Sunday, June 23, 2024

'An Impetuous Eagerness to Subvert'

Dr. Johnson describes the poet and physician Mark Akenside: “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.” 

Sounds very twenty-first-century, doesn’t it? Johnson might be describing our current crop of bush-league Lenins. Akenside was “no friend to anything established” and assumed the most effortless of all political stances, one definitively formulated by a twentieth-century thinker.


Of the fifty-two poets included by Johnson in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81), most of whom are from the eighteenth century, I have at least a glancing familiarity with twenty-two. Akenside is not among them. For every Milton, Dryden and Pope there are two or three Thomas Tickells, Samuel Garths and George Stepneys. When reading about a neglected writer, some of us hope to uncover the injustice of his obscure fate and salvage his reputation. Akenside makes that unlikely.


Johnson’s assessment of Akenside’s poetry is not entirely dismissive but never enthusiastic. Akenside’s best-known work during his lifetime was “The Pleasures of the Imagination,” published when he was twenty-three. Johnson dismisses its loquacity: “The words are multiplied till the sense is hardly perceived.” About his odes, Johnson writes:


“To examine such compositions singly cannot be required; they have doubtless brighter and darker parts; but, when they are once found to be generally dull, all further labour may be spared, for to what use can the work be criticised that will not be read?”


Johnson takes the opportunity to issue a caveat regarding blank verse:   


“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.”


Johnson’s approach to biography mingles gossip, erudition and close reading. Several of the Lives are small masterpieces but all can be read with profit, as they often illuminate Johnson’s sensibility more than the poet under consideration. Akenside died on this date, June 23, in 1770 at age forty-eight.


Gary said...

"Our current crop of bush-league Lenins"? Come on, Patrick.

Don said...

"The words are multiplied till the sense is hardly perceived; attention deserts the mind..." This is the perfect description of too much of the work I am reading for a graduate degree. Oh, for an editor... thanks for sharing it.

Thomas Parker said...

I agree with Gary. "Minor-league Maos" would be better.