1794 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Mark Akenside

Anna Laetitia Barbauld, in "Essay on The Pleasures of Imagination" Pleasures of Imagination, ed. Barbauld (1794) 30-33, 36.



If the genius of AKENSIDE be to be estimated from his Poem, and it is certainly the most capital of his works, it will be found to be lofty and elegant, chaste, classical, and correct: not marked with strong traits of originality, not ardent or exuberant. His enthusiasm was rather of that kind which is kindled by reading and imbibing the spirit of authors, than by contemplating at first hand the works of nature. As a versifier AKENSIDE is allowed to stand amongst those who have given the most finished models of blank verse. His periods are long but harmonious, the cadences fall with grace, and the measure is supported with uniform dignity. His Muse possesses the "mien erect, and high commanding gait." We shall scarcely find a low or trivial expression introduced, a careless or unfinished line permitted to stand. His stateliness however is somewhat allied to stiffness. His verse is sometimes feeble through too rich a redundancy of ornament, and sometimes laboured into a degree of obscurity from too anxious a desire of avoiding natural and simple expressions. We do not conceive of him as "pouring easy his unpremeditated strain." It is rather difficult to read from the sense being extended sometimes through more than twenty lines; but when well read fills and gratifies the ear with all the pomp of harmony. It is far superior to the compositions of his cotemporary THOMSON (we speak now only of the measure) and more equal than MILTON, though inferior to his finest passages. It is indeed too equal not to be in some degree monotonous. He is fond of compound epithets, led to it perhaps by his fondness for the Greek, and delights in giving a classic air to his compositions by using names and epithets the most remote from vulgar use. Like HOMER'S gods his poetry speaks a different language from that of common mortals.

That an author who lived to near fifty should have produced his most capital work at three and twenty, seems to imply (as his professional studies did not cause him to lay aside his poetical pursuits) a genius more early than extensive, a mind more refined than capacious. And that this was the case in reality, will appear from his having employed himself during several years in correcting and entirely new moulding this his favourite Poem. To correct to a certain degree is the duty of a man of sense, but always to correct will not be the employment of a man of spirit. It betrays a mind rather brooding with fond affection over old productions, than inspired by a fresh stream of new ideas. The flowers of fancy are apt to lose their odour by much handling, the glow is gone and the ear itself after a certain time loses its tact amidst repeated alterations, as the taste becomes confounded by the successive trial of different flavours....

On the whole, though we may not look upon AKENSIDE as one of those few born to create an era in Poetry, we may well consider him as formed to shine in the brightest; we may venture to predict that his work, which is not formed on any local or temporary subject, will continue to be a classic in our language; and we shall pay him the grateful regard which we owe to genius exerted in the cause of liberty and philosophy, of virtue and of taste.