The Design of the Poem

Akenside himself attached a "Design" to the poem, which makes much easier the task of working out what philosophical ideas it is necessary to grasp in outline before reading it. His main concern, he tells us, is with "certain powers in human nature which seem to hold a middle place between the organs of bodily sense and the faculties of moral perception" — these are the "Powers of Imagination" (Akenside 1996: 85; italics changed throughout). Akenside then draws on the aesthetic definitions of Joseph Addison in his Spectator essays on "The Pleasures of Imagination" (1712), where Addison had defined aesthetic pleasure as the result of the perception of greatness, novelty, or beauty. Akenside links these ideas of pleasure with the philosophy of the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who in the essays gathered in his Characteristics (1711) had posited an ideal neoplatonic harmony between man and nature which links the aesthetic and moral, and guarantees virtue through an inherent moral sense. Shaftesbury influenced Francis Hutcheson, the author of the Inquiry into the Originals of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) and the Essay on the Nature and

Conduct of the Passions and Affections with Illustrations of the Moral Sense (1728). From Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, Akenside took his leading idea of imaginative pleasures being intrinsically linked to a moral and social sense of virtue and benevolence. Akenside follows Hutcheson in arguing that through pleasure we divine a sense of the workings of providence in the design of the world, and that awareness of the eternal truths of such providence lead us to virtue. In summary, Akenside's poem is an attempt to show that imagination is the vital conduit between philosophy (which tries to understand the world) and art (which describes and celebrates it); both are naturally related, in showing the natural benevolence of a world created for the fulfillment of the good, the true, and the beautiful. A concern of Akenside is the separation between art and "science," a term which was at the time moving from the general sense of "knowledge" towards its more specialized modern meaning (Williamson 2000).

If Akenside had stuck to this simplified recipe of topical philosophy, then it is unlikely that the poem would ever have had many readers. It is vital to any appreciation of The Pleasures of Imagination that its status as a poem be always remembered. Akenside was not tied to the scholastic confirmation or rebuttal of philosophical conundrums. Instead, he uses the blueprint provided by the ideas of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson to create not a versified philosophical system, but a vibrant, digressive, and at times extremely powerful exemplification of imagination, as opposed to an explication of it. In other words, he makes his poetry become a representation of his theme, and often stops minutely describing his subject, preferring to instance it through examples, allegories, and anecdotes — what he calls "an opportunity to enliven the didactic turn of the poem" (Akenside 1996: 87). In the "Design," he also states quite directly that those seeking detailed philosophical debate should look elsewhere: "the author's aim was not so much to give formal precepts, or enter into the way of direct argumentation, as by exhibiting the most ingaging prospects of nature, to enlarge and harmonize the imagination, and by that means insensibly dispose the minds of men to a similar taste and habit of thinking in religion, morals, and civil life" (Akenside 1996: 88). Such enlargement and harmonization are carried on latently and unconsciously, through enjoyment of the poem. This justification of his own method is extremely useful: rather than apologizing for omissions in his learned subject, or directing the reader to a further course of study, Akenside presents the poem as, foremost, a vessel for the very pleasures it describes. This gives him the imaginative freedom to cover much ground, and gives the reader the confidence to read the poem without having to accept its philosophical veracity.

The first book of the poem is concerned with defining the different sorts of imaginative pleasures, using Addison's categories of the sublime, the wonderful, or the beautiful for what evokes imagination. Akenside is somewhat bashful about the ambition of his poem:

Yet not unconscious what a doubtful task

To paint the finest features of the mind,

And to most subtile and mysterious things Give colour, strength and motion.

Indeed, this sense of poetic modesty runs through the first book, intermingling with a very earnest sense of the exploratory powers of the mind that he is describing. The freshness of his poetic enthusiasm is conveyed through the rhythmic suppleness of his blank verse (in the hands of an inferior practitioner, potentially one of the most monotonous of forms). In the following passage, the energy of the poetry, as Akenside answers his own question, leads to the successive running-on of line endings, as (not for the first or last time) he gets carried away with his subject:

Say, why was man so eminently rais'd Amid the vast creation; why ordain'd Thro' life and death to dart his piercing eye, With thoughts beyond the limit of his frame; But that th' Omnipotent might send him forth In sight of mortal and immortal pow'rs, As on a boundless theatre, to run The great career of justice; to exalt His gen'rous aim to all diviner deeds; To chase each partial purpose from his breast; And thro' the mists of passion and of sense, And thro' the tossing tide of chance and pain, To hold his course unfalt'ring, while the voice Of truth and virtue, up the steep ascent Of nature, calls him to his high reward, The applauding smile of heav'n?

Ostensibly, this passage asks: What is the purpose of existence, if not to aspire beyond apparent limits? It is a description of the sublime, that quality which inheres in certain scenes of nature and takes observers out of themselves, to a position of extremes of passion, such as joy or terror, to "thoughts beyond the limit" of their usual experience. Akenside does not detail the sublime but, rather, enacts it through his poetry. Yet even here, the apparently wild and passionate journey through the "boundless theatre" is combined with the voices of "truth" and "virtue," which ensure that the path is not lost. As ever, a supposedly aesthetic reaction is inseparable from an ultimate moral sense of control, order, and divine benevolence.

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