The author of "The Pleasures of Imagination," one of the most pure and noble-minded poems of the age, was of humble origin. His parents were dissenters, and the Puritanism imbibed in his early years seems, as in the ease of Milton, to have given a gravity and earnestness to his character, and a love of freedom to his thoughts and imagination.
MARK AKENSIDE was the son of a respectable butcher at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he was born, November 9, 1721. An accident in his early years — the fall of one of his father's cleavers, or hatchets, on his foot — rendered him lame for life, and perpetuated the recollection of his lowly birth. The Society of Dissenters advanced a sum for the education of the poet as a clergyman, and he repaired to Edinburgh for this purpose in his eighteenth year. He afterwards repented of this destination, and, returning the money, entered himself as a student of medicine. He was then a poet, and in his "Hymn to Science," written in Edinburgh, we see at once the formation of his classic taste, and the dignity of his personal character
That last best effort of thy skill,
To form the life and rule the will,
Propitious Power! impart;
Teach me to cool my passion's fires,
Make me the judge of my desires,
The master of my heart.
Raise me above the vulgar's breath,
Pursuit of fortune, fear of death,
And all in life that's mean;
Still true to reason be my plan,
Still let my actions speak the man,
Through every various scene.
A youth animated by such sentiments, promised a manhood of honour and integrity. After three years spent in Edinburgh, Akenside removed to Leyden to complete his studies; and in 1744 he was admitted to the degree of M.D. He next established himself as a physician in London. In Holland he had (at the age of twenty-three) written his "Pleasures of Imagination," which he now offered to Dodsley, demanding £120 for the copyright. The bookseller consulted Pope, who told him "to make no niggardly offer, since this was no every-day writer." The poem attracted much attention, and was afterwards translated into French and Italian. Akenside established himself as a physician in Northampton, where he remained a year and a-half, but did not succeed. The latter part of his life was spent in London. At Leyden he had formed an intimacy with a young Englishman of fortune, Jeremiah Dyson, Esq., which ripened into a friendship of the most close and enthusiastic description; and Mr. Dyson (who was afterwards clerk of the House of Commons, a lord of the treasury, &c.) had the generosity to allow the poet £300 a-year. After writing a few Odes, and attempting a total alteration of his great poem (in which he was far from successful), Akenside made no further efforts at composition. His society was courted for his taste, knowledge, and eloquence; but his solemn sententiousness of manner, his romantic ideas of liberty, and his unbounded admiration of the ancients, exposed him occasionally to ridicule. The physician in "Peregrine Pickle," who gives a feast in the manner of the ancients, is supposed to have been a caricature of Akenside. The description, for rich humour and grotesque combinations of learning and folly, has not been excelled by Smollett; but it was unworthy his talents to cast ridicule on a man of high character and splendid genius. Akenside died suddenly of a putrid sore throat, on the 23d of June 1770, in his 49th year, and was buried in St James's church. With a feeling common to poets, as to more ordinary mortals, Akenside, in his latter days, reverted with delight to his native landscape on the banks of the Tyne. In his fragment of a fourth book of "The Pleasures of Imagination," written in the last year of his life, there is the following beautiful passage:—
O ye dales
Of Tyne, and ye most ancient woodlands; where
Oft as the giant flood obliquely strides,
And his banks open and his lawns extend,
Stops short the pleased traveller to view,
Presiding o'er the scene, some rustic tower
Founded by Norman or by Saxon hands:
O ye Northumbrian shades, which overlook
The rocky pavement and the mossy falls
Of solitary Wensbeck's limpid stream
How gladly I recall your well-known seats
Beloved of old, and that delightful time
When all alone, for many a summer's day,
I wandered through your calm recesses, led
In silence by some powerful hand unseen.
Nor will I e'er forget you; nor shall e'er
The graver tasks of manhood, or the advice
Of vulgar wisdom, move me to disclaim
Those studies which possessed me in the dawn
Of life, and fixed the colour of my mind
For every future year: whence even now
From sleep I rescue the clear hours of morn,
And, while the world around lies overwhelmed
In idle darkness, am alive to thoughts
Of honourable fame, of truth divine
Or moral, and of minds to virtue won
By the sweet magic of harmonious verse.
The spirit of Milton seems to speak in this strain of lofty egotism!
"The Pleasures of Imagination" is a poem seldom read continuously, though its finer passages, by frequent quotation, particularly in works of criticism and moral philosophy, are well known. Gray censured the mixture of spurious philosophy — the speculations of Hutcheson and Shaftesbury — which the work contains. Plato, Lucretius, and even the papers by Addison in the "Spectator," were also laid under contribution by the studious author. He gathered sparks of enthusiasm from kindred minds, but the train was in his own. The pleasures which his poem professes to treat of, "proceed," he says, "either from natural objects, as from a flourishing grove, a clear and murmuring fountain, a calm sea by moonlight, or from works of art, such as a noble edifice, a musical tune, a statue, a picture, a poem." These, with the moral and intellectual objects arising from them, furnish abundant topics for illustration; but Akenside dealt chiefly with abstract subjects, pertaining more to philosophy than to poetry. He did not seek to graft upon them human interests and passions. In tracing the final causes of our emotions, he could have described their exercise and effects in scenes of ordinary pain or pleasure in the walks of real life. This does not seem, however, to have been the purpose of the poet, and hence his work is deficient in interest. He seldom stoops from the heights of philosophy and classic taste. He considered that physical science improved the charms of nature. Contrary to the feeling of an accomplished living poet, who repudiates these "cold material laws," he viewed the rainbow with additional pleasure after he had studied the Newtonian theory of lights and colours.
Nor ever yet
The melting rainbow's vernal tinctured hues
To me have shone so pleasing, as when first
The hand of Science pointed out the path
In which the sunbeams gleaming from the west
Fall on the watery cloud, whose darksome veil
Involves the orient.
Akenside's "Hymn to the Naiads" has the true classical spirit. He had caught the manner and feeling the varied pause and harmony, of the Greek poets with such felicity, that Lloyd considered his Hymn as fitted to give a better idea of that form of composition, than could be conveyed by any translation of Homer or Callimachus. Gray was an equally learned poet, perhaps superior. His knowledge was better digested. But Gray had not the romantic enthusiasm of character, tinged with pedantry, which naturally belonged to Akenside. He had also the experience of mature years. The genius of Akenside was early developed, and his diffuse and florid descriptions seem the natural product — marvellous of its kind — of youthful exuberance. He was afterwards conscious of the defects of his poem. He saw that there was too much leaf for the fruit; but in cutting off these luxuriances, he sacrificed some of the finest blossoms. Posterity has been more just to his fame, by almost wholly disregarding this second copy of his philosophical poem. In his youthful aspirations after moral and intellectual greatness and beauty, he seems, like Jeremy Taylor in the pulpit, "an angel newly descended from the visions of glory." In advanced years, he is the professor in his robes; still free from stain, but stately, formal, and severe. The blank verse of "The Pleasures of Imagination" is free and well-modulated, and seems to be distinctively his own. Though apt to run into too long periods, it has more compactness of structure than Thomson's ordinary composition. Its occasional want of perspicuity probably arises from the fineness of his distinctions, and the difficulty attending mental analysis in verse. He might also wish to avoid all vulgar and common expressions, and thus err from excessive refinement. A redundancy of ornament undoubtedly, in some passages, takes off from the clearness and prominence of his conceptions. His highest fights, however — as in the allusion to the death of Caesar, and his exquisitely-wrought parallel between art and nature — have a flow and energy of expression, with appropriate imagery, which mark the great poet. His style is chaste, yet elevated and musical. He never compromised his dignity, though he blended sweetness with its expression.