Poems, by J. Aikin, M.D. London, J. Johnson, 1791.
First Edition. 8vo, (195 x 113 mm), pp. x, 136, some scattered foxing in the text, in contemporary calf, spine simply ruled in gilt with red morocco label lettered in gilt, front joint just beginning to crack, some wear to extremities and light fading on the covers.
A collection of poems by the physician, dissenter and writer John Aikin, printed by his friend Joseph Johnson. Aikin spent his early career as a surgeon but when he found this unprofitable he turned to medicine, gained a degree at Leiden and established a medical practice in Norfolk where his sister, Anna Letitia Barbauld, the renowned educationalist, lived. Two of the poems in this collection, including the opening poem, are addressed to her. Aikin’s time in Norfolk was dogged by divisions between the dissenters and the established church. Among his circle, most of those who shared his literary tastes were on the side of the Church of England but Aikin, who felt keenly the injustice of excluding dissenters from office, published two pamphlets in 1790 in which he put forward a case for toleration. Although the pamphlets were published anonymously, Aikin’s authorship was widely known and it was largely this, as well as his public support of the French revolution, that lost him the support of most of his friends and patients and made his professional life in Norfolk unsustainable.
It was at this low point, largely ostracised for his dissenting views and before his successful move to London in 1792, that Aikin published these poems. In the preface he explained that mixed with the more general poems are a few that may not meet with impartial judgement. ‘They will certainly meet with as decided a condemnation from one set of readers, as they can possibly obtain applause from another... with a mind strongly impressed with determined opinions on some of the most important topics that actuate mankind, I could not rest satisfied without attempting to employ (as far as I possessed it) the noblest of arts, in the service of the noblest of causes’ (pp. iii-iv).
Aikin’s daugher and biographer, Lucy Aikin, described his move to London as ‘a blessed change’, as the dissenters there welcomed him as ‘a kind of confessor in the cause’ (Aikin, Memoir of John Aikin, 1823, p. 152). In 1796 he became literary editor of the Monthly Magazine, he also wrote for the Monthly Review and edited The Athenaeum for a while. His circle of friends there included Erasmus Darwin, John Howard, the philanthropist (whose biography he wrote and whose death is commemorated by a poem in this collection), Robert Southey, Thomas Pennant and the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Aikin also wrote Johnson’s obituary for the Gentleman’s Magazine.