An Eighteenth Century Hymn/Prayer to the Gods by Mark Akenside (plus some Neoclassical Sculptures by Bertel Thorvaldsen)

Yes, there were even gay pagan poets in the 18th century. One of my obscure favorites is Mark Akenside (1721-1770), whose collected poems are available here via Project Gutenberg. According to the biographical introduction to his poems:
“Indeed, he [Akenside] never appears to have had much religion, except that of the Pagan philosophy, Plato being his Paul, and Socrates his Christ; and most cordially would he have joined in Thorwaldsen’s famous toast (announced at an evening party in Rome, while the planet Jupiter was shining in great glory), ‘Here’s in honour of the ancient gods.’” [More on Thorwaldsen below.]

Akenside was a lifelong bachelor (we all know what that often means), and was closely associated with his best friend (and sometimes patron), a lawyer by the name of Jeremiah Dyson. According to the 1911 Encylopedia Britannica: “His friendship with Dyson puts his character in the most amiable light. Writing to his friend so early as 1744, Akenside said that the intimacy had ‘the force of an additional conscience, of a new principle of religion’, and there seems to have been no break in their affection. He left all his effects and his literary remains to Dyson, who issued an edition of his poems in 1772.” This was the 1911 way of saying, “By the way, he happened to be gay and had a life partner.” An article on GLBTQ.com clarifies, saying that there was a circle of 18th-century gay men who joined together in ” a ‘little club’ formed in Leiden, Holland, that included the pre-Romantic English poet Mark Akenside and his lawyer-lover Jeremiah Dyson, and the group of European university students they fell in with.”

Biographical details aside, Mark Akenside wrote some beautiful neoclassical poetry. His (rather long) “Hymn to the Naiads” is justly praised as a remarkably early example of Pagan Romanticism, but the following hymn/prayer is especially lovely:

VIII. (From Inscriptions)
by Mark Akenside

Ye powers unseen, to whom, the bards of Greece
Erected altars; ye who to the mind
More lofty views unfold, and prompt the heart
With more divine emotions; if erewhile
Not quite unpleasing have my votive rites
Of you been deem’d, when oft this lonely seat
To you I consecrated; then vouchsafe
Here with your instant energy to crown
My happy solitude. It is the hour
When most I love to invoke you, and have felt
Most frequent your glad ministry divine.
The air is calm: the sun’s unveiled orb
Shines in the middle heaven. The harvest round
Stands quiet, and among the golden sheaves
The reapers lie reclined. The neighbouring groves
Are mute, nor even a linnet’s random strain
Echoeth amid the silence. Let me feel
Your influence, ye kind powers. Aloft in heaven,
Abide ye? or on those transparent clouds
Pass ye from hill to hill? or on the shades
Which yonder elms cast o’er the lake below
Do you converse retired? From what loved haunt
Shall I expect you? Let me once more feel
Your influence, O ye kind inspiring powers:
And I will guard it well; nor shall a thought
Rise in my mind, nor shall a passion move
Across my bosom unobserved, unstored
By faithful memory. And then at some
More active moment, will I call them forth
Anew; and join them in majestic forms,
And give them utterance in harmonious strains;
That all mankind shall wonder at your sway.

***

And speaking of Neoclassicism . . . the Thorwaldsen making a toast to the ancient gods in the above quote is the great Danish-Icelandic sculptor, Bertel Thorwaldsen [aka Bertel Thorvaldsen], who created some incredibly beautiful (and often homoerotic) Neoclassical statues. Below are some of my favorite examples (as always, all photos were found on the web and none were taken by me):

Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle by Bertel Thorvaldsen. Located in the Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen.

Bertel Thorvaldsen. Mercury. Marble Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Adonis, 1808. The Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen [photo by Bjørn Smestad]

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Cupid Triumphant. The Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen

Bertel Thorvaldsen – Apollo [photo by Bjørn Smestad]

Bertel Thorvaldsen – Bacchus [photo by Bjørn Smestad]

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for posting these! Lots of good stuff to follow up on!

    Reply
    • Glad you liked them! Mark Akenside has some incredible poems, and I adore Thorvaldsen’s sensuous sculptures. I especially enjoy that his complementary versions of Apollo and Bacchus actually look like brothers.

      Reply
  2. Thanks so much for this! I’d never heard of Akenside…and I think he’ll have to be added to the Sancti, most certainly! 😉

    I didn’t know the Ganymede and eagle statue was by Thorvaldsen originally…I’ve seen (and coveted!) reproductions of it, certainly. And, his Adonis, I must say, looks to me like Antinous was clearly an influence…!

    Reply
    • I think Mark Akenside would make an admirable candidate for Sanctus! And yes, I’m sure Thorvaldsen had Antinous in mind when he carved that Adonis . . . especially the hair. I love his statues, and you can see more online at the links I provided. That Flickr page I stumbled across (Bjørn Smestad – http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornsmestad/ ) has some especially lovely examples.

      Reply

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