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.