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The Life of Mark Akenside
Written by: Samuel Johnson
Mark Akenside was born on the 9th of November, 1721, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His father Mark was a butcher, of the Presbyterian sect; his mother's name was Mary Lumsden. He received the first part of his education at the grammar-school of Newcastle; and was afterwards instructed by Mr. Wilson, who kept a private academy. At the age of eighteen he was sent to Edinburgh that he might qualify himself for the office of a dissenting minister, and received some assistance from the fund which the dissenters employ in educating young men of scanty fortune. But a wider view of the world opened other scenes, and prompted other hopes: he determined to study physic, and repaid that contribution, which being received for a different purpose, he justly thought it dishonourable to retain. Whether, when he resolved not to be a dissenting minister, he ceased to be a dissenter, I know not. He certainly retained an unnecessary and outrageous zeal for what he called and thought liberty; a zeal which sometimes disguises from the world, and not rarely from the mind which it possesses, an envious desire of plundering wealth or degrading greatness; and of which the immediate tendency is innovation and anarchy, an impetuous eagerness to subvert and confound, with very little care what shall be established.
Akenside was one of those poets who have felt very early the motions of genius, and one of those students who have very early stored their memories with sentiments and images. Many of his performances were produced in his youth; and his greatest work, "The Pleasures of Imagination," appeared in 1744. I have heard Dodsley, by whom it was published, relate that when the copy was offered him, the price demanded for it, which was a hundred and twenty pounds, being such as he was not inclined to give precipitately, he carried the work to Pope, who, having looked into it, advised him not to make a niggardly offer; for "this was no every-day writer."
In 1741 he went to Leyden in pursuit of medical knowledge; and three years afterwards (May 16, 1744) became Doctor of Physic, having, according to the custom of the Dutch Universities, published a thesis or dissertation. The subject which he chose was "The Original and Growth of the Human Foetus;" in which he is said to have departed, with great judgment, from the opinion then established, and to have delivered that which has been since confirmed and received.
Akenside was a young man, warm with every notion that by nature or accident had been connected with the sound of liberty, and, by an eccentricity which such dispositions do not easily avoid, a lover of contradiction, and no friend to anything established. He adopted Shaftesbury's foolish assertion of the efficacy of ridicule for the discovery of truth. For this he was attacked by Warburton, and defended by Dyson; Warburton afterwards reprinted his remarks at the end of his dedication to the Freethinkers. The result of all the arguments which have been produced in a long and eager discussion of this idle question may easily be collected. If ridicule be applied to any position as the test of truth it will then become a question whether such ridicule be just; and this can only be decided by the application of truth, as the test of ridicule. Two men fearing, one a real, and the other a fancied danger, will be for a while equally exposed to the inevitable consequences of cowardice, contemptuous censure, and ludicrous representation; and the true state of both cases must be known before it can be decided whose terror is rational and whose is ridiculous; who is to be pitied, and who to be despised. Both are for a while equally exposed to laughter, but both are not therefore equally contemptible. In the revisal of his poem, though he died before he had finished it, he omitted the lines which had given occasion to Warburton's objections. He published, soon after his return from Leyden (1745), his first collection of odes; and was impelled by his rage of patriotism to write a very acrimonious epistle to Pulteney, whom he stigmatises, under the name of Curio, as the betrayer of his country. Being now to live by his profession, he first commenced physician at Northampton, where Dr. Stonehouse then practised, with such reputation and success, that a stranger was not likely to gain ground upon him. Akenside tried the contest a while; and, having deafened the place with clamours for liberty, removed to Hampstead, where he resided more than two years, and then fixed himself in London, the proper place for a man of accomplishments like his. At London he was known as a poet, but was still to make his way as a physician; and would perhaps have been reduced to great exigencies but that Mr. Dyson, with an ardour of friendship that has not many examples, allowed him three hundred pounds a year. Thus supported, he advanced gradually in medical reputation, but never attained any great extent of practice or eminence of popularity. A physician in a great city seems to be the mere plaything of fortune; his degree of reputation is, for the most part, totally casual—they that employ him know not his excellence; they that reject him know not his deficience. By any acute observer who had looked on the transactions of the medical world for half a century a very curious book might be written on the "Fortune of Physicians."
Akenside appears not to have been wanting to his own success: he placed himself in view by all the common methods; he became a Fellow of the Royal Society; he obtained a degree at Cambridge; and was admitted into the College of Physicians; he wrote little poetry, but published from time to time medical essays and observations; he became physician to St. Thomas's Hospital; he read the Gulstonian Lectures in Anatomy; but began to give, for the Croonian Lecture, a history of the revival of learning, from which he soon desisted; and in conversation he very eagerly forced himself into notice by an ambitious ostentation of elegance and literature. His "Discourse on the Dysentery" (1764) was considered as a very conspicuous specimen of Latinity, which entitled him to the same height of place among the scholars as he possessed before among the wits; and he might perhaps have risen to a greater elevation of character but that his studies were ended with his life by a putrid fever June 23, 1770, in the forty-ninth year of his age.
Akenside is to be considered as a didactic and lyric poet. His great work is the "Pleasures of Imagination," a performance which, published as it was at the age of twenty-three, raised expectations that were not amply satisfied. It has undoubtedly a just claim to very particular notice as an example of great felicity of genius, and uncommon aptitude of acquisitions, of a young mind stored with images, and much exercised in combining and comparing them. With the philosophical or religious tenets of the author I have nothing to do; my business is with his poetry. The subject is well chosen, as it includes all images that can strike or please, and thus comprises every species of poetical delight. The only difficulty is in the choice of examples and illustrations; and it is not easy in such exuberance of matter to find the middle point between penury and satiety. The parts seem artificially disposed, with sufficient coherence, so as that they cannot change their places without injury to the general design. His images are displayed with such luxuriance of expression that they are hidden, like Butler's Moon, by a "Veil of Light;" they are forms fantastically lost under superfluity of dress. Pars minima est ipsa puella sui. The words are multiplied till the sense is hardly perceived; attention deserts the mind, and settles in the ear. The reader wanders through the gay diffusion, sometimes amazed, and sometimes delighted; but, after many turnings in the flowery labyrinth, comes out as he went in. He remarked little, and laid hold on nothing. To his versification justice requires that praise should not be denied. In the general fabrication of his lines he is perhaps superior to any other writer of blank verse; his flow is smooth, and his pauses are musical; but the concatenation of his verses is commonly too long continued, and the full close does not occur with sufficient frequency. The sense is carried on through a long intertexture of complicated clauses, and, as nothing is distinguished, nothing is remembered.
The exemption which blank verse affords from the necessity of closing the sense with the couplet betrays luxuriant and active minds into such self-indulgence that they pile image upon image, ornament upon ornament, and are not easily persuaded to close the sense at all. Blank verse will therefore, I fear, be too often found in description exuberant, in argument loquacious, and in narration tiresome. His diction is certainly poetical, as it is not prosaic; and elegant, as it is not vulgar. He is to be commended as having fewer artifices of disgust than most of his brethren of the blank song. He rarely either recalls old phrases, or twists his metre into harsh inversions. The sense, however, of his words is strained when "he views the Ganges from Alpine heights"—that is, from mountains like the Alps. And the pedant surely intrudes (but when was blank verse without pedantry?) when he tells how "Planets ABSOLVE the stated round of Time."
It is generally known to the readers of poetry that he intended to revise and augment this work, but died before he had completed his design. The reformed work as he left it, and the additions which he had made, are very properly retained in the late collection. He seems to have somewhat contracted his diffusion; but I know not whether he has gained in closeness what he has lost in splendour. In the additional book the "Tale of Solon" is too long. One great defect of this poem is very properly censured by Mr. Walker, unless it may be said in his defence that what he has omitted was not properly in his plan. "His picture of man is grand and beautiful, but unfinished. The immortality of the soul, which is the natural consequence of the appetites and powers she is invested with, is scarcely once hinted throughout the poem. This deficiency is amply supplied by the masterly pencil of Dr. Young, who, like a good philosopher, has invincibly proved the immortality of man from the grandeur of his conceptions and the meanness and misery of his state; for this reason a few passages are selected from the 'Night Thoughts,' which, with those from Akenside, seem to form a complete view of the powers, situation, and end of man."—"Exercises for Improvement in Elocution," p. 66.
His other poems are now to be considered; but a short consideration will despatch them. It is not easy to guess why he addicted himself so diligently to lyric poetry, having neither the ease and airiness of the lighter, nor the vehemence and elevation of the grander ode. When he lays his ill-fated hand upon his harp his former powers seem to desert him; he has no longer his luxuriance of expression or variety of images. His thoughts are cold, and his words inelegant. Yet such was his love of lyrics that, having written with great vigour and poignancy his "Epistle to Curio," he transformed it afterwards into an ode disgraceful only to its author.
Of his odes nothing favourable can be said; the sentiments commonly want force, nature, or novelty; the diction is sometimes harsh and uncouth, the stanzas ill-constructed and unpleasant, and the rhymes dissonant or unskilfully disposed, too distant from each other, or arranged with too little regard to established use, and therefore perplexing to the ear, which in a short composition has not time to grow familiar with an innovation. To examine such compositions singly cannot be required; they have doubtless brighter and darker parts; but, when they are once found to be generally dull, all further labour may be spared, for to what use can the work be criticised that will not be read?