Ridicule Truth and Memory

Akenside's argument about the place of folly in the responses that make up the imagination is far simpler than the opaque allegory of the second book. He details six different types of folly, the sharp distinction of which is not as important as the general idea they all represent - that of imaginative self-deception:

Another tribe succeeds; deluded long By fancy's dazling optics, these behold The images of some peculiar things With brighter hues resplendent, and portray'd With features nobler far than e'er adorn'd Their genuine objects.

The lack of subjectivity here leads, in the twenty-first century, to all sorts of questions: What is meant by folly, when it is only in the eye of the beholder? Is not folly constructed by the individual (in which case it cannot be described as immutable and universal)? If the imagination dazzles one person into self-delusion, may it not do the same for everybody? In Akenside's attempt to make his scheme cohere, however, such questions are beside the point: folly, and the ridicule it produces, are of great use, because (in an idea borrowed from the third Earl of Shaftesbury), ridicule serves as a "test of truth." In other words, if any idea is true, it cannot be ridiculed; if false, ridicule serves to expose it. Ridicule is thus tied in with the providential workings of the mind:

Ask we for what fair end, th' almighty sire In mortal bosoms wakes this gay contempt, These grateful stings of laughter, from disgust Educing pleasure? Wherefore, but to aid

The tardy steps of reason, and at once By this prompt impulse urge us to depress The giddy aims of folly?

Abstract principles do not always work well in practice: Akenside's following of this theory raised more questions than it answered, and involved him in controversy with one of the most notorious argufiers of the age, the scholar and theologian William Warburton. As has been shown, the controversy was not to Akenside's intellectual advantage (Terry 2000). The "ridicule" of one person did indeed turn out to be the "truth" of another; consequently, this part of the poem offers character types that have poetic effect, but lack conviction in the philosophical justification of their purpose.

Akenside returns to the question of truth in the passages following the discussion of ridicule, tracing the different types of imaginative sympathy that lead ideas, scenes, and feelings to be recalled, partly through Lockean association, but also through the workings of memory. When discussing memory, Akenside both makes clear his own poetic individuality and looks forward to more well-known poetic debates. Memory contains

The seal of nature. There alone unchang'd, Her form remains. The balmy walks of May There breathe perennial sweets: the trembling chord Resounds for ever in th' abstracted ear, Melodious: and the virgin's radiant eye, Superior to disease, to grief, and time, Shines with unbating lustre.

As well as showing the importance of the emergent idea of nostalgia in the midcen-tury (in poems such as Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," written two years before), this brings to mind the "still unravished" perfection of Keats's Grecian urn: memory is inviolate, and cannot be defaced. And yet, the idea of its being removed from potential change and harm reminds us, perhaps, of the world where the seal is broken, bringing back the harsher side of reality that Akenside so often covers over in his benign world, a world which loses its lustre through change, decay, and (ultimately) death.

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