The Life of Mark Akenside || Barbara C Morden

Throughout history, there have been figures that, while now largely forgotten, were instrumental in oiling the wheels of events and influencing the cultural and political life of their time.

In the Seventeenth Century, John Ogiliby was at the heart of royal events up to the deposition of Charles I and then effectively ran communications, at considerable risk, for those who were planning the return of the monarchy. His chief visible legacy is Britannia, the first road atlas, whose style can be seen to influence most others, right down to the last Ordnance Survey One Inch series. It was in fact a guide for an anticipated Catholic invasion after the installation of Charles II as absolute monarch.

A hundred years later, Mark Akenside, who trained as a barber-surgeon, was one of the formative figures of the Romantic movement. Born in Newcastle, he is commemorated in Akenside Hill, formerly Butchers Bank, where a literary group gathered in 1821 to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Akenside was a poet as well as a man of medicine and his volume The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744) was one of the founding works of the Romantic movement which celebrated nature with a spiritual and emotional, rather than a utilitarian, response. Politically a Whig, he opposed and satirised Robert Walpole, along with Alexander Pope (in The Dunciad). Later, his life would be written by Samuel Johnson who, although he disliked blank verse and Whig politics, came to admire the quality of Akenside’s work in spite of those preferences.

Having moved to London, he became part of the circle of Keats and Lamb, both of whom recognised his rejection of classical forms and were influenced in their own writings. He was later himself satirised in Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle – a mark, if it were needed, of his prominence and influence.

This thoroughly readable account of Akenside’s life, work and place in the artistic canon includes much detail without getting lost or bogged down. Barbara Morden goes on to demonstrate Akenside’s influence on Wordsworth and Coleridge, in particular the Lyrical Ballads. The chapters are short, but well organised, and I particularly like the summary at the head of each one, something which would have graced books of Akenside’s time and is useful even today.

Those who operate behind the scenes are frequently just footnotes in histories of their time, but Barbara has rescued a man who deserves to be more widely known and has done him ample justice. The subtitle, Breakthrough to Modernity provides a strong clue to Akenside’s relevance today.

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