The Akensides of Eachwick
Newcastle was the birthplace of at least one recognised poet; Mark Akenside. The family from which he sprung had been established at Eachwick, in the parish of Heddon, for many generations. It was old, respectable, and, in its later developments, Puritan.
The Akenside Reputation
"1716, Dec. 18. Abraham, son to Thomas Akenside, of Eachwick, a Dissenter, said to be baptised by somebody," is the disrespectful entry of a member of the family which Mr. Cadwallader Bates quotes ("Archaeologia Aeliana", vol.xi.) from Heddon Church registers. Mark Akenside, a younger son, came from Eachwick to Newcastle, and having served his apprenticeship and taken up his freedom, commenced business as a butcher.
Mark Akenside Senior Marries Mary Lumsden at St Nicholas' Church - 1710
On the 10th of August, 1710, he married, at St. Nicholas" Church, Mary Lumsden. Eleven years afterwards, on the 9th November, 1721, at their house in All Hallow Bank, or Butcher Bank, the second son of this marriage was born. It was arranged that he should bear his father's name, and three weeks from the date of his birth he was taken to the Close Gate Meeting House, where the family worshipped, and was baptised by the learned and godly pastor of the congregation.
Mark Akenside - Born 1721
Brand quotes the entry of this interesting event: "Mark Akenside, born the 9th November, 1721; baptised the 30th of the same month by the Rev. Mr. Benjamin Bennett". There was at that time in Newcastle one William Wilson, a member of the community that assembled at Close Gate Chapel, an amiable and scholarly man, who kept a private school, and occasionally preached for the minister. With him, after a short course at the Royal Grammar School, young Akenside was placed to complete his elementary education.
An Accident in The Butcher's Shop
The boy was a cripple, through an injury to his foot by a cleaver falling on it while playing in his father's shop at the age of seven, and this defect assisted the natural bent of his mind towards books and study. It soon became apparent that he was gifted beyond the common run of Newcastle boys. Before he was sixteen he had written verses that gave promise of future success in literature, and his father and his father's friends encouraged him to adopt a literary career, with the dissenting pulpit as the stepping-stone to competence.
Published in a Gentleman's Magazine
Towards the close of April, 1737, the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine received a letter and a poem from Newcastle that attracted his attention, and he printed them both. The poem was, entitled "The Virtuoso, in Imitation of Spenser's Style and Stanza" and the letter was as follows :
- Newcastle-on-Tyne, April 23.
- I hope, sir, you'll excuse the following poem (being the performance of one in his sixteenth year) and insert it in your next magazine,
- which will oblige yours,
More Poems Are Published
The writer was young Mark Akenside, the butcher's son, William Wilson's scholar. Thus encouraged, Akenside followed up his maiden effort in print by an ingenious fable, called "Ambition and Content." It appeared in the succeeding issue of the magazine, and in July he contributed "The Poet, a Rhapsody". This was followed by "A British Philippic" against the Spaniards, which was so much to Mr. Urban's taste that he issued it in folio as a separate publication at sixpence a copy. The Newcastle boy had become an acknowledged poet.
- As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
- [He] lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
Akenside Goes to College
And now the time arrived when the hopes of his friends, and the yearnings of his own ambition, were to be gratified. He was in his eighteenth year, and must go to college. Akenside the elder was only a small tradesman (a brother at Eachwick had paid young Mark's education hitherto), and the expense of a collegiate course was beyond his means. But some members of the dissenting congregation (removed in the meantime from Close Gate to Hanover Square) were wealthy ; there was a fund for training pious youths to be ministers; and, believing that Mark Akenside, junior, would be an ornament to Nonconformity, they provided what his father lacked, and sent him to Edinburgh University to qualify himself for the Presbyterian ministry.
A Mistake Corrected - Atkinson Studies Medicine
Before he had been there many weeks he discovered his mistake. The restraints of a pulpit were not for him. He had begun to climb Parnassus, and could not encumber himself with the small clothes of theology nor wear the fetters of the sects. For one term only did he pursue the course of study marked out for him. Then he repaid his father's friends their generous loan, and entered himself as a medical student.
A Poet Interrupted
In the study of medicine, however, Akenside made less progress than his friends desired. Not only were his hours of study interrupted by poetic digressions, but his ambition soared away beyond both poetry and physic. He looked forward to a political career and a seat in Parliament.
With this object he took a leading part in the discussions of the Edinburgh Medical Society, and in the opinion of Dugald Stewart, one of his fellow-students, was "eminently distinguished by the eloquence which he displayed in the course of the debates". But, as he himself sung in later years:
- The figured brass, the choral song,
- The rescued people's glad applause.
- The listening senate, aud the laws
- Fixed by the counsels of Timoleon's tongue,
- Are scenes too grand for fortune's private ways.
A Brief Spell Back Home
And, as time went on, his ideas became more practical. When he returned to Newcastle be had probably made up his mind to follow the profession of medicine, and to combine with it, as far as was compatible, the cultivation of the poetic muse. He styles himself "surgeon" in a letter from Newcastle dated August 18, 1742, though it is not known that he ever practised in the town.
The Pleasures of Imagination
His biographers believe that he was chiefly occupied on his return from the University in the composition of his great didactic poem, "The Pleasures of Imagination". There is no doubt that he completed it in its original form in the summer of 1743, for at that time, with the MS. in his possession, he went to London to find a publisher.
A Great British Poet Recognised
Fortune assisted his adventure. Dodsley bought the poem for £120, and in January, 1743-44, it was published anonymously. The favour with which it was received raised the author, at the age of twenty-three, to a recognised position among British poets.
Akenside - Doctor of Physic
Elated by his literary triumph, Akenside went to Leyden, and at the University of that town on the 16th May, 1744, took his degree of doctor of physic. Returning to England, he commenced practice at Northampton as a physician ; thence proceeded to London, and by the aid of a college friend (Jeremiah Dyson, Clerk to the House of Commons, who allowed him £300 a year) settled there. From this period his connection with his native town came to an end. If he did not actually disown his birth-place, he ceased to identify himself with it, and his career thenceforward belongs to general rather than to local history.
Fellow of The Royal Society
In 1753, he was admitted to a doctor's degree at Cambridge, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the following year he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, in 1759 physician to St. Thomas's Hospital (where his rudeness, not to say brutality, to the patients shocked his contemporaries), and in 1761 one of the physicians to Queen Charlotte
Akenside Dies of Fever - 1770
He died of fever on the 23rd June, 1770, and was buried in St. James's Church, Westminster. "Akenside" writes one of his biographers, "had a pale and rather sickly countenance, but manly and expressive features. The formality of bis deportment, the precise elegance of his dress, his ample wig in stiff curl, his long sword, his hobbling gait, and his artificial heel rendered his appearance far from prepossessing. ... In general society his manners were not agreeable. He seemed to want gaiety of heart, and was apt to be dictatorial in conversation. But when surrounded only by his intimate friends he would instruct and delight them by the eloquence of his reasoning, the felicity of his allusions, and the variety of his knowledge. He had no wit himself, and took ill the jests of others. He was gifted with a memory of extraordinary power, and perfect readiness in the application of its stores. With the exception of Ben Jonson, Milton, and Gray, it would be difficult to name an English poet whose scholarship was of a higher order than Akenside's".
His Birth Place Renamed
Akenside's poems have been published in various forms, and are included in all the collections of British poets that have been'issued since his decease. Biographies of him have been written by Charles Bucke (1 vol, 8vo, 1832); Dr. Johnson ("Lives of the Poets"); Dr. Lardnor ("Cabinet Cyclopoedia"); Alexander Dyce ("Aldine Poets"); P. H. Gosse ("Dictionary of National Biography"), and others, and every history and handbook of Newcastle contains more or less copious sketches of his career. The street in which he was born has been re-named "Akenside Hill", and a modern thoroughfare in Jesmond is called "Akenside Terrace".
Unfortunately his birth place in Newcastle has been pulled down, and the house rebuilt. But before it succumbed to the restorer the old place was the scene (in 1821) of a centenary demonstration, whereat enthusiastic Novocastrians recited turgid verse and dined merrily.
Pride Of Newcastle
Newcastle is proud of Mark Akenside, although Mark Akenside's pride hindered him from being proud of Newcastle.