Providence Pleasure and Virtue

The clearest example of such questioning is the extended allegory that takes up much of the second book of Akenside's poem. Its purpose, broadly speaking, is to reconcile the pleasures of passion with virtue, by means of the vision of Harmodius, presented as an ancient seer (the name is that of a famous Athenian tyrant-killer from the sixth century bce). A horrible vision leads Harmodius to question divine providence:

Gracious heav'n! What is the life of man? Or cannot these, Not these portents thy awful will suffice? That propagated thus beyond their scope, They rise to act their cruelties anew In my afflicted bosom, thus decreed The universal sensitive of pain, The wretched heir of evils not its own!

It is a familiar lament, seeking explanations for suffering and evil in a supposedly providential universe. On the other hand, of course, providence is a guide to human fulfillment, rather than a guarantee of it. Divine wisdom rebukes Harmodius not on such technical terms, however, but for having the temerity to question at all:

Vain are thy thoughts, O child of mortal birth, And impotent thy tongue. Is thy short span Capacious of this universal frame? Thy wisdom all-sufficient? Thou, alas! Dost thou aspire to judge between the lord Of nature and his works? To lift thy voice Against the sov'reign order he decreed All good and lovely? to blaspheme the bands Of tenderness innate and social love . . .

The literary model here is one of the most influential of all the books of the Old Testament — the end of the Book of Job, where God answers the unjustly suffering Job from out of a storm, in words distinctly uncomfortable to a modern ear:

Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God's, And can your voice thunder like his?

This stark refusal to discuss the matter, and the resulting bluntness of the nature of faith, is softened in Akenside's poem through the allegory, where a youth is offered a choice between female personifications of beautiful Pleasure (called Euphrosyne) and the less striking but no less beautiful Virtue. He is, fortunately, eventually allowed both - but only after a false start where (in a clear, less Christian recapitulation of the Fall in Paradise Lost), he tilts towards Pleasure at Virtue's expense, and is accordingly admonished:

By that bland light, the young unpractis'd views Of reason wander thro' a fatal road, Far from their native aim: as if to lye Inglorious in the fragrant shade, and wait The soft access of ever-circling joys, Were all the end of being.

The balance thus corrected, Harmodius is told that the allegory has proven his questionings vain:

There let thy soul acknowledge its complaint How blind, how impious! There behold the ways Of heav'n's eternal destiny to man, For ever just, benevolent and wise . . .

The degree to which the rather obscure allegory proves any such thing is more doubtful to a reader detached from the optimism of Akenside's poem: the nature of suffering, for instance, is not explained so much as explained away by the contention that unpleasant feelings are as necessary as pleasures, as the divine voice continues:

Need I urge

Thy tardy thought through all the various round Of this existence, that thy soft'ning soul At length may learn what energy the hand Of virtue mingles in the bitter tide

Of passion swelling with distress and pain, To mitigate the sharp with gracious drops Of cordial pleasure?

For many readers, the thought would indeed have to be urged: the idea that passions both pleasurable and painful are corrected and equaled by the workings of virtue does not emerge as naturally as an explanation of human experience as this suggests; as optimism it seems somewhat facile, even if it is (necessarily) of a piece with the larger argument of the poem, in favor of nature's benevolence. The third book of the poem takes these ideas down a different road, by describing human weakness more directly, in the form of folly.

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