Didactic Poetry

To begin, the impression of the didactic poem bearing something of the schoolteacher about it is misleading. The principal point for a reader of Akenside to grasp is that his choice of a type, or genre, of writing guaranteed certain principles, models, and expectations in the poem. For the eighteenth-century poet, the choice of genre was deliberate and important: each different genre had different ambitions and intentions. After the lasting success of Paradise Lost, for instance, the attempt at writing an epic poem became (understandably) more perilous, requiring the poet to aim at the standard of Milton's great model. This was no easy task, given that the epic form was seen as the genre which demanded most of the poet; to put the matter bluntly, an epic poem could (and should) be more significant and of more consequence than a sonnet, no matter how finely tuned the latter, just as a painting on an historical or mythological theme would be expected to have greater and more lasting importance than a portrait. [See ch. 26, "Epic and Mock-Heroic."] Such generic hierarchies have often been reduced by subsequent criticism to crude evaluative schema, representing a sort of enforcement of taste; this is far from being the case. Generic distinctions offered both artist and audience a clear set of general outlines about the compass, scope, and purpose of a particular work. Rather than restricting a poet to strict "correctness," the effect was more often to aggregate the particular pleasures of each different type of writing. By superimposing our own values on the works of the past, without considering that people wrote for utterly different reasons and audiences, we misunderstand the nature of the works we read; moreover, it is likely that the reader of The Pleasures of Imagination would move from frustration to complete bafflement, unless they first considered what kind of poem Akenside was producing, and for what specific reasons.

Didactic poetry was hardly a rigid genre, as the definition by Hugh Blair in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783) indicates. For Blair, "The highest species" of didactic poetry "is a regular treatise on some philosophical, grave, or useful subject. Of this nature we have several, both ancient and modern, of great merit and character: such as Lucretius's six Books De Rerum Natura, Virgil's Georgics, Pope's Essay on Criticism, Akenside's Pleasures of the Imagination, Armstrong on Health, Horace's, Vida's, and Boileau's Art of Poetry" (Blair 1783: vol. 2, 362). With the exception of John Armstrong's The Art of Preserving Health (1744), Blair places Akenside among lofty company: we will return to the importance of the Latin poets Lucretius and Virgil for Akenside, but the most obvious point of Blair's list is that all the poems (such as the different treatises on the art of poetry by Horace, Vida, and Boileau) are works of instruction on a "useful subject," whether general or specific. Blair enumerates the qualities required by the genre: "In all such works, as instruction is the professed object, the fundamental merit consists in sound thought, just principles, clear and apt illustrations." Furthermore, it is not enough merely to get the abstractions of a subject across — a prose treatise could do that: "The Poet must instruct; but he must study, at the same time, to enliven his instructions, by the introduction of such figures, and such circumstances, as may amuse the imagination, may conceal the dryness of his subject, and embellish it with poetical painting" (Blair 1783: vol. 2, 363). Instruction must therefore be combined with enjoyment, or the purpose of the exercise is removed. On these terms, Akenside has, for Blair, succeeded: "In English, Dr. Akenside has attempted the most rich and poetical form of Didactic Writing, in his Pleasures of the Imagination; and though, in the execution of the whole, he is not equal, he has, in several parts, succeeded happily, and displayed much genius" (Blair 1783: vol. 2, 367). This was not isolated praise, although its criticism of Akenside's unevenness was also reiterated in the many critical responses to his very successful poem. For the sheer weight of editions and reprintings of Akenside's work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tells its own story: Akenside's didactic poem succeeded in both teaching and entertaining.

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