Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mark Akenside, Poet of the Imagination

Mark Akenside, poet and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, was born at Newcastle upon Tyne on 9th November 1721, close by the Quayside, near the pub that now bears his name.

The Akensides were dissenters, his Presbyterian father a butcher. As a result of an accident with a meat cleaver Mark was left slightly lame. He attended the Royal Free Grammar School of Newcastle and a private dissenting academy.

Aged 18, he was dispatched to Edinburgh to study theology with the intention of becoming a Presbyterian minister. His studies were financed through a fund established by the Tyneside dissenting community.

However, Mark was a dissenter in a rather broader meaning of the word and he quickly abandoned theology for the more worldly study of medicine. He did, though, repay his grant.

Before going to Edinburgh he had already developed a talent for poetry. During a visit to Morpeth in 1738, he began working on “The Pleasures of the Imagination” which was to become an extensive didactic poem.

His dissenting background emerged in other ways: as a political, if somewhat unfocused radical, Dr. Johnson commented that Mark had an, “…eagerness to subvert and confound…” but without necessarily with any particular objective in mind.

 He also dissented from the dissenting denominations by becoming a deist. Deism emerged during the eighteenth century enlightenment as a response to traditional Christianity.

Deists base their belief in God on reason and experience, not revelation and scripture. They claim Nature as their bible; that it operates according to laws as discovered by science it is reasonable to postulate the existence of the lawmaker.

The radical Thomas Paine, was a leading exponent of Deism which was also the religion of the USA’s founding fathers such as Jefferson and Adams. It was natural for a freethinking young poet to gravitate in such a direction.

In 1740, Mark Akenside moved back to Newcastle, but although he described himself as a surgeon it seems he didn’t actually practice. He did continue to pursue his poetic ambitions.

By 1743 he’d established a growing literary reputation and he moved to London. There he came to the favourable notice of Alexander Pope, a fellow poet and deist.

Subsequently, after gaining a medical degree at Leiden in 1744, he went on to become a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and, eventually, principal physician at Christ’s Hospital.

Akenside became embroiled in disputes characteristic of the literary milieu of eighteenth century London. He published poems of a satirical nature and a slim volume entitled, “Odes on Several Subjects”. His 1746 “Hymn to the Naiads” was well received.

With advancing years and a burgeoning medical career Mark began to develop a more conservative outlook. By the time George lll came to the throne, he had became a Tory. This led to his appointment as the queen’s physician. He died on the 23rd June, 1770.

As a poet, he gained a good reputation that has, over the intervening years waned somewhat. However, his command of blank verse is beyond question and is a good representative of didactic poetry, a form no longer much favoured.

Nonetheless, Mark Akenside deserves to be recognised as a considerable figure in Tyneside’s literary heritage. Although he may have ended his life a Tory he had a radical strain within him. Perhaps his natural radicalism can be illustrated by the following poem. 

For a Column at Runnymede
Thou, who the verdant plain dost traverse here

While Thames among his willows from thy view

Retires; O stranger, stay thee, and the scene

Around contemplate well. This is the place
Where England's ancient barons, clad in arms
And stern with conquest, from their tyrant king
(Then rendered tame) did challenge and secure
The charter of thy freedom. Pass not on
Till thou hast blest their memory, and paid
Those thanks which God appointed the reward
Of public virtue. And if chance thy home
Salute thee with a father's honour'd name,
Go, call thy sons: instruct them what a debt
They owe their ancestors; and make them swear
To pay it, by transmitting down entire
Those sacred rights to which themselves were born.

Mark Akenside