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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Mark Akenside (1721–1770)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
MARK AKENSIDE is of less importance in genuine poetic rank than in literary history. He was technically a real poet; but he had not a great, a spontaneous, nor a fertile poetical mind. Nevertheless, a writer who gave pleasure to a generation cannot be set aside. The fact that the mid-eighteenth century ranked him among its foremost poets is interesting and still significant. It determines the poetic standard and product of that age; and the fact that, judged thus, Akenside was fairly entitled to his fame.  1
  He was the son of a butcher, born November 9th, 1721, in Newcastle-on-Tyne, whence Eldon and Stowell also sprang. He attracted great attention by an early poem, ‘The Virtuoso.’ The citizens of that commercial town have always appreciated their great men and valued intellectual distinction, and its Dissenters sent him at their own expense to Edinburgh to study for the Presbyterian ministry. A year later he gave up theology for medicine—honorably repaying the money advanced for his divinity studies, if obviously out of some one’s else pocket.  2
  After some struggle in provincial towns, his immense literary reputation—for at twenty-four he was a star of the first magnitude in Great Britain—and the generosity of a friend enabled him to acquire a fashionable London practice. He wrote medical treatises which at the time made him a leader in his profession, secured a rich clientage, and prospered greatly. In 1759 he was made physician to Christ’s Hospital, where, however valued professionally, he is charged with being brutal and offensive to the poor; with indulging his fastidiousness, temper, and pomposity, and with forgetting that he owed anything to mere duty or humanity.  3
  Unfortunately, too, Akenside availed himself of that mixture of complaisance and arrogance by which almost alone a man of no birth can rise in a society graded by birth. He concealed his origin and was ashamed of his pedigree. But the blame for his flunkeyism belongs, perhaps, less to him than to the insolent caste feeling of society, which forced it on him as a measure of self-defense and of advancement. He wanted money, loved place and selfish comfort, and his nature did not balk at the means of getting them,—including living on a friend when he did not need such help. To become physician to the Queen, he turned his coat from Whig to Tory; but no one familiar with the politics of the time will regard this as an unusual offense. It must also be remembered that Akenside possessed a delicate constitution, keen senses, and irritable nerves; and that he was a parvenu, lacking the power of self-control even among strangers. These traits explain, though they do not excuse, his bad temper to the unclean and disagreeable patients of the hospital, and they mitigate the fact that his industry was paralyzed by material prosperity, and his self-culture interfered with by conceit. His early and sweeping success injured him as many a greater man has been thus injured.  4
  Moreover, his temper was probably soured by secret bitternesses. His health, his nerves, an entire absence of the sense of humor, and his lack of repartee, made him shun like Pope and Horace Walpole the bibulous and gluttonous element of eighteenth-century British society. For its brutal horseplay and uncivil practical joking which passed for wit, Akenside had no tolerance, yet he felt unwilling to go where he would be outshone by inferior men. His strutty arrogance of manner, like excessive prudery in a woman, may have been a fortification to a garrison too weak to fight in the open field. And it must be admitted that, as so often happens, Akenside’s outward ensemble was eminently what the vulgar world terms “guyable.” He was not a little of a fop. He was plain-featured and yet assuming in manner. He hobbled in walking from lameness of tell-tale origin,—a cleaver falling on his foot in childhood, compelling him to wear an artificial heel—and he was morbidly sensitive over it. His prim formality of manner, his sword and stiff-curled wig, his small and sickly face trying to maintain an expression impressively dignified, made him a ludicrous figure, which his contemporaries never tired of ridiculing and caricaturing. Henderson, the actor, said that “Akenside, when he walked the streets, looked for all the world like one of his own Alexandrines set upright.” Smollett even used him as a model for the pedantic doctor in ‘Peregrine Pickle,’ who gives a dinner in the fashion of the ancients, and dresses each dish according to humorous literary recipes.  5
  But there were those who seem to have known an inner and superior personality beneath the brusqueness, conceit, and policy, beyond the nerves and fears; and they valued it greatly, at least on the intellectual side. A wealthy and amiable young Londoner, Jeremiah Dyson, remained a friend so enduring and admiring as to give the poet a house in Bloomsbury Square, with £300 a year and a chariot, and personally to extend his medical practice. We cannot suppose this to be a case of patron and parasite. Other men of judgment showed like esteem. And in congenial society, Akenside was his best and therefore truest self. He was an easy and even brilliant talker, displaying learning and immense memory, taste, and philosophic reflection; and as a volunteer critic he has the unique distinction of a man who had what books he liked given him by the publishers for the sake of his oral comments!  6
  The standard edition of Akenside’s poems is that edited by Alexander Dyce (London, 1835). Few of them require notice here. His early effort, ‘The Virtuoso,’ was merely an acknowledged and servile imitation of Spenser. The claim made by the poet’s biographers that he preceded Thomson in reintroducing the Spenserian stanza is groundless. Pope preceded him, and Thomson renewed its popularity by being the first to use it in a poem of real merit, ‘The Castle of Indolence.’ Mr. Gosse calls the ‘Hymn to the Naiads’ “beautiful,”—“of transcendent merit,”—“perhaps the most elegant of his productions.” The ‘Epistle to Curio,’ however, must be held his best poem,—doubtless because it is the only one which came from his heart; and even its merit is much more in rhetorical energy than in art or beauty. As to its allusion and object, the real and classic Curio of Roman social history was a protégé of Cicero’s, a rich young Senator, who began as a champion of liberty and then sold himself to Cæsar to pay his debts. In Akenside’s poem, Curio represents William Pulteney, Walpole’s antagonist, the hope of that younger generation who hated Walpole’s system of parliamentary corruption and official jobbing. This party had looked to Pulteney for a clean and public-spirited administration. Their hero was carried to a brief triumph on the wave of their enthusiasm. But Pulteney disappointed them bitterly: he took a peerage, and sunk into utter and permanent political damnation, with no choice but Walpole’s methods and tools, no policy save Walpole’s to redeem the withdrawal of so much lofty promise, and no aims but personal advancement. From Akenside’s address to him, the famous ‘Epistle to Curio,’ a citation is made below. Akenside’s fame, however, rests on the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination.’ He began it at seventeen; though in the case of works begun in childhood, it is safer to accept the date of finishing as the year of the real composition. He published it six years later, in 1744, on the advice and with the warm admiration of Pope, a man never wasteful of encomiums on the poetry of his contemporaries. It raised its author to immediate fame. It secures him a place among the accepted English classics still. Yet neither its thought nor its style makes the omission to read it any irreparable loss. It is cultivated rhetoric rather than true poetry. Its chief merit and highest usefulness are that it suggested two far superior poems, Campbell’s ‘Pleasures of Hope’ and Rogers’s ‘Pleasures of Memory.’ It is the relationship to these that really keeps Akenside’s alive.  7
  In scope, the poem consists of two thousand lines of blank verse. It is distributed in three books. The first defines the sources, methods, and results of imagination; the second its distinction from philosophy and its enchantment by the passions; the third sets forth the power of imagination to give pleasure, and illustrates its mental operation. The author remodeled the poem in 1757, but it is generally agreed that he injured it. Macaulay says he spoiled it, and another critic delightfully observes that he “stuffed it with intellectual horsehair.”  8
  The year of Akenside’s death (1770) gave birth to Wordsworth. The freer and nobler natural school of poetry came to supplant the artificial one, belonging to an epoch of wigs and false calves, and to open toward the far greater one of the romanticism of Scott and Byron.  9
 
 
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