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Mark Akenside (1721–1770) was an English poet and physician, now best known for his ambitious and philosophical poetry. He was part of the mid-eighteenth century movement of Enlightenment thinkers and poets, often aligning with the Neoclassical movement that sought to emulate the style of the classics in both art and literature.

Literary Background and Early Influences

Akenside was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to a butcher by trade. Despite his non-aristocratic origins, he was able to attend the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, thanks to the support of a wealthy patron. It was during this period that he also began his literary career. Akenside's poetry is steeped in the intellectual atmosphere of the Enlightenment, with a distinct leaning towards the philosophical and reflective, inspired by ancient Greek and Roman literature, as well as by the works of John Milton and contemporary poets like Alexander Pope.

Poetic Schools or Movements

Akenside is often associated with Neoclassicism, a movement characterized by a return to the simplicity and symmetry found in classical literature. His work contains the rationalism and decorum typical of the Enlightenment but is also suffused with emotional pre-Romanticism elements. His poetry is an amalgam of the precision of the Augustan poets with a newer sensibility that would eventually contribute to the emergence of Romanticism.

Poetic Oeuvre: Phases and Themes

Akenside's major work, "The Pleasures of the Imagination", published in 1744, was a didactic poem in blank verse. It was influenced by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, and explored the idea that aesthetic pleasure is derived from the exercise of the imagination. The work divides pleasures of the imagination into two kinds: primary pleasures, which stem directly from the senses and perception, and secondary pleasures, which arise from reflection on what we perceive.

While "The Pleasures of the Imagination" was his most notable work, he also published odes, satires, and sermons that were widely read in his time. His later work, including a revision of his major work that was published posthumously, was more restrained and perhaps reflected his professional life as a physician and his immersion in practical affairs.

Influence and Honors

During his lifetime, Akenside's work was well-regarded, and "The Pleasures of the Imagination" was particularly influential. It shaped the aesthetic debates of the late 18th century and prefigured some of the concerns of the Romantic poets, with its emphasis on individual emotional response and the sublime. Though Akenside's poetry is less read today, his influence can be seen in the works of poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth.


Mark Akenside's contribution to English poetry is marked by his attempt to fuse the rationalist, ordered aesthetic of Neoclassicism with a more introspective and imaginative perspective. "The Pleasures of the Imagination" remains a significant work for understanding the transition in English literature from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, offering a unique insight into the period's intellectual preoccupations. His ability to articulate the intricate relationship between aesthetics, emotion, and morality reflects the complexities of 18th-century thought and continues to provide a rich vein of analysis for scholars and enthusiasts of poetry alike.

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