To excite admiration and extort applause, hath ever been the great design of the good and virtuous. This hope hath given perseverance to the desponding artist, and all its sublimity to the muse's sweetest song.
Among the various and almost innumerable poems, which have adorned our language, and done honour to the genius of our nation during the present century, none are superior, few are equal, to Dr. Akenside's Pleasures of the Imagination.
This poem every where abounds with each of the sources of the true sublime, which, according to Longinus, are, grandeur and sublimity of conception; enthusiastical pathos; elegant formation and order of figure; splendid diction; and, which includes them all in one, weight and dignity of composition. These strike us like lightning. They rouse admiration beyond its existential limits; it becomes wonder and astonishment.
When these are united in a poem strictly philosophical, on a subject of no less importance than an investigation into the phenomena of the human mind, it not only charms and delights, but also in a very high degree improves the reader. This seems to be the peculiar excellence of he work before us. It is the only one of the large catalogue of philosophical poems which have come within my notice, that unites these qualities. I therefore long thought them entirely discrepant, and despaired of ever finding an union between the didactic muse and the genius of philosophy. Lucretius and his elegant antagonist Polignac equally seemed to approach the nearest it: but the distance was great, and almost precluded hope. All others who ventured into the same field set them more at variance. It generally happened that those on whom the muses shed their kindest influence when they attempted a philosophical subject, lost all their captivating powers, and sunk almost to the level of those wretched rhymers, Charles Churchill and Robert Lloyd. Notwithstanding the efforts of Pope, the poet and philosopher continued very remote from each other. Even those who possessed a sovereign power over the passions, who could extort the tears of commiseration from the eye of cruelty, have frequently been unable to account for the effect themselves had produced.
In a later period Dr. Akenside has shewn us that philosophical subjects may be adorned with all the sublimity of a Milton; that poetry is capable of exhibiting any truth to a particular advantage; that it can, at once, charm the fancy, and improve the intellectual faculties. This is the most useful, it ought to be the muse's only province.
He exhibits his design. It is "to give a view of the powers of imagination, which, he says, hold a middle place between the organs of bodily sense and the faculties of moral perception." They are, as he observes, the inlets of some of the most exquisite pleasures we are capable of enjoying, and from them he justly deduces the origin of the fine arts. They induce men of lively fancies and feelings to transmit the objects which afford them the highest satisfaction to futurity. Hence rivers flow eternal in the muse's song, and vallies, which long since lost every captivating charm, still administer delight.
It has been asserted by some respectable critics that the exordium of a poem ought to be plain, simple, unadorned. These are the sources of the beautiful. But why should they be preferred to the sublime. With all the diffidence of a young critic I conceive that sublimity, elegant order, and formation of figure, and weight and dignity of composition cannot be a fault in any composition, or in any part of it, especially in the outset. For it enlarges the mind, gives a more exalted idea of the Author's powers, and if capable of supporting it through the whole, the favourable sentiments which are thus excited will encrease on every page until it becomes a kind of adoration.
With what attractive charms this goodly frame
Of nature touches the consenting hearts
Of mortal men; and what the pleasing stores
Which beauteous imitation thence derives,
To deck the poet's or the painter's toil,
My verse unfolds.—
The immediately following invocation is very happily conceived, and elegantly expressed, in which he pays tribute of praise due from every votary of the muses to "Fancy's darling child," Shakespeare.
—Attend ye gentle pow'rs
Of musical delight! and while I sing
Your gifts, your honours, dance around my strain,
Thou smiling queen of ev'ry tuneful breast,
Indulgent Fancy! from the fruitful banks
Of Avon, whence thy rosy fingers cull
Fresh flow'rs to sprinkle on the turf
Where Shakespeare lies, be present, &c.
The whole is big with sublimity. — I shall continue my observations, being at present obliged to conclude very abruptly.