace, and the measure is supported with uniform dignity." From a desire, however, to avoid low and trivial expressions, he occasionally approaches nearer to stiffness than stateliness; becomes obscure through fear of simplicity, and feeble through too rich a redundancy of ornament. Of his odes, Johnson observes, nothing favourable can be said; and with respect to his lyrics, that his thoughts are cold, and his words inelegant; but his odes to the Bishop of Winchester, to the Earl of Huntingdon, to Mr. Hall, to Dr. Hardinge, and to the celebrated Charles Townshend, are sufficient evidence that the great critic's opinion was not well considered. Nicholls says, in his Literary Anecdotes, that Mr. Elliott, father of Lord Minto, being commended on all sides for an admirable speech made by him in support of the Scotch militia, replied, "if I was above myself, I can account for it; for I had been animated by the sublime ode of Dr. Akenside."
Various representations of the character of our poet have been given; some affirming that he was morose, haughty, servile, and deistical; and others, that he was friendly and liberal, benevolent, and consistently independent. Certain it is, that he had more philosophy than religion; that, on his appointment of physician to the queen, he changed more than one line of his verses in a second edition, to accommodate them to the politics of the court; and that whatever his conduct might have been among friends, it was with strangers repulsive and disgusting. His greatest praise is, that he was a man of honour and morality, and a lover and encourager of virtue and learning. The physician in Peregrine Pickle is well known to have been intended, by Smollett, for Akenside; it is, doubtless, overdrawn, but it is not so wide of the mark as Mr. D'Israeli, in his Calamities of Authors, seems to insinuate. Sir John Hawkins describes him as a most entertaining companion; and says, "his conversation was of the most delightful kind, learned, instructive, and, without any affectation of wit, cheerful, and entertaining." As a physician, Dr. Lettsom relates him to have been the most supercilious and unfeeling one, in his treatment of pupils and patients at the hospital, he had ever known. One of the latter, not being able to swallow the boluses of bark, ordered by Akenside, he directed the sister of the ward to discharge the sufferer from the hospital; adding, "he shall not die under my care." Sometimes he would order some of the patients, on his visiting days, to precede him with brooms to clear the way and prevent the diseased from too nearly approaching him; and, being upbraided, on one of these occasions, for his cruelty, by one of the governors, "Know," said he, "thou art a servant of this charity." He would, however, at times, condescend to explain, skilfully, a case to his pupils, of which, notwithstanding his irritable temper, he had a greater number than the more urbane and equally able Dr. Russell.
A peculiarity of Akenside was the neatness and elegance of his dress; he wore a large white stiff-curled wig, and carried a long sword; and this, together with a hitch in his gait, and a pale, pompous, and solemn countenance, made his appearance altogether unpromising, if not grotesque. He never married, and is said to have spoken of females with harshness and disgust, in consequence of a disappointment in love; but "hapless," observes Dr. Lettsom, "must have been that female, who should have been placed under his tyranny."