His Odes are distributed into two books; the first containing eighteen odes, and the second fifteen. It was his intention, if he had lived, to have made each book consist of twenty. Those which he had formerly published are greatly altered and improved. His odes are not equal to the sublime and beautiful productions of Gray and Collins, nor perhaps to those of Mason and Warton: But still there is in them a noble vein of poetry, united with manly sense, and applied to excellent purposes. This praise cannot be extended to the whole of the odes, without exception. Akenside does not always preserve the dignity of the lyric muse. He is defective in the pathetic, even upon a subject which peculiarly required it, and where it might have been expected, the death of his mistress, in the Ode to the Evening Star. His Hymn, however, to Cheerfulness, his Odes, on Leaving Holland, on Lyric Poetry, to the Earl of Huntingdon, and on Recovering from a Fit of Sickness, justly entitle him to a place among the principal lyric writers of his country. Love, an Elegy, a British Philippic, and Hymn to Science, composed when he was very young, and omitted in the publications of his works by Mr. Dyson, reflect no discredit on his memory. The first was originally printed with the Ode on the Winter Solstice, and given to his friends. The two last were printed in the Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. VIII. In the seventh volume of that work, a poem, called The Virtuoso, in imitation of Spenser's style, dated from Newcastle, and signed Marcus, and two other pieces, may justly be reckoned among his youthful compositions. His Inscriptions are, for the most part, simple, energetic, and sufficiently poetical. His Hymn to the Naiads is justly esteemed a classical performance. Lloyd, speaking of Homer's hymns, which he had some thoughts of translating, says, "They would form the justest idea of this sort of composition among the ancients, may be better informed by perusing Dr. Akenside's most classical Hymn to the Naiads, than from any translation of Homer or Callimachus." The same writer concludes his Ode to Genius, with the following apostrophe to Akenside:
And thou, blest bard! around whose sacred brow
Great Pindar's delegated wreath is hung;
Arise, and snatch the majesty of song
From dulness' servile tribe, and art's unhallow'd throng.
Cooper, the "English Aristippus," with great propriety, addressed his Call of Aristippus to Akenside, by the designation of "two-fold disciple of Apollo;" in which he tells him, that, in Elysium, Plato and Virgil shall weave him a never-fading crown; while Lucretius, Pindar, and Horace, should yield him precedence with pleasure.
Mr. Murphy, in his Poetical Epistle to Dr. Johnson, has joined Akenside with Gray among the examples which he enumerates of "wealthy genius pining amidst its store."
Even Gray unwilling strikes his living lyre,
And wishes, not content, for Pindar's fire:
And that sweet bard, who to our fancy brings,
"The gayest, happiest attitudes of things."
His raptur'd verse can throw neglected by,
And to Lucretius lift a reverend eye.
Dr. Warton, in his excellent Essay on Pope, calls Akenside a didactic poet, who has happily indulged himself in bolder flights of enthusiasm, supported by a more figurative style than was used by Pope; and after producing a passage from the Pleasures of Imagination, adds: "We have here a striking example of that poetic spirit, that harmonious and varied versification, and that strength of imagery which conspire to excite our admiration of this beautiful poem."
The character of Akenside, as given by Dr. Johnson, is less favourable to his pretensions as a didactic poet; and, as a writer of odes, is so unjust and degrading, that it cannot be generally allowed, without many exceptions.