MARK AKENSIDE, an English poet and physician, was born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nov. 9, 1721. His father was a reputable butcher of that place. Of this circumstance, which he is said to have concealed from his friends, he had a perpetual remembrance in a halt in his gait, occasioned by the falling of a cleaver from his father's stall. He received the first rudiments of his education at the grammar-school of Newcastle, and was afterwards placed under the tuition of Mr. Wilson, who kept a private academy. At the age of eighteen he went to Edinburgh to qualify himself for the office of a dissenting minister, and obtained some assistance from the fund of the dissenters, which is established for such purposes. Having, however, relinquished his original intention, he resolved to study physic, and honourably repaid that contribution, which, being intended for the promotion of the ministry, he could not conscientiously retain.
In 1741 he went to Leyden, to complete his medical studies; and May16, 1744, he took his doctor's degree in physic. On this occasion, he, according to the custom of the university, published a dissertation on the Origin and Growth of the Human Foetus. In this his first medical production he is said to have displayed much sagacity and judgment, by attacking some opinions which were then generally adopted, and by proposing others, which have been since confirmed and received.
Akenside gave early indications of genius. — Several of his poems were the produce of his youth. His capital performance, The Pleasures of Imagination, was first published in 1744; and, like most extraordinary productions, it was not properly appreciated till time had matured the public judgment. I have, says our late eminent biographer, heard Dodsley, by whom it was published, say, that when the copy was offered him, the price demanded for it being such as he was not inclined to give precipitately, he carried the work to Pope, who having looked over it, advised him not to make a niggardly offer, for this was no every-day writer.
Upon the publication of his "Pleasures of Imagination," he gave offence to Warburton, by a note in the third book, in which he revived and maintained the notion of Shaftesbury, that ridicule is the test of truth. Warburton attacked him with severity in a preface; and Akenside was warmly defended in "An Epistle to the rev. Mr. Warburton." Though the pamphlet was anonymous, it was known to be the production of his friend Jeremiah Dyson. In the revisal of his poems, which he left unfinished, he omitted the lines and the note to which Warburton had objected. In 1745 he published a collection of his Odes; and wrote a vehement invective against Pulteney, earl of Bath, whom he stigmatizes, under the name of Curio, as the betrayer of his country. He seems to have afterwards been dissatisfied with his epistle to Curio; for he expunged about half the lines, and changed it to the form of an ode. At different and long intervals some other poems of his appeared, which were, together with the rest, published after his decease.
As a physician, he commenced practice at Northampton soon after his return from Leyden. But not finding the success which he expected, or being desirous of moving in a more extensive sphere, he removed to Hampstead, where he resided more than two years, and then settled in London. That he might be enabled to support the figure which was necessary for his introduction to practice in town, his generous friend Mr. Dyson allowed him £300 a year. Whether any bond or acknowledgment was taken is uncertain; but it is known that after his death Mr. Dyson possessed his effects, particularly his books and prints, of which he was an assiduous collector.
Having commenced his career in medicine, our author distinguished himself by various publications in his profession; and having read the Gulstonian lectures on anatomy, he began the Cronian lecture, in which he intended to give a history of the revival of learning, but soon desisted. He was admitted to a doctor's degree at Cambridge, after having taken it at Edinburgh and Leyden; was elected a fellow of the College of Physicians, and one of the physicians at St. Thomas's Hospital; and, upon the establishment of the queen's household, appointed one of the physicians to her majesty. His discourse on the Dysentery, 1764, was admired for its pure and elegant Latinity; and he might probably have attained a still greater eminence in his profession if his life had been longer. He died of a putrid fever, June 23, 1770, in the 59th year of his age; and is buried in the parish church of St. James, Westminster.
His poems, published soon after his death in 4to and 8vo, consist of the "Pleasures of Imagination," two books of "Odes" a Hymn to the Naiads, and some Inscriptions. "The Pleasures of Imagination," as before observed, was first published in 1744; and a very extraordinary production it was, from a man who had not reached his 23d year. He was afterwards sensible, however, that it wanted revision and correction, and he went on revising and correcting it for several years; but finding this task to grow upon his hands, and despairing of ever executing it to his own satisfaction, he abandoned the purpose of correcting, and resolved to write the poem over anew upon a somewhat different and enlarged plan. He finished two books of his new poem, a few copies of which were printed for the use of the author and certain friends; of the first book in 1757, of the second in 1765. He finished also a good part of a third book, and an introduction to a fourth; but his most munificent and excellent friend, conceiving all that is executed of the new work, too inconsiderable to supply the place, and supersede the republication of the original poem, and yet too valuable to be withheld from the public, has caused them both to be inserted in the collection of his poems. Dr. Akenside, in this work, it has been said, has done for the noble author of the "Characteristics," what Lucretius did for Epicurus formerly; that is, he has displayed and embellished his philosophic system, that system which has the first-beautiful and the first-good for its foundation, with all the force of poetic colouring; but, on the other hand, it has been justly objected that his picture of man is unfinished. The immortality of the soul is not once hinted throughout the poem. With regard to its merit as a poem, Dr. Johnson has done ample justice to it, while he speaks with more severity of his other poems. It is not easy to guess, says that eminent critic, why he addicted himself so diligently to lyric poetry, having neither the ease and airiness of the lighter, nor the vehemence and elevation of the grander ode. We may also refer the reader to an elegant criticism prefixed by Mrs. Barbauld to an ornamented edition of the "Pleasures of Imagination," 12mo, 1795.
His medical writings require some notice. Besides his "Dissertatio de Dysenteria," which has been twice translated into English, he wrote in the Philosophical Transactions, 1. "Observations on the Origin and Use of the Lymphatic vessels," part of his Gulstonian lectures, 1755 and 1757. Dr. Alexander Monro, the second of that name at Edinburgh, having taken notice of some inaccuracies in this paper, in his "Observations Anatomical and Physical," Dr. Akenside published a small pamphlet, 1736, in his own vindication. 2. "An account of a Blow on the Heart and its effects," 1763. He published also, 3. "Oratio Harveiana," 4to, 1760; and three papers in the first volume of the Medical Transactions. Being appointed Krohnian lecturer, he chose for his subject "The history of the Revival of Leaping," and read three lectures on it before the college. But this he gave up, as was supposed, in disgust; some one of the college having objected that he had chosen a subject foreign to the institution. He wrote also, in Dodsley's Museum, vol. 1, on "Correctness," "Table of Modern Fame;" and in vol. II, "A Letter from a Swiss Gentleman."