1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Mark Akenside

Anonymous, "Criticism upon Akenside's Pleasures of the Imagination, read to a weekly Club" The Monthly Magazine 57 (April 1824) 210-114.



"The Pleasures of the Imagination" is a poem, the merits of which have been long and justly appreciated. It cannot, therefore, be expected, that any remarks possessing much novelty will he made upon it. Still it is a work of so superior a description, and its excellencies are of such a lasting nature, that the perusal of it can never he said to be unseasonable. It possesses that characteristic of real genius, that, however often it may be read, it will always afford pleasure, and new beauties will be discovered. And what must add to our regard for its merits is, the age of the author at the time it was wrote, and the nature of the subject. He was only twenty-three years old when it was first published, — a period generally remarkable for the excrescences of genius, and the overflowings of the imagination. Yet there are few verses in this poem but must receive the award of praise from the most captious critic, or the approval that is generated by the mellowing hand of time. At so early an age, correctness of judgment, and philosophical discrimination, is seldom to be met with. The nature of the subject, too, has been usually considered in estimating the merits of this poem. It may be said to be altogether of a didactic nature, and was quite a new and unbeaten track for the votaries of Parnassus. Yet the author has contrived to penetrate into the innermost recesses of the heart, and evinced the most intimate acquaintance with the intricate mazes of the imagination. It is, however, a subject, which, though rather abstract, is, with the greatest consistency, susceptible of considerable poetical embellishment; and of this privilege the vary author has availed himself; although, in some instances, scarcely to the degree which he might have done.

But there has, perhaps, been too much merit ascribed to Akenside, from the abstract nature of his poem. It is generally maintained, to be sure, that subjects of a didactic nature are but ill-suited for poetry. In this instance however, the remark does not hold good; for there is certainly no subject, in the whole range of nature, which affords greater scope for the meanderings of fancy, or even for brilliant descriptions, and which may be brought to touch, to a greater degree, the more delicate vibrations of the heart. The fact is, he could scarcely have pitched upon one more happy; and any praise that is to be awarded to him on this account, must arise from the manner in which he has accomplished his task, considering that he was traversing a region in one sense unknown to the muses; or, as he himself beautifully says

—the laureate vale's profound recess,
Where never poet gain'd a wreath before.

Even this assertion may be said to be entirely nominal; for surely, although no previous author had set himself down expressly to depict poetically the pleasures of fancy, yet it is evident as noon-day, that the subject had been many a time incidentally alluded to before. How is it possible it could have been otherwise, for it may almost be said to be the very elements of poetry. In short, the pleasures of the imagination is a subject with which all poets must be well acquainted; for a talent for poetical composition must originate chiefly from a correct and brilliant imagination; and hence Akenside, as a poet, had only to disclose his own feelings and sympathies, in doing which he has evinced the most correct and delicate taste. But it is not poets only that have access to this "holy ground." There are scarcely any but who, in a greater or less degree, taste of its "Castalian-like" sweets; with this difference, that, without being acquainted with the cause and the nature of their happiness, they are engrossed chiefly with their enjoyment.

The merits of the "Pleasures of the imagination," as a poem, consist chiefly in the beauty of the language employed, the correctness of its philosophical opinions, and the elegance with which they are embellished, and the lofty, sentiments inculcated. The subject is of such a nature, as could scarcely admit of a regular plan; yet the author has evidently had a plan in his mind, obviously suggested to hint by Addison's Essays in the Spectator upon the same subject; improved, however, and considerably enlarged by Akenside. The poem is divided into three parts; in the first of which are discussed, the objects of primary importance from which the pleasures of the imagination are derived. These are classed, as usual, into three, — the sublime, the wonderful, and the beautiful. After which, the author takes a summary, and, at the same time, a correct view of those objects which are considered secondary. The two next parts might, without any inconsistency, have been put into one, as they are occupied with what the author seems to consider secondary means for affording pleasure to the imagination, — unless, indeed, the length of the poem should be urged as a reason for a division, which would be dividing for the sake of dividing.

A more particular analysis of this poem will now be attempted. In going along, such observations will be made as have suggested themselves, at the same time pointing out any defects that have been discovered.

Part I. opens with an invocation, as customary; with this difference, that the author's muse seems to be inclined to Poly-theism, for he invokes not one, but many objects. He then describes the ideas that must have "rolled" in the Divine mind previous to the creation of the world; and afterwards points out the benevolent intention of the Author of nature, in giving different capacities and inclinations to mankind; some, happily for the state of society, being capable of receiving but little pleasure from the imagination; while, on the other hand, it affords the most sublime source of happiness to others; and calling upon such to listen to his song. He then proceeds to state, as has been already mentioned, three divisions of natural objects, considered primary, from which the pleasures of the imagination are derived, — the sublime, the wonderful, the fair. The description o the influence of the first upon the mind is certainly exceedingly grand; and the author seems, here, to have given full scope to his imagination. In stating the final cause of our being acted upon by such motives, he is exceedingly happy, — (verses 150-200.) His remarks upon the second class are certainly, most excellent of their kind; but, instead of depicting the effect of wonder upon the mind, be has exhibited, in a very forcible manner, the effect of novelty in urging us to the improvement of our intellectual powers, from which it would seem, that the author means new, in place of wonderful. It must, however, be admitted, that novelty is in some measure allied to wonderful, for an emotion of the latter sort cannot be excited by objects with which we are familiar; but, at the same time, something farther than novelty is surely requisite to excite that affection. The author then proceeds to illustrate the influence of beauty upon the mind, and here he seems to have failed more than any where else. His description of beauty in natural objects, it cannot be denied, is very fine and classical; but really, after painting in very lively colours the young and lovely Dione, it was surely unnecessary to break off, rather in an abrupt manner, to remark, that "beauty never reigns where health and active use are strangers;" and that a careful mother, sensible how apt her boy is to go astray in this respect—

Plumes the headstrong impulse of desire,
And sanctifies his choice;

that is to say, tells him that he must not betake himself to houses of a certain description, but enter into the blessed state of matrimony with some meek and modest virgin. He afterwards makes use of some obscure terms as to beauty, and truth, and good, being one; and, certainly with much inconsistency in a work upon imaginary pleasures, asserts that there can be no enjoyment without the "sanction of eternal truth or undeceitful good;" remarks, not very appropriate in describing the influence of beauty, and which would tempt one to suppose that the author had either met with some frowns from the fair sex, or that his mind was impervious to the impressions of female beauty, — love with him being altogether theoretical, — (350-390.) He, however, takes occasion to hint, somewhat obscurely, to be sure, at that charming and consolatory doctrine, the omnipotence of truth, — a doctrine which, since his day, has been so widely diffused and established. Indeed, it is to the honour of Akenside, that throughout this poem he pays that devotion to truth, and to that elastic substance, the human mind, which they so justly deserve.

An enumeration of the other means, contributive to the pleasures of the imagination, is then given, and which evinces the most correct acquaintance with the philosophy of the human mind. It Is here very justly remarked, that is moral beauty which the mind contemplates with the greatest delight; but, having made this enunciation the poet has been in the first instance most unhappy in his illustration. After stating that beauty of colour, and the other charms of nature, are more lovely when—

Life's holy flame and piercing sense are given,
And active motion speaks the temper'd soul;

It might consequently' be expected, that an example would be given from' "the human face divine;" but no, be brings before the imagination the bird of Juno, which, as every one knows, is a peacock, a very beautiful animal, t be sure, but it would really requite a pretty strong imagination to discover the beauties of its soul. But, not content with such a grovelling illustration, a prancing steed in a dusty plain, and faithful dogs joyfully playing with one another, are also adduced. These cannot be admitted as very happy examples of stimulants of that most delightful emotion in the mind, which is excited by the contemplation of natural and moral beauty united. From this degradation the author, in the course of a few lines, ascends to the beauty of the divine mind; illustrative, however, of that gradation, which is observable throughout the works of nature. But for these inconsistencies an atonement is afterwards made, by beautifully exclaiming, that mind, within itself, contains the living fountains of all that is beauteous and sublime; and he concludes with asking, if any thing in this capacious scene can half dilate our souls so much as

—When Brutus rose
Refulgent from the stroke of Caesar's fate,
And Rome again was free.

The Second Part commences with some beautiful observations upon the state of poetry and the fine arts during the dark ages, and exulting in their having at last found a secure, and, it is to be hoped, an everlasting asylum in our own happy land. After this, the author hastens to record those adventitious, or secondary circumstances, which heighten the pleasures derived from the imagination. Of these, the sweets of sense, the peculiar state of the mind, the influence of truths, an acquaintance with the laws of nature, and the perception of design in the creation, are all very happily adduced lie then states, obviously with great correctness, that

From passion's power alone our nature holds
Essential pleasure:

and that, were it not for our passions,—

Rust mould rise, and foulness, by degrees
Encumbering, choke at last what Heaven design'd
For ceaseless motion and a round of toil.

This allusion to the influence of passion is a prelude to some sage observations from a hermit, who, in an allegorical manner, and under the similitude of a dream, describes the happiness resulting from virtue, and the trials attendant thereon. To the immortal honour of the author, he has hero very forcibly impressed two most important and consolatory truths: viz. that virtue is inseparably connected with pleasure; and, that there is no situation, whatever in life, but that the difficulties with which we may he surrounded, may be dispelled by perseverance and fortitude. Such sentiments are trite and homely, still they are truths that cannot be sufficiently inculcated. There are none that can expect to be blessed with a perpetual round of sunshine in this chequered scene; and, during the storms of life, such reflections will prove a sure and faithful anchorage to the mind. The following passage seems to me to possess great strength and beauty. Alluding to the demon who personifies the obstacles to virtue, it is observed that he is—

Brave by thy fears, and in thy weakness strong,
This hour lie triumphs;-but confront his might.
And dare him to the combat, then with ease
Disarm'd and quell'd, his fierceness he resigns
To bondage and to scorn. While thus inur'd
By watchful danger, by unceasing toil,
The immortal mind, superior to his fate,
Amid the outrage of external things,
Firm as the solid base of this great world,
Rests on his own foundations. Blow, ye winds
Ye waves! ye thunders! roll your tempest on
Shake, ye old pillars of the marble sky!
Till all its orbs, and all its worlds of fire
Be loosen'd from their seats; yet stilt serene
The unconquered mind looks down upon the wreck,
And even stronger as the storms advance,
Firm through the closing rain holds his way,
Where nature calls him to the destin'd goal.

This part contains some other beautiful passages, particularly the description of a faithful lover, and of the feelings excited in the mind upon seeing a shipwreck from the shore.

The third and last part of this captivating poem is certainly not inferior to any of the others. In the outset, it is occupied in describing the influence of "fancy's sportive ray," upon the opinions and conduct of mankind. Every one, as Tristram Shandy says, has his hobby-horse, — a remark which Akenside has here very amusingly illustrated; and that, too, in a manner, which evinces pretty extensive and accurate observation upon human character. Some of the illustrations he has given of the causes which excite ridicule in our minds, are exceedingly happy. The author then proceeds to state the origin, the nature, and the progress, of taste in the mind, which be has done in the most elegant and beautiful language; and in a manner that evinces, in a high degree, his great philosophical acumen. This affection, if it may be so called, of the mind, he ascribes entirely, neither to the capacities conferred upon us by nature, to association, nor to the effects of culture, but to a combination of the whole of these; attaching, of course, the greatest degree of importance to the capacities conferred by nature, — for how is it possible to cultivate where there is no soil? There are, however, none, but who have at least "one talent of gold to trade upon during their Lord's absence," to use a Scripture, and very interesting simile. Akenside has here shown himself completely master of this interesting subject; and, it may be questioned, if an additional glimpse is thrown upon it by all the ponderous lucubrations of metaphysical writers since his time. The poem concludes with showing the happiness to be derived from a cultivated and well-regulated imagination; observing, that it is a source of enjoyment altogether sublime, that it is open to the high and to the low, a circumstance which evinces the benevolence of the Author of nature in thus affording the means of such refined happiness to all; and that, too, of a kind infinitely superior to the cravings of the poor, abject, and degraded, wretches, who thirst alone for worldly distinction, and for the gold that perisheth. Those who possess an enlightened and cultivated taste, may be said to he the only independent beings in the world. A necessary consequence is, that their desires are simple, and generally easily gratified; and hence, they are in a great measure above the smiles or the frowns of fortune. All nature wears a smiling appearance to them. They possess within themselves "a city of refuge," an asylum to which they can always retire when forsaken by the world, or even amidst those moral and political convulsions which may be passing around.

Thus have I attempted to give a short and imperfect account of the merits and defects of this celebrated and classical poem. Its defects are but as dust in the balance. The beautiful passages are so many, that there is only difficulty in selecting. I cannot sufficiently express the pleasure which the perusal of it has afforded me; and, I have little hesitation in saying, that, as long as taste and the fine arts retain their legitimate and holy empire over the minds of men, so long will the "Pleasures of the Imagination" continue to be read and admired.