Young, Edward

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Young, Edward (1683-1765): English Writer.

Edward Young's poetry epitomizes the transition from Pope, Alexander's neoclassicism to the sentimentalism and personal emotions which characterized the literature of the second half of the eighteenth century. The melancholy and morbid atmosphere of Night Thoughts align Young with the poetry of the "Graveyard School" of Gray, Thomas and Robert Blair, but his brand of subjectivity and poetic meditation also foreshadowed Wordsworth's romantic poetry.

After studying at Winchester and Oxford, Young struggled for most of his early life to pursue a career in the Church of England, while he tried his pen at many genres with limited success. His early poetry was mainly eulogistic and occasional, written often with the purpose of finding a patron. His three dramas hardly rose above the mundane level of contemporary heroic tragedy, but The Revenge (1721) became a standard work in the repertoire of London companies. Young gained a better reputation from The Universal Passion (1725-28), also known as The Love of Fame, a satire in six parts on the innately good but potentially corruptible qualities of human nature. In 1724 Young took ecclesiastical orders and in 1728 he was appointed chaplain to George II. Two years later came his appointment as Rector of Welwyn, and in 1731 he married Lady Elizabeth Lee. Young's happiness did not last long, and his stepdaughter, her husband and finally his wife all died between 1736 and 1740.

Paradoxically, the melancholy state engendered in Young by this series of family misfortunes led to the full maturation of his poetical powers. The nine parts of The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742-45), a series of meditative poems, enjoyed immense popularity both in England and abroad, with translations in many languages. Young's initial inspiration came from the sad events of his life, but Night Thoughts draws on more universal themes from Christianity. The poem offers a series of calm and meditative conversations on various themes regarding man's life, the unifying theme of the nine nights being immortality and the lessons to be learnt from death. In his dialogues with Lorenzo, the dissipated youth, the narrator mourns over the deaths of Lucia, Narcissa and Philander, whom, according to most interpretations, are loosely based on Young's wife, his stepdaughter and her husband. The poem is however dominated by Young's belief in the truths of Christian revelation, and particularly by his faith in the immortality of man's soul.

Young's own religious motivations, merging with his personal record of grief and deeply subjective melancholy, gave the poem an air of originality and poignant individuality, which critics have often seen as anticipating Romanticism. Another important contribution towards the formation of a new aesthetics is Conjectures of Original Composition (1759), a treatise in which Young refused the authority of rules in poetry and stressed the superiority of originality over imitation. By using a series of vegetal and organic metaphors to symbolize the original and individual genius and by advocating a closer relationship to nature for poets, Young anticipated the language and the themes of the Romantics and in particular the priority of spontaneity and feeling in poetry emphasized by Wordsworth in his "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads.

Further Reading:

Isabel St. John Bliss, Edward Young, 1969.

C. V. Wicker, Edward Young and the Fear of Death. A Study on Romantic Melancholy, 1952.

Massimiliano Demata

Universita di Bari