Essay on Akenside's Poem on the Pleasures of the Imagination - PA Criticism Archive

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Anna Letitia Barbauld
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Didactic, or preceptive Poetry, seems to include a solecism, for the end of Poetry is to please, and of Didactic precept the object is instruction. It is however a species of Poetry which has been cultivated from the earliest stages of society; at first, probably, for the simple purpose of retaining, by means of the regularity of measure and the charms of harmony, the precepts of agricultural wisdom and the aphorisms of economical experience. [2]  When Poetry came to be cultivated for its own sake, it



was natural to esteem the Didactic, as in that view it certainly is, as a species of inferior merit compared with those which are more peculiarly the work of the imagination; and accordingly in the more splendid era of our own Poetry it has been much less cultivated than many others. Afterwards, when Poetry was become an art, and the more obvious sources of description and adventure were in some measure exhausted, the Didactic was resorted to, as affording that novelty and variety which began to be the great desideratum in works of fancy. This species of writing is likewise favoured by the diffusion of knowledge, by which many subjects become proper for general reading, which in a less informed state of society, would have savoured of pedantry and abstruse speculation. For Poetry cannot descend to teach the elements of any art or science, or confine itself to that regular arrangement and clear brevity which suits the communication of unknown truths. In fact, the Muse would


make a very indifferent school-mistress. Whoever therefore reads a Didactic Poem ought to come to it with a previous knowledge of his subject; and whoever writes one, ought to suppose such a knowledge in his readers. If he is obliged to explain technical terms, to refer continually to critical notes, and to follow a system step by step with the patient exactness of a teacher, his Poem, however laboured, will be a bad Poem. His office is rather to throw a lustre on such prominent parts of his system as are most susceptible of poetical ornament, and to kindle the enthusiasm of those feelings which the truths he is conversant with are fitted to inspire. In that beautiful Poem the Essay on Man, [3]  the system of the author, if in reality he had any system, is little attended to, but those passages which breathe the love of Virtue are read with delight, and fix themselves on the memory. Where the reader has this previous knowledge of the subject, which we have mentioned as necessary, the art of

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the Poet becomes itself a source of pleasure, and sometimes in proportion to the remoteness of the subject from the more obvious province of Poetry; we are delighted to find with how much dexterity the artist of verse can avoid a technical term, how neatly he can turn an uncouth word, and with how much grace embellish a scientific idea. Who does not admire the infinite art with which Dr. Darwin has described the machine of Sir Richard Arkwright. [4]  His verse is a piece of mechanism as complete in its kind as that which he describes. Allured perhaps too much by this artificial species of excellence, and by the hopes of novelty, hardly any branch of knowledge has been so abstruse, or so barren of delight as not to have afforded a subject to the Didactic Poet. Even the loathsomeness of disease and the dry maxims of medical knowledge have been decorated with the charms of Poetry. Many of these pieces however owe all their entertainment to frequent digressions.


Where these arise naturally out of the subject, as the description of sheep-shearing feast in Dyer, or the praises of Italy in the Georgics, they are not only allowable but graceful; but if forced, as is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the same Poem, [5]  they can be considered in no other light than that of beautiful monsters, and injure the piece they are meant to adorn. The subject of a Didactic Poem therefore ought to be such as is in itself attractive to the man of taste, for otherwise all attempts to make it so by adventitious ornaments, will be but like loading with jewels and drapery a figure originally defective and ill made.

Of all the subjects which have engaged the attention of Didactic Poets, there is not perhaps a happier than that made choice of by Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination; in which every step of the disquisition calls up objects of the most attractive kind, and Fancy is made as it were to hold a mirror to her own charms. Imagination is the


very source and well-head of Poetry, and nothing forced or foreign to the Muse could easily flow from such a subject. Accordingly we see that the author has kept close to his system, and has admitted neither episode nor digression: the allegory in the second book, which is introduced for the purpose of illustrating his theory, being all that can properly be called ornament in this whole Poem. It must be acknowledged however, that engaging as his subject is to minds prepared to examine it, to the generality of readers it must appear dry and abstruse. It is a work which offers us entertainment, but not of that easy kind amidst which the mind remains passive, and has nothing to do but to receive impressions. Those who have studied the metaphysics of mind, and who are accustomed to investigate abstract ideas, will read it with a lively pleasure; but those who seek mere amusement in a Poem, will find many far inferior ones better suited to their purpose. The judicious admirer of


Akenside will not call people from the fields and the highways to partake of his feast; he will wish none to read that are not capable of understanding him.

The ground-work of The Pleasures of Imagination is to be found in Addison’s Essays on the same subject, published in the Spectator. [6]  Except in the book which treats on Ridicule, and even of that the hint is there given, our author follows nearly the same track; and he is indebted to them not only for the leading thoughts and grand division of his subject, but for much of the colouring also: for the papers of Addison are wrought up with so much elegance of language, and adorned with so many beautiful illustrations, that they are equal to the most finished Poem. Perhaps the obligations of the Poet to the Essay-writer are not sufficiently adverted to, the latter being only slightly mentioned in the preface to the Poem. It is not meant however to insinuate that Akenside had not various


other sources of his ideas. He sat down to this work, which was published at the early age of three and twenty, warm from the schools of ancient philosophy, whose spirit he had deeply imbibed, and full of enthusiasm for the treasures of Greek and Roman literature. The works of no author have a more classic air than those of our Poet. His hymn to the Naïads [7]  shews the most intimate acquaintance with their mythology. Their laws, their arts, their liberty, were equally objects of his warm admiration, and are frequently referred to in various parts of his Poems. He was fond of the Platonic philosophy, and mingled with the splendid visions of the Academic school, ideas of the fair and beautiful in morals and in taste, gathered from the writings of Shaftesbury, Hutchinson, and others of that stamp, who then very much engaged the notice of the public. Educated in the university of Edinburgh, he joined to his classic literature, the keen discriminating spirit of metaphysic in-


quiry, and the taste for moral beauty which has so much distinguished our northern seminaries, and which the celebrity of their professors, and the genius of the place has never failed of communicating to their disciples. Thus prepared, by nature with genius, and by education with the previous studies and habits of thinking, he was peculiarly fitted for writing a philosophical Poem.

The first lines contain the definition of his subject, which he has judiciously varied from his master Addison, who expressly confines the pleasures of imagination to "such as arise from visible objects only;" and divides them into "the primary pleasures of the imagination, which entirely proceed from such objects as are before our eyes, and those secondary pleasures of the imagination which flow from the ideas of visible objects when the objects are not actually before the eye, but are called up into our memories, or formed into agreeable visions of things that are either absent or fictitious." [8]  This


definition seems to exclude a blind man from any share whatever of those pleasures, and yet who would deny that the elegant mind of Blacklock was capable of receiving and even of imparting them in no small degree. Our author therefore includes every source by which, through any of our senses or perceptions, we receive notices of the world around us; as well as the reflex pleasures derived from the imitative arts.

With what attractive charms this goodly frame
Of nature touches the consenting hearts
Of mortal men, and what the pleasing stores
Which beauteous imitation thence derives,
To deck the Poet's or the Painter's toil,
My verse unfolds. [9] 

After this clear and concise definition, and a lively and appropriate invocation to the powers of Fancy guided by Truth and Liberty, the Author begins by unfolding the Platonic idea that the universe with all its forms of material beauty was called into


being from its pototype [sic], existing from all eternity in the divine mind. The different propensities that human beings are born with to various pursuits, are enumerated in some very beautiful lines, and those are declared to be the most noble which lead a chosen few to the love and contemplation of the supreme beauty by the love and contemplation of his works. The Poet thus immediately, and at the very outset, dignifies his theme, by connecting it with the sublimest feelings the human mind is capable of entertaining, feelings without which the various scenes of this beautiful universe degenerate into gaudy shows, fit to catch the eye of children, but uninteresting to the heart and affections; and those laws and properties about which Philosophy busies herself, into a bewildering mass of unconnected experiments and independent facts. These lines afford more than one example of climax, graceful repetition, and richness of poetic language. The subject is then branched out into the three grand divisions marked


by Addison. [sic] the Sublime, the Wonderful, and the Beautiful. Each is exemplified with equal judgment and taste, but the sublime is perhaps expressed with most energy, as it certainly was most congenial to the mind of our author. The passage of which the thought is borrowed from Longinus, Say why was man so eminently raised, [10]  is almost unequalled in grandeur of thought and loftiness of expression, yet it has not the appearance, as some other parts of the Poem have, of being laboured into excellence, but rather of being thrown off at once amidst the swell and fervency of a kindled imagination. The final cause of each of these propensities is happily insinuated; of the sense of the sublime, to lead us to the contemplation of the Supreme Being; of that of novelty to awaken us to constant activity; of beauty to mark out to us the objects most perfect in their kind. Thus does he make Philosophy and Poetry to go hand in hand. The exemplification of the love of novelty in the audi-


ence of the village matron who tells of witching rhymes and evil spirits, is highly wrought. The author however had doubtless in his mind not only the Essays of Addison, which were immediately under his eye, but that passage in another paper where he represents the circle at his landlady's closing their ranks, and crowding round the fire at the conclusion of every story of ghosts: Around the beldam all arrect [11] they hang. Congealed with shivering sighs, very happily expresses the effects of that kind of terror, which makes a man shrink into himself, and feel afraid, as it were, to draw a full inspiration. [12]  It may be doubted however whether the attraction which is felt towards these kind of sensations when they rise to terror, can be fairly referred to the love of novelty. It seems rather to depend on that charm, afterwards touched upon, which is attached to every thing that strongly stirs and agitates the mind. In his description of Beauty, which is adorned with all the graces of the chaster


Venus, the author takes occasion to aim a palpable stroke at the Night Thoughts of Dr. Young, which are here characterized by "the ghostly gloom of graves and hoary vaults and cloistered cells, by walking with spectres through the midnight shade, and attuning the dreadful workings of his heart to the accursed song of the screaming owl." [13]  The same allusion is repeated in one of his Odes,

Nor where the boding raven chaunts,
Nor near the owl’s unhallow’d haunts
Will she (the Muse) her cares employ;
She flies from ruins and from tombs,
From Superstition's horrid glooms,
To day-light and to joy. [14] 

This antipathy is not surprising: for never were two Poets more contrasted. Our author had more of taste and judgment, Young more of originality. Akenside maintains throughout an uniform dignity, Young has been characteristically described in a late Poem as one in whom


Still gleams and still expires the cloudy day
Of genuine Poetry. [15] 

The genius of the one was clouded over with the deepest glooms of Calvinism, to which system however he owed some of his most striking beauties. The religion of the other, all at least that appears of it, and all indeed that could with propriety appear in such a Poem, is the purest Theism: liberal, cheerful, and sublime; or, if admitting any mixture, he seems inclined to tincture it with the mysticism of Plato, and the gay fables of ancient mythology. The one declaims against infidels, the other against monks, the one resembles the Gothic, the other the Grecian architecture, the one has been read with deep interest by many who, when they have abandoned the tenets of orthodoxy can scarcely bear to re-peruse him; the other, dealing more in general truths, will always be read with pleasure, though he will never make so deep an impression.

The Poem goes on to trace the connection of beauty with truth, by shewing that all the beauty


we admire in vegetable or animal life results from the fitness of the object to the use for which it is intended, and serves as a kind of stamp set by the Creator to point out the health, soundness, and perfection of the form in which it resides. This leads him on to speak of moral beauty, and tracing the regular gradations of beauty through colour, shape, symmetry, and grace, to its highest character in the expression of moral feelings, he breaks out into an animated apostrophe,

Mind, mind alone—the living fountain in itself contains
Of beauteous or sublime. [16] 

The Poem continues in a high strain of noble enthusiasm to the end of the book, and concludes with an invocation to the genius of ancient Greece, with whose philosophy and high sense of liberty he was equally enamoured. It is easy for the reader who is conversant in the writings of Shaftesbury and Hutchinson to perceive how much their elegant and fascinating system is adapted to ennoble our


author's subject, and how much the Pleasures of Imagination are raised in value and importance by building the throne of virtue so near the bower of beauty. The book is complete in itself; and if we may be allowed to hazard a conjecture, contains nearly the whole of what the author on the first view might think necessary to his subject.

The second book opens with a complaint, founded perhaps rather in a partiality for the ancients, than attention to fact, of the disunion in modern times of Philosophy and Poetry. To the same classic prejudice (to which a good scholar is very prone) may be attributed the mention of the courtly compliments which debased the verse of Tasso: and the superstitious legends which employed the pencil of Raphael in contradistinction to the works of the ancients, as if, in sober truth, any one was prepared to assert that there was less flattery in the Augustan age, and less superstition in the idle mythology of Homer and Ovid. Such prejudices



ought to be laid aside with the gradus [17]  of the school-boy. The Poet proceeds to consider the accession to the Pleasures of the Imagination from adventitious circumstances, of which he gives various instances: that of the Newtonian theory of the rainbow [18]  seems too abstruse even for a philosophical Poem; it may be doubted whether, if understood, it is of a nature to mix well with the pleasure of colours; it certainly does not accord well with that of verse. The influence of Passion is next considered, and the mysterious pleasure which is mixed with the energies and emotions of those passions that are in their own nature painful. To solve this problem, which has been one in all ages, a long allegory is introduced, which, though wrought up with a good deal of the decoration of Poetry, is nearly as difficult to comprehend as the problem itself. It begins with presenting a scene of desolation, where the parched adder dies; [19]  this vanishes, and another is presented. What we hoped to have heard from the Poet, we


are directed to learn from old Harmodius. Harmodius is only introduced to refer us to the Genius, and the Genius shifts his scenes like the pictures of a magic lantern, before he explains to us the scope and purport of the visions. The figures of Pleasure and Virtue are in a good measure copied from the choice of Hercules, only that, as Euphrosyne is the Goddess of innocent pleasure, every thing voluptuous is left out of the picture. The description of the son of Nemesis is wrought up with much strength of colouring. The story is in fact the introduction of evil, accounted for by the necessity of training the pupil of Providence to the love of Virtue, the supreme good, by withdrawing from him for a while the allurements of pleasure; but why his very suffering should be attended with pleasure, which was the phenomenon to be accounted for, is not so clearly made out. We are told indeed that the youth is willing to bear the frowns of the son of Nemesis in all their horrors, provided

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Euphrosyne will bless him with her smiles, that is to say, he is willing to be miserable provided he may be happy at the same time. Upon this Euphrosyne appears, and declares that she will always be present for the future, whenever, supported by Virtue, he sustains a combat with Pain. So far indeed we may gather from this representation, that pleasure is always annexed to the exercise of our moral feelings, which is probably the true account of the matter: but this truth is rather darkened than illustrated by the fable, which does not satisfactorily explain how the connection is produced. The allegory is not very consistent in another place, where we are told that Virtue had left the youth, while at the same time sweetest innocence illumed his bashful eyes. [20]  He had already fallen, and yet he had not lost his innocence; the storm of wrath which falls upon him is therefore unaccounted for. Upon the whole, though this allegory is in many parts ingenious, and is laboured into splendid poetry, we fear it


has the effect upon most readers which it seems it had upon the author himself, who tells us that

Awhile he stood
Perplex'd and giddy. [21] 

It may be doubted whether this discussion is strictly within the bounds of the subject, the Pleasures of Imagination; since the instances given are not confined to scenic representation, but refer to the primary feelings of the passions. What has to do with imagination

The bitter shower
Which sorrow sheds upon a brother's grave. [22] 

The book concludes with an animated and pathetic exemplification of the gratification felt in the indulgence of mournful sympathy, or generous indignation; the latter pointed against the two things the author most hated, superstition and tyranny.

The third book touches upon a difficult and ungrateful subject for the poetic art, the Pleasures of Ridicule. It involves the question, much agitated


at that time, whether ridicule be the test of truth. Our author follows the system of Shaftesbury, which drew upon him an attack from Bishop Warburton, and he was defended by his friend and patron Jeremiah Dyson. [23]  To say truth, it is easier to defend the Philosopher than the Poet. There is much acuteness in the theory, and much art exhibited in giving a poetical dress to the various illustrations he makes use of: but after all, the subject is so barren in itself, and so unsuitable to the solemn manner of Akenside that we admire without pleasure and acquiesce without interest. He promises indeed to

Unbend his serious measure, and reveal
In lighter strains, how folly's aukward arts
Excite impetuous laughter's gay rebuke,
The sportive province of the comic Muse. [24] 

But he has not kept his promise: neither indeed could he, for besides that no one was ever less capable than our author of unbending, the object of


his disquisition is not to make us laugh, but to tell us why we laugh: a very different problem and very remote from any ideas of pleasantry. Nor could he without violating uniformity, change the measure of his Poem, otherwise this part of his subject not affording any play for the higher beauties and bolder sweep of blank verse, would have been better treated of in the neat and terse couplet, after the manner of Pope's Ethical Epistles, or Young's Satires. He begins, agreeably to the system he had embraced, with deducing all deviations from rectitude or propriety, from false opinions, imbibed in early youth, which attract the imagination by fallacious shows of good. Of these false opinions the more serious lead to vice, while those which refer to the less important particulars of our conduct betray to ridicule, the source of which is incongruity, and its final cause the assisting the tardy deductions of reason by the quick impulse of an instinctive sense.


The theory is beautiful and well supported. Illustrations of every different species of the ridiculous are given in the Poem, the notes are judicious, and tend still more to elucidate the subject. Still it must be confessed the theme is not a poetical one; and it may be even questioned how far it is connected with the subject; for the sense of ridicule is of a very peculiar nature, and is hardly included, in common language, among the Pleasures of the Imagination. If however the reader is inclined to be dissatisfied with this part of his entertainment, let him recollect, that if it affords him less pleasure, it probably cost the author more pains than any other portion of his Poem. It is asserted that under the appellation of Momion, [25]  the writer has thrown out a sarcasm, not undeserved, against the celebrated author of the Dunciad; [26]  for surely no man of a just moral taste can reflect without regret that a capital work of one of our best Poets, composed in the height of his reputation, and during the


perfection of all his powers, should have no other end than to gratify the spleen of an offended author, and to record the petty warfare of rival wits. It is an observation of the excellent Hartley, that those studies which confine the mind within the exercise of its own powers, as criticism, poetry, and most philological pursuits, are apt to generate a supercilious deportment and an anxious and selfish regard to reputation: whereas the pursuit of truth, carrying the mind out of itself to large views of nature and Providence, fills it with sublime and generous feelings. The remark must undoubtedly be taken with great latitude, but it seems to be not entirely unfounded.

Having dismissed the account of Ridicule, so little susceptible of being adorned by his efforts, the Poet rises into a higher strain, and investigates that wonderful phenomenon from whence the Pleasures of Imagination chiefly seem to arise, the mysterious connection of moral ideas with visible objects.


Why, he asks, does the deep shade of a thick wood strike us with religious awe? Why does the lightsomeness and variety of a more airy landscape suggest to us the idea of gaiety and social mirth? Is there really any resemblance, or is it owing to early and frequent associations? He decides for the latter, and beautifully illustrates that great law on which the power of memory entirely depends. This leads him to consider the powers of Imagination as residing in the human mind, when, after being stored by means of memory, with ideas of all that is great and beautiful in nature, the child of fancy combines and varies them in a new creation of its own, from whence the origin of Music, Painting, Poetry, and all those arts which give rise to the secondary or reflex pleasures, referred to in the latter part of his definition. This is accompanied by a glowing and animated description of the process of composition, written evidently with the pleasure a person of genius must have felt, when reflecting with


conscious triumph that he is exercising the powers he so well describes. He had probably likewise in his eye the well-known lines of Shakespear,

The Poet's eye in a fine phrenzy rolling. [27] 

The simile of the Parhelion [28]  is new and beautiful. The harp of Memnon struck by the rays of the sun supplies him with another, and the sympathetic needles of Strada [29]  with a third, which are the only ones in the Poem.

The Cause is next considered of the pleasure which we receive from all that strikes us with the sensation of Beauty in the material world. Concerning this there exists two opinions. One, that those objects we call beautiful are so really and in their own nature, and must appear so to any being possessed of faculties capable of appreciating them. The other that beauty is a mere arbitrary thing, a sort of pleasing enchantment spread over the face of nature, a delusion, under which we see charms that do not at all result from the real properties of things, and which other intelligent beings it is pro-


bable do not perceive. This latter opinion our author has embraced as the most philosophical. It is not, we presume, the most pleasing, nor the most favourable to the dignity and importance of the Pleasures of Imagination; for their boasted connection with truth vanishes, except indeed in this sense that beauty as an arbitrary mark is used with precision, and is constantly found to denote the health and soundness of the object in which it appears to reside, and consequently is made subservient to utility; but the beautiful climax is destroyed by which the inferior kinds are connected with moral beauty, for how can what is real be connected with what is imaginary? unless indeed, what would be a very dangerous doctrine, the sense of moral beauty itself were supposed to be dependent on our peculiar formation, and adapted only to our present state of existence. The Poet has here closely copied from Addison, both in opening the thought, and in the simile with which he illustrates it. He loses sight however of this unpoetical philosophy towards


the conclusion, where having observed that taste results from the natural quickness of all the perceptions he has enumerated, strengthened by adequate culture, he observes, that culture will not however destroy the peculiar bias which is impressed upon different minds towards the great, or the soft and beautiful. This he exemplifies in Waller and Shakespear. He then winds up the whole by that noble and animated eulogium on the taste for the beauties of nature,

O blest of heaven, whom— [30] 

And having led the lover of the fair and beautiful through all the different gradations of excellence, he leaves the mind where alone it should rest, in the contemplation of the supreme excellence, and closes with the sublime idea, that in admiring the works of nature, we form our taste upon the conceptions of the Deity himself.

Much more might be said of the philosophy of this Poem, but the chief aim of this Essay is to shew the poetical use he has made of his subject. Many


of the divisions might perhaps be differently arranged, and the theory in some instances improved, but for Poetry it is sufficiently accurate, and in speculations of this shadowy nature, no person will be thoroughly content with even his own system after the lapse of any considerable portion of time.

͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇ ͇

IF the genius of Akenside be to be estimated from this Poem, and it is certainly the most capital of his works, it will be found to be lofty and elegant, chaste, classical, and correct: not marked with strong traits of originality, not ardent nor exuberant. His enthusiasm was rather of that kind which is kindled by reading and imbibing the spirit of authors, than by contemplating at first hand the works of nature. As a versifier Akenside is allowed to stand amongst those who have given the most finished models of blank verse. His periods are long but harmonious, the cadences fall with grace, and the measure is supported with uniform


dignity. His Muse possesses the mien erect, and high commanding gait. [31]  We shall scarcely find a low or trivial expression introduced, a careless or unfinished line permitted to stand. His stateliness however is somewhat allied to stiffness. His verse is sometimes feeble through too rich a redundancy of ornament, and sometimes laboured into a degree of obscurity from too anxious a desire of avoiding natural and simple expressions. We do not conceive of him as pouring easy his unpremeditated strain. [32]  It is rather difficult to read from the sense being extended sometimes through more than twenty lines; but when well read fills and gratifies the ear with all the pomp of harmony. It is far superior to the compositions of his cotemporary [sic] Thomson (we speak now only of the measure) and more equal than Milton, though inferior to his finest passages. It is indeed too equal not to be in some degree monotonous. He is fond of compound epithets, led to it perhaps by his fondness for the Greek, and delights in giving a classic air to his composi-


tions by using names and epithets the most remote from vulgar use. Like Homer's gods his poetry speaks a different language from that of common mortals.

That an author who lived to near fifty should have produced his most capital work at three and twenty, seems to imply (as his professional studies did not cause him to lay aside his poetical pursuits) a genius more early than extensive, a mind more refined than capacious. And that this was the case in reality, will appear from his having employed himself during several years in correcting and entirely new moulding this his favourite Poem. To correct to a certain degree is the duty of a man of sense, but always to correct will not be the employment of a man of spirit. It betrays a mind rather brooding with fond affection over old productions, than inspired by a fresh stream of new ideas. The flowers of fancy are apt to lose their odour by much handling, the glow is gone and the ear itself after a certain time loses its tact amidst repeated


alterations, as the taste becomes confounded by the successive trial of different flavours.

The Edition which he was preparing was however left in too imperfect a state to justify its being presented to the public, at least of superseding the complete one which is here given, and which passed rapidly through many editions soon after its first appearance. In the posthumous Poem the ordonnance is greatly changed: Novelty is left out as a primary source of the Pleasure of the Imagination, and placed among the adventitious circumstances which only increase it: the greatest part of the lines on Ridicule are also omitted, and he has abandoned the idea of its being the test of truth, an idea which had given offence to the severer moralists. Instead of the allegory of Virtue and Euphrosyne, the third book consists of a story concerning Solon, on which Dr. Johnson makes this single observation, that it is too long. The probability is that the critic never read it through: as,



for the author's purpose, it is too short, since it breaks off so abruptly, that though the purport is declared to be to shew the origin of evil, the story is not far enough advanced to allow the reader even to guess at the intended solution. Of the fourth book the beginning is barely sketched. But had the whole been completed, we may venture to pronounce that, if the system was improved, the Poetry would have been weaker. He has amplified what had before a tendency to be redundant; he has rendered abstruse what was before sufficiently difficult of comprehension: and in proportion as he has departed from the chaste elegance of Addison he has given to his subject a dry scholastic air, and involved it in metaphysical subtleties. Of amplification the following are instances. In the poem before us we meet with the line

And painted shells indent their speckled wreathe. [33] 

Not being willing to let these shells pass without the lustre of an additional polish, he has altered it to


And painted shells along some winding shore
Catch with indented folds the glancing sun. [34] 

He had spoken in the former of

—the thymy vale
Where oft enchanted with Socratic sounds
Ilissus pure devolved his tuneful stream
In gentler murmurs. [35] 

The thought of a river listening to eloquence is but trite, and therefore sufficiently spread; but not content with the image, he has in the later work added Boreas and Orithyia to the dramatis personae.

——Where once beneath
That ever-living plantane's ample boughs
Ilissus by Socratic sounds detain'd
On his neglected urn attentive lay,
While Boreas lingering on the neighbouring steep
With beauteous Orithyia his love-tale
In silent awe suspended. [36] 

Sometimes however we meet with a happier image: the following is very picturesque,

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——O ye dales
Of Tyne, and ye most ancient woodlands where
Oft as the giant flood obliquely strides
And his banks open———— [37] 

The following description of universal or primitive beauty, though somewhat too awful for a Venus, is striking, and merits preservation,

He, God most high, Page 130 to
and owns her charms, Page 134. [38] 

On the whole, though we may not look upon Akenside as one of those few born to create an era in Poetry, we may well consider him as formed to shine in the brightest; we may venture to predict that his work, which is not formed on any local or temporary subject, will continue to be a classic in our language; and we shall pay him the grateful regard which we owe to genius exerted in the cause of liberty and philosophy, of virtue and of taste.


[1] The Pleasures of the Imagination. By Mark Akenside, M.D. To Which is Prefixed a Critical Essay on the Poem, by Mrs. Barbauld. (London: Printed for T. Cadell, Junior and W. Davies, in the Strand, by R. Noble, in the Old Bailey, 1794), 1-36. Mary A. Waters produced this edition for The Criticism Archive. BACK

[2] Barbauld seems to have in mind a poetic tradition that begins with Hesiod’s Works and Days, continues through works such as Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and portions of Virgil's Georgics, and appears in early modern European literature with such works as the anonymous Le Menagier de Paris, Traite de Morale et d'Economie Domestique, compose vers 1393 par un Bourgeois Parisien and Thomas Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1557), which was repeatedly expanded to become Fiue Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1580). Thanks to my colleague William Woods for assistance. BACK

[3] By Alexander Pope. BACK

[4] Erasmus Darwin, "The Loves of the Plants" II. BACK

[5] Virgil’s Georgics features this story toward its conclusion. BACK

[6] This daily series extends from the Spectator No. 411 (Saturday, June 21, 1712) through Spectator No. 421 (Thursday, July 3, 1712). The final paper includes brief abstracts of each paper in the series. BACK

[7] First published in the final volume of A Collection of Poems in Six Volumes: by Several Hands (1748-1758), an anthology with which Akenside assisted. BACK

[8] This quote and the previous one are slightly altered from the Spectator No. 411 (Saturday, June 21, 1712). BACK

[9] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.1-6. BACK

[10] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.151-2. Akenside cites as his source Longinus [On the Sublime] XXXV, but the idea is sprinkled through Addison’s papers on the Pleasures of Imagination as well. BACK

[11] Attentive. BACK

[12] The section on the tale-telling village matron appears in Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.255-70. The other paper by Addison that Barbauld mentions is Spectator No. 12 (Wednesday, March 3, 1711). BACK

[13] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.396-400, altered. BACK

[14] Akenside, Odes on Several Subjects (1745), "Ode I" 31-6. BACK

[15] The line is often cited, but without attribution. BACK

[16] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.480-2. BACK

[17] "Short for Gradus ad Parnassum ‘a step to Parnassus’, the Latin title of a dictionary of prosody until recently used in English public schools, intended as an aid in Latin versification, both by giving the ‘quantities’ of words and by suggesting poetical epithets and phraseology. Hence applied to later works of similar plan and object" ("gradus, n.," Oxford English Dictionary, Second ed., 1989; online version March 2011. Web. 27 May 2011). BACK

[18] Isaac Newton published his lectures explaining the effects of a prism on white light under the title Opticks in 1704. BACK

[19] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination II.207, slightly altered. BACK

[20] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination II.402-3, slightly altered. BACK

[21] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination II.664-5, altered. BACK

[22] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination II.170-1, altered. BACK

[23] Barbauld follows a common misattribution in crediting Akenside’s own An Epistle to the Rev. Mr. Warburton (1744) to Dyson. BACK

[24] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination III.74-7. BACK

[25] Akenside probably fashioned this epithet from Momus, the mythological personification of blame. BACK

[26] See Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination III.179-90. BACK

[27] Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.12. BACK

[28] Parhelion: a sundog; a luminous spot in the sky caused by the sun reflecting on concentrations of moisture. BACK

[29] See the Spectator No. 241 (Thursday, 6 December 1711), in which Addison credits Strada's Prolusions for the story of friends who communicate at a distance by means of needles that have been magnetized through touching them to a "Loadstone" or lodestone. BACK

[30] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination III.568, altered. BACK

[31] Thomas Warton, The Triumph of Isis 76, altered. BACK

[32] James Thomson, The Castle of Indolence I.LXVIII, altered. BACK

[33] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.456. BACK

[34] Barbauld here quotes from the extended (unfinished) edition of The Pleasures of Imagination that Akenside was working on at the time of his death. There the lines appear at I.528-9. BACK

[35] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.592-5, altered. Ilissus is a river in Athens. BACK

[36] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.718-24 (unfinished edition). BACK

[37] Akenside,The Pleasures of Imagination V.31-4 (unfinished edition). BACK

[38] Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination I.563-682 (unfinished edition). BACK

POETESS ARCHIVE / The Criticism Archive / Essay