Mark Akenside (1)

Mark Akenside (1721-1770). Engraving from The Poems of Mark Akenside, MD, 1772 (reversed). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Mark Akenside
Born November 9 1721(1721-Template:MONTHNUMBER-09)
Newcastle upon Tyne, England
Died June 23 1770(1770-Template:MONTHNUMBER-23) (aged 48)
Nationality English
Occupation poet, physician
Notable works The Pleasures of the Imagination

Dr. Mark Akenside (9 November 1721 - 23 June 1770) was an English poet and physician.



Akenside, born the son of a butcher at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, gave early indications of talent, and was sent to the University of Edinburgh with the view of becoming a dissenting minister. While there, however, he changed his mind and studied for the medical profession. Thereafter he went to Leyden, where he took his degree of M.D. in 1744. While there he wrote his principal poem, The Pleasures of the Imagination, which was well received, and was subsequently translated into more than one foreign language. After trying Northampton, he settled as a physician in London; but was for long largely dependent for his livelihood on a Mr. Dyson. His talents brought him a good deal of consideration in society, but the solemn and pompous manner which he affected laid him open to some ridicule, and he is said to have been satirised by Smollett in his Peregrine Pickle. He endeavoured to reconstruct his poem, but the result was a failure. His collected poems were published 1772. His works, however, are now little read. Edmund Gosse has described him as "a sort of frozen Keats."[1]


Akenside was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 9 November 1721. His father was a respectable butcher, named also Mark Akenside, and his mother's maiden name had been Mary (Lumsden). On both sides he descended from Northumbrian presbyterians of the lower middle class. He was baptised on 30 November by Rev. Benjamin Bennet, a dissenting divine of some note, who ministered in the new meeting-house at Newcastle. He was the 2nd son of his parents, who had been married for nearly 12 years.[2]

When Akenside was 7 years old, he was playing in his father's shop, when the butcher's cleaver fell on his foot, and so wounded him that he limped for the rest of his life. He was educated at the free school of his native town, and then at a private academy, also in Newcastle, kept by a dissenting minister of the name of Wilson.[2]

Akenside was singularly precocious as a poet. In his 16th year (23 April 1737) he sent a poem, without any introduction, to the leading periodical of the day, the Gentleman's Magazine. It was titled "The Virtuoso," and was written in imitation of Spenser, in Spenserian stanzas. The piece consists of only 10 stanzas, but they show a remarkable skill in versification, and appear to have preceded the longer and better known pieces by Shenstone, Thomson, and Gilbert Ridley, which soon afterwards made the Spenserian stanza fashionable.[2]

After this initial success he continued, while yet a youth, to be a frequent contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine, and in 1738, at the age of 17, he began the poem by which he is best remembered, The Pleasures of Imagination. It was during a visit to Morpeth that, as he says, within hearing of "the mossy falls[2] of solitary Wensbeck's limpid stream," the plan of this great work originally occurred to him.[3]

A poem called "A British Philippic," with which Akenside favored the tory patriotism of the readers of the August number of the Gentleman's Magazine in the same year, was called for so eagerly that it was separately published in the form of a folio pamphlet, and this was Akenside's earliest independent publication.[3]

It appears that the young man was regarded with some pride by the dissenters of Newcastle, and that he was sent, at their expense, in 1739, to Edinburgh, to study for the ministry. After spending a winter, however, in theology, he abandoned it, and became a medical student. On taking this step he had the rectitude to repay to the dissenters of Newcastle what they had expended on him; it is not explained by what means he obtained the money needful to do this. It seems that with this change in his life he lost all personal interest in religious inquiry.[3]

In 1740 he privately printed a pamphlet of verse, containing an ode, "On the Winter Solstice," and an elegy entitled "Love."[3]

He was elected a member of the Medical Society of Edinburgh 30 Dec. 1740, at the very early age of 19, his mind showing the same brilliant readiness in science that it had shown in literature. His eloquence at the meetings of the society was the subject of remark, and the young man began to aspire to a parliamentary career. His mind, however, was rapid and precocious rather than original, and neither in rhetoric, nor even in medicine, did he fulfil the promise of his boyhood.[3]

In 1741 he returned to Newcastle, and is believed to have practiced there for 2 years as a surgeon; more busy, however, during the early part of that time, in the composition of his great didactic poem.[3]

Early careerEdit

At 21 this butcher's son was already a person of much consideration, with a history behind him. When he came up to London, towards the close of 1743, with the finished manuscript of the Pleasures of Imagination, he found the literary world prepared to welcome him. He offered his poem to Dodsley, with an intimation that the price was £120. Before accepting such terms Dodsley showed the manuscript to Pope, who encouraged him to secure the poem, "since," he added, "this is no everyday writer."[3]

The poem was published by Dodsley in January 1744, and was received with great applause, though Gray slighted it, and Warburton attacked it. A cheap edition followed within 4 months, and announced for the 1st time the author's name, the credit of the piece having been claimed by an impostor of the name of Rolt.[3]

Leaving in the press a Parthian arrow in prose, destined for the breast of Warburton, Akenside left England early in April 1744, to proceed to Leyden, where he was presently joined by 2 Edinburgh friends, with whom he made the tour of Holland. Returning to Leyden, he buried himself among medical books, and struck up a close acquaintance with the eccentric and learned botanist, Gronovius. With his customary rapidity and power of concentration, Akenside completed his necessary studies in Holland within a month, and on 16 May 1744 took his degree of doctor of physic at Leyden. At the same time he published in Leyden, in the form of a quarto pamphlet, a medical dissertation in which he contested the authority of the famous Antony van Leeuwenhoek with considerable spirit and plausibility.[3]

He immediately returned to England, and in June of the same year took a physician's practice at Northampton. Here he formed the friendship of Dr. Philip Doddridge; but in all other respects, social and financial, found his prospects so very inauspicious, that in the winter of 1745 he returned to London. His stay at Northampton, however, was fertile in a literary respect, for he published 2 of his more remarkable works while he was there, his Epistle to Curio’ in November 1744, and his Odes on Several Subjects in March 1745. Under the pseudonym of "Curio," the former of these works was a very spirited attack on William Pulteney for his recantation of liberal politics; the other volume was a collection of 10 somewhat stiff and frigid lyrics, in the school of Gray and Collins, remarkable for the exact finish of their metrical structure.[3]

By this time, at the age of only 24, Akenside had achieved a wide reputation as a poet, and had already written the one other work which was to sustain that reputation. The faults of his intellect and his character now began to reveal themselves. He became mentally fossilised by pedantry and conceit, and he gave way to a native tendency to arrogance, which grew to be a great disadvantage to him.[3]

From Christmas 1745 to the winter of 1747, Akenside was practising as a physician at North End, Hampstead, but without much success. An old friend of his, however, Jeremiah Dyson, who had a great affection for Akenside, lifted him out of all embarrassment with a generosity that was almost unexampled. He fitted up for the poet a handsome house in Bloomsbury Square, allowed him 300l. a year and a chariot, and busied himself to gain him so considerable a practice that Akenside was not merely well to do, but "lived incomparably well."[3]

This prosperity was fatal to his poetical genius. In 1746 he had written his beautiful "Hymn to the Naiads," perhaps the most elegant of his writings, and certainly the latest that was of any transcendent merit. In January of the same year he had become editor of Dodsley's magazine, the Museum, to which he contributed a large number of essays in prose; and after the expiration of this work, although he occasionally published a pamphlet in prose or verse, he gave himself almost entirely to his profession.[4]

Later careerEdit

He steadily rose to eminence as a physician. In January 1753, he was admitted by mandamus to a doctor's degree at Cambridge, and was in the same year elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; in April 1754, he was admitted a Fellow of the College of Physicians, and in September of the following year was elected 4th censor of the college, and delivered the Gulstonian Lectures. These were printed in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for 1757. In 1756 he read the Croonian Lectures before the same college, taking as his subject the eccentrically inappropriate one of the Revival of Learning.[4]

In 1757 he had the want of discretion to sit down to remodel the charming poem of his youth, The Pleasures of Imagination, which he would have done better to leave alone. In March 1758 he published an Ode to the Country Gentlemen of England, and in the same year contributed a large number of new pieces, including the "Hymn to the Naiads," to the 6th volume of Dodsley's popular Miscellany. The Call to Aristippus is another pamphlet in verse, published in 1758.[4]

In January 1759, Akenside was appointed assistant physician, and, in March of the same year, principal physician, to Christ's Hospital. It is sad to be obliged to record that even in those lax days Akenside shocked his contemporaries by his brutal roughness and cruelty to the poor. His learning and sagacity were only just sufficient, on more than one occasion, to preserve him from dismissal upon this ground.[4]

A contemporary has left this portrait of the poet-physician: One leg of Dr. Akenside was considerably shorter than the other, which was in some measure remedied by the aid of a false heel. He had a pale strumous countenance, but was always very neat and elegant in his dress. He wore a large white wig, and carried a long sword. He would order the servants (at Christ's Hospital), on his visiting days, to precede him with brooms to clear the way, and prevent the patients from too nearly approaching him."[4]

In 1761 he was appointed one of the physicians to the queen, and scandalised the whigs, of which party he had hitherto always been a strenuous supporter, by promptly becoming a tory. He had moved into a house in Craven Street, but in 1760 he took one in Burlington Street, and there he resided until his death.[4]

The last years of his life were marked by no other incidents than the publication of an occasional ode or dissertation. His practice had become very large and fashionable, when he was seized by a putrid fever, under which, after a very short illness, he sank on June 23, 1770, at the age of 48 years and 6 months. He is said to have expired in the bed in which Milton died, a bed which a friend had given to Akenside 9 years before. He was buried on 28 June in the church of St. James's.[4]


Akenside's principal contribution to English literature, ‘The Pleasures of Imagination,’ is a didactic poem of 2,000 lines of blank verse, divided into 3 books. The 1st book deals with the origin of those intellectual qualities which combine to form imagination, the enjoyment which is caused by the exercise of these in perception and invention, and the different degrees of beauty which are evolved by them in the conduct of life and the study of nature. In the 2nd book, imagination is distinguished from philosophy, the accidental pleasures which enhance the former are enumerated, and the action of the passions upon imagination is described in an allegorical vision. The 3rd and final book discourses on the pleasure of observing the manners of mankind, inquires into the origin of vice, and describes the action of the mind when engaged in producing works of the imagination. The poem concludes with an account of the advantages accruing from a well-formed imagination.[4]

In the posthumous form, the poem is revised and slightly amplified, while a fragment of a fourth book is added.[4]

The following are the publications of Akenside which have not been enumerated above: 1. ‘An Epistle to the Rev. Mr. Warburton,’ 1744. 2. ‘Dissertatio de Ortu et Incremento Fœtus Humani,’ Leyden, 1744. 3. ‘Ode to the Earl of Huntingdon,’ 1748. 4. ‘The Remonstrance of Shakespeare,’ 1749. 5. ‘De Dysenteria Commentarius,’ 1764. 6. ‘Ode to the late Thomas Edwards,’ 1766.[4]

Of collected editions of Akenside's poems the earliest was published by Dyson, his executor, in a single quarto volume in 1772. The best is that edited by Rev. Alexander Dyce in 1834. It has been usual to print the Pleasures of Imagination in both its forms, giving the original text of 1744 and the posthumous revision of 1772.[4]

Critical introductionEdit

by Edward Dowden

‘Reason clad in strains
Of harmony, selected minds to inspire.’

These words, from one of Akenside’s Odes, define his own poetry, or at least what he desired it to be. He was a witness for high aims in verse; for the ideal, as some call it; for the union of imagination and reason. There was in Akenside’s time much dull brutality of living, much gross time-serving. He, the Newcastle butcher’s son, held his head aloft; when others reeled and spoke thick, he offered libations to the memory of ancient sages or patriots, and intoned hymns to Virtue and Honour. And to inspire a life-long friendship, such as that of Dyson, to whom he owed his well-being, his leisure and his ease of mind, implies the presence in his character of some solid worth, some genuine elevation.

His verse is in keeping with his life. Much verse was manufactured in his day on trivial occasions of passing interest; some of this was the more piquant for its zest of indecency. Much metrical satire was written; it was not long since the Dunciad had stung the dullards not to death but to more zealous moods of dulness, and soon Churchill was to show how in rougher style to belabour antagonists with the knotty cudgel. Akenside wrote odes which may be called occasional, but he always contrived to add dignity to his poem by giving it something of a general character. If ever he became a satirist, it was in the solemn manner of one devoted before all else to principles.

It was his choice to be at once poet and philosophic teacher, or, as he would perhaps have liked to be called, bard and sage. In the preceding age poetry and philosophy had stood apart; Dryden aimed at pleasure, Locke at truth. But now under happy Hanoverian freedom, poetry might dare to expatiate over all the great affairs of the world and of human life; it might approach philosophy and embrace it, and from such an union surely the highest offspring of the spirit of man must arise. Nor, Akenside would say, was philosophy now the tentative and uninspiring research of the Essay on Human Understanding. Locke’s pupil Shaftesbury, a man of aspiring moral temper and elegant culture, who had drunk deep at the well-heads of truth in ancient Greece, was the newer master; both in politics and philosophy the Gothic darkness and tyranny had disappeared. A happier period had dawned of liberty and light, of Plato and the Characteristics, of enthusiasm and taste, of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

Honour is due to Akenside for his homage to the mind and to things of the mind. And it would be unjust to say that his enthusiasm was not sincere. Since, however, he lived as poet so much among ideas, since apart from these ideas his poetry ceases to exist, one cannot but ask, Were his ideas true? Were they the best ideas? Do they still survive? And again, Did Akenside present his ideas in the best way, in a way at once philosophical and poetic? Did he indeed effect the union of reason and imagination?

It must be answered that Akenside’s theory as a whole will not bear investigation, that some of his ideas are commonplace, some fantastic. His psychology is that of Addison’s essays on the Imagination; his morals and metaphysics are those of Shaftesbury. Akenside was inferior to Addison, not perhaps in power of analysis, but in delicacy of perception, in pliancy of feeling, in good sense. He was inferior to Shaftesbury in the quality of his moral enthusiasm. Shaftesbury’s fine illumination comes to us reflected from a surface somewhat hard and cold; it is enthusiasm still, but it is enthusiasm which cannot subsist without rhetoric. For Akenside’s moral elevation was self-conscious, a dignity of attitude assumed deliberately, a constructed elevation. His manner, we are told, was stiff and pompous; he was too oracular, and took a jest very ill. He was deficient on the side of common human sympathy; he lacked geniality. He felt himself to be a ‘superior person,’ and he was so in fact; but he had the kind of superior fatuousness that such persons are readily betrayed into. His tone is too high-pitched; his ideas are too much in the air; they do not nourish themselves in the common heart, in the common life of man. Still Akenside really lifts up his head and tries to breathe empyreal gales. And if the doctrines of amiable deism, the optimist’s view of life, final causes, the unity of goodness, truth and beauty, hardly seem to us to solve the riddles of the world, such solutions had certainly an attraction for some of the finest minds of the first half of the eighteenth century.

"The author’s aim," Akenside says in introducing his chief poem, "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 harmonise the imagination." A noble aim — but Akenside’s theory and his descriptions somehow do not help each other as they ought. It is possible to set forth abstract truth with so much clearness and such exquisiteness of form, that its light may charm the eye as various colour charms. Truth again, in a mind like Plato’s, may incarnate itself in a myth of the imagination, involuntarily and almost inevitably. Then the body and the soul of truth are indeed one living, breathing organism. But Akenside sets forth his truth in a series of illustrations; the doctrine is a peg on which he hangs a picture, and after you have admired, he comes forward to tell you that the picture is less interesting than the peg. The kind of truth which Akenside presents almost invites the expositor to a frigid style. A theory of beauty, and not beauty itself, save as an illustration; phrases about the sublime, a definition of moral loveliness;—it were easier to write poetically about sines and cosines. No treatise on the Attributes has ever won a lover for God.

Akenside’s verse has been described as laborious; in reality it swims on only too gallantly. Its periods are rhetorical, like those of a lecturer with full command of his subject and conscious of superiority to his hearers. He does not brood, or meditate, or enquire; he expounds. Hence his frequent interrogative, his address to the reader, his ‘lo!’ and his ‘behold!’ It is not verse which delays, or coils upon itself like a stream in some rocky chalice when happy and loving most its own beauty; Akenside’s verse is the verse of rhetorical exposition.

His odes have been rated below their true worth. They are not lyrics in the sense that Shelley’s Skylark is lyrical; they are not melodious cries. But they have dignity of sentiment, and that not feigned; they present lofty thoughts in language of animated seriousness and in well-measured verse. The Hymn to the Naiads has delighted so many cultured readers that the high rank generally assigned to it among Akenside’s poems must be maintained; but it has the faults of its author’s longer work. Nothing that he has written is in style so pure and strong as the Inscriptions. Their narrow limits did not give time for the rise of rhetorical excitement. They have, as is fitting, a marmoreal purity and permanence.

The recast of The Pleasures of Imagination does not gain on the original poem. Fine audacities of expression are struck away; the philosophical analysis becomes more minute and laboured. And if we are spared the incredible allegory of Euphrosyne and Nemesis, and the dreary sprightliness of the theory of ridicule, there are added passages which make amends to the injured Goddess of Dulness.[5]


Akenside was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753.

3 of his poems ("Amoret", "The Complaint", and "The Nightingale") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[6]




  • A Commentary on the Dysentery, or Bloody Flux (translated from Latin by John Ryan, M.D.). London: F. Noble & J. Noble, 1767.

Collected editionsEdit

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[7]

See alsoEdit

Poem Friendship And Love Mark Akenside

Poem Friendship And Love Mark Akenside


  • The authoritative edition of Akenside's Poetical Works is that prepared by Robin Dix (1996). An important earlier edition was prepared by Alexander Dyce (1834) for the Aldine Edition of the British Poets, and reprinted with small additions in subsequent issues of the series. See Dyce's Life of Akenside prefixed to his edition, also Johnson's Lives of the Poets, and the Life, Writings and Genius of Akenside (1832) by Charles Bucke.
  • PD-icon.svg Gosse, Edmund (1885) "Akenside, Mark" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 1 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 208-211 


  1. John William Cousin, "Akenside, Mark," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 6-7. Wikisource, Web, Sep. 16, 2017.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Gosse, 208.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 Gosse, 209.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 Gosse, 210.
  5. from Edward Dowden, "Critical Introduction: Mark Akenside (1721–1770)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 26, 2016.
  6. "Alphabetical list of authors: Addison, Joseph to Brome, Alexander. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 15, 2012.
  7. Search results = au:Mark Akenside, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 26, 2016.

External linksEdit

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PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Akenside, Mark

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