Between the period of George Herbert, and that of Edward Young, some singular changes had taken place in British poetry as well as in British manners, politics, and religion. There had passed over the land the thunderstorm of the Puritanic Revolt, which had first clouded and then cleared, for a season, the intellectual and moral horizon. The effect of this on poetry was, for such fugitive though felicitous hymns as those of Herbert, to substitute the epic unities and grand choral harmonies of Milton. Then came the Restoration -- the Apotheosis of falsehood; including in that term false principles, false politics, and false taste. Britain became the degraded slave of France, at once in laws and in literature. Dryden, indeed, maintained, in some measure, the character and the taste of his nation, but he stood almost alone. To him succeeded Addison and Pope, both gifted but both timid men, whose genius, great as it was, never, or rarely, ventured on original and daring flights, and who seemed always to be haunted by the fear of French criticism. Pope, especially, lent all his influence to confirm and seal the power of a foreign code of literary laws; and so general and so deep was the submission, that it is to us one of the strongest proofs of Edward Young's genius, that he ventured, in that polished but powerless era, to uplift a native voice of song, and not to uplift it in vain; for, if he did not absolutely make a revolution, or found a school, he yet established himself, and left his poetry as a glorious precedent to all who should afterwards be so hardy as to |go and do likewise.|
Edward Young was born in June 1681 (according to some, two years earlier), in the village of Upham, Hampshire. His father was rector of the parish, and is represented as a man of great learning and abilities. He was the author of some volumes of sermons, and, on account of their merit, and through the patronage of Lord Bradford, he was appointed chaplain to King William, and Dean of Salisbury. He died in 1705, in the sixty-third year of his age, and Bishop Burnet, the Sunday after his decease, pronounced a glowing panegyric on his character, in a funeral sermon delivered in the Cathedral.
Edward was sent to Winchester School, and thence to Oxford, where he obtained a law fellowship in All-Souls College, and afterwards took successively the degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Civil Law, besides obtaining a fellowship in 1706. When the Codrington Library was founded, he was appointed to deliver the Latin oration. It was published, but met with a frigid reception, being full of conceits and puerilities, and the author wisely omitted it from his collected works. Little else is known of his career at College. He is said to have blended fits of study with frequent dissipation. When he relaxed, it was in the company of the infamous Duke of Wharton, who patronised, corrupted, and laughed at him. When he studied, he would shut his windows, create around him an artificial night, and make it more hideous by piling up skulls, cross-bones, and instruments of death in his room. His talent was then as well known as his eccentricity. Tindal the sceptic bore a striking testimony to this when he said, |The other boys I can always answer, because I always know where they have their arguments, which I have read a hundred times; but that fellow Young is continually pestering me with something of his own.|
He seems to have been nearly thirty ere he began to tune that lyre which was afterwards to thrill with vibrations of song so powerful and melodious. His first choice of a subject was characteristic of the lofty and ambitious tone of his genius: it was, |The Last Day.| This poem was written in 1710, although not given to the world till 1713. He had previously, in 1712, published an epistle to Lord Lansdown, which displayed little of his peculiar power, but was at once feeble and pretentious. Young became afterwards heartily ashamed of it. In the same year that |The Last Day| appeared, he prefixed to Addison's |Cato| a copy of verses of no great merit. Shortly after, he issued a poem entitled, |The Force of Religion; or, Vanquished Love:| it was founded on the story of Lady Jane Grey and her husband, and was ushered in by a flaming dedication to the Countess of Salisbury. On the death of the Queen, in 1714, he published a panegyric in verse on her memory, and inscribed it to Addison. In these days flattery to princes and nobles was a commodity almost essential to poetry -- a tawdry court dress which every poet was obliged to put on for the nonce; and not even Dryden has excelled Young in the violent unlikeness and unsparing incense of his adulations. It is satisfactory to remember that, on cool reflection, he cancelled the most of those unworthy effusions; although he continued to the last very much of a courtier, as the dedications to the |Night Thoughts| sufficiently prove. He is supposed about the year 1717 to have visited Ireland in company with Wharton.
In 1719 his tragedy of |Busiris| appeared on the stage, and had considerable success. He sold the copyright afterwards to B. Lintot, for £84, which, for a first play by an author previously unknown, was thought a large sum. |Busiris| is a play of that solemnly pompous and intensely artificial school, the race of which has been long since gathered to its fathers. It is conceived and written in Ercles' vein; and Nat Lee himself, in his wild ranting plays, has scarcely surpassed the torrents of bombastic nonsense which issue from the lips of Myron. Immediately after |Busiris| he published his Paraphrase on part of the Book of Job, a production scarcely worthy either of Young or of the sublime original. The descriptions in that grandest of all poems, which are so rich and massive as to press almost on the sense, are more fairly represented in our common prose translation than in the poetical paraphrase of Young. We are far, however, from being opposed, with some critics, to the principle of paraphrasing Scripture. We admire to enthusiasm many of the Scottish paraphrases, some of Byron's and Moore's Hebrew Melodies, and Croly's Scenes from Scripture; and should like to see all the poetry of the Bible versified by some competent hand.
In 1721 appeared |The Revenge,| by far the most powerful of his tragedies. Its great fault lies in its likeness to Othello: its great praise is, that, though it imitates and challenges comparison with that Shakspearean masterpiece, it has not been utterly sunk and eclipsed before it. As a play, we think it decidedly second-rate; the plot is not artistically managed, and the means by which jealousy is excited in the mind of Alonzo, are a very poor and shabby copy of those in Shakspeare. Zanga has been called a |vulgar caricature of Iago;| he is so in part, perhaps, but Young has abated the vulgarity of the imitation by endowing his hero with a wild and native vein of poetry. Iago is a subtler, colder fiend than Zanga, and indulges more in sneers and in smut than in declamation. Zanga's speeches exhaust the rhetoric of revenge. Iago has nothing but intellect, wit, and malignity. Zanga has an imagination worthy of the hot and lion-peopled land of his birth. Iago, after his detection, sinks into obstinate silence; he stiffens into the statue of a demon. Zanga dies, using lofty imagery.
Indeed, |The Revenge| owes all its interest to the flames of poetic genius which burst out at every pore of its otherwise coarse and copied structure. It was dedicated to Wharton, with whom Young continued to be intimate; whom he taught to speak good Latin in the space of six weeks; and who lent him money to reimburse him for the expenses of an unsuccessful attempt to get into Parliament. This was in 1721; the place was Cirencester. The election, however, was contested, and fortunately, perhaps, both for Young and the world, he was unsuccessful. Had he gained the seat, he had very probably,
|Though born for the universe, narrow'd his mind,
And to party given up what was meant for mankind;
and what comparison between a series of eloquent, forgotten speeches, and the starry, ever-burning splendours of the |Night Thoughts|?
His disappointment in this attempt, coupled, probably, with remorse for the follies and vices of a misspent youth, seems to have soured Young, and ripened him to the point when satire becomes the unavoidable expression of the irritated yet unsubdued spirit. In 1725 appeared the first part of his |Universal Passion;| the rest came out in successive satires between that and 1728, when they were collected and published, along with a somewhat querulous preface, in which he hints that he had not found poetry very favourable to preferment. He gained, however, £3000 by these poems, of which, according to Spence, £2000 was contributed by the Duke of Grafton, who did not, however, regret the price. His inscriptions of the several satires were, as usual at the time, stuffed with fulsome praise of such men as Dorset, Dodington, Campton, and Sir Robert Walpole, all of whom appreciated and rewarded the compliments. We reserve our criticism on these remarkable productions till afterwards, noticing only at present, that they were published before the satires of Pope, and that they became instantly popular.
As if to propitiate the Nemesis, who always stands behind the chariot of the popular writer, Young next issued two of the poorest of all his unequal productions. The first of these, entitled |The Instalment,| was addressed to Sir Robert Walpole, and is, perhaps, although the word be a wide one, the most nonsensical and trashy lie in verse ever addressed to a prime minister. The second is an |Ode to Ocean,| a compound of doggrel and stilted dulness -- which, indeed, any sailor of education might have composed, if |half-seas-over.|
At length, sick of dissipation, of the stage, of bad odes, and good satires, Young determined to become wise, and enter into orders. An irresistible current had long been carrying him on, with many a convulsive recalcitration on his part, to this determination. That great intellect and heart, over which, already, the shadow of the |Night Thoughts| was beginning to gather, could not be satisfied with the society of |peers, poets,| and demireps; with the applause of sweltering crowds collected in theatres; or with the ebullitions of its own giant spleen, in the shape of epigrammatic satires. The world, which once seemed to his eye so fresh and fair, had withered gradually to a skeleton, with sockets for eyes, with eternal baldness for hair, with a |stench instead of a sweet savour, and burning instead of beauty.| He resolved to proclaim the particulars of this painful yet blessed disenchantment to the ends of the earth, and to all classes of mankind. And for this purpose, he first of all mounted the pulpit, and then began to wield what was even then the mightier engine of the press. He was no novice when he entered the ministry. Would that we had more who, like Young, do not go up by a mechanical ladder, and the mere force of custom, to the pulpit, but who come down upon it from long and vain wanderings elsewhere, and with a conviction, as the result of mature experience, that God there still desires to dwell, and that it constitutes even yet a pinnacle of prospect, and power, and promise! Thus came Herbert, and Chalmers, and Foster, to their real work as ministers of the gospel. It is not a boy, but a Boanerges-ministry that introduces the Word with most effect to a gainsaying world. Young was full forty-seven -- mature in years, in acquirements, in experience, and in reputation -- when he began to publish the |News that it is well.| Like the eminent men we have just mentioned, and like others whom we might mention, his motives in entering the Church have been calumniated. He has been compared to a lady disappointed in love, taking the veil; and, rather inconsistently with this figure, to a sated sensualist becoming an anchorite. How can both be true? If Young was disappointed, how could he be sated? and if sated, how could he be chagrined by the want of satisfaction? The fact is, that such men as Young, Chalmers, Herbert, and Foster, are altogether superior to common standards of judgment, and must be tried by their peers. All had their own share of the disgusts and dissatisfactions connected with life, and all felt them keenly. But all had a deeper reason still -- a reason, we grant, probably stirred by circumstances into action, for renouncing the empty arena of this world's honours and wealth, and devoting themselves to a higher and nobler purpose. They all saw into the hollowness of society, into the misery of the human heart; and felt that the gospel alone could fill that aching void, and satisfy those dreary cravings. Hence, Herbert quitted the pleasures of a court; Chalmers dropped his air-pump and his telescope; Foster resigned his philosophic speculations; and Young shook off the blandishments of peers, and forgot the claps of multitudes, to proclaim the glad tidings to perishing sinners; and verily all, in different measures, had their reward.
In April 1728 he was appointed chaplain to George II. His tragedy, |The Brothers,| which had been in rehearsal, was prudently withdrawn. It is a play superior to |Busiris,| but very much inferior to |The Revenge.| Full of passion and poetry, of startling scenes, and vivid images, its subject is unpleasing, and the various perplexities of the plot are not skilfully disentangled.
In the same year he published |A True Estimate of Human Life,| written with force and ingenuity; and a long and very loyal sermon, preached before the House of Commons, on the Martyrdom of Charles I. It was entitled, |An Apology for Princes; or, the Reverence due to Governments.|
Hitherto Young had lived on the proceeds of his fellowship, and on presents from Wharton, who, at his death, too, left him a pension. He became now, however, very naturally anxious for promotion in that new sphere on which he had entered, and was compelled, proh pudor! to lay his case before Mrs Howard, the favourite mistress of George II. -- that identical |good Howard,| who figures so curiously in the famous scene between Jeanie Deans and Queen Caroline. The fact of the application, as well as the terms of the letter he wrote her, renders this the most humiliating incident in all Young's history. In 1730, he published |Imperium Pelagi,| another naval lyric, as bad and much longer than his |Ode to Ocean.| In the same year he wrote an epistle to Pope, which resembles a coarser and more careless production of the little man of Twickenham.
In July 1730, Young was presented by his college to the rectory of Welwyn in Hertfordshire. We refer our readers, for various delightful speculations and anecdotes about his residence and labours there, to Bulwer's Student. He was a powerful preacher. His sermons seem to have been striking in thought, rich in image, intensely practical in tendency, and were delivered with great animation and effect. It is told, that on one occasion, while preaching at St James's before the Court and His Majesty, on some subject of transcendent importance, and not being able to command the attention or awaken the feelings of his audience, he at length threw himself back into the pulpit, and burst into tears. That was itself a sermon! The figure of this weeping Titan, who could have rent rocks and severed mountains, but who had failed in breaking the hearts of any of his courtly hearers, is one of the most affecting in the annals of pulpit oratory. Alas! what preacher who has ever aimed at Young's object, has not been at times tempted to assume Young's attitude, and to shed Young's bitter and burning tears? |Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?|
In 1731, Young, at the mature age of fifty, married the Lady Elizabeth Lee, daughter of the Earl of Lichfield, and widow of Colonel Lee. This marriage sprung out of his father's acquaintance with Lady Ann Wharton, who was co-heiress of Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley in Oxfordshire, and seems to have been very happy. He next published another of those stupid odes by which he seemed predestined to disgrace his genius, entitled |A Sea Piece.| It was as though Milton had tried to write Anacreontics. A few years afterwards appeared |The Foreign Address, or the Best Argument for Peace,| occasioned by the posture of affairs in which the British fleet was then placed, and written in the character of a sailor. It is a mere tissue of sounding verbiage -- or, as Hamlet hath it, |Words, words, words.| About this time Young met with Voltaire, who, according to the story, was ridiculing Milton's allegory of |Death and Sin,| when our hero struck in with the extempore epigram: --
|Thou art so witty, profligate, and thin,
That thou thyself art Milton, Death, and Sin.|
We cannot see very much wit in this epigram, even in that best shape which we have now given it; but it was not inappropriate to the lean denier, who sought to empty everything of the important element -- its God; to leave the universe, like himself, a grinning skeleton, and to smile in ghastly sympathy over the completed ruin. We fancy we see the two gifted men, the one the representative of the scepticism of France, the other, of the belief of England, meeting and conversing together. Voltaire is not much in advance of thirty; Young is fifty, and more. Voltaire's face is worn with premature thought and inordinate laughter; Young's, though older, bears a warmer and more sanguine flush. Voltaire has the insincerest of smiles playing constantly over his face like the light of an aurora borealis; Young's countenance is grave, settled, open, and serene, as the radiance of an autumn sunset. In Voltaire's eye you see the future |Candide| laughing down in its depths, while on Young's brow lies the dim and magnificent promise of the |Night Thoughts.| After meeting, talking, bowing, wondering, and recoiling, they part for ever; Voltaire sighing through smiles as he thinks of the |misled giant of Religion;| and Young smiling through sighs as he thinks of the |wondrous and well-nigh human ape of Infidelity.|
By his wife Young had one son, Frederick. He does not seem to have been a particularly well-behaved youth; indeed, his father for some time before his death refused to see him, although he ultimately sent him his forgiveness, and made him his heir. But no son of illustrious father has ever had harder measure dealt him. It has been generally supposed that he was the Lorenzo of the |Night Thoughts,| a poem published when Frederick was only eight years of age, and when he could scarcely have even thought of committing those crimes of scepticism and reckless self-gratification with which Young charges his imaginary or half-real hero.
The Poet's life, during the first ten years of his rectorship at Welwyn, flowed on in an even tenor. He was regular in his conduct, happy in his family, diligent in his pastoral duties, and easy in his fortune. His preaching was popular and useful. His studies were principally connected with his own profession, and yielded him a growing satisfaction. An anonymous writer in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1782, who seems to have been intimate with him, thus describes him: -- |The dignity of a great and good mind appeared in all his actions, and in all his words. He conversed on religious subjects with the cheerfulness of virtue; his piety was undebased by gloom or enthusiasm; he was regular in the performance of all its duties, both in public and in private. In his domestic character he was amiable as he was venerable in the Christian. His politeness was such as I never saw equalled: it was invariable to his superiors in rank; to his equals and to his inferiors it differed only in degrees of elegance. I never heard him speak with roughness to the meanest servant. In conversation upon lively subjects he had a brilliancy of wit which was peculiar to himself; I know not how to describe it but by saying that it was both heightened and softened by the amiable qualities of his soul. I have seen him ill and in pain, yet the serenity of his mind remained unruffled. I never heard a peevish expression fall from his lips.| Few of his brilliancies are preserved, since, unfortunately, he had no Boswell attached to his heels. But one or two of the sayings that have floated down to us are singularly characteristic. On one very stormy night Young went out to his garden, and remained some time. When he returned, one expressed wonder why he had stayed so long in such an evening. |Oh,| he replied, |it is a very fine night; the Lord is abroad.| He was very fond of a garden, and inscribed on the wall of his summer-house the words, Ambulantes in horto audiebant vocem Dei (Walking in the garden, they heard the voice of God). He had also erected a dial with the inscription, Eheu fugaces! which, he said with a smile to Mr Langton, |was sadly verified, for by the next morning my dial had been carried off.| Though sometimes melancholy, he was disposed to encourage mirth in others, and established an assembly and bowling-green in his parish.
And had this been all -- had Young continued to pursue such an even, equable course -- he had been by this time well-nigh forgotten; for we do not think that either his satires or plays would of themselves have preserved his name. But it was decreed that grief should co-operate with disappointment in unfolding the full riches of his mind. Antæus was strongest when he touched the ground. Job was never so eloquent till he was prostrated on his dunghill. And, in order to be able to write the |Night Thoughts,| Young must be plunged in the deepest gloom of affliction -- |Thrice flew the shaft, and thrice his peace was slain.| In 1736, a daughter of his wife, by a former husband, died. This was Mrs Temple -- the Narcissa of his great poem. Her disease was a lingering one. Young accompanied her to Lyons, where she died, and where her remains were brutally denied sepulture, as the dust of a Protestant. Her husband, Mr Temple, or Philander, died four years later; and in 1741, Young's wife, or Lucia, also expired. He now felt himself alone, and blasted in his solitude. But his grief did not sink into sullen inactivity. He made it oracular, and distilled his tears into song. The |Night Thoughts| were immediately commenced, and published between 1742 and 1744. This marvellous poem was all composed either at night, or when riding on horseback -- an exercise, by the way, which gives a sense of mastery and confidence, stirs the blood, elevates the animal spirits, and has been felt by many to be eminently favourable to thought and mental composition. It inspired, we know, such men as Burns, Byron, Shelley, and Delta. We love to think of Young riding through the green lanes of his parish, and cooing out to himself his plaintive minstrelsies. We love better still to watch his lonely lamp shining at midnight, like a star, through the darkness, and seeming to answer the far signal of those mightier luminaries which are burning above in the Great Bear and Orion -- the poet the while now dipping his pen to indite his ardent immortalities -- now leaning his head on his widowed arm, and surrendering himself to paroxysms of uncontrollable anguish -- and now looking out upon the Night as the |Lord is abroad| on the wings of the tempest, or as He is silently shining out his name in suns and galaxies -- those unwearied |Watchers| and unbaptized |Holy Ones.|
In 1745, Young wrote |Reflections on the Public Situation of the Kingdom| -- a production which made no impression at the time, and is now entirely forgotten. He did not include it in the collection of his works. In 1753, the tragedy of |The Brothers,| which had lain past for thirty years, was produced on the stage. Young gave the profits of the play, and several hundreds from his own pocket, amounting to a thousand pounds in all, to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel -- an act which surely balances the stories usually told of his love of money and thirst for preferment.
His next work was, |The Centaur not Fabulous, in Six Letters to a Friend.| Its subjects were, the infidelity and licentiousness of that age. It is a pity that this book has fallen into oblivion, as it is a very rich and powerful piece of writing. It is full of clear, sharp, sententious truth. Its style palpitates with energy, and glitters with poetic image. We wish we saw it reprinted in a cheap form; for, although infidelity and pleasure have both materially changed their phases, there is much in Young's little work that has an imperishable application, and that would be even yet eminently useful. The character of Altamont is supposed to represent Lord Euston -- a nobleman notorious for his vices. The age in which Young's lot was cast was characterised by a low, sneering scepticism, and his earnest and awful letters were treated with ridicule. Many pronounced him mad, others whispered about dotage. Now, the book seems replete with wisdom, and burning almost with prophetic fire.
Young, in fact, was not generally appreciated during his lifetime. Tried by the Boileau and Pope standard, his writings were pronounced turgid, strained, and extravagant. Even Warburton, who should have known better, passed a severe judgment on the |Night Thoughts.| He had, however, his warm admirers, prominent among whom was the amiable and learned Joseph Warton. He dedicated to Young his |Essay on Pope| -- an essay containing the first sober and discriminating estimate of that most artificial of true poets, and with the opinions expressed in which Young is supposed to have coincided; for, although he admired, and too often imitated, Pope's brilliant point and antithesis, he was aware of far higher models, and found Homer, Milton, and Job far more congenial companions in his studious midnights. In 1758, he published a short and in nowise remarkable sermon, preached before the King at Kensington.
Richardson, the novelist, was one of Young's greatest friends. Their views on moral and religious subjects were identical; and in gravity of tone, and severity of genius, they resembled each other -- Richardson being a duller Young, and Young a more elastic and brilliant Richardson. Although both lived in a most depraved age, neither catered to its tastes. To Richardson, Young addressed, in 1759, a letter on Original Composition, which betrays no symptoms of senility, but is full of vigorous and striking remark. In 1762, when upwards of eighty, he wrote his last and worst poem. It is entitled |Resignation,| and requires, on the part of the reader, considerable exercise of that grace. It has very little of Young's peculiar power, and is chiefly filled with weak and toothless abuse of his old acquaintance Voltaire. It was written, it appears, at the instance of Mrs Boscawen -- the widow of the Admiral -- who, having found consolation from the |Night Thoughts,| visited Young, and was still more captivated by his conversation.
During the latter years of his life, he is said to have fallen too much under the dominion of his housekeeper, Mrs Hallowes, the widow of a clergyman, who is reported to have ruled him with a rod of iron. Ere his death he revised his printed works, and gave charges in his will that all his MSS. should be burned. He applied, when past eighty, to Archbishop Secker for promotion, and was appointed Clerk of the Closet to the Princess-Dowager of Wales. In April 1765, at the age of eighty-four, he breathed his last. He had been previously unable to perform duty for three or four years, but retained his faculties to the last. He left his property principally to his son, who was found by Johnson and Boswell, in 1781, residing at Welwyn, and cherishing the memory of his father.
Young was unquestionably a neglected man. Out of all sight the greatest genius then connected with the ministry of the Church of England, he never mounted one step higher than the rectorship his own college had conferred on him. Many reasons have been assigned for this. Some say that it was because he had attached himself to the side of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and had preached an obnoxious sermon at St James's; others, that it was because he had received a pension through Sir Robert Walpole. We think that the real cause lay in the vulgar and senseless prejudice which prevailed then, and in some measure prevails still, against a literary divine, as if he were a hybrid, or |centaur, not fabulous.| Let us not blame that age so long as we remember the burning shame reflected on ours by the fact that the gifted and high-charactered author of Salathiel, and Paris in 1815, is still only the rector of St Stephen's, Walbrook, while many younger men, who in comparison with him are of little mark, have reached the episcopal bench. Probably Young felt himself consoled for his bad success, by the knowledge that his name and great poem had travelled to foreign lands, and that Madame Klopstock was wondering -- good, simple soul! -- that her husband's idol and her own, had not been made Archbishop of Canterbury.
Very little beyond what we have mentioned has been left on record about his private habits and manners. It was his custom, when well pleased with a passage in the course of his reading, to double down the leaf -- when particularly gratified, to mark it by two folds; and some favourite works, such as The Rambler, had so many of these marks of approbation that they would not shut. On one occasion, in replying to Tonson and Lintot, who were both candidates for printing one of his works, he misdirected the letters; and when Lintot opened his, he found it begun -- |Bernard Lintot is so great a scoundrel,| &c. Young was proverbial for absence of mind, and sometimes forgot whether he had dined or not. Yet in Welwyn his mode of life was rather systematic. He rose early, made his domestics join him in morning prayer, read little, ate and drank moderately, walked much in his churchyard, and, in general, retired to rest punctually at eight evening. His son told Dr Johnson that he was cheerful in company, but gloomy when alone, and that he never fully recovered his spirits after his wife's death. Mr Jones, his curate, has confirmed this statement, although the gossipping and heartless tone of his letters about such a man cannot be too strongly condemned. Young was subject to fits of inspiration, which stupid people confounded with madness. At times his poetry rushed upon him like a whirlwind, and caught him up
|Like swift Ezekiel, by his lock of hair| --
and when he came down he seemed weak, panting, and powerless. Mrs Boscawen and others describe his conversation as still more remarkable than his writings, although occasionally disfigured by conceits and bad puns.
We come now to speak of his genius, especially as manifested in the |Night Thoughts.| The subject of this wonderful strain was one which, in its novelty, dignity, and depth, challenged the very highest exercise of the very highest faculties; and had Young risen to the full height of his great argument, he had become the greatest of all poets. This we by no means affirm he did; but we do assert, that many of the aspects of his magnificent theme have been fully and eloquently expressed by him, and that some of his passages are unsurpassed in the language of men.
The poem demands a brief critical consideration as to its season, its argument, its imagery, its style, its versification, its comparative place and merit, and, lastly, the genius of its author. First, of its season -- the Night -- and the use to which he turns it. Night had never before found a worthy laureate. Its profound silence, as if it were listening to catch the accents of some supernal voice -- the shadowy grandeur and mysterious newness it gives to objects on the earth -- the divine hues into which its moon discolours all things -- the deep sleep which then falleth upon men, and changes the world into one hushed grave -- the supernatural shapes and mystic sounds which have been supposed to walk in its darkness, or to echo through its depths -- the voices scarce less solemn, which often break its silence, of howling winds, and wailing rivers, and shrieking tempests, and groaning thunders, and the wild cries of human misery and despair -- and last and highest, its withdrawal of the bright mist and mantle of day from the starry universe, and the pomp with which it unrols and exhibits its |great map| of suns and systems -- its silvery satellites -- its meek planets, each shining in its own degree of reflected splendour -- its oceans of original and ever-burning fire called suns -- its comets, those serpents of the sky, trailing their vast volumes of deadly glory through the shuddering system -- its fantastic and magnificent shapes and collocations of stars, the constellations -- its firmaments rising above firmaments, like rounds in a ladder, at the top of which is the throne of God -- and those two awful arms into which its Milky Way diverges, and which seem uplifted to heaven in silent prayer, or in some deep and dread protest, -- all these elements of interest and grandeur had existed from the beginning of the world in Night, and yet had never, till Young arose, awakened any consecutive and lofty strain of poetic adoration. Many beautiful and many sublime sentiments had been uttered by poets about particular features of Night, but there had been no attempt to represent it as a whole. There were many single thoughts, but no large and sounding Hymn. The views of the Pagan poets about astronomy were, of course, warped by the absurd systems of their day; and this served to damp their fire, and to render their poetic tributes rather fantastic than truly powerful. Even Dante and Milton are somewhat embarrassed by the Ptolemaic system, although it proves the strength of their genius that they have extracted so much poetry from it. But before Young arose,
|Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be, and all was light;|
and he has set the Newtonian system to his own martial music.
We are far from contending that Young has exhausted the poetry of the theme. Since his time the telescopes of Herschell and Lord Rosse have been turned to the skies, and have greatly extended the size and splendour of that vast midnight Apparition -- the starry scheme. Our recent poets have availed themselves of these discoveries, as witness the eloquent rhapsodies about the stars by Bailey, A. Smith, and Bigg. And there is even yet room for another great poem on the subject, entitled |Night,| were the author come. But Young deserves praise for the following things: --
1st, He has nobly sung the magnitude and unutterable glory of the starry hosts. His soul kindles, triumphs, exults under the midnight canopy. As the Tartar horse when led forth from his stable to the free steppes and free firmament of the desert, bounds, prances, and caracoles for joy, so does Young, in the last part of his poem. Escaped from dark and mournful contemplations on Man, Death, Infidelity, and Earth's |melancholy map,| he sees the stars like bright milestones on the way to heaven, and his spirit is glad within him, and tumultuous is the grandeur, and fierce and rapid the torrent, of his song.
2dly, He has brought out, better than any other poet, the religion of the stars. |Night,| says Isaac Taylor, |has three daughters, Atheism, Superstition, and Religion.| Following out this fine thought, we see Atheism looking up with impudent eye, brazen brow, and naked figure, to the midnight sky, as if it were only a huge toy-shop of glittering gew-gaws; Superstition shrouding herself in a black mantle, and falling down prostrate and trembling before these innumerable fires, as if they were the eyes of an infinite enemy; while Religion turns aloft her humble, yet fearless form, her tear-trembling yet radiant visage, and murmurs, |My Father made them all.| Young, we need scarcely say, finds in the nocturnal heavens lessons neither of Atheism nor of Superstition, but of Religion, and reads in the face of Old Night her divine origin, the witness she bears to the existence of God, her dependence upon her Author, and her subordination to His purposes. He had magnified, as Newton himself could not so eloquently have done, the extent of the universe; and yet his loyalty to Scripture compels him to intimate that this system, so far from being God, or infinite, or, strictly speaking, Divine, is to perish and pass away. One look from the angry Judge, one uplifting of His rod, and its voluminous waves of glory, like another Red Sea, are to be dried up, that the people of God may pass through and enter on the land of the real Immortality, the |inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that shall never fade away.| We refer our readers to that most eloquent picture, near the beginning of the Ninth Night, of the Last Day. We once heard a lecturer on chemistry close a superb description of the material universe, with the words, |And it is to shine on for ever.| We thought of the words of Peter, |All these things shall be dissolved.| And then we fancied an invisible animalcule inhabiting one of the mountain peaks of a furnace, looking abroad from one of its surging spires, and saying, |This wondrous blaze is to burn for ever,| and yet, ere a few hours have passed, the flame is sunk in ashes, and the animalcule is gone. So the Heavens shall pass away with a great noise. They shall perish, but Thou God remainest; nay, thou Man, too, art destined to survive this splendid nursery, and to enter on new Heavens and a new Earth!
The argument of the |Night Thoughts| may be stated in general to be as follows: -- It is to shew the vanity of man as mortal; to inculcate the lowness, misery, and madness of the sensual life; to prove the superiority of the Christian to the man of the world, both in life and in death, and the worthlessness of merely human friendship; to argue, from nature and reason, the truth of man's immortality; to shew the reasonableness of religion, and to inculcate the necessity of a divine revelation, and of a propitiatory sacrifice. That this argument is always steadily pursued, or logically pled, we do not pretend. It has its flaws; -- we particularly demur to many of its proofs of the immortality of the soul, which seem to us very feeble and unsatisfactory; but, taking it as a whole, it is unanswerable and overwhelming. Its links are of red-hot iron; its appeals to the conscience are irresistible; and he who can read it with indifference, or rise from it unimpressed and unawed, must be either something worse or something less than man. It needs not to be surrounded by panegyrics. Convinced, purified, elevated, saved Souls, are the gems in its crown. We are inclined to believe that, in this aspect, the |Night Thoughts| has effected more practical good than the |Paradise Lost.| The latter is a splendid picture; the former a searching, powerful sermon. Now, although pictures with a strong moral contained in them have often done much good, they want the point, emphasis, and effect of great sermons. You may gaze long enough at Milton with no feeling besides admiration of his genius; but in every page Young is grappling with your conscience, and saying, |Don't look at me, but look to yourself.| Foster, one of the greatest of our practical reasoners on religion, has been much indebted to Young, whom he resembled also in the sombre grandeur of his genius.
Young's imagery is distinguished by its richness, originality, and exceeding boldness. It was verily a new thing in that timid and conventional age. Like the imagery of all highest poets, it is selected alike from low and from lofty objects, from the gay and the gloomy, from stars and dunghills. His mind moves along through the poem like a great wheel, now descending and now ascending, easy to criticise, but impossible to resist. You may question the taste of many of his figures, such as that of the Sun --
|Rude drunkard, rising rosy from the main;|
or when he speaks of God as the |Great Philanthropist;| or calls the moon |the Portland of the skies;| but you always feel yourself in contact with a new, native, overflowing mind -- with a mind which has read nature through man, and man through nature. There is to Young's genius nothing common or unclean in the material universe. All points up to God, and looks round significantly to man. His imagination has no limits, and, when he is thoroughly roused, like the war-horse of Job, the |glory of his nostrils is terrible;| it is the fury of power, the revel of conscious wealth, the |prancing of a mighty one;| not the dance of mere fancy, but the earnestness and energy of one treading a winepress alone. In proof of this, we appeal to his splendid passages on the miserable state of Man, on Dreams, on Procrastination, to one half of his defence of Immortality, and to the whole of his descant on the Stars. This every one feels is power -- barbarous power, if you will -- savage, mismanaged power, if you please to call it so; but power that moves, agitates, overwhelms, hurries you away like an infant on the stream of a cataract.
His diction is, on the whole, a worthy medium to his thought. It has been somewhat spoiled by intimacy with Pope's writings, and is often vitiated with antithesis, an excess in which was the mode of the day. Now and then, too, he is coarse and violent, to vulgarity, in his expressions. But whenever he forgets Pope, and remembers Milton -- or, still more, when he becomes swallowed up in the magnitude of his theme -- his language is easy, powerful, and magnificent. It never, as Mitford asserts, is unsupported by a |corresponding grandeur of thought.| There is more thought in Young's poem -- more sharp, clear, original reflection -- more of that matter which leaves stings behind it -- more moral sublimity -- than in any poem which has appeared since in Britain. Mitford says, that |every image is amplified to the utmost.| Some images unquestionably are; but amplification is not a prevailing vice of Young's style -- it is, indeed, inconsistent with that pointed intensity which is his general manner; and how comes it, if he be a diffuse and wordy writer, that his pages literally sparkle with maxims, and that, next perhaps to Shakspeare, no poet has been so often quoted? What the same writer means by Young |fatiguing the reader's mind,| we can understand; since it is fatiguing to look long at the sun, or to follow the grand parabola of the eagle's flight; but how he should |dissatisfy| the mind of any intelligent and candid reader, is to us extraordinary. It is not true that the work has |a uniformity of subject.| Its tone is rather uniform, but its subjects are as varied as they are important. They are -- Man -- the
World -- Ambition -- Pleasure -- Infidelity -- Immortality -- Death -- Judgment -- He aven -- Hell -- the Stars -- Eternity. Mr Mitford compares Young to Seneca; as if a cold collector of stiff maxims, and a poet whose wisdom was set in enthusiasm as in a ring of fire, were proper subjects of comparison. And it is strange how he should introduce the name of Cicero, as if he were not that very master of amplification, and of over-copiousness of expression, which Mitford imagines Young to be! |No selection -- no discreet and graceful reservation -- no experienced taste!| -- in other words, he was not Pope or Campbell, but Edward Young -- not a middle-sized, neat, and well-dressed citizen, but a hirsute giant -- not an elegant parterre, but an American forest, bowing only to the old Tempests, and offering up a holocaust of native wealth and glory, not to Man, but to God.
His versification is a more vulnerable point. We grant at once that it is, as a whole, rugged and imperfect, and that, while his single lines are often exceedingly melodious, he rarely reaches, any more than Pope or Johnson, those long and linked swells of sound --
|Floating, mingling, interweaving,
Rising, sinking, and receiving
Each from each, while each is giving
On to each, and each relieving
Each, the pails of gold, the living
Current through the air is heaving| --
which Goëthe has so beautifully, although unintentionally, described in these words, applied by him to the elements of Nature; and which he and Milton, and Spenser, and Coleridge, and Shelley, have so admirably exemplified in their verse. Young's style is too broken and sententious to permit the miracles of melody which are found in some of our poets. Yet he has a few passages which approach even to this high standard. Take the following: --
|Look nature through, 'tis revolution all;
All change, no death. Day follows night, and night
The dying day; stars rise and set and rise;
Earth takes th' example. See the summer gay,
With her green chaplet, and ambrosial flowers,
Droops into pallid autumn; winter gray,
Horrid with frost, and turbulent with storm,
Blows autumn, and his golden fruits away;
Then melts into the spring. Soft spring, with breath
Favonian, from warm chambers of the south,
Recalls the first.|
Or take the well-known burst which closes the First Night: --
|The sprightly lark's shrill matin wakes the morn;
Grief's sharpest thorn hard pressing on my breast,
I strive, with wakeful melody, to cheer
The sullen gloom, sweet Philomel! like thee,
And call the stars to listen: every star
Is deaf to mine, enamour'd of thy lay.
Yet be not vain; there are, who thine excel,
And charm through distant ages: wrapt in shade,
Prisoner of darkness! to the silent hours
How often I repeat their rage divine,
To lull my griefs, and steal my heart from woe!
I roll their raptures, but not catch their fire,
Dark, though not blind, like thee, Mæonides!
Or his, who made Mæonides our own.
Man, too, he sung; immortal man I sing;
Oft bursts my song beyond the bounds of life;
What, now, but immortality, can please?
O had he press'd his theme, pursued the track
Which opens out of darkness into day!
O had he, mounted on his wing of fire,
Soar'd where I sink, and sung immortal man!
How had it bless'd mankind, and rescued me!|
The reader will notice how, in this noble passage, the individual sentences and points are all subordinated to the main purpose of the poet, and being subjected to the general stress of the strain, do not detract from, but add to, its musical unity.
The comparative place of the poem, and the genius of the writer, are two subjects which are closely connected, and indeed slide into each other. The |Night Thoughts| must not be named, in interest, finish, sustained sublimity, and artistic completeness, with the |Iliad,| the |Divina Commedia,| or the |Paradise Lost.| It ranks, however, at the top of such a high class of poems as Cowper's Poems, Thomson's |Seasons,| Byron's Poems, Blair's |Grave,| Pollock's |Course of Time,| and a few others not very often criticised now-a-days. Young, however, seems to us to have been capable of even higher things than he has effected in his works. He was one of those prolific, fiery, inexhaustible souls, who never seem nearing a limit, or dreaming of a shallow in their genius; who, often stumbling over precipices or precipitated into pools, rise stronger, and rush on faster, from their misadventures; who, sometimes stopping too long to moralise on fungi and ant-hillocks, are all the better breathed to career through endless forests, and to take Alps and Andes at a flying leap; and who are
|Ne'er so sure our pleasure to create,
As when they tread the brink of all we hate.|
His taste was not equal certainly to his other faculties, and he was guilty of occasional extravagances, and stumbled not unfrequently over the brink of the bathos; but his genius possessed the following qualities: -- It was original. He had read much, but he copies little, and never slavishly. His mind looks at everything -- at skulls and stars -- through a medium of its own. It was subtle as well as native and strong, and in its movements it is broadly based on a vigorous intellect. It was progressive and prophetic in its spirit, and many of our recent speculations or semi-speculations on the relations of man and nature, are to be found in Young -- ay, in the mere spray his mind threw off on its way to an ulterior result. Think of this, for instance, and then remember a similar expression in Carlyle: --
|Man's grief is but his grandeur in disguise;
And discontent is immortality.|
Finally, his genius, with all its compass and daring, was reverent and religious. He gloried in the universe; he swam, as it were, and circled like a strong swimmer, in that starry sea; but he bent before the Cross, and, instead of looking up, looked down, and cried out, |God be merciful to me a sinner.|
We commend his masterpiece to readers, partly, indeed, for its power, -- a power that has hitherto rather been felt than acknowledged, rather admired in silence than analysed; but principally because, like |The Temple| of Herbert, it is holy ground. The author, amid his elaborate ingenuities, and wilful though minor perversities, never ceases to love and to honour truth; in pursuit of renown, he is never afraid to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; and if his flights of fancy be at times too wild, and if his thoughts be often set to the tune of the tempest, it is a tempest on whose wings, to use his own simple but immortal words, |The Lord is abroad.|