Akenside, Mark (DNB00)
AKENSIDE, MARK (1721–1770), poet and physician, was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 9 Nov. 1721. His father was a respectable butcher, named also Mark Akenside, and his mother's maiden name had been Mary Lumsden. On both sides he descended from Northumbrian presbyterians of the lower middle class. He was baptised on 30 Nov. by the Rev. Benjamin Bennet, a dissenting divine of some note, who ministered in the new meeting-house at Newcastle. He was the second son of his parents, who had been married for nearly twelve years. When Akenside was seven years old, he was playing in his father's shop, when the butcher's cleaver fell on his foot, and so wounded him that he halted for the rest of his life. He was educated first at the free school of his native town, and then at a private academy, also in Newcastle, kept by a dissenting minister of the name of Wilson. In his sixteenth year (23 April 1737) he sent up a poem, without any introduction, to the leading periodical of the day, the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ It was entitled ‘The Virtuoso,’ and was written in imitation of Spenser, in the Spenserian measure. The piece consists of only ten stanzas, but they show a remarkable skill in versification, and appear to have preceded the longer and better known pieces by Shenstone, Thomson, and Gilbert Ridley, which soon afterwards made the Spenserian stanza fashionable. Akenside was singularly precocious as a poet. After this first success he continued, while yet a youth, to be a frequent contributor to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and in 1738, at the age of seventeen, he began the poem by which he is best remembered, ‘The Pleasures of Imagination.’ It was during a visit to Morpeth that, as he says, within hearing of ‘the mossy falls of solitary Wensbeck's limpid stream,’ the plan of this great work originally occurred to him. A poem called ‘A British Philippic,’ with which Akenside favoured the tory patriotism of the readers of the August number of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ in the same year, was called for so eagerly that it was separately published in the form of a folio pamphlet, and this was Akenside's first independent publication. It appears that the young man was regarded with some pride by the dissenters of Newcastle, and that he was sent, at their expense, in 1739, to Edinburgh, to study for the ministry. After spending one winter, however, in theology, he abandoned it, and became a medical student. On taking this step he had the rectitude to repay to the dissenters of Newcastle what they had expended on him; it is not explained by what means he obtained the money needful to do this. It seems that with this change in his life he lost all personal interest in religious inquiry. He was elected a member of the Medical Society of Edinburgh 30 Dec. 1740, at the very early age of nineteen, his mind showing the same brilliant readiness in science that it had shown in literature. His eloquence at the meetings of the society was the subject of remark, and the young man began to aspire to a parliamentary career. His mind, however, was rapid and precocious rather than original, and neither in rhetoric, nor even in medicine, did he fulfil the promise of his boyhood. In 1740 he privately printed a pamphlet of verse, containing an ode, ‘On the Winter Solstice,’ and an elegy entitled ‘Love.’ In 1741 he returned to Newcastle, and is believed to have practised there for two years as a surgeon; more busy, however, during the early part of that time, in the composition of his great didactic poem. At twenty-one this butcher's son was already a person of much consideration, with a history behind him. When he came up to London, towards the close of 1743, with the finished manuscript of the ‘Pleasures of Imagination,’ he found the literary world prepared to welcome him. He offered his poem to Dodsley, with an intimation that the price was 120l. Before accepting such terms Dodsley showed the manuscript to Pope, who encouraged him to secure the poem, ‘since,’ he added, ‘this is no everyday writer.’ It was published by Dodsley in January 1744, and was received with great applause, though Gray slighted it, and Warburton attacked it. A cheap edition followed within four months, and announced for the first time the author's name, the credit of the piece having been claimed by an impostor of the name of Rolt. Leaving in the press a Parthian arrow in prose, destined for the breast of Warburton, Akenside left England early in April 1744, to proceed to Leyden, where he was presently joined by two Edinburgh friends, with whom he made the tour of Holland. Returning to Leyden, he buried himself among medical books, and struck up a close acquaintance with the eccentric and learned botanist, Gronovius. With his customary rapidity and power of concentration, Akenside completed his necessary studies in Holland within a month, and on 16 May 1744 took his degree of doctor of physic at Leyden. At the same time he published in Leyden, in the form of a quarto pamphlet, a medical dissertation in which he contested the authority of the famous Antony van Leeuwenhoek with considerable spirit and plausibility. He immediately returned to England, and in June of the same year took a physician's practice at Northampton. Here he formed the friendship of Dr. Philip Doddridge; but in all other respects, social and financial, found his prospects so very inauspicious, that in the winter of 1745 he returned to London. His stay at Northampton, however, was fertile in a literary respect, for he published two of his more remarkable works while he was there, his ‘Epistle to Curio’ in November 1744, and his ‘Odes on several Subjects’ in March 1745. Under the pseudonym of ‘Curio,’ the former of these works was a very spirited attack on William Pulteney for his recantation of liberal politics; the other volume was a collection of ten somewhat stiff and frigid lyrics, in the school of Gray and Collins, remarkable for the exact finish of their metrical structure. By this time, at the age of only twenty-four, Akenside had achieved a wide reputation as a poet, and had already written the one other work which was to sustain that reputation. The faults of his intellect and his character now began to reveal themselves. He became mentally fossilised by pedantry and conceit, and he gave way to a native tendency to arrogance, which grew to be a great disadvantage to him. From Christmas 1745 to the winter of 1747, Akenside was practising as a physician at North End, Hampstead, but without much success. An old friend of his, however, Jeremiah Dyson, who had a great affection for Akenside, lifted him out of all embarrassment with a generosity that was almost unexampled. He fitted up for the poet a handsome house in Bloomsbury Square, allowed him 300l. a year and a chariot, and busied himself to gain him so considerable a practice that Akenside was not merely well to do, but ‘lived incomparably well.’ This prosperity was fatal to his poetical genius. In 1746 he had written his beautiful ‘Hymn to the Naiads,’ perhaps the most elegant of his writings, and certainly the latest that was of any transcendent merit. In January of the same year he had become editor of Dodsley's magazine, the ‘Museum,’ to which he contributed a large number of essays in prose; and after the expiration of this work, although he occasionally published a pamphlet in prose or verse, he gave himself almost entirely to his profession. He steadily rose to eminence as a physician. In January 1753, he was admitted by mandamus to a doctor's degree at Cambridge, and was in the same year elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; in April 1754, he was admitted a Fellow of the College of Physicians, and in September of the following year was elected fourth censor of the college, and delivered the Gulstonian Lectures. These were printed in the ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for 1757.’ In 1756 he read the Croonian Lectures before the same college, taking as his subject the eccentrically inappropriate one of the ‘Revival of Learning.’ In 1757 he had the want of discretion to sit down to remodel the charming poem of his youth, ‘The Pleasures of Imagination,’ which he would have done better to leave alone. In March 1758 he published an ‘Ode to the Country Gentlemen of England,’ and in the same year contributed a large number of new pieces, including the ‘Hymn to the Naiads,’ to the sixth volume of Dodsley's popular ‘Miscellany.’ The ‘Call to Aristippus’ is another pamphlet in verse, published in 1758. In January 1759, Akenside was appointed assistant physician, and, in March of the same year, principal physician, to Christ's Hospital. It is sad to be obliged to record that even in those lax days Akenside shocked his contemporaries by his brutal roughness and cruelty to the poor. His learning and sagacity were only just sufficient, on more than one occasion, to preserve him from dismissal upon this ground. In 1761 he was appointed one of the physicians to the queen, and scandalised the whigs, of which party he had hitherto always been a strenuous supporter, by promptly becoming a tory. He had moved into a house in Craven Street, but in 1760 he took one in Burlington Street, and there he resided until his death. The last years of his life were marked by no other incidents than the publication of an occasional ode or dissertation. His practice had become very large and fashionable, when he was seized by a putrid fever, under which, after a very short illness, he sank on June 23, 1770, at the age of forty-eight years and six months. He is said to have expired in the bed in which Milton died, a bed which a friend had given to Akenside nine years before. He was buried on 28 June in the church of St. James's.
Akenside's principal contribution to English literature, ‘The Pleasures of Imagination,’ is a didactic poem of two thousand lines of blank verse, divided into three books. The first book deals with the origin of those intellectual qualities which combine to form imagination, the enjoyment which is caused by the exercise of these in perception and invention, and the different degrees of beauty which are evolved by them in the conduct of life and the study of nature. In the second book, imagination is distinguished from philosophy, the accidental pleasures which enhance the former are enumerated, and the action of the passions upon imagination is described in an allegorical vision. The third and final book discourses on the pleasure of observing the manners of mankind, inquiries into the origin of vice, and describes the action of the mind when engaged in producing works of the imagination. The poem concludes with an account of the advantages accruing from a well-formed imagination.
In the posthumous form, the poem is revised and slightly amplified, while a fragment of a fourth book is added.
The following are the publications of Akenside which have not been enumerated above: 1. ‘An Epistle to the Rev. Mr. Warburton,’ 1744. 2. ‘Dissertatio de Ortu et Incremento Fœtus Humani,’ Leyden, 1744. 3. ‘Ode to the Earl of Huntingdon,’ 1748. 4. ‘The Remonstrance of Shakespeare,’ 1749. 5. ‘De Dysenteria Commentarius,’ 1764. 6. ‘Ode to the late Thomas Edwards,’ 1766.
Of collected editions of Akenside's poems the first was published by Dyson, his executor, in one quarto volume in 1772; the best is that edited by the Rev. Alexander Dyce in 1834. It has been usual to print the ‘Pleasures of Imagination’ in both forms, giving the original text of 1744 and the posthumous revision of 1772.
A contemporary has left this portrait of the poet-physician: ‘One leg of Dr. Akenside was considerably shorter than the other, which was in some measure remedied by the aid of a false heel. He had a pale strumous countenance, but was always very neat and elegant in his dress. He wore a large white wig, and carried a long sword. He would order the servants (at Christ's Hospital), on his visiting days, to precede him with brooms to clear the way, and prevent the patients from too nearly approaching him.’