1777 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Mark Akenside

John Brand, in Observations on Popular Antiquities (1777) 113-14n.



Dr. Akenside was born at Newcastle upon Tyne, and received the first Principles of his Education at the very respectable Grammar School there; his Father a reputable Butcher of the Town. A Halt in his Gait, occasioned when a Boy, by the falling of a Cleaver from his Father's Stall, must have been a perpetual Remembrancer of his humble Origin. I mention this, because, from the Biographical Account of him prefixed to the posthumous Edition of his Works, (an Outline with which he himself must have furnished his Friends) one is inclined to believe that he was ashamed of his Birth. — We regret, on perusing it, the Omission of those pleasing and interesting little Anecdotes usually given of the first Indications of Genius. — His Townsmen have many other Reasons that lead to the Confirmation of this Suspicion. — Taking this for granted, it was a great and unpardonable Foible in one of so exalted an Understanding. False Shame was perhaps never more strongly exemplified. The learned World will forgive me for attempting in this Note to defeat his very narrow Purpose, (for I can call by no softer Name) the wishing to conceal from Posterity a Circumstance, that would by no means have lessened his Fame with them. I flatter myself it is compatible with the Respect we owe to the Dead, and even to the Memory of him, who on other Accounts deserved so highly of his Country.

The Distinction of Family is honourable: It is the transmitted Inheritance of great Deserts. But let it be remembered, that Self-creation by personal Merit is the pure Fountain, of which that is too often no more than the polluted Stream. Accidents must always be light, when put in the Scales against Qualities; and they who pique themselves on the Possession of a few Links, of what is at best but a broken Chain, must have the "Semmata quid faciunt?" of Juvenal suggested to them, and be told, that the utmost Kings can do is to confer Titles, they cannot make Men deserve them!

The Propriety of this Reasoning can only be felt by philosophical Spirits: The World (wisely, on its own Account) reprobates such Doctrine: Yet while others are boasting with the Roman Governor of old, that with large Sums they obtained this Freedom, let those in the same Predicament with our Poet, conscious of having been honoured by the GOOD BEING with the first Distinctions of Nature, the rare Gifts of Genius and of the Understanding, which they have not abused, call to Mind, in supporting themselves against the Envy of the great Vulgar and of the small, a Consideration, which is of the strictest philosophical Truth, THE AKENSIDES are FREE BORN!