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Akenside, Mark

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Robin Dix

Akenside, Mark 

Mark Akenside was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1721. His father was a butcher in the town, and the family lived above the shop in Butcher Bank. At the bottom of this road, another street, called Side, was home to Newcastle's thriving eighteenth-century printing industry, and it may well have been from childhood visits to the printers’ shops there that Akenside developed his interest in literature. He certainly began his publishing career early: his first poem, “The Virtuoso,” appeared in the influential and widely distributed London periodical, The Gentleman's Magazine, in April 1737, when Akenside was just fifteen years old, and over the next two and a half years four more of his poems were printed in the same journal. One of these, A British Philippic, was also published independently as a pamphlet, apparently on the initiative of Edward Cave, the proprietor of The Gentleman's Magazine. It was a vehemently political poem, advocating war with Spain, in opposition to the policy of peace pursued by the government under Sir Robert Walpole. Akenside was only sixteen at the time.

Late in 1738 Akenside went to Edinburgh University: he had been awarded a grant by the Dissenters’ Society, in the expectation of his becoming a dissenting minister. After about a year, however, he switched to the study of medicine, returning home in 1742 before having graduated. Here, he offered to refund the money he had received from the Dissenters’ Society and began serious work on the poem for which he was shortly to become famous, The Pleasures of Imagination. He completed a draft of it in mid-1743 and sold the copyright to the foremost literary publisher of the time, Robert Dodsley, for something approaching £120. Probably using some of this money, he then went to Leiden University in Holland, where in May 1744 he completed his medical studies with a thesis on the origin and growth of the human fetus.

Creative Work in the 1740s

The Pleasures of Imagination became an immediate and runaway success: published in January 1744, it went through three editions before the author's return to England, and another came out before the year's end. It was a poem in blank verse, totaling approximately two thousand lines, divided into three sections or “books.” Its subject was philosophical, examining how the mind works, both in everyday life and in the act of artistic creation. Akenside presents the imagination as crucial in both capacities: in everyday life, it receives and retains information about the outside world, and it is on the basis of these retained images and ideas that we are enabled to respond to the world around us, and make decisions on how to behave. On the question of artistic creation, Akenside's medical research allowed him to formulate a theory in which the creation of a work of art was seen in terms of a reproductive process, involving conception, when the opposing principles of matter and thought meet and achieve fertilization. This is followed by growth or development, and finally by the birth of an individual artwork with a life of its own—the “lively child of art,” as Akenside calls it (3.421). Doubtless because of the prominence given to the imagination, and in particular to this organic theory of art, Akenside exerted a strong influence on Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In the poem Akenside also examined the qualities that appealed to the imagination in objects perceived by the mind, grouping them into the beautiful, the novel, and the sublime—a word used at the time to describe a combination of aesthetic attraction and fear, such as might be felt in a wide range of experiences (for example, feeling religious awe, seeing the destructive power of natural forces, or reading ghost stories). In assessing the aesthetic appeal of objects in all three categories, however, he insists that the attractiveness of physical objects, whether natural landscapes, artefacts, or human bodies, is less powerful than that of actions, as these imply the existence of a directing mind: “Mind, Mind alone! bear witness, earth and heav’n! / The living fountains in itself contains / Of beauteous and sublime” (1.481–83). Such elevation of the mental over the physical reveals a Platonic influence at work in Akenside. This is comparatively rare in the eighteenth century, which tended to undervalue Plato's idealistic philosophy, and it colors the Christian belief, stated at the end of the poem, that the world is God's art, and that by exercising our imaginations in appreciating it and the art which it inspires, we come closer to God.

Over the next few years Akenside attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish himself as a practicing physician, but he also continued to write groundbreaking poems. His biting satire, An Epistle to Curio, for instance, appeared in late 1744. This was a strong attack on the Whig politician William Pulteney, who for many years had led the opposition to Sir Robert Walpole in the House of Commons, but who, when Walpole resigned, disappointed his followers by refusing to form a new government, instead accepting a peerage and keeping a low profile. Written in couplets, like the satires of the recently deceased Alexander Pope, An Epistle to Curio is so effective in its attack that it seems to mark its author as a worthy inheritor of the eighteenth-century “Augustan” satiric tradition. However, Akenside chose not to follow his satirical bent in any sustained way: his next book was a collection of ten lyric poems, Odes on Several Subjects, which appeared in May 1745. Like his two previous publications, this was a highly innovative work, setting a fashion that would continue through the later eighteenth century and into the Romantic movement, for volumes of odes, with the contents carefully arranged so as to contrast with each other while at the same time developing and varying the themes and forms established in the first few pieces.

In late 1745 Akenside undertook to edit, on behalf of his publisher, Dodsley, a new periodical that was to run fortnightly from March 1746 until September 1747. Called The Museum; Or, the Literary and Historical Register, each number provided readers with a general essay in the tradition established by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in The Tatler and The Spectator some decades previously, together with a historical essay (often focusing on other European countries), original poems, and reviews of important books. Akenside's critical abilities are clearly demonstrated by his editorship of the poetry section in particular: he published early work by various writers who were later to become distinguished poets, including Samuel Johnson, William Collins, Christopher Smart, and Joseph and Thomas Warton.

Juggling Careers and Priorities in the 1750s and 1760s

When Dodsley ceased publication of The Museum, Akenside appears to have switched the main focus of his attention from his literary to his medical career. In 1753 he obtained a medical degree from Cambridge University, which enabled him to become a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London. In the same year he was elected to a fellowship at the Royal Society; then in 1759 he obtained the important post of physician at Saint Thomas's Hospital in London. In addition, he became physician to the school of Christ's Hospital and, from 1764, began publishing medical works again—something that he had not done since his Leiden thesis on embryology was accepted in 1744.

Inevitably, this busy professional schedule meant that Akenside produced less poetry. The major new works of the last twenty years of his life appeared in 1758, in the sixth volume of Dodsley's hugely successful anthology of poems, A Collection of Poems by Several Hands. Akenside's contributions included six blank-verse inscriptions, described by Geoffrey Hartman as a “new short-form of poetry for blank verse,” and as such very influential on later Romantic writers including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey; and “Hymn to the Naiads,” written in 1746. This three-hundred-line poem in blank verse is difficult to classify, as it is a unique combination of different poetic traditions. It is in part an imitation of classical hymns to mythological figures, and in part a comment on eighteenth-century Britain, its position in the world, and the prospects for its future moral and economic development. Water is the theme that unifies the work: the naiads were river deities in classical myth, and Akenside links them with trade, pointing to the seamanship of the ancient Phoenicians and other classical civilizations, and noting how this led to the spread of civilization through commerce. But water is also seen as fundamental to modern Britain's agricultural and commercial success, as well as to its physical and moral health. In this context, Akenside contrasts water favorably with wine, represented in the ancient world by the god Bacchus, and in the modern world by France, the country against which Britain was waging war, both when the poem was written, and when it was published twelve years later.

Although he continued to write odes during the 1750s and 1760s, most of the time that Akenside had available for literary work in the later years of his life must have been spent in revising the works that he had published in the 1740s. He revised Odes on Several Subjects for a new edition in 1760 and continued to revise them thereafter, as we know from the posthumous edition of his poems brought out in 1772 by his friend Jeremiah Dyson. This collection also contained some eighteen odes never previously published. More important, Akenside also began a major revision of The Pleasures of Imagination, a project that developed into a total rewrite, left incomplete at the time of his death in 1770. This new, fragmentary poem was also published in Dyson's 1772 edition of Akenside's works, under the slightly changed title The Pleasures of the Imagination. The structure of the poem is more rigorously logical than the original, and there is a substantial amount of new material, including the whole of the new book 3 (540 lines of which Akenside had written before his death). The style is rather more restrained than it had been in the 1744 poem, and had the work been completed, it would have been significantly longer than before, running to five books in total. On the whole, critics have preferred the earlier version, which has certainly been more influential on other poets. Nevertheless, the final fragment of the rewritten work, describing walks that Akenside took in his youth along the banks of the rivers Tyne and Wansbeck, includes what are probably his best-known lines, and have often been compared to Wordsworth's blank-verse evocations of childhood experience in a natural environment.

Akenside is not a writer whose achievements can be summarized easily. He was famous in his own day as the author of The Pleasures of Imagination, an innovative philosophical poem in blank verse that exercised considerable influence on his contemporaries and on the Romantic writers of the following generation. It was primarily on the basis of this work that he continued to be read in the nineteenth century: there are many Victorian editions of his poetry. With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see that his originality extended to other works: Odes on Several Subjects represented a very early contribution to the tradition of publishing collections of odes to be appreciated both singly and as an artistic whole; “Hymn to the Naiads” represented a fusion of the classical hymn tradition of Callimachus and the pseudo-Homer with the modern commercial georgic and progress poem; and his inscriptions offer a new kind of short nature poem in blank verse. Although rather neglected by critics for much of the twentieth century, his work began to attract renewed critical interest toward the end of the century, with the result that he is beginning to receive due recognition again for his original contributions to the poetic tradition, and for the extensive influence he exercised.

See also Eighteenth-Century Journalism and Alexander Pope.

Selected Works

A British Philippic (1738)Find this resource:

    The Pleasures of Imagination (1744)Find this resource:

      An Epistle to Curio (1744)Find this resource:

        Odes on Several Subjects (1745)Find this resource:

          An Ode to the Right Honourable the Earl of Huntingdon (1748)Find this resource:

            An Ode to the Country Gentlemen of England (1758)Find this resource:

              Six inscriptions, “Hymn to the Naiads,” and several odes, one previously published. In A Collection of Poems by Several Hands, edited by Robert Dodsley, vol. 6 (1758)Find this resource:

                An Ode to the Late Thomas Edwards, Esq. (1766)Find this resource:


                  Dix, Robin, ed. The Poetical Works of Mark Akenside. Madison, NJ, and London, 1996.Find this resource:

                    Dyson, Jeremiah, ed. The Poems of Mark Akenside, M.D. London, 1772. Posthumous edition.Find this resource:

                      Further Reading

                      Dix, Robin. The Literary Career of Mark Akenside, Including an Edition of His Non-Medical Prose. Madison, NJ, and London. Forthcoming.Find this resource:

                        Dix, Robin, ed. Mark Akenside: A Reassessment. Madison, NJ, and London, 2000. A collection of essays by various scholars on different aspects of Akenside's poetry.Find this resource:

                          Griffin, Dustin H. Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge, U.K., 2002. A chapter is devoted to a study of Akenside's politics, which are then placed in context by the book as a whole.Find this resource:

                            Hartman, Geoffrey H. “Wordsworth, Inscriptions and Romantic Nature Poetry.” In From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom. New York, 1965. Stresses Akenside's originality in introducing the inscription as a “new short-form of poetry for blank verse.”Find this resource:

                              Houpt, Charles Theodore. Mark Akenside: A Biographical and Critical Study. 1944. Repr. New York, 1970. The only book-length critical biography, Houpt's work remains useful and very readable.Find this resource:

                                Norton, John Francis. “Akenside's The Pleasures of Imagination: An Exercise in Poetics.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 3 (1969–1970): 366–383. Norton analyzes the themes present in Akenside's major poem, and shows for the first time how they are related within a coherent and satisfying structure.Find this resource:

                                  Sitter, John. Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England. Ithaca, NY, and London, 1982. Sitter examines both The Pleasures of Imagination and Akenside's odes for what they reveal about emerging trends in poetry after the death of Pope.Find this resource:

                                    Whiteley, Paul. “ ‘A Manly and Rational Spirit of Thinking’: Akenside's The Pleasures of Imagination.” English 45 (1996): 193–211. Presents Akenside's major work as quintessentially youthful, encouraging spiritual growth at both personal and social levels, in a hopeful tone that represents a significant change from that adopted by Pope and his contemporaries.Find this resource:

                                      Robin Dix