Who was Mark Akenside, and what has he contributed to British literature?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Mark Akenside was a British thinker and poet who wrote at the time of the Enlightenment.  Akenside's life could be seen as an exploration of freedom, rational thought, and the love of writing.  One of the most distinct aspects of Akenside's life was that he has the raw intelligence and capacity to be so many things.  Theologian, physician, potential member of Parliament, and writer were all capacities that Akenside represented.  In this regard, he was an embodiment of the Enlightenment.  He represented the Enlightenment's premise that human beings could do or be anything because of their unlimited potential.  Akenside displayed this in his own life.

In terms of his work as a poet, Akenside represented a desire to integrate the Enlightenment principles into the creation of poetic art.  Akenside was a believer in the power of rationality and science.  He believed that there was a way to ensure such tenets could be in art.  It is here in which one sees his contribution to British literature.  Akenside believed that scientific principles contain beauty within them.  In stark contrast to the Romantics who would follow, Akenside's work asserts the idea that science has its own intrinsic beauty, something that makes it perfect for poetic expression dedicated to such beauty. For Akenside, there is beauty in the cellular design of a leaf or under a microscope.  Scientific beauty and praise of its principles were the subject of his "Hymn to Science:"

Give me to learn each secret cause;
Let number's, figure's, motion's laws
Reveal'd before me stand;
These to great Nature's scenes apply,
And round the globe, and thro' the sky,
Disclose her working hand.

Enlightenment principles such as science were critically important to Akenside's work.  It is in this where his contribution to British literature can be the most felt.  His talent and gifts made him what Alexander Pope called "no ordinary writer."  While Akenside is not as widely read today, his role in attempting to fuse Enlightenment ideals and poetic expression together puts him in the same intellectual neighborhood as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.

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