Models Influences Purposes

Today, The Pleasures of Imagination is studied and kept in academic circulation by a small but abiding and involved body of critical work that produced its most significant results in Robin Dix's comprehensively annotated edition of the complete poetry in 1996. Yet this was the first new edition of Akenside's poetry for a hundred years. A look back at library catalogues is instructive, however: editions and translations of his complete works, and The Pleasures of Imagination in particular, were so often reprinted that there is not a decade from the 1740s to the 1890s when an edition containing The Pleasures of Imagination was not published. This is as remarkable as the poem's going through seven editions in Akenside's own lifetime, and its being translated into French, German, and Italian within twenty years of its initial publication. (The posthumous edition of his poetry, published in 1772 by his friend Jeremiah Dyson, contained Akenside's unfinished five-book rewriting of the poem under the slightly different title "The Pleasures of the Imagination." It has not often been preferred to the original three-book version, the one discussed in this essay.) Such huge success reiterates two general points of importance, already touched upon: the poem was not intended for a specialized audience; and it tapped into an existing taste for the poetic treatment of an apparently abstract subject.

Akenside's models for this taste were many and various. Virgil's Georgics were, for the eighteenth century, not just a poetic manual on agricultural labor and cultivation, but an inclusive mode of writing that allowed (among many other things) the fullest range of descriptive scenes and prospects, encouraging fecundity and variety of images of nature. Moreover, the georgic form gave license for the most apparently incongruous subjects to be rendered into poetry [see ch. 29, "The Georgic"]. Lucretius' De Rerum Naturum ("On the Nature of Things"), important as the vessel of the influential philosophy of Epicureanism, was another ideal model for Akenside. Lucretius' study of the matter of the universe and of the nature of existence allows the broadest philosophical questions to commingle with more detailed scenes, and inspires the didactic poem to follow a thread of argument, interleaved with many descriptive passages and related ideas and anecdotes. If such works provided an overall template for Akenside, it was Paradise Lost that was his more recent inspiration. Akenside's choice of blank verse was an obvious following of Milton's example, and his poetic vocabulary echoed Milton's great work on many significant occasions (Griffin 1986: 110—14). Milton's epic was, of course, itself didactic, its famous aim being to "justify the ways of God to Men." If the ambitions of Akenside's poem turned out to be more secular in many ways, it nevertheless rarely moves far from Milton's influence.

The ambitions of the 23-year old Akenside were recognized by Robert Dodsley, the leading publisher of the day. After submitting the manuscript of The Pleasures of Imagination to him, Akenside requested £120 for it. This very considerable sum was agreed upon by Dodsley; no less a figure than Alexander Pope was asked for his opinion of the poem, and is supposed to have looked at the manuscript and remarked that "this was no every-day writer" (Johnson 1905: vol. 3, 412). Akenside's intentions were indeed far from everyday, though he sought to popularize significant ideas from the contemporary intellectual world. The Pleasures of Imagination is best described as being "about" aesthetics — a nineteenth-century term for the philosophical understanding of the responses of the mind to beauty. The poem seeks to describe and understand the sources and reasons for imaginative pleasure, though as a blanket statement this is misleading, inasmuch as it is also concerned with many other things: it is, in fact, a poem about combining, about the imaginative combinations that result from what is often called an "aesthetic" response to a work of art, or to nature. In very bald terms, Akenside tries to understand aesthetic responses and then combine them into a uniform idea of social virtue as the highest good for the world. Thus loose modern definitions of an "aesthetic" work of literature as implicitly apolitical or asocial rather founder on his central premise in the poem, which is that beauty, truth, and virtue are all naturally linked in the mind, and the world: imaginative pleasure, a natural response to beauty in the human mind, in itself indicates a type of moral judgment, or sense of virtue, and, by showing this natural sense of order in the mind, cannot but be linked to the wider order of the outside world, with its providential nature created for human happiness. To make these very generalized premises more explicit, it is necessary to look briefly at Akenside's immediate sources, and how he implemented them.

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