Akenside's Justification for Imagination

Mark Akenside begins his Pleasures of the Imagination (1744) with the remark:
Oft have the laws of each poetic strain The critic-verse imploy’d; yet still unsung Lay this prime subject, though importing most A poet’s name.

Addison before him may have addressed the imagination in his work of the same name, yet the above comment reveals that there was something left ‘still unsung’ within this ‘prime subject’ for Akenside, a ‘poet’ himself. I believe that what Akenside believed still ‘unsung’ was the idea that imagination is used every day by men in all value judgements. Akenside strove to justify his emphasis on the importance of the imagination and all its faculties.

How Akenside achieves this is through a step by step argument culminating in implicating a larger role for imagination within any conception of aesthetics or philosophy; although the term ‘aesthetics’ is strictly anachronistic and was not in use in Akenside’s time, it seems to be the focus of much of Akenside’s poetry. As Robin Dix states in the introduction to his edition of Akenside’s poetical works, ‘The key to appreciating its artistic and intellectual unity lies in the recognition that it is primarily concerned with what would now be called aesthetics’ (19).

Initially, Akenside begins his argument by outlining the way imagination reacts to physical stimuli. In Book I 109-138 Akenside describes in eloquent terms how our response to nature attunes ‘the finer organs of the mind’ (15, Reader) and stimulates our imaginations, causing us to smile and ‘sink to divine repose’. The perception of the beauty of nature, for Akenside describes nature’s beauty through extremely visual language, is the incentive for the imagination to work in us. This visual language is exemplified in Book I:

But not alike to every mortal eye
Is this great scene unveil’d. For since the claims
Of social life, to different labours urge
The active powers of man; with wise intent
The hand of nature on peculiar minds
Imprints a different byass, and to each
Decrees its province in the common toil (14, Reader).

This discusses the concept that not all men’s imaginations are equal in their associative powers; the exercise of each man’s mind is different according to the divided attentions each man’s ‘social life’ requires. The line ‘Whoe’er thou art, whom these delights can touch’ (16, Reader) indicates the universality of the use of the imagination; should Akenside justify that imagination is duly important to daily life it will have implications for all men. This in itself is a justification for the use of imagination; it is a tool of liberation, proving that all men are equal in their capacity to enjoy nature’s bounties as described in lines 109-138 (15-16, Reader).

The ordaining of the eye for perceiving the beauty of God’s work is further considered here in the text:

Nor ever yet
The melting rainbow’s vernal-tinctur’d hues
To me have shone so pleasing, as when first
The hand of science pointed out the path
In which the sun-beams gleaming from the west
Fall on the watry cloud (41, Reader).

This introduces two concepts important for Akenside’s argument. The first of these two ideas is that the perception of nature creates a sense of pleasure in us. The very fact that looking at a rainbow may cause us to praise the God that made it, and to rejoice that we are alive, is essential in later argument by Akenside to argue that all men must disseminate this pleasure throughout the world to come closer to that which is divine. This emulates the actions of God, as he ‘spread around him that primaeval joy/ Which filled himself’ (49, Reader).

This pleasure is part of our ‘passions’ in the poem; the ‘passions’ encompass both feelings of pleasure and pain. From lines 157 onwards in Book II Akenside seeks to justify the consequence of the passions on our capacity to realize the aesthetic. Akenside remarks, ‘From passion’s power alone our nature holds/ Essential pleasure’ (43, Reader) and explains that passion is the oil that keeps the ‘fine machine’ of our bodies ‘polished’. This justifies why passion is important to us, and if it attunes our body, and keeps our bodies ‘polished’, then a pursuit of that which causes passion is also justified, as Steve Clark remarks, there is a ‘synthesis between the two preceding faculties [pleasure and passion]’ (135). However, Akenside asserts the idea that ‘passion’ includes negative feelings too, such as ‘softening sorrow’ (47, Reader), yet we are admonished for focussing on the negative side of the passions, as this is counter-productive for Akenside. God reproves Harmodius for concentrating upon his sorrow, a negative passion; instead he wishes mankind to focus upon using the negative passions to compel a crusade for the dissemination of the positive passions, pleasure. This will allow one to ‘climb the ascent of being, and approach/For ever nearer to the life divine’ (51, Reader). Akenside has justified our pursuit of pleasure in this way; it becomes a way for us to reach the divine: ‘to exalt/ His generous aim to all diviner deeds’ (17, Reader).
However, now I discuss the second concept linked to the rainbow passage: that the pleasure created in us when we look at the rainbow is the result of a combination of ‘Three sister-graces…the sublime, the wonderful, the fair’ (17, Reader). These categories, while widely recognised as taken from Addison’s work and re-titled, are deployed differently by Akenside than by Addison due to Akenside’s heightened view of the imagination. All of these three concepts are taken from the perception of nature, and they are a source of passion, as described in this passage:

What, when to raise the meditated scene,
The flame of passion, through the struggling soul
Deep-kindled, shows across that sudden blaze
The object of its rapture, vast of size,
With fiercer colours and a night of shade? (42, Reader).

This object of rapture, ‘vast of size’, is a definition of what the sublime is for Akenside. The sublime is thought of as something that cannot be possessed by the mind, because it is too vast; rather it is something that compels us ‘to exalt/His generous aim to all diviner deeds’ (17, Reader), which is again tied in to how Akenside thinks of pleasure as a way to reach the divine. These three types of beauty are also themselves innately divine, as Akenside proceeds to discuss. He links beauty with truth and good concretely in the passage I.372-76, indicating a kind of mutual relationship between the three:

Thus was beauty sent from heaven,
The lovely ministress of truth and good
In this dark world: for truth and good are one,
And beauty lives within them, and they in her,
With like participation (26, Reader).

The passage employs the imagery of the divine, and one is drawn to think of the Virgin Mary with mention of ‘the lovely ministress of truth and good’, and perhaps when regarding the relationship between truth, good and beauty an allusion to the Holy Trinity is meant, as Dix comments (21). This is one of the main justifications for Akenside’s view of beauty: because beauty is present in nature, and nature is the truth, it is also divine (good).

In Book II lines 97-108 this argument also appears where beauty, truth and good are again bonded: the concept that ‘the beams of truth/More welcome touch his [man’s] understanding’s eye’ (II. 100-101), or the idea that truth is beauty is emphasised. Furthermore, this is also reiterated by the way the whole poem itself is constructed: the poetry is imaginative and full of expression (beauty), yet uses reason (truth) therefore indicating the ‘good’. Steve Clark comments that in Samuel Johnson’s review of Akenside, he notes The Pleasures of the Imagination ‘prompts not sensual indolence but mental exertion’ (132). This shows that Akenside seeks to make us think philosophically about imagination’s place in our lives, forcing us to recognise how imagination can be linked with the already exalted reason of John Locke before him.
Moreover, the idea that these three ideas of truth, beauty and good are bonded together is precipitated in a passage that then seeks to justify the importance of the imagination to this trinity:

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 (32, Reader).

Akenside introduces the idea that imagination is an aid to the ‘just and good’, put in place by the ‘benignant sire’, which we take to be a divine figure, divinely ordaining imagination. What is also important to note is the elevation of imagination through the description of it as a beam of light, a device with which, until Akenside’s point in time, reason has more often been associated. It seems here that Akenside seeks to justify imagination as a tool to some extent by placing it next to reason.

Furthermore, imagination is a tool for furthering the usefulness of the three great concepts, ‘the sublime, the wonderful, the fair’. As Akenside outlines in Book III, the aesthetic responses we have to the world all involve the use of the imagination which essentially lead us to strive toward a more divine existence. This is achieved through the idea that imagination has the power to recall images and stir our emotions again as they did when we perceived them. This is illustrated through this passage:

Such is the secret union, when we feel
A song, a flower, a name, at once restore
Those long connected scenes where first they mov’d
The attention (84-85 Reader).

Affirming the idea that such images ‘a song, a flower, a name’, when recalled, can enable us to compare those perceptions which brought us pain or pleasure, this comparison can then allow us to strive toward what will being us pleasure. This pleasure has previously been discussed as the result of beauty, truth, and good. The conception, or image of beauty which moves our passions to appreciate God and to compel us toward the divine and the dissemination of pleasure to others, is recalled here in this passage:

That not in humble nor in brief delight,
Not in the fading echoes of renown,
Power’s purple robes, nor pleasure’s flowery lap,
The soul should find enjoyment: but from these
Turning disdainful to an equal good,
Through all the ascent of things inlarge her view,
Till every bound at length should disappear,
And infinite perfection close the scene (19-20, Reader).

What is notable, is the fact that pleasure is not a reward unto itself; it is in fact the endeavour to turn the ‘disdainful to an equal good’ which is the main point of Akenside’s argument for the pleasures of the imagination’s importance. It is the ‘ascent’ that the soul shall strive towards, and in return it will be blessed by God, which is where ‘the soul should find enjoyment’. What is interesting about this concept is that George Reuben Potter has written an article called ‘Mark Akenside, Prophet of Evolution’ stating that Akenside predicted the Darwinian theory of evolution because of this idea of ‘ascension’ and perfecting oneself. He states that Akenside ‘should have his small niche at the hall of fame in whose center [sic] is the figure of Charles Darwin’ (64).

This recognition of Akenside’s forward thinking is useful because it confirms my argument that Akenside was innovative in justifying the idea that imagination is used every day in value judgements, in this case to pursue an ‘infinite perfection’ of mankind. In addition, Steve Clark agrees too that Akenside argues that ‘man has been “ordain’d” not to acquiesce in but to go beyond “the limits of his frame”’ (151). This idea, that we are more than the sum of our parts, that we are almost able to transcend our humble attachment to the world of experience through transforming what we experience, is incredibly positive; and given the huge revolution in thought that was the Enlightenment, this was only the beginning.

In addition, I believe that not only does Akenside succeed in justifying that imagination has an important part to play in our everyday aesthetic judgements, but he also succeeds in convincing us that mankind has an optimistic part to play in the aesthetic role of our world. The idea that we can evolve towards a higher plain of existence is comforting, but the idea that we can all reach this by improving ourselves through utilising the pleasures of the imagination that we all possess is liberating. In all, Akenside opens the door wider than ever before for discussion on the mind and aesthetics, eventually leading to what would be called Romantic thought.

However, Akenside’s huge emphasis upon pursuing the divine may become problematic later in the Enlightenment era when doubt is cast upon justifying God’s existence through the argument of intelligent design, as exemplified by David Hume’s work An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), since all of the justification for striving toward a better self in Akenside’s poetry includes some sort of ‘divine’ reward.
Yet as a work, Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination is entirely cohesive argument for 1744, and any reader today, even if we were to doubt his final justification of divine ordainment, would take pleasure from imagining the allegorical devices Akenside evokes.


Akenside, Mark. 'The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744)'. Course Reader. University of Edinburgh, 2006.

Clark, Steve. ‘”To Bless the Lab’ring Mind”: Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination.’ Mark Akenside, A Reassessment. Ed. Robin Dix. London: Associated University Presses, 2000.

Dix, Robin, ed. The Poetical Works of Mark Akenside. London: Associated University Presses, 1996.

Kallich, Martin. ‘The Association of Ideas and Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination’. Modern Language Notes. 62.3 (1947): 166-173.

Potter, George Reuben. ‘Mark Akenside, Prophet of Evolution.’ Modern Philology. 24.1 (1926): 55-64.

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