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LIFE OF AKENSIDE,
BY DR. JOHNSON.
ARK AKEnside was born on the ninth of November, 1721, at Newcastle upon Tyne. His father, Mark, was a butcher, of the presbyterian sect; his mother's name was Mary Lumsden. He received the first part of his education at the grammarschool of Newcastle ; and was afterwards instructed by Mr. Wilson, who kept a private academy.
At the age of eighteen he was sent to Edinburgh, that he might qualify himself for the office of a dissenting minister, and received some assistance from the fund which the dissenters employ in educating young men of scanty fortune. But a wider view of the world opened other scenes, and prompted other hopes : he determined to study physic, and repaid that contribution, which, being received for a different purpose, he justly thought it dishonourable to retain.
Whether, when he resolved not to be a dissenting minister, he ceased to be a dissenter, I know not. He certainly retained an unnecessary and outrageous zeal for what he called and thought liberty; a zeal which sometimes disguises from the world, and not rarely from the mind which it possesses, an envious desire of plundering wealth or degrading greatness; and of which the immediate tendency is innovation and anarchy, an impetuous eagerness to subvert and confound, with very little care what shall be established.
Akenside was one of those poets who have felt very early the motions of genius, and one of those students who have very early stored their memories with sentiments and images. Many of his performances were produced in liis youth; and his greatest work, The Pleasures of Imagination, appeared in 1744. I have heard Dodsley, by whom it was published, relate, that when the copy was offered him, the price demanded for it, which was an hundred and twenty pounds, being such as he was not inclined to give precipitately, he carried the work to Pope, who, having looked into it, advised him not to make a niggardly offer; for “ this was no every-day writer."
In 1741 he went to Leyden, in pursuit of medical knowledge ; and three years afterwards (May 16, 1744) became doctor of physic, baving, according to the custom of the Dutch universities, published a thesis or dissertation. The subject which he chose was
The Original and Growth of the Human Foetus; in which he is said to have departed, with great judgment, from the opinion then established, and to have delivered that wbich has been since confirmed and received.
Akenside was a young man, warm with every notion that by nature or accident had been connected with the sound of liberty, and, by an eccentricity which such dispositions do not easily avoid, a lover of contradiction, and 110 friend to any thing established. He adopted Shaftesbury's foolish assertion of the efficacy of ridicule for the discovery of truth. For this he was attacked by Warburton, and defended by Dyson : Warburton afterwards reprinted his remarks at the end of his dedication to the freethinkers. The result of all the arguments, which have been produced in a long and
a long and eager discussion of this idle question, may easily be collected. If ridicule be applied to any position as the test of truth, it will then become a question whether such ridicule be just ; and this can only be decided by the application of truth, as the test of ridicule. Two men, fearing, one a real and the other a fancied danger, will be for a while equally exposed to the inevitable consequences of cowardice, contemptuous censure, and ludicrous representation; and the true state of both cases must be known, before it can be decided whose terrour is rational, and whose is ridiculous; who is to be pitied, and who to be despised. Both are for a while equally exposed to laughter, but both are not therefore equally contemptible.
In the revisal of his poem, though he died before he had finished it, he omitted the lines which had given occasion to Warburton's objections.
He published, soon after his return from Leyden, (1745) his first collection of odes: and was impelled by his rage of patriotism to write a very acrimonious epistle to Pul. teney, whom he stigmatizes, under the name of Curio, as the betrayer of his country.
Being now to live by his profession, he first commenced physician at Northampton, where Dr. Stonehouse then practised, with such reputation and success, that a stranger was not likely to gain ground upon him. Akenside tried the contest a while; and, hav. ing deafened the place with clamours for liberty, removed to Hampstead, where he resided more than two years, and then fixed himself in London, the proper place for a man of accomplishments like his.
At London he was known as a poet, but was still to make his way as a physician; and would perhaps have been reduced to great exigences, but that Mr. Dyson, with an ardour of friendship that has not many examples, allowed him three hundred pounds a year. Thus supported, he advanced gradually in medical reputation, but never attained any great extent of practice, or eminence of popularity. A physician in a great city seems to be the mere plaything of fortune; his degree of reputation is, for the most part, totally casual: they that employ him know not his excellence ; they that reject him know not his deficience. By any acute observer, who had looked on the transactions of the medical world for half a century, a very curious book might be written on the Fortune of Physicians.
Akenside appears not to have been wanting to his own success : he placed himself in view by all the common methods ; he became a fellow of the Royal Society; he obtained a degree at Cambridge; and was admitted into the college of physicians ; he wrote little poetry, but published, from time to time, medical essays and observations ; he became physician to St. Thomas's Hospital; he read the Gulstonian Lectures in Anatomy; but began to give, for the Crounian Lecture, a bistory of the revival of
learning, from which he soon desisted ; and, in conversation, he very eagerly forced himself into notice by an ambitious ostentation of elegance and literature.
His Discourse on the Dysentery (176+) was considered as a very conspicuous specimen of Latinity, which entitled him to the same height of place among the scholars, as he possessed before among the wits; and he might perhaps have risen to a greater elevation of character, but that his studies were ended with his life, by a putrid fever, June 23, 1770, in the forty-ninth year of his age.
AKENSIDE is to be considered as a didactic and lyric poet. His great work is The Pleasures of Imagination; a performance which, published as it was, at the age of twenty-three, raised expectations that were not very amply satisfied. It has undoubtedly a just claim to very particular notice, as an example of great felicity of genius, and . uncommon amplitude of acquisitions, of a young mind stored with images, and much exercised in combining and comparing them.
With the philosophical or religious tenets of the author I have nothing to do; my business is with his poetry. The subject is well chosen, as it includes all images that can strike or please, and thus comprises every species of poetical delight. The only difficulty is in the choice of examples and illustrations; and it is not easy in such exuberance of matter to find the middle point between penury and satiety. The parts seem artificially disposed, with sufficient coherence, so as that they cannot change their places without injury to the general design.
His images are displayed with such luxuriance of expression, that they are hidden, like Butler's Moon, by a veil of light; they are forms fantastically lost under superfuity of dress. Pars minima est ipsa puella sui. 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 labyrinth, comes out as he went in. He remarked little, and laid hold on nothing.
To his versification justice requires that praise should not be denied. In the general fabrication of his lines he is perhaps superior to any other writer of blank verse; bis flow is smooth, and his pauses are musical; but the concatenation of his verses is commonly too long continued, and the full close does not recur with sufficient frequency. The sense is carried on through a long intertexture of complicated clauses, and, as nothing is distinguished, nothing is remembered.
The exemption which blank verse affords from the necessity of closing the sense with the couplet betrays luxuriant and active minds into such self-indulgence, that they pile image upon image, ornament upon ornament, and are not easily persuaded to close the sense at all. Blank verse will therefore, I fear, be too often found in description exuberant, in argument loquacious, and in narration tiresome,
His diction is certainly poetical as it is not prosaic, and elegant as it is not vulgar. He is to be commended as having fewer artifices of disgust than most of his brethren of the blank song. He rarely either recalls old phrases, or twists his metre into harsh inversions. The sense however of his words is strained; when“ he views the Ganges from Alpine heights;" that is, from mountains like the Alps. And the pedant surely intrudes (but when was blank verse without pedantry ?) when he tells how “planets absolve the stated round of Time.”
It is generally known to the readers of poetry that he intended to revise and augment