1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Aikin

Anonymous, Review of Lucy Aikin, Memoir of John Aikin, M.D., in Literary Examiner (16 August 1823) 110-11.



Dr. Aikin was one of the few authors by profession, who after running a lengthened career, had no occasion to look behind him with uneasiness or regret. Calm in conduct and steady in principle, the sober and even tenor of his moral and literary character, was perfectly correspondent; and what is not always the case, he seemed thoroughly embued himself with the spirit of his own favourite axiom, — the propriety of submitting every thing to "the decision of reason." We apprehend, that it is in the rank of the more educated and liberal dissenters that this mental constitution is likely to be formed, and, with certain exceptions, this constant appeal to reason to be more assiduously cultivated, at least we have been generally led to conceive so by the result. Solid and generally scientific attainment, with a diligent culture of the reasoning powers, as opposed to mere philology, and the attainment of an excursive and imaginative spirit, seems to distinguish the thorough bred scholastic dissenter from the mass of the people who are less distinctively educated. This is partly in their favour and partly not. In the critical and investigative departments they usually excel, in the bold, the soaring, and the inventive, seldom; and in lofty flights of imagination still seldomer. In point of fact, they are not often allowed to feed on the literary pabulum of this mental tendency until a relish for it is in a great degree superseded; and with the exception of a few of the leading classics, scholastically communicated, instead of coming to the great fathers of poetical inspiration, with a gay, youthful and disengaged frame of mind, they are usually sealed books to them, until preoccupancy has shut out their influence for ever. So much as to our grand distinction; and if necessary it would be easy to refer to social and political causes for many more. This however is not our intention; our sole object being to refer to an intellectual species, of which as an individual we think the late Dr. Aikin formed a very favourable example.

The Memoir before us exhibits all the Aikin good sense, with what we are obliged to regard as its frequent concomitant — a something of dryness — too literally a mere memoir to be entertaining; and too destitute of incident to excite curiosity. The life of the professional literary man of the assiduous and laborious class, can scarcely be otherwise; and such was Dr. Aikin. Independent of the history of his productions, we are chiefly interested by his conscientious and honourable maintenance of his public principles, at a time when social comfort and worldly prosperity were both in jeopardy wherever this independence was manifested. In this point of view, the calm and unostentatious life of Dr. Aikin merits the attention of all men, as his services to general literature claim the respect of the scholar and general inquirer in particular. These services, it will be seen by a list of his numerous works inserted in the introduction to these volumes, were chiefly critical and biographical; the first correct and elegant, rather than profound; the latter of standard value, both for accuracy and acumen, and especially serviceable as books of reference and valuable compilations.

The chief novelty in these volumes consists of the correspondence of this very respectable literary veteran with a variety of contemporaries, of learning and reputation, by whom he was generally respected. To these are added a judicious compilation of his critical essays on the English Poets, appended to respective editions of them; and a selection of his miscellaneous papers and essays, contributed to various periodical works, and consequently not always known to be from the pen of Dr. Aikin. The result is a couple of handsome octavo volumes, which will take their place on the general shelf of British Literature, with modest but undisputed respectability.

Dr. Aikin and Mrs. Barbauld, who still survives, were the children of the Rev. John Aikin, a dissenting clergyman and schoolmaster, first of Kibworth Harcourt in Leicestershire, and subsequently of Warrington, where he bore a high character for learning, and general ability. Dr. Aikin was brought up to the medical profession, but after a trial or two, which in the principal instance failed, in consequence of the virulence of party spirit, at the commencement of the French revolution. He gradually took up literature as a source of profit, in which pursuit he seems to have enjoyed much more satisfaction and reputation than usually belong to so uncertain a profession. His leading characteristics, which we believe few will be inclined to question, are neatly summed up in the following epitaph:—

In Memory of
JOHN AIKIN, M.D.
who was born at Kibworth in Leicestershire
Jan. 15th, 1747,
died in this parish
Dec. 7th, 1822.
A strenuous and consistent assertor
Of the cause of civil and religious liberty
and of the free exercise of reason
in the investigation of truth.
Of unwearied diligence in all his pursuits,
he was characterised,
in his profession,
by skill, humanity, and disinterestedness;
in his writings,
by candour, by moral purity,
by good sense, and refined taste.
In the intercourse of society
he was affable, kind, cheerful, instructive;
as a husband, a father, and a friend,
unblemished, revered, and beloved.