« PreviousContinue »
illuminating comment upon it is its author's remark that "poetry was only true eloquence in metre";1 for the reader seems throughout to be listening (not always attentively) to an oration of bygone days, vague, flowery, learned, and, though he is not sure just what it is all about, undoubtedly able.
Akenside's language is decidedly Latinized and grandiose. His pages "effuse" such words as effulgence, effluence, empyreal, empyrean, disparting, educing, brede, adamantine, illapse, preventing (anticipating), and phrases like "essential pleasure," "lucid orb," "the cerulean convex,' ," "the wide complex Of coexistent orders," "attend His will, obsequious"; with him a cloud is "obvious to" the sun, planets "absolve The . . . rounds of Time," Ilissus "devolv'd" his stream, a task "impends," a pavilion "diffus'd Its floating umbrage." 2
Such diction was probably due in Akenside's case, as in Thomson's, to a fondness for the boundless and the vast. For we get no details and little that is definite in the Pleasures of Imagination; everything is vague, general, and abstract; "actual existencies," "human interests," and experiences play almost no part.3 Akenside was, for example, unusually fond of the out-of-doors, and has a great deal to say about it in his poem; yet he does not picture nature, he only talks about it. He never tells us what flowers are at his feet or what soft incense hangs upon the boughs. Very likely he did not know; his mind may have been indifferent to such details. At any rate, he mentions only the "perennial sweets" of the "balmy walks of May," "the rosy mead," "autumnal spoils," "the generous glebe Whose bosom smiles with verdure," or "the gay verdure of the painted plain"; that is, he employs the vague, vicious poetic diction of Thomson and his contemporaries.
As a result of this inflated language and involved style, of the abstract subject and the way in which it is treated, the course of Akenside's thought is hard to follow. "His images," declared Johnson, himself no stickler for simplicity, "are displayed with such luxuriance of expression that they are hidden, . . . lost under superfluity of dress. . . . 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 laby
1 Mason, Memoirs of Gray (prefixed to Gray's Poems, York, 1775), 261 n. 2 ii. 158, 226, iii. 465 (cf. ii. 110), ii. 320-21, iii. 544-5; iii. 429 (cf. ii. 225, and second version, i. 90), i. 194–5, 594, ii. 68, 293-4.
3 Dyce, in Aldine edition of Akenside, p. lxxxix. 4iii. 368-9, i. 426, ii. 288, i. 364-5, iii. 495.
rinth comes out as he went in." Even if a particular passage is understood, its connection with what goes before and what follows is likely not to be clear. Akenside intended to depict the pleasures of imagination, to show how they arise from the perception of greatness, novelty, and beauty in the natural world and the fine arts; but he was particularly anxious, "by exhibiting the most engaging prospects of nature, to enlarge and harmonize the imagination. "2 Yet instead of putting his readers in tune with the infinite he only gets them out of touch with the definite, with the result that few of them carry away from the book any clear ideas. Take these lines, for example:
We hasten to recount the various springs
If the gentle reader is vague as to what this is all about, let him imagine his state of mind after reading fifty such passages!
The parts of the poem most likely to impress him are those that prefigure Keats's doctrine as to the identity of truth and beauty and Wordsworth's as to the moral and spiritual power to be derived from nature. Mr. C. A. Moore has shown that these ideas are derived from Shaftesbury and are common to the deistic poetry of the time; but Akenside's expression of them is memorable and, in view of the popularity of his work and the admiration the lake poets had for it, may well have been influential. He asserts that from the contemplation of natural beauty man derives more than beauty:
1 "Akenside," in Lives (ed. Hill), iii. 417. “Sir, I could not read it through," he declared to Boswell (Boswell's Life, ed. Hill, ii. 164). Gray also thought poorly of it and of the Hymn to the Naiads (see his letters to Wharton, April 26, 1744, and March 8, 1758, and Mason, March 24, 1758).
2 From the "Design" prefixed to the poem. "And by that means," he continued, “insensibly dispose the minds of men to a similar taste and habit of thinking in religion, morals, and civil life.” Hence he emphasized "the benevolent intention of the author of nature in every principle of the human constitution," and was careful to "unite... in the same point of view" morality and good taste.
3 ii. 69-75.
The Return to Nature in English Poetry (Univ. of North Carolina, Studies in Philology, xiv. 273-8). According to Mr. Moore, Akenside "undertook to versify almost the entire corpus of Shaftesbury's speculation. He included, for example, the doctrine that the perfect harmony of Nature is the only revelation of the Deity required by a reasonable creature, a spirited attack on orthodox superstition, a defense of ridicule as a legitimate weapon in religious debate."
5 In the preface to the third volume of his Works, Southey acknowledges that his
These ideas receive their highest expression in that part of the poem (composed over a quarter of a century after the original work was published) which Mr. Saintsbury declares to be "not only almost alongside of Cowper, but very nearly in presence of Wordsworth.” 2 In this fragmentary fourth book of the rewritten Pleasures of the Imagination, Akenside refers to
Those studies which possess'd me in the dawn
to the "dales of Tyne," the "most ancient woodlands, where ... the giant flood obliquely strides," and to
The rocky pavement and the mossy falls
This passage is hardly closer to Wordsworth's conception of the spiritual functions of nature than is this other to the general character of his blank verse:
inscriptions and his Hymn to the Penates were inspired by Akenside; and William Haller (Early Life of Southey, N. Y., 1917, p. 108 n.) points out that the mottoes prefixed to Southey's Poems (1797) and to Coleridge's Moral and Political Lecture (1795) and Religious Musings (1796) are all taken from Akenside. Note also Coleridge's Elegy imitated from one of Akenside's Blank-Verse Inscriptions, his Destiny of Nations, and lines 48-64 of Wordsworth's Lines left upon a Seat, which recall the Pleasures of Imagination. Akenside had several interesting connections with romanticism. He helped Dyer on The Fleece (see Aldine ed. of Akenside, p. lxxi), he had "long been intimately acquainted with" Thomas Edwards, one of the revivers of the sonnet (ib. lxxviii), and he was "a great admirer of Gothic architecture" (ib. lxix). His odes, the subject of his principal poem, his Spenserian imitation The Virtuoso, his use of blank verse, all point towards the milder classicism of Gray, Mason, and the Wartons. Yet he has several poems, including the classical satire An Epistle to Curio, in heroic couplets; and he based the Pleasures itself upon some of Addison's Spectator papers.
2 English Prosody, ii. 491.
iv. 49-50, 31-45.
For thus far
On general habits, and on arts which grow
Akenside's debt to Paradise Lost must be clear from the extracts that have been given. Parentheses and appositives, to be sure, are rare, and inversions, though numerous, are neither so frequent nor so elaborate as in most blank verse of the day. But the inflated Thomsonian diction shows all the Miltonic peculiarities, — unusual words from the Greek and Latin, words employed in their original but obsolete senses, uncommon hyphenated epithets, adjectives used as adverbs or as nouns, nouns used as verbs, and so on. The most objectionable of these idiosyncrasies, which are to be attributed to youth and to the influence of The Seasons, are in large part purged from the later version written between 1757 and 1770.2 The admiration for Milton implied in the use of his style and language Akenside expressed frankly. In his ode On the Absence of the Poetic Inclination, he asks if he shall seek the "soul of Milton" in order to win back the muse, and immediately breaks out,
Later he wrote:
O mighty mind! O sacred flame!
Mark, how the dread Pantheon stands,
So mark thou Milton's name;
And add, "Thus differs from the throng
The spirit which inform'd thy awful song,
Which bade thy potent voice protect thy country's fame."
Clearly it was Milton's character and patriotism, as well as his poetry, that Akenside admired. Nor was his admiration for the
1 iv. 58-61. Wordsworth's title, Influence of Natural Objects in calling forth and strengthening the Imagination, might serve for Akenside's work.
2 Compare, for example, i. 185-211 with i. 243-69 in the later version.
In the first edition of his Odes (1745) this was ode vi; in later editions it became ode x of book i, To the Muse, and the lines were changed.
▲ To Francis, Earl of Huntingdon, iii. 2. Section iii. 3 of this ode is largely devoted to Milton, other references to whom will be found in the tenth and seventeenth odes of book i, the second, fourth, and tenth of book ii, and in i. 168 of the second version of the Pleasures.
poetry confined to the epic; for he borrowed from Lycidas,1 and was one of the first imitators of Allegro and Penseroso.2
The influence of Milton should not be confused with the similar influence of the classics, in which Akenside was steeped. The Pleasures of Imagination undoubtedly derives in the main from the English Homer and his imitators, whereas the more direct and severe inscriptions (which influenced Southey and perhaps, through him, Landor) suggest Greece and Rome. Yet even in them there are lines as Miltonic as these:
Thus at length
Expert in laws divine, I know the paths
Of wisdom, and erroneous folly's end
Have oft presag'd: and now well-pleas'd I wait.'
The noble Hymn to the Naiads (written in 1746), which has the coolness and impersonality of the brooks and springs themselves, together with something of the aloofness of the Epicurean gods, is confessedly an imitation of the hymns of Callimachus. It is of Greece rather than of Milton that we are reminded in these, the best lines:
Ye Nymphs, ye blue-ey'd progeny of Thames,
Trace with your fleeting steps; who all night long
1 "Hill and dale with all their echoes mourn (iii. 566, cf. Lycidas, 39-41). I have noted a few other Miltonic borrowings in the Pleasures: "the enamel'd green" (ii. 434, cf. Arcades, 84), "flew diverse" (ii. 640, cf. P. L., x. 284),
Whose unfading light
(i. 204–6, cf. P. L., ii. 979–80),
The sable woods
That shade sublime yon mountain's nodding brow
(iii. 286-7, cf. Comus, 37-8). There are, besides, a number of phrases, like "congregated floods" (ii. 282, cf. P. L., vii. 308) and "of each peculiar" (iii. 6, cf. P. L., vii. 368), that may have been suggested by the epic.
2 See pp. 449-50 below. The first paragraph of the Pleasures makes some use of the Allegro-Penseroso structure (see p. 471 below).
3 Inscription vii, The Wood Nymph.
♦ Note to line 327. Dyce declares (Aldine ed. of Akenside, p. xc) that English literature contains "nothing more deeply imbued with the spirit of the ancient world."
• Lines 5-13.