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Edward Young was born on this day in 1683. “Procrastination is the Thief of Time” etc.

July 3, 2017

220px-Edward_Young_Night-Thoughts_1743

The author of the best-selling long religious poem of the mid eighteenth-century was born on this day in 1683.

His contemporaries found no comparison between the spiritual rhapsodies of Night Thoughts and the hard headed opportunist who seemed more interested in securing professional advancement than in pious speculation.

The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality was published in succeeding “parts” between 1742 and 1745.  It went through many, many editions and did more than any other work to promote the notion that there are things that blank verse can do that rhyming couplets should not.

To be honest, I think I prefer his earlier couplet satires published as – Love of Fame – which might be far better known today, if it weren’t for Alexander Pope.  If we lived in a blessed world where everyone knew Alexander Pope back to front and inside out, then we might be well placed to enjoy Young’s Love of Fame by way of dessert.

Young also wrote a couple of tragedies, including Busiris, set in ancient Egypt, and one of the most hilarious over-statements of the egotistical sublime you’ll ever read.  (Don’t wait for it to be performed again.)

Young’s prose essay Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), addressed to Samuel Richardson, reinforced this belief in the inherent sublimity of blank verse.  It describes and deplores Pope’s translation of Homer as “shackled” by rhyme.  The heroic couplet is, for Young, anything but heroic, but is rather a sort of “old law” that can be dispensed with by those born again in Christ.  Or rather, born again in Miltonic enthusiasm.  Similar sentiments are to be found in the preface to Cowper’s 1791 preface to his own blank verse Homer translation, but I’ve never seen evidence that Cowper ever read Young’s Conjectures – though he certainly knew Night Thoughts.

Yet Young never quite practiced what he preached.  His blank verse remains rather epigrammatic and end-stopped.  He over-uses exclamation marks and little nuggets like “Procrastination is the thief of time” illustrate a tendency to think in terms of individual lines rather than commit to the kind of enjambment that makes Thompson, Akenside, and Cowper more effective blank versifiers.

But above all, Young is someone who fuses theology and aesthetics, and who encourages the errant addressee of the poem “Lorenzo” to commit to Christianity based on a theory of the sublime.  For Young, it is not the letter of Christian teaching that should reclaim the libertine, but rather an aesthetic vindication of the frustrated longings of the infinite human aesthetic imagination.  The obscurity of night allows the imagination to extrapolate better than the precision of day.  Young is the epic poet of the so-called “Graveyard School” consisting really of just Young, Blair, and Gray.  But Young is less interested in bones than he is in expansive prompts and suggestions.

We need to aim at heaven because “we’re better than this”, in other words.  He’s come a long way from original sin.

I should have written this blog a year ago.  But, you know, “procrastination”…

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