Edward Young 1683–1765
English poet, essayist, and dramatist.
The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Young's relationship to Preromanticism. For further information on Young, see LC, Vol. 3.
Young's reputation and influence as a poet rest largely on his long poem The Complaint; or, Night Thoughts (1742) and his essay Conjectures on Original Composition (1759). Both were quite popular in the eighteenth century and tended to evoke or anticipate many themes—melancholy, subjective expression, an interest in the sublime, a rejection of classical forms, and the celebration of individual genius—which were to become central concerns of the Romantic movement. For these reasons, Young is seen as an important bridge between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, and even by some, as a very early Romantic.
Young was born in Hampshire to the rector of Upham and his wife. He attended New College and Corpus Christi at Oxford University and subsequently was awarded a law fellowship at All Souls College. In 1719 Young earned a doctorate in Civil Laws, but apparently had little interest in pursuing a career in his field of study. Meanwhile he had begun his literary career, publishing his first poem, "An Epistle to the Rt. Hon. George Lord Lansdowne," in 1713. A man of high ambition and many interests outside literature and law, Young was plagued by career disappointments throughout his life. He failed in his bid for a seat in Parliament and was similarly frustrated in the clerical career he embarked upon after taking Holy Orders in 1728; although he was soon appointed a royal chaplain, he never felt that the recognition he achieved equaled his true merits. Young's ambition was particularly evident in his literary career and most of his early poems are dedicated to people of wealth and influence. He did enjoy sporadic patronage and encouragement, most notably from Philip, Duke of Wharton, but never to the extent he felt was his due, and even his popular successes, especially his long poem Night Thoughts, did not alleviate his sense of disappointment. Some commentators have contended that these failures and frustrations contribute to the melancholy tone of most of his writing. In 1731 Young married Lady Elizabeth Lee, the widowed daughter of the Earl of Lichfield, and they had one son. But Young suffered losses in
his personal life as well: within a five-year span in the 1740s, his wife, his step-daughter, and her husband all died. This succession of deaths was one of the motivating factors that prompted him to write Night Thoughts. Critics have disagreed about the extent to which the gloomy and depressed persona of Night Thoughts represents Young himself. Some find elements of hope in his last poem, Resignation, but most contend that Young's last years were lonely and bitter and that he died a profoundly disappointed man.
Like many eighteenth-century authors, Young wrote in a sometimes surprising variety of genres. Night Thoughts, a 10,000 line poem which some critics take to be a response to Pope's Essay on Man, is a soliloquy addressed to Lorenzo, a young profligate whom the narrator seeks to impress with the sorrow of the world and the majesty of God. It is divided into nine parts, each signifying a particular night. In general terms, the first five nights comprise a subjective description of grief, while the remaining four are largely an exercise in Christian apologetics. The work received high acclaim when it was first published, admired as much for its religious and moral principles as for its poetic achievement. The public imagination was captivated by both the poem's implicit autobiographical aspect and the melancholy brooding that inspired and informed Night Thoughts; the poem set the tone of fascination with the macabre employed by subsequent writers of the socalled Graveyard school, including Robert Blair, author of The Grave (1743) and Thomas Gray, author of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751). The fame of Night Thoughts spread quickly to Europe and the poem was translated into numerous languages. Critics from Young's time to the present day have complained that Young's sometimes irregular meters, as well as his rhymes, phrasing, and grammar, are often graceless and awkward. But they have likewise noted his occasional rich use of imagery, and his bent for epigrammatic expression, even if he seemed unable to sustain these talents throughout any given work. The minor objections made to the poem echoed those leveled against Young's work as a whole—redundancy and the occasional awkwardness of expression—but these reservations did not dim the poem's popularity or influence, especially among the Romantics. Young's philosophical and emotional connection to Romanticism is most clear in his essay Conjectures on Original Composition, written in the form of letters to his friend Samuel Richardson. Many consider it an early Romantic manifesto shaped by a mid-century revival of interest in Longinus's On the Sublime. In this essay Young declares his personal tenets of literary criticism, arguing strongly for a reduced reliance on classical formalism and for the freedom of original creativity and individual genius. Arguing against "easy imitation," Young called for the poetic imagination to encompass all of the world, including and especially nature and the supra-natural, and to value the subjective aspect of poetic creation. He also insisted upon" the use of blank verse over rhymed couplets. Many of these themes would later be championed by William Wordsworth in his Lyrical Ballads. Although the Conjectures received a share of popularity in the eighteenth century, particularly in Germany, it is largely in retrospect that the essay's full value as a link between Neoclassicism and Romanticism has been appreciated.
Most of Young's other work has received comparatively little critical attention, and significantly less approbation. Of his early work, little has been deemed of lasting interest. In general, his early poems were damned with faint praise in the eighteenth century; their reception has been even more cool in recent times. More well-received was Young's series of satires. Although pointed and witty, they are generally goodnatured and display little of the biting sarcasm and caustic ill-humor that characterize other satires of the eighteenth century. The satires were quite popular when published and despite some adverse criticism, some modern critics believe their merit approaches that of Night Thoughts or Conjectures. Revealing as they do a humorous side of Young rarely seen in his poetry, they are considered by many commentators to be the most accessible of all Young's work to twentieth-century readers. Young also wrote several dramas, all tragedies, which were fairly popular in their day. His plays, The Revenge (1721), Busiris, King of Egypt (1719), and The Brothers (1753), all share themes of revenge, hatred, and violence. The plays' high melodrama suited the theatrical taste of the day, but as dramatic standards and expectations have changed, the interest of the tragedies has declined and many critics have found Young's themes disturbing. The Centaur Not Fabulous (1755), a diatribe written in the form of letters to a hypothetical friend, is an attack on what Young deemed the loose morals of his day. Though his contemporaries approved the piece, today it is generally derided for its overt moralizing. Young's final poem, Resignation (1761), has been seen by many critics as the poet's last attempt to come to terms with the disappointments in his life and with his fear of death. How far he succeeded in these efforts is debatable; while some believe the poem is the work of a man at last reconciled to fate, others contend that Young's attempt at resignation was a failure and that he remained fundamentally unconvinced by his own arguments.
After a somewhat tepid response to his early literary work, Young achieved considerable popular and even financial success for his poems, satires and dramas. But this high regard did not generally last into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Part of the change in critical perception of Young's work seems to hinge largely on changing critical and cultural tastes. This is especially true of the satires and dramas. In the case of Night Thoughts, while it helped to build Young's reputation as a major poet in his day, the poem's reputation began to falter with changing critical perceptions in the early nineteenth century. Critics began to find the extreme melancholy of Night Thoughts verging on the morbid, and the emotional outpouring of despair, which accounted for so much of the poem's appeal in the eighteenth century, came to be viewed as excessive and affected. The overt didacticism of the poem also came under attack, as did the spiritual validity of its message of hopelessness. Still, Night Thoughts retained its adherents; even those who deplored what was termed its gloomy bad taste and poetic irregularities acknowledged that the poem was original and showed flashes of genius. Twentieth-century critics have had similar complaints about the poem's heavy-handed religious didacticism, affected emotionalism, and morbid preoccupation with death. But modern critics have found the poem to be interesting and valuable, sometimes more for what it aspires to than what it achieves. Ultimately, Young is regarded as a minor poet, though not an unimportant one, since his work anticipated and influenced Romanticism in England and Germany, and his Conjectures remains a valued contribution to the history of literary criticism.
An Epistle to the Rt. Hon. George Lord Lansdowne (poetry) 1713
A Poem on the Last Day (poetry) 1713
The Force of Religion; or, Vanquished Love (poetry) 1714
Busiris, King of Egypt (drama) 1719
A Paraphrase of the Book of Job (poetry) 1719
The Revenge (drama) 1721
*Satire I (satire) 1725
*Satire II (satire) 1725
*Satire III (satire) 1725
*Satire IV (satire) 1725
*Satire the Last (satire) 1726; also published as *Satire VII, 1726
*Satire V (satire) 1727
*Satire VI (satire) 1728
**The Complaint; or Night Thoughts: Night the First: On Life, Death, and Immortality (poetry) 1742
**Night the Second: On Time, Death, and Friendship (poetry) 1742
**Night the Third: Narcissa (poetry) 1742
**Night the Fourth: The Christian Triumph (poetry) 1743
**Night the Fifth: The Relapse (poetry) 1743
**Night the Sixth: The Infidel Reclaimed, Part I (poetry) 1744
**Night the Seventh: The Infidel Reclaimed, Part II (poetry) 1744
**Night the Eighth: Virtue's Apology; or, the Man...
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SOURCE: Observatons on "The Night Thoughts" of Dr. Young with Occasional Remarks on The Beauties of Poetical Composition, Richardson and Urquhart, 1776, 211 p.
[In the following excerpt from his commentary on Young's Night Thoughts, Melmoth discusses the style, imagery, and language of the "Ninth Night"—writing in the form of a letter to his friend Archibald.]
… Night the Ninth, as it is the last, so is it by much the longest of the work, and considered together, not inferior to the former parts. It is chiefly argumentative, and it is not very easy to unite argument and poetry. Poetry certainly has a fairer chance to delight in works of fancy, and argument in matters of fact. The spirit of poetry is imagination and fable; the spirit of argument is Truth, simple, single Truth. Poetry is the product of genius. Argument is the department of judgement. Not but poetical images, like elegant dresses, are often an advantage to the native beauty; and some of our best compositions, I mean our most sacred ones likewise, the Scriptures for instance, owe half their influence, perhaps more, to those sublimities, of language, and poetic simplicity in which the greatest and noblest truths are conveyed. But still, imagination is more immediately natural to the genius of poetry; and in support of this I might quote Shakespear, Milton, and every successful poet ancient and modern, in our language...
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SOURCE: "Life of Young," in The Poetical Works of Edward Young, Little, Brown and Company, 1864, pp. vii-li.
[Here, Mitford comments on Young's satires, Original Composition, and several other works, noting that the Night Thoughts show "fertility of thought and luxuriance of imagination"]
… The Satires of Young were published separately, in folio, under the title of The Universal Passion. The first appeared, in folio, in the year 1725, and the last was finished in the beginning of 1726. The fifth Satire on Woman was not published till 1727, and the sixth not till 1728, when they were all collected and introduced with a preface, in which the author hints that poetry is not favourable to preferment or honors. He acquired, however, the sum of three thousand pounds by these poems; of which Spence, on the authority of Rawlinson, says two thousand was bestowed by the Duke of Grafton, and that when one of his friends exclaimed, "Two thousand pounds for a poem," he said, it was the best bargain he ever made in his life, for the poem was worth four thousand. The satires are inscribed by Young to illustrious names, the Duke of Dorset, Mr. Dodington, Mr. Spencer Compton, and Sir Robert Walpole. His panegyricks did not go unrewarded; for in his poem of Instalment, addressed to the minister, he acknowledges with gratitude that he has received the bounty of the crown.
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SOURCE: Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, Cornell, 1959, 403 p.
[In the following excerpt from her full-length study of the "aesthetics of the infinite" Nicolson discusses eighteenth-century concepts of the sublime and identifies Young as a perfect example of a poet of the sublime.]
… "When you are criticising the philosophy of an epoch," wrote Alfred North Whitehead, "do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicity to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them."37 We shall remember Whitehead's words as we seek the causes of the change in mountain attitudes that began to take place sometime in the late seventeenth century in England. Various fundamental assumptions, accepted for generations, had to be broken down before new attitudes appeared. In 1611 John Donne, lamenting the corruption of microcosm, geocosm, and macrocosm, wrote:
But keeps the earth her round proportion still?
Doth not a Tenarif, or higher Hill
Rise so high like a Rocke, that one might thinke
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SOURCE: Edward Young, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969, pp. 111-48.
[In the following excerpt from her full-length study of Young, Bliss summarizes and analyzes Young's Night Thoughts, and Conjectures on Original Composition.]
The Night Thoughts constitutes Young's greatest achievement; and widely read in England, on the Continent, and in America, it exerted a good deal of influence, was highly admired, and much quoted. While the initial popular reception came in some measure from the familiarity of much of the subject matter and the widespread interest in it, the main interest came from the sense of freshness, newness, and originality and from the feeling of personal immediacy. On the whole, Young's achievement was not in enunciating new doctrines: he was not an original theologian nor philosopher. Well versed in contemporary ideas, he was a poet; and he gave expression to those ideas in a language striking in effective figures and imagery, with a feeling of warmth and ardor.
Unfortunately, the extreme length of the series of nine poems as a whole—a drawback even in its own day—presents a formidable barrier today when "a long poem" is considered "a contradiction in terms." Furthermore, the whole series is not readily accessible, selections in anthologies being almost invariably confined to Night I. But there is no reason to condemn it offhand because it is not of...
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SOURCE: "Young's Night Thoughts and the Tradition of Divine Poetry," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XII, No. 2, Spring, 1971, pp. 3-13.
[Below, Odell explores the ways in which "Young fully adopts the theory of divine poetry inherited from the preceding centuries and modified for the eighteenth century."]
Such prominent characteristics of Young's Night Thoughts as the urge to edify, the constant display of emotion, and the use of a personal, confessional tone are usually discussed in the context of Young's life or of the romantic poetry to come or of both. H. H. Clark, for example, attributes the subjective, personal note to the life and character of Young and to his concept of original genius. He explains Young's emotionalism in terms of a "romantic" aspiration, which is "indefinite and expansive" and leads to "ennui and restless melancholy": Young lacks "true Christian aspiration," which is "focused … on the imitation of Christ as he appears revealed in the Scriptures." Other critics also find the "personal" element in the poem more significant than Young's avowed purpose of answering the optimism of Pope, and their approaches are based on the biography of Young. Thus C. V. Wicker discovers in Young a "new treatment of melancholy … cast in a mold neither traditional nor conventional, but shaped by his own inner broodings," primarily the fear of death. Amy Reed says that unlike...
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SOURCE: "'Paradise Unlost': Edward Young among the Stars," in Between Dream and Nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia, edited by Dominic Baker-Smith and C. C. Barfoot, Rodopi, 1987, pp. 139-71.
[In the following essay Barfoot examines Utopian themes and images in Young's Night Thoughts.]
Moreover, so boundless are the bold excursions of the human mind, that in the vast void beyond real existence, it can call forth shadowy beings, and unknown worlds, as numerous, as bright, and, perhaps, as lasting, as the stars; such quite-original beauties we may call Paradisaical,
Natos sine semine flores. OVID.1
Can one legitimately smuggle Edward Young into a conference (or a book) on Utopia? Well, in one of the more easily available nineteenth-century editions of Young's Night Thoughts (by 1853 the inclusion of the author's name in the abbreviated title seems to have been already traditional), we find the editor, the Rev. George Gilfillan, a friend of De Quincey and Carlyle, proclaiming enthusiastically that "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 …. in the last part of the poem. Escaped from dark and...
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SOURCE: An introducton to Night Thoughts, by Edward Young, edited by Stephen Cornford, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 1-32.
[In the following excerpt Cornford analyzes several themes in, and contexts for, Young's Night Thoughts.]
The Grandeur of my Subject
Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night?
The invocation to 'Night, sable Goddess' at the outset of The Complaint (1.18) is the sign of Young's sublime search for the secret place of God. Darkness, paradoxically 'aiding Intellectual Light' (IX.2411), will facilitate religious and poetic revelation. Biblically and mystically, Young exchanges Pope's 'clear, unchang'd and Universal Light' for Vaughan's 'deep, but dazling darkness' (An Essay on Criticism, 71; 'The Night', 49). He rejects the lucidity and precision of daylight in favour of night's 'mitigated Lustre' (IX.724). Darkness has 'more divinity' than sunlight, because it 'strikes Thought inward' (V.128-9), it encourages virtue (V.138), and it promotes Christian belief: 'By Night an Atheist half-believes a God' (V.176). The poet chants his poem 'beneath the Glimpses of the Moon' (IX.2087), which 'through every distant Age, / Has held a Lamp to Wisdom' (V. 178). It is in the moonlight that Socrates—Young's model of...
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SOURCE: "The Making of a Minor Poet: Edward Young and Literary Taxonomy," in English Studies, Netherlands, Vol. 72, No. 4, August, 1991, pp. 355-67.
[In the following essay Wanko describes critical reception of Young's works and argues that his critical reputation has suffered because of the development of a literary taxonomy into which he does not neatly fit.]
All literary historians recognize the extraordinary success of Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1742-6) and the poem's influence both in England and on the Continent. George Saintsbury, Oliver Elton, George Sherburn, and John Butt each devote several pages of their histories to describing Young's immense popularity during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Yet the space Young occupies in these volumes is often grudgingly allotted. While admitting the poem's importance. Sherburn declares Night Thoughts to be now unreadable. Others deprecate Young more overtly: William Bowman Piper labels Young a 'fallible, a minor poet'; Eric Rothstein indulges his wit at Young's expense; Paul Fussell blames the insincerity of eighteenth-century graveyard poetry on 'performers like Edward Young'.1 From the eighteenth century to the twentieth, Young's reputation has suffered a precipitous decline.
Why did this decline occur? Scholars and critics have not yet adequately addressed this question or the broader...
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SOURCE: "The Direction of Young's Thoughts," in Preromanticism, Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 34-9.
[In the following excerpt from his study of Preromanticism, Brown gives an overview of Young, focusing on his Night Thoughts and locating him in the literary tradition.]
…Nowhere is the musing character of eighteenth-century consciousness more apparent than in Young's Night Thoughts. Young gives us, consequently, the best occasion for considering the direction and purpose of an apparently aimless meander. Though few today would dare to call this poem "captivating," as Percival Stockdale did early in the nineteenth century (Lectures 1: 587), and though Young's writing is relatively free from conventional poetic diction, it would be a mistake to overlook his urbanity. The poem is not a silent meditation, but rather a long monologue addressed to a reprobate named Lorenzo, and Young is careful to vary the pacing, to lighten the tone with ironic sallies, and to intersperse frequent parenthetical asides and self-references, all so as to preserve a conversational feeling. While the poem's theme is the correction of the individual, its standards are social, and its very discursiveness is seen as the best weapon against false pride:
In Contemplation is his proud Resource?
'Tis poor, as proud, by Converse unsustain'd;
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Forster, Harold. Edward Young: The Poet of the Night Thoughts 1683-1765. Alburgh, England: The Erskine Press, 1986, 434 p.
Recent biographical study of Young, drawing on the extensive correspondence of Young first published in 1971.
Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953, 406 p.
A classic overview study of the Romantic critical tradition in the nineteenth century. It includes a discussion of natural genius and Young's Conjectures on Original Composition.
Bliss, Isabel St. John. "Young's Night Thoughts in Relation to Contemporary Christian Apologetics." PMLA XLIX, No. 1 (March 1934): 37-70.
Analysis of Young's major work in the context of eighteenth-century discussions of Christian apologetics.
Clark, Harry Hayden. "The Romanticism of Edward Young." Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters XXIV (1929): 1-46.
Describes and analyzes Young's relationship to the Romantic movement and argues that Young can be considered an early Romantic poet.
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