The Pleasures of Imagination (Akenside, 1744)/Design

The Pleasures of Imagination - Akenside (1744) headpiece 2.jpg


THERE are certain powers in human nature which seem to hold a middle place between the organs of bodily sense and the faculties of moral perception: They have been call'd by a very general name, The Powers of Imagination. Like the external senses, they relate to matter and motion; and at the same time, give the mind ideas analogous to those of moral approbation and dislike. As they are the inlets of some of the most exquisite pleasures we are acquainted with, men of warm and sensible tempers have sought means to recall the delightful perceptions they afford, independent of the objects which originally produc'd them. This gave rise to the imitative or designing arts; some of which, like painting and sculpture, directly copy the external appearances which were admir'd in nature; others, like music and poetry, bring them back to remembrance by signs universally establish'd and understood.

But these arts, as they grew more correct and deliberate, were naturally led to extend their imitation beyond the peculiar objects of the imaginative powers; especially poetry, which, making use of language as the instrument by which it imitates, is consequently become an unlimited representation of every species and mode of being. Yet as their primary intention was only to express the objects of imagination, and as they still abound chiefly in ideas of that class, they of course retain their original character, and all the different pleasures they excite, are term'd, in general, Pleasures of Imagination.

The design of the following poem is to give a view of these, in the largest acceptation of the term; so that whatever our imagination feels from the agreeable appearances of nature, and all the various entertainment we meet with either in poetry, painting, music, or any of the elegant arts, might be deducible from one or other of those principles in the constitution of the human mind, which are here establish'd and explain'd.

In executing this general plan it was necessary first of all to distinguish the imagination from our other faculties, and then to characterize those original forms or properties of being about which it is conversant, and which are by nature adapted to it, as light is to the eyes, or truth to the understanding. These properties Mr. Addison had reduc'd to the three general classes of greatness, novelty, and beauty; and into these we may annalyse every object, however complex, which, properly speaking, is delightful to the imagination, But such an object may also include many other sources of pleasure, and its beauty, or novelty or grandeur, will make a stronger impression by reason of this concurrence. Besides this, the imitative arts, especially poetry, owe much of their effect to a similar exhibition of properties quite foreign to the imagination; insomuch that in every line of the most applauded poems, we meet with either ideas drawn from the external senses, or truths discover'd to the understanding, or illustrations of contrivance and final causes, or above all the rest, with circumstances proper to awaken and engage the passions. It was therefore necessary to enumerate and exemplify these different species of pleasure; especially that from the passions, which as it is supreme in the noblest works of human genius, so being in some particulars not a little surprising, gave an opportunity to inliven the didactic turn of the poem, by introducing a piece of machinery to account for the appearance.

After these parts of the subject which hold chiefly of admiration, or naturally warm and interest the mind, a pleasure of a very different nature, that from ridicule came next to be consider'd. As this is the foundation of the comic manner in all the arts, and has been but very imperfectly treated by moral writers, it was thought proper to give it a particular illustration, and to distinguish the general sources from which the ridicule of characters is deriv'd. Here too a change of stile became necessary; such a one as might yet be consistent, if possible, with the general taste of composition in the serious parts of the subject: nor is it an easy task to give any tolerable force to images of this kind, without running either into the gigantic expressions of the mock-heroic, or the familiar and pointed raillery of profess'd satyr; neither of which would have been proper here.

The materials of all imitation being thus laid open, nothing now remain'd but to illustrate some particular pleasures which arise either from the relations of different objects one to another, or from the nature of imitation itself. Of the first kind is that various and complicated resemblance existing between several parts of the material and immaterial worlds, which is the foundation of metaphor and wit. As it seems in a great measure to depend on the early associations of our ideas, and as this habit of associating is the source of many pleasures and pains in life, and on that account bears a great share in the influence of poetry and the other arts, it is therefore mention'd here and its effects describ'd. Then follows a general account of the production of these elegant arts, and the secondary pleasure, as it is call'd, arising from the resemblance of their imitations to the original appearances of nature. After which, the design is clos'd with some reflections on the general conduct of the powers of imagination, and on their natural and moral usefulness in life.

Concerning the manner or turn of composition which prevails in this piece, little can be said with propriety by the author. He had two models; that ancient and simple one of the first Græcian poets, as it is refin'd by Virgil in the Georgics, and the familiar epistolary way of Horace. This latter has several advantages. It admits of a greater variety of stile; it more readily engages the generality of readers, as partaking more of the air of conversation; and especially with the assistance of rhyme, leads a closer and more concise expression. Add to this the example of the most perfect of modern poets, who has so happily applied this manner to the noblest parts of philosophy, that the public taste is in a great measure form'd to it alone. Yet, after all, the subject before us tending almost constantly to admiration and enthusiasm, seem'd rather to demand a more open, pathetic and figur'd stile. This too appear'd more natural, as the author's aim was not so much to give formal precepts, or enter into the way of direct argumentation, as by exhibiting the most engaging prospects of nature, to enlarge and harmonize the imagination, and by that means insensibly dispose the minds of men to the same dignity of taste in religion, morals, and civil life. 'Tis on this account that he is so careful to point out the benevolent intention of the author of nature in every principle of the human constitution here insisted on; and also to unite the moral excellencies of life in the same point of view with the mere external objects of good taste; thus recommending them in common to our natural propensity for admiring what is beautiful and lovely. The same views have also led him to introduce some sentiments which may perhaps be look'd upon as not quite direct to the subject; but since they bear an obvious relation to it, the authority of Virgil, the faultless model of didactic poetry, will best support him in this particular. For the sentiments themselves he makes no apology.