NIGHT THOUGHTS, as it is best known, belongs to the long and rich tradition of Graveyard Poetry which received some of its original impulses or boosts through Sir Richard Steele’s TATLER Number 89 and Milton’s IL PENSEROSO. Steele affirmed that the “proper Delight of Men of Knowledge and Virtue” is “that calm and elegant satisfaction which the vulgar call Melancholy.” Milton had agreed, hailing “divinest Melancholy,” “whose saintly visage” is “O’erlaid with black, staid Wisdom’s hue.” Enough such mortuary poems and prose works existed in the eighteenth century to fill a coffin. The most notable was perhaps Thomas Gray’s ELEGY IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD, written during the years of completion of Young’s masterpiece, with its organ-like roll of gloom and sadness.
All such poems begin in gloom and piety, feed the pose with assumed personal feeling, and subsequently delight in the feeling for its own sake, though ostensibly the purpose is the edification of the soul and spirit.
Edward Young’s NIGHT THOUGHTS was one of the most popular early examples of this school of poetry. His subject was “life, death, and immortality,” as was that of most other such writers. This memento mori, with its near-static concentration on death and dissolution, Young felt to be his masterpiece, and though his reputation was slow in growing, once started as a result of the poem, it continued...
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