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 for a hundred years, mistakenly placing him as one of the great poets in the tradition.
The poem is somewhat autobiographical, such facts being embroidered as theology and purpose, and fecund imagination, suggested and demanded. Young’s first wife, Lady Elizabeth Lee, had died in 1740. The daughter of Lady Elizabeth, the Narcissa of the poem, had died earlier, in 1736, and her husband, the Philander of the poem, had died in 1740. The obvious moral lesson to be drawn from the deaths of these people is strengthened by the introduction of a non-autobiographical character named Lorenzo, a “silken son of pleasure,” whose “fond heart dances while the siren sings.”
The nine “Nights” or Books vary little. The subject is the imminence of death, especially of the young, beautiful, and virtuous, and the triumph over it through Christianity. Young had a Puritanical dislike for wealth and debauchery, and a strong feeling about the dignity, nobility, and importance of man.
This poem is remarkably loose and rambling, even for this type of work. Young could not discipline his imagination, as his comments reveal: “My busy mind perpetually suggests new things; my heart knows not how to refrain from pursuing them. The volume grows upon my hands, till its bulk would defeat its end; new rays of thought dart in upon me, which, like cross lights, confound and perplex...
(The entire section is 1167 words.)