3. Akenside's Museum

Object type: Title Page of The Museum: Literary and Historical Register

Materials: Black and Red Ink on Paper

© Photo by Curator, used with kind permission of the University of Michigan Special Collections

Location in MIAC: METAPHOR

Mark Akenside, Engraved by Fisher (after Pond).  Original at Wellcome Images (Creative Commons).

The Museum only ran for a couple of years, but it was a wonderful education and introduction to literary culture for its young editor, Mark Akenside.  The Museum was begun by established publisher Robert Dodsley, who, if I may risk a guess, had first imagined it as something he might run himself.  Dodsley, who by the account of Harry Solomon's extraordinary biography, was to become among the most important men of his age, had an aptitude for museum-like projects.  As a young man, he tried his hand at a play titled The Toyshop; it was a transparently allegorical series of episodes staged in the shop of a seller of accessories and ornamental trinkets, each object prompting a different set of reflections.  Among the last works he authored makes the connection clear.  These were his remarks on the General Contents of the British Museum.  It, too, is a series of episodes, this time staged in the nation's first major museum, which had opened in the same year.  Like The Toyshop, it passes through a collection of objects, pausing at each major exhibit for a set of reflections.  

Title Page of The Pleasures of the Imagination, printed by Robert Dodsley, Akenside's publisher.  Original at Wellcome Images (Creative Commons).  

In other words, Dodsley had the aptitude to have run his own Museum, but he instead hired young and ambitious Mark Akenside.  Akenside, for his part, hadhad just recently abandoned a tidy medical practice and was enjoying the celebrity of his 1743 poem The Pleasures of the Imagination.  His burst into celebrity was so sudden that, as the story is told, at least one impostor enjoyed a season of free meals by passing as the poet; Akenside himself must have been astonished to arrive on scene and discover that he had become a public person in quite this way-- that he had been preceded by himself.  As a choice for editor of Dodsley's periodical, young Akenside was the perfect man for the task.  He shamelessly desired to establish himself as his generation's leading man of letters.  Just twenty-two years old, he was tirelessly energetic.  He was unmarried; his only companion was to be another lifelong bachelor, Jeremiah Dyson-- whose money was what allowed Akenside to neglect his own profession.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Akenside was a collector of prints and books, a habitue of bookstores and bookstalls, rapidly becoming famous for his prodigious memory, indeed, for poems that depended upon the innovative arrangement of images.  

The title page stages one version the writing process.  It offers us an author (perhaps Apollo, who is associated with poetry and song), seated between Calliope and Mercury.  Mercury is the swift-footed messenger, a sort of icon of early modern broadcast media.  Calliope is the Muse of history; she is one of the daughters of Mnemosene, that is, Memory.  The museum is so named because it is the home of the Muses, each of whom is Memory's daughter; inspiration in such a place is one of the fruits of a well-stocked memory.  This is of course different than how we think of these sorts of things, now.  Now, we are likely to think of creativity as a special power, what one late-eighteenth-century theorist called "the god within."  But Akenside was most likely to have thought of creativity as the putting-together of things out of memory; creativity was, in other words, a curatorial act.

By a fortunate twist, Dodsley's title page exactly echoes the emblematic arrangement of figures in Eugene Delacroix's Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to his Daughers (see Exhibit 2).  Actually, the links between Milton and Akenside are tighter than this.  Later in his career Akenside was given a potent gift, a bed said to be Milton's.  The giver hoped that it would "inspire" Akenside to compose verses in defense of the Whig ministry, but Akenside, who was just then switching his political allegiances, seems to have appreciated the bed for what it said about him as a poet.  For he imagined himself as a poet like Milton, one who specialized in a certain kind of poetic work, of imagination as a branch of memory work.

We live in under the tyranny of originality; we are reminded constantly of the imperative to be creative.  But it was part of the brilliance of eighteenth-century aesthetics that creativity was understood largely to be the arrangement and rearrangement of things, whether these were ideas brought into contact in the mind, or images on a canvas, or figures on a page.  This is why Akenside was so admired in his day-- though his reputation was already fading by the time he died.  Akenside was an able curator of images, and while this sort of activity might seem dry to the twenty-first century sensibility, it was the height of what it meant to be a poet in eighteenth-century England.  Akenside's essays in the Museum might strike modern readers as especially dry.  They include for instance a number of "dreams," but these are dreams of an austere, allegorical variety, dreams like the dream of the author of The Pilgrim's Progress, or like Addison in his many dream-essays in The Spectator or Tatler (see Exhibit 22 for more on this point).  For the imagination, in the artist's museum, is the curator of images; the author is judged by the able arrangement of objects in order to tell a story or relay a design.

Notes: the only full-length biography of Akenside remains Robin Dix, The Literary Career of Mark Akenside (Fairleigh Dickenson, 2006).  On Dodsley, see Harry Solomon, The Rise of Robert Dodsley (Southern Illinois, 1996).  No modern edition of The Museum exists.  Hathi Trust and other digital resources have archived the collection of papers, published after the periodical folded.  This is also titled The Museum, and appeared in 3 volumes in 1746-47.