1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Aikin

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 8:239-41.



JOHN AIKIN, the only son of the Rev. John Aikin, D. D., was born at the village of Kibworth-Harcourt, in Leicestershire, on the 15th of January, 1747. He was originally destined for the study of divinity; but "the weakness of his voice, and perhaps the native vivacity of his temper," caused a change in his prospects, and he was subsequently articled to a surgeon and apothecary at Uppingham. At the age of eighteen he was sent to pursue his medical studies at the university of Edinburgh, where he spent two winters and the intermediate summer, after which he became once more a pupil under Mr. White of Manchester. In 1769 he attended Dr. William Hunter's lectures in London, and the next year repaired to Chester with the view of commencing practice in that city. He found Chester, to use his own expression, "a coy but very agreeable mistress," whom he should probably have courted with success, but that her favours were already engaged; in other words, he soon became sensible that the ground was fully pre-occupied in that city; and after a residence of somewhat more than a year, he quitted it, and returned to Warrington, then the residence of his revered parents.

Early in 1772 he first ventured to solicit the notice of the public as a cultivator of elegant literature, in a small volume, entitled, Essays on Song-writing. A few months afterwards he married Martha, youngest daughter of his maternal uncle, Mr. Arthur Jennings. In the following year he published in conjunction with his sister, afterwards Mrs. Barbauld, a small volume of Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose. He next appeared as the translator of those two exquisite tracts of the Roman historian, the Life of Agricola, and On the Manners of the Germans. A fresh proof of his indefatigable industry was soon after afforded by the appearance of his Specimen of the Medical Biography of Great Britain, — a work, the original plan of which he was afterwards obliged to curtail, but which led to the publication of his Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain, from the Revival of Literature to the time of Harvey, in one volume, 8vo. In 1776 he superintended the publication of a selection of pieces from Pliny's Natural History, for the use of schools, to which his father contributed an elegant Latin preface; and soon afterwards a similar selection from Seneca, and a complete edition of Statius, were printed at Warrington under his eye. An Essay on the application of Natural History to Poetry, printed in 1777, was Mr. Aikin's next contribution to the amusement and instruction of the public. This was followed by an essay on Thomson's Seasons, which was prefixed to an ornamented edition of that popular poem. Botany next engaged his attention; and in 1778 he published a translation of Baume's Manuel de Chymie. His professional engagements were now too numerous to admit of his devoting a very considerable portion of his time to literary composition; but in 1784 appeared an enlarged and corrected edition of Lewis' Experimental History of the Materia Medica, by Mr. Aikin. In July, 1784, he set out for Leyden, furnished with a thesis, De Lactis secretione in Puerperis, which procured for him the degree of M. D. from that university. At the close of this year he quitted Warrington, and went to Yarmouth.

In 1792 Dr. Aikin published A View of the Character and Public Services of the late John Howard, the eminent philanthropist, with whose friendship he had been long favoured; a few months previously to the appearance of this work, he printed a small volume of poems. The same year the literary attractions of the metropolis prevailed on him to leave Yarmouth, and commence a new career in the capacity of a London physician; in this year he produced, in conjunction with his sister, the first volume of Evenings at Home, — the most popular perhaps of all his works, and one of the most useful, its leading idea being that of teaching things rather than words. In the beginning of 1794 appeared the first volume of his Letters from a Father to his Son, which were received with general favour. In June, 1795, he published a Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester, besides preparing a new edition of a previous topographical publication, entitled, England Delineated. Both these works are highly respectable in their line, and may still be consulted with advantage. In 1796 he undertook the literary editorship of the Monthly Magazine, which he enriched to a great extent with his own pieces; and in the conclusion of that year, having secured the co-operation of Dr. Enfield, he engaged in the preparation of his great work, the 'General Biography,' which employed the larger portion of his time during a period of nineteen years, and extended to 10 volumes, 4to. On Mr. Enfield's death, which took place before the completion of the first volume, Dr. Thomas Morgan succeeded to his portion of the work. These incessant labours, added to the fatigues of a necessarily laborious profession, impaired Dr. Aikin's health; and in October, 1798, he retired to the village of Stoke-Newington, where he resided to the end of his life. Here he still continued zealously to devote himself to literary labours, and besides editing the Monthly Magazine, and continuing the publication of the General Biography, produced a variety of minor essays, translations, and fugitive pieces. In 1801 he composed for the use of young people a very instructive little volume, entitled The Arts of Life. In 1803 he amused himself with the composition of a volume of Letters to a Young Lady on a course of English Poetry; and shortly afterwards undertook a work, entitled, Geographical Delineations, — a performance for which his daughter claims the title of "the philosophy of geography." In 1806 Dr. Aikin's connection with the Monthly Magazine ceased, and he engaged in the establishment of a new periodical, entitled, The Athenaeum, which was carried on during two years and a half. In 1809, during a suspension of the publication of the biography, he translated, from the Latin, Memoirs of the Life of P. D. Huet, Bishop of Avranches, written by Himself; and in 1812 appeared his Memoirs of Selden and Usher. Towards the close of 1811 he accepted the editorship of Dodsley's Annual Register; and in 1815 he completed the General Biography, — the task of twenty years. Dr. Aikin was now 68 years of age, but he still kept planning new literary designs. His last publications were his Select Works of the British Poets, and Annals of the Reign of George III. Shortly after the appearance of the latter work he had a severe and dangerous shock of the palsy, after which his health and spirits gradually sunk, until a stroke of apoplexy closed the scene, on the 7th of December, 1822. He was interred in the church-yard of Stoke-Newington, where a simple monument is erected to his memory.

Dr. Aikin, to quote his daughter's description, "was of the middle stature, and well-proportioned though spare; his carriage was erect, his step light and active. His eyes were grey and lively, his skin naturally fair, but in his face much pitted with the small-pox. The expression of his countenance was mild, intelligent, and cheerful; and its effect was aided in conversation by the tones of a voice clear and agreeable, though not powerful." In his political principles Dr. Aikin was a devoted admirer of free and liberal institutions, and a staunch contender for the liberty of the subject.