Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Edward Young (16811765)
[The author of the Night Thoughts was born at Upham in Hampshire, and died on the 12th of April 1765. The Last Day was published in 1713, and was soon followed by The Force of Religion. Youngs unlucky tendency to flattery and toadyism early showed itself in many small pieces to persons of rank which cannot be said to have been regularly published until long afterwards. In 1719 Busiris, his first tragedy, was performed; and in the same year the Letter to Tickell on the Death of Addison and the Paraphrase of the Book of Job appeared. The Revenge followed in 1721. The satires composing The Universal Passion made their appearance during the course of 1725 and the following three years. In 1728 they were collectively published. Meanwhile the accession of George II had been hailed with the so-called Odes to Ocean, &c. The Brothers, a tragedy, coincided pretty nearly with this. In 1730 appeared the Imperium Pelagi, and two Epistles to Pope. Some more Pindarics followed. The first Night Thought was published in 1742, the last in 1744. Of Youngs remaining works, Resignation, which appeared three years before his death, need alone be mentioned.]
EXCEPT Wordsworth, Young is probably the most unequal of English poets. The difference between his best work and his worst is so great as to be almost unintelligible, and it is fair to him to say that he seems to have been aware of this. When his collected poems were reprinted, a large number were by his express direction left out. Publication however constitutes, as it has been well observed, in one sense an unpardonable sin; and in estimating Young it is necessary to take the Odes and the Imperium Pelagi into consideration as well as the Night Thoughts and the Last Day. Of the class represented by the first-named works it may be said that hardly any worse poetry has ever been written. There is scarcely a stanza of the so-called Odes which does not read like an admirable and intentional burlesque. The author seems by his rhymes to have had no ear at all, and his gross and fulsome flattery is unspeakably nauseous. Of this latter peculiarity indeed even his best work contains but too many instances. The fine passage, soon to be quoted, from the Last Day is disfigured by the insertion in the midst of it of a clumsy and foolish panegyric on Queen Anne, which any one but an eighteenth-century divine would have felt to be not only intrinsically in bad taste, but hopelessly inappropriate to the case.
The depths to which Young sinks at his worst are however compensated by the heights at which at his best he arrives. If poetry and poets could be judged by single lines, there are few save the highest who could safely challenge comparison with Young. He had an astonishing fertility of thought of a certain kind, and a corresponding richness of expression. Nor were his powers confined, as it has been asserted, to the production of gloomy epigram. He stands pre-eminent among artists of blank verse, and a critic might well have asked him, as Jeffrey asked Macaulay, where he got his style from. The earlier eighteenth century is indeed remarkable for its mould of blank verse. Considering that though Young was a much older man than Thomson he did not produce his great work until many years after the appearance of Winter, it may be that The Seasons exercised some influence over him; but the influence was scarcely that of imitation. The different uses to which the two instruments were put may perhaps in some measure account for the difference of their sound. Both have in common the tendency to florid language and to antithesis which the Popian couplet had made popular, both use and indeed abuse the effect of strongly contrasted lights and shades. But Young, probably owing to his dramatic studies, is much more rhetorical than Thomson. Not a few passages in the Night Thoughts, especially that remarkable one in the Third Night about dying friends, where the confusion of metaphors does not obscure the grandeur of the verse, are of the finest tragic mould. It was inevitable that in the hands of a man of such uncritical taste as Young this tragic quality should often degenerate into mere declamation. The inequality indeed which is so characteristic of him exists even in detached passages of very small extent, so that it is difficult if not impossible to select any in which the taste shall not be offended. The Night Thoughts has accordingly long ceased to be the popular book it once was. As a poet of moral ideas however Young will always deserve attention, independently of the excellence of his versification. The famous passage on Procrastination, which, hackneyed as it is, is so decidedly his masterpiece, that it cannot be left out in any selection from his works, is in its way not to be surpassed, and its excellence fully accounts for the popularity of Young in a century such as the eighteenth, which, whatever its practice might be, was, in theory, nothing if not moralist. This popularity, as is pretty generally known, spread to France, where Young long had many fervent admirers, though he is probably to a great extent chargeable with the bad repute of England for spleen. Blakes remarkable illustrations also add considerable interest of the accidental kind to the book. Those of the minor poems which deserve notice at all are not dissimilar in characteristics to the Night Thoughts. The satires have almost as great, though scarcely so original a merit as these latter, and both in the Last Day and the Job fine and striking passages abound.