Reason clad in strains
Of harmony, selected minds to inspire.
These words, from one of Akenside's Odes, define his own poetry, or at least what he desired it to be. He was a witness for high aims in verse; for the ideal, as some call it; for the union of imagination and reason. There was in Akenside's time much dull brutality of living, much gross time-serving. He, the Newcastle butcher's son, held his head aloft; when other's reeled and spoke thick, he offered libations to the memory of ancient sages or patriots, and intoned hymns to Virtue and Honour. And to inspire a life-long friendship, such as that of Dyson, to whom he owed his well-being, his leisure and his ease of mind, implies the presence in his character of some solid worth, some genuine elevation. His verse is in keeping with his life. Much verse was manufactured in his day on trivial occasions of passing interest; some of this was the more piquant for its zest of indecency. Much metrical satire was written; it was not long since the Dunciad had stung the dullards not to death but to more zealous moods of dulness, and soon Churchill was to show how in rougher style to belabour antagonists with the knotty cudgel. Akenside wrote odes which may be called occasional, but he always contrived to add dignity to his poem by giving it something of a general character. If ever he became a satirist, it was in the solemn manner of one devoted before all else to principles. It was his choice to be at once poet and philosophic teacher, or, as he would perhaps have liked to be called, bard and sage. In the preceding age poetry and philosophy had stood apart; Dryden aimed at pleasure, Locke at truth. But now under happy Hanoverian freedom, poetry might dare to expatiate over all the great affairs of the world and of human life; it might approach philosophy and embrace it, and from such an union surely the highest offspring of the spirit of man must arise. Nor, Akenside would say, was philosophy now the tentative and uninspiring research of the Essay on Human Understanding. Locke's pupil Shaftesbury, a man of aspiring moral temper and elegant culture, who had drunk deep at the well-heads of truth in ancient Greece, was the newer master; both in politics and philosophy the Gothic darkness and tyranny had disappeared. A happier period had dawned of liberty and light, of Plato and the Characteristics, of enthusiasm and taste, of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.
Honour is due to Akenside for his homage to the mind and to things of the mind. And it would be unjust to say that his enthusiasm was not sincere. Since, however, he lived as poet so much among ideas, since apart from these ideas his poetry ceases to exist, one cannot but ask, Were his ideas true? Were they the best ideas? Do they still survive? And again, Did Akenside present his ideas in the best way, in a way at once philosophical and poetic? Did he indeed effect the union of reason and imagination?
It must be answered that Akenside's theory as a whole will not bear investigation, that some of his ideas are commonplace, some fantastic. His psychology is that of Addison's essays on the Imagination; his morals and metaphysics are those of Shaftesbury. Akenside was inferior to Addison, not perhaps in power of analysis, but in delicacy of perception, in pliancy of feeling, in good sense. He was inferior to Shaftesbury in the quality of his moral enthusiasm. Shaftesbury's fine illumination comes to us reflected from a surface somewhat hard and cold; it is enthusiasm still, but it is enthusiasm which cannot subsist without rhetoric. For Akenside's moral elevation was self-conscious, a dignity of attitude assumed deliberately, a constructed elevation. His manner, we are told, was stiff and pompous; he was too oracular, and took a jest very ill. He was deficient on the side of common human sympathy; he lacked geniality. He felt himself to be a "superior person," and he was so in fact; but he had the kind of superior fatuousness that such persons are readily betrayed into. His tone is too high-pitched; his ideas are too much in the air; they do not nourish themselves in the common heart, in the common life of man. Still Akenside really lifts up his head and tries to breathe empyreal gales. And if the doctrines of amiable deism, the optimist's view of life, final causes, the unity of goodness, truth and beauty, hardly seem to us to solve the riddles of the world, such solutions had certainly an attraction for some of the finest minds of the first half of the eighteenth century.
"The author's aim," Akenside says in introducing his chief poem, "was not so much to give formal precepts, or enter into the way of direct argumentation, as, by exhibiting the most engaging prospects of nature, to enlarge and harmonise the imagination." A noble aim — but Akenside's theory and his descriptions somehow do not help each other as they ought. It is possible to set forth abstract truth with so much clearness and such exquisiteness of form, that its light may charm the eye as various colour charms. Truth again, in a mind like Plato's, may incarnate itself in a myth of the imagination, involuntarily and almost inevitably. Then the body and the soul of truth are indeed one living, breathing organism. But Akenside sets forth his truth in a series of illustrations; the doctrine is a peg on which he hangs a picture, and after you have admired, he comes forward to tell you that the picture is less interesting than the peg. The kind of truth which Akenside presents almost invites the expositor to a frigid style. A theory of beauty, and not beauty itself, save as an illustration; phrases about the sublime, a definition of moral loveliness; — it were easier to write poetically about sines and cosines. No treatise on the Attributes has ever won a lover for God.
Akenside's verse has been described as laborious; in reality it swims on only too gallantly. Its periods are rhetorical, like those of a lecturer with full command of his subject and conscious of superiority to his hearers. He does not brood, or meditate, or enquire; he expounds. Hence his frequent interrogative, his address to the reader, his "lo!" and his "behold!" It is not verse which delays, or coils upon itself like a stream in some rocky chalice when happy and loving most its own beauty; Akenside's verse is the verse of rhetorical exposition.
His odes have been rated below their true worth. They are not lyrics in the sense that Shelley's Skylark is lyrical; they are not melodious cries. But they have dignity of sentiment, and that not feigned; they present lofty thoughts in language of animated seriousness and in well-measured verse. The Hymn to the Naiads has delighted so many cultured readers that the high rank generally assigned to it among Akenside's poems must be maintained; but it has the faults of its author's longer work. Nothing that he has written is in style so pure and strong as the Inscriptions. Their narrow limits did not give time for the rise of rhetorical excitement. They have, as is fitting, a marmoreal purity and permanence.
The recast of The Pleasures of Imagination does not gain on the original poem. Fine audacities of expression are struck away; the philosophical analysis becomes more minute and laboured And if we are spared the incredible allegory of Euphrosyne and Nemesis, and the dreary sprightliness of the theory of ridicule, there are added passages which make amends to the injured Goddess of Dulness.