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A GHOST !
Who reads Pleasures of Imagination, Odes on Several Subjects, Hymn to the Naiads, Inscriptions? Who did not pretend to have studied them down to the middle of the nineteenth century ? Mark Akenside came to London from the North a young medical student, without position or money, possessed of a single friend—a jewel—and of a manuscript poem. For the poem he asked £120 of astounded Dodsley, the publisher. Pope, dying, had approved ; and positively he got his price. The Town welcomed the volume rapturously. Nobody, not even captious Tory Johnson, disputed its Whig author's claim to a place among the poets. For half a century his title to it was unanimously allowed. Great work', 'splendid production ’, are among the most moderate expressions of admiration lavished upon The Pleasures. His Odes were described so late as 1835, as a valuable accession to the lyric poetry of England'! Then gradually his works ceased to be of those with which the educated public is expected to be familiar. Many well-read persons would now confess without shame, if not boast, that they had never seen a line of them.
The saddest evidence of the decay of sensibility in the eighteenth century would be that it rejoiced at the advent of a versifier like Akenside but for one consideration. There is comfort at least in the evidence it affords that the period could not dispense with fresh supplies of poetry.
In its extremity, before Collins, Gray, Goldsmith, Cowper, had made themselves audible, it had to listen to Akenside. The poor thirsty age! It goes much against the grain with me to attribute his acceptance to the accident of such impoverishment, and deny personal merit to the man. That axiom of mine that the applause of educated contemporaries testifies to the existence of a justification for it, is thereby rudely overridden. But I have sought patiently, honestly, and in vain, for a real root of poetry here.
Occasionally I recognize melody in the Pleasures of Imagination ; the writer marshals his topics carefully; and his reasoning in general is, though never subtle, judicious :
The sweets of sense,
With sweeter music murmur as they flow ? 1
See the green space; on either hand
Enlarg’d it spreads around;
Inclos'd in woods profound.
Hark, how through many a melting note
She now prolongs her lays;
The wakeful heifers gaze.? The address To the Country Gentlemen of England, in 1758, is spirited and picturesque, if not rising to a gnomic grandeur which cannot be surpassed ?? He can be righteously indignant at the barbarities of the Inquisition, even, it was reported, to British captives. His wrath at the Leader of the Opposition for presumed apostasy from the cause of freedom, though probably in the particular case without any proper foundation, appears to be sincere. The Hymn to the Naiads is illustrated agreeably from history, mythology, and nature itself. The Virtuoso—one with a most miscellaneous inquisitiveness—has genuine humour and variety.
He many a creature did anatomize,
Almost unpeopling water, air, and land ;
Were laid full low by his relentless hand,
He many a dog destroy'd, and many a cat;
Could tellen if a mite were lean or fat,
And read a lecture o'er the entrails of a gnat. I recognize the graces of dignity and repose in the verses to Chaucer,
who, in times
To tame the rudeness of his native land.5 Even though love's ardour is kept well under, I have read worse amatory songs than that to Arpasia.
I can go so far in the way of commendation, without
straining my conscience; and the praise is the most damnatory of indictments. The just a spark here and there of fire, as when he gives voice to calumnies against weary Pulteney of treason to liberty for the poor bribe of an earldom, or to a silly legend, as of Jenkins's Ears, only throws into drearier relief the prevailing negation of poetic glow. One never falls into a rapture at images he has conjured up. Not a verse he ever wrote has the power of calling tears into the eyes. We experience no sense of mystery or magic as we read ; no strange feeling of affinity between rhythm and thought, as if the one had naturally clothed itself with the other. The only discernible relationship of the two is that both are equally commonplace.
It is hard to restrain an emotion of resentment at the juvenile audacity which took Imagination for theme where none is forthcoming for its handling. Dexterity in reasoning is as absent as sweetness and sympathy. When an idea is touched, it quickly runs itself upon a sand bank. Frequently the sole result of an attempt at literary criticism is an exhibition of sheer ignorance, or of inability to distinguish contrary qualities. Thus Petrarch's Muse is travestied as 'wildly warbling';? while a poet, who was nothing if not artificial,
Resound soft-warbling all the livelong day.8 In the desperate struggle to make a point contrasts are alleged where no comparison is possible. How, for example, answer the ridiculous question :
In Nature's fairest forms, is aught so fair
The rhetoric itself is so sluggish and trite that one is tempted to cry out for the false, turgid strength of Night Thoughts. Anything to stimulate, divert, interest ! In search of an emotion I go yawning from Imagination to Inscription, from Inscription to Song, from Song to Ode, where
Eurus waves his murky wings
To damp the seats of life ; 10 or Cheerfulness, in intervals between listening to
winter's voice, that storms around,
And yon deep death-bell's groaning sound, orders somebody to
Haste, light the tapers, urge the fire,
And bid the joyless day retire.11 Well might Horace Walpole rank Akenside among the 'tame geniuses'! 12 Everywhere, whether Pindar or Pope be the model, we find the same dead level, the same didactic tedium. Not that to be didactic means of necessity to be dull. Lucretius, Virgil in the Georgics, Horace in the Epistles, the Essay on Man, The Traveller, The Task, The Pleasures of Memory, and of Hope, The Excursion, all are didactic, and poetry also. Still, it always is uphill work for a didactic poet; and what then must it have been for Akenside! Fancy in a red-heat may roll philosophy boiling along;, or, under cover of it, the poet may play music of his own. Akenside's imagination could heat neither science nor itself. It is absolutely cold, absolutely uncreative. I pity the generation which crowned him, the generations upon which he was imposed as a poet. I pity them less than I pity himself. Rarely has there been a writer of an unhappier temperament, more continually jangling, alike with society, and with himself. He was angry with fate