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National Poetry Month - Mark Akenside

The title page of the poem, with an engraved scene.
The explanation of the poem's subject.
The first page of the poem.
An extract from the poem.
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April is National Poetry Month!  Although you might not think of looking in a medical collection to find poetry, you’d be surprised – there are more than a few poet-doctors sprinkled throughout our rare book collections.

Mark Akenside (1721-1770) was one such individual.  He was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, and enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1738.  He initially studied to become a nonconformist clergyman, but his interests soon led him to the study of medicine.  In April 1744 he enrolled at Leiden University to complete his medical degree, and graduated in May with his thesis De ortu et increment foetus humani (On the origin and development of human fetuses).  While his initial attempts to establish himself as a physician in the United Kingdom met with limited success, in the 1750s and 1760s his career progressed at a steady rate.   In 1753 he received an MD by mandamus from Cambridge and was elected to the Royal Society, and in 1754 he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.  In 1759 he gave the RCP’s Harveian Oration – an oration established by William Harvey meant to urge fellows on toward further medical discoveries – and also became assistant physician at both St. Thomas’ Hospital and the school of Christ’s Hospital.  He also began publishing his medical research.  His paper “An account of a blow upon the heart” was presented to the Royal Society in 1763, and he published his book De dysenteria commentaries (A commentary on dysentery) in 1764.

Akenside also achieved a certain amount of renown for his poetry.  His most famous work was his long philosophical poem The Pleasures of Imagination, which was published in 1744 in three books.  He wrote in blank verse – meaning the lines of poetry have rhythm, but do not rhyme - and took inspiration from the classical poets Virgil and Horace.   The story of the poem’s initial publication seems to be the stuff of legend.  Akenside asked the printer Robert Dodsley for a fee of £120, which Dodsley thought was exorbitant.  According to Samuel Johnson, no lesser a figure than Alexander Pope was so impressed with Akenside’s work that he urged Dodsley to compensate him accordingly. 

While Akenside dabbled in poetry for the rest of his life, none of his other works achieved the success of The Pleasure of Imagination, which went through four editions within the first year of its publication.  The Becker Library’s copy of The Pleasures of Imagination is an eighth edition printed in 1769.  The copperplate engraving on the title page depicts mythological figures and hints at the poem’s themes.

 

Sources:

Robin Dix.  "A Newly Discovered Manuscript Dedication by Mark Akenside." Medical History 2009. Vol. 53, No. 2, 425-432. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2706082/

Robin Dix, ‘Akenside, Mark (1721–1770)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/263

"Mark Akenside". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.  Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/11510/Mark-Akenside

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