Pleasures Perfection and Politics

Akenside never relates imaginative responses for any value in themselves, but rather because they cohere within the larger benevolent scheme of nature, with its checks and balances, and this is analogous to the workings of the mind. The enhanced pleasures of a stream to the thirsty, or of perfectly ripened fruit, reflect the internal harmony of the person who enjoys them, showing

Th' integrity and order of their frame, When all is well within, and every end Accomplish'd. Thus was beauty sent from heav'n, The lovely ministress of truth and good In this dark world: for truth and good are one, And beauty dwells in them, and they in her, With like participation.

Akenside's binding together of "truth" and "good" with "beauty" seems to anticipate Keats's famous conclusion to the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." More immediately significant here is the description of the natural workings of the three concepts, which live together (and, apparently, in each other). This once again binds up the philosophy of the poem: appreciation of beauty is not an isolated act, but part of a linking chain that confirms the virtues of a harmonious, ordered self. That our world is also a "dark world," given Akenside's splendid descriptions of its apparently unlimited benevolence, pulls the reader up a little. Akenside's picture of the divine wisdom of nature seems pantheistic; his metaphoric gestures toward an endless self-improvement reaching for the beautiful and the true are neoplatonic; the world is naturally dark in comparison with the ideal. Such a combination reminds us that he is not offering the sustained and consistent beliefs of a doctrinal treatise. But the darkness of the world also draws attention to Akenside's politics. These were Whiggish, and sometimes republican in sentiment, and have recently been discussed in detail (Griffin 2000; Meehan 1986: 52-63). The part played by politics in The Pleasures of Imagination is related to Akenside's quasi-philosophical scheme for human improvement. Like many a "progress" poem of the eighteenth century, Akenside's second book offers at the outset a version of history where the greatest and most fertile relation between human liberty and the arts occurs in ancient Greece, and more specifically in its legacy of republicanism. Furthermore, art can survive only in a condition of liberty (a commonplace, following the Greek writer Longinus' expression of this in his On the Sublime). In the supposed dark ages that followed the decline of the classical Greek republics, the absence of civil liberty meant the reduction of artistic freedom. Yet the two are inherently connected, which explains why, for Akenside, the most heightened of passions are often those that respond to apparent liberation from tyranny, such as the death of Julius Caesar; this is compared, favorably, to "planets, suns, and adamantine spheres / Wheeling unshaken thro' the void immense":

And speak, O man! does this capacious scene With half that kindling majesty dilate Thy strong conception, as when Brutus rose

Refulgent from the stroke of Cesar's fate, Amid the croud of patriots . . .

The anticipated answer to the question is "no": we respond more to the moral sublimity of the death of tyranny than we do to the physical sublimity of looking on the solar system. This is because "Mind, mind alone" offers the highest degree of greatness and beauty of created things and "The living fountains in itself contains / Of beauteous and sublime" (i. 481-3). The mind, being naturally virtuous, is heightened by scenes of virtue, and gravitates toward them. What seems to us questionably subjective is part of Akenside's conviction that imaginative pleasures reflect inner virtue; this, in turn, moves outward, bringing civic virtue to the world.

The binding of imagination with virtue ensures that the politics of the poem do not have to be explicit. What is more important is the poem's explanation of the potential creative power of the mind - a view that at times makes Akenside pay lip-service to his benevolent creator, but at others makes him strikingly modern, with the creativity of the mind going beyond the ostensible theology of the poem and obscuring the deity. The following passage shows the potential for conflict between the two:

For of all

Th' inhabitants of earth, to man alone Creative wisdom gave to lift his eye To truth's eternal measures; thence to frame The sacred laws of action and of will, Discerning justice from unequal deeds, And temperance from folly. But beyond This energy of truth, whose dictates bind Assenting reason, the benignant sire, To deck the honour'd paths of just and good, Has added bright imagination's rays: Where virtue rising from the awful depth Of truth's mysterious bosom, doth forsake The unadorn'd condition of her birth; And dress'd by fancy in ten thousand hues, Assumes a various feature, to attract, With charms responsive to each gazer's eye, The hearts of men.

"Creative wisdom" works for "truth," making sure that "sacred laws" are kept in the checks and balances of human conduct. But then "virtue" rises from the uncharted territories of "truth's mysterious bosom," and is dressed in a multitude of outfits by the imagination. This seems another reiteration of the bond that joins all these essential qualities in the poem, yet the potential is there for "each gazer's eye" to make something different of the imagination, or to lose sight of the virtue that is hidden underneath, perhaps to the contradiction of the wishes of reason, that "benignant sire." In other words, Akenside's vision of the workings of the universal human mind contains within it evidence of the striking individuality with which the imagination actually works. It is worth considering what happens when this supposedly natural equality between imagination and virtue is questioned further.

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