Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 16. Akenside’s Pleasures of Imagination

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VII. Young, Collins and Lesser Poets of the Age of Johnson

§ 16. Akenside’s Pleasures of Imagination

It may be desirable, and should certainly be permissible, to use once more the often misused comparison, and observe that, while Shenstone would probably have been a better poet, and would certainly have written better poetry, in the seventeenth or the nineteenth century, there is little probability that Mark Akenside would at any time have done better than he actually did, and small likelihood that he would ever have done so well. His only genuine appeal is to the intellect and to strictly conventionalised emotions; his method is by way of versified rhetoric; and his inspirations are political, ethical, social, or almost what you will, provided the purely poetical be excluded. It is, perhaps, not unconnected with this restricted appeal to the understanding, that hardly any poet known to us was so curiously addicted to remaking his poems. Poets of all degrees and kinds, poets as different from each other as Thomson and Tennyson, have revised their work largely; but the revision has always, or almost always, been confined to omissions, insertions and alterations for better or worse of isolated phrase, line or passage. Akenside entirely rewrote his one long and famous poem, The Pleasures of Imagination, and did something similar with several of his not very numerous smaller pieces.

Since his actual intellectual endowment was not small, and his studies (though he was an active practising physician) were sufficient, he often showed fairly adequate stuff or substance of writing. But this stuff or substance is hardly ever of itself poetical; and the poetical or quasi-poetical ornament is invariably added, decorative and merely the clothes, not the body—to borrow the Coleridgean image—of such spirit as there is.

He, therefore, shows better in poems, different as they are from each other, like the Hymn to the Naiads and An Epistle to Curio, than in his diploma piece. The Pleasures of Imagination might, by a bold misnomer or liberty, be used as the title of a completed Kubla Khan, and so might designate a magnificent poem. But, applied strictly, and in the fashion congenial to Akenside and his century, it almost inevitably means a frigid catalogue, with the items decked out in rhetorical figures and developments. The earlier form is the better; but neither is really poetry. On the other hand, the Hymn to the Naiads, in blank verse, does, perhaps, deserve that praise of being “the best example of the eighteenth century kind” which has been sometimes strangely given to The Pleasures themselves. More than one of the Odes and Inscriptions, in their formal decorative way, have a good deal of what has been called “frozen grace.” But only once, perhaps, does Akenside really rise to poetic bloodheat: and that is in An Epistle to Curio. It may deserve, from the point of view of the practical man, the ridicule that Macaulay has applied to it. But, as an example of the nobler satiric couplet, fashioned in a manner between that of Dryden and that of Pope, animated by undoubtedly genuine feeling, and launched at its object with the pulse and quiver of a well-balanced and well-flung javelin, it really has notable merit.

Such a thing as this, and such other things as semi-classical bas-reliefs in description or sentiment, Akenside could accomplish; but, except in the political kind, he has no passion, and in no kind whatever has he magnificence, or the charm of life.