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How oft I saw her dead, while yet in smiles !
She spoke me comfort, and increas'd my pain.5 Eighteenth-century readers dwelt on, and fondled, a multitude of Young's epigrammatic phrases, till they have become crystallized into household words.
Few now recognize him as the author of honoured axioms with which most of us have been familiar from childhood. None can deny that they are admirable. Speech continues to be full of themif often not his in the thought, assuredly currency of his coinage. My difficulty has been in rejecting. Here are some casual specimens :
Procrastination is the Thief of Time.6
You read with all the malice of a friend.14 Why has a writer possessed of wit, thought, fire, and imagination, forfeited the place in literature which he won, and long kept? It is not as if his language, or even his moral and religious views, though they may have come to be considered in details somewhat strait-laced, were grown antiquated. I would rather explain the collapse by revolutions, in the mode of regarding poetry and poets, and in the impulse to their production. From the birth, or rebirth, of poetry in the sixteenth century until well into the seventeenth, the poet, as distinguished from the dramatist, sang because his fancy made him. Poetry was not the business
of the age, or of the singer. If he had no regular vocation, probably he wrote for the stage. Dryden, followed by Pope, each of them, as it happened, inspired, discovered the use of poetry as a business of life. It became a profession, and, for the most part, a militant profession. The aspirant to the title of poet trained himself to the practice of arms. The cause to be defended or attacked differed with men and circumstances. For Dryden the subject was party politics ; for Pope it was society, or social morals; it was religion for Young. Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan had equally exercised their poetic powers on religious themes ; but how dissimilarly !
Nothing illustrates more forcibly the abyss between the earlier and later ideas of the poetical vocation, than the spirit in which Young and the earlier three religious poets respectively approached the subject. The three handle it as a lover in a transport over a dream of his mistress's eyes or girdle. To Young the composition of Night Thoughts was a Clerical function; the inspiration was the hope of capturing ecclesiastical preferment by sonorous orthodoxy, engineered with courtship of possible patrons, even such as Bubb Dodington. Versifying being his accepted calling, neither he nor his public would think his application of it to advancement in the Church in the least inappropriate. Neither, again, would expect the pen to wait for a spark to descend and kindle emotion.
Our day, as Young's, looks upon versifying as a vocation to be pursued at least as seriously as law or medicine. So far it has accepted, and has developed, the new departure of two centuries and a half since. It attempts to impose no heavy yoke upon the professors of the art, in respect of themes, lawful and unlawful, for the Muse to treat. With delight it follows the technicalities of a criminal trial. It
explores strange countries, and stranger faiths and philosophies. It is willing to be plunged into the mysteries of Heaven and Hell. The one condition it exacts is that poetry shall be making use of the subject matter, and not the subject matter be making use of it.
The requisition does not seem very rigorous ; in fact, it cuts at the root of a large proportion of Georgian verse. For real compliance with it, in order that the thing written shall be poetry, it must be the work of one who versifies because he cannot help himself. A man may write much which is not poetry, and be a poet nevertheless. A composition may contain much which is poetical, yet not be a poet's. The true poet writes because he has a message to deliver to the world, and feels that poetry is the essential, the only fitting, vehicle for it. In the eighteenth century it was not understood that a writer, before acting as a poet, should have felt, and be able to show, he had received a special commission for the purpose. In its darkest days genuine poets doubtless arose and wrote. Neither they nor their age understood the elementary difference between them and a host of others who conceived themselves to be, and were accepted as, poets, chiefly because they had found it convenient to clothe their thoughts in metre.
I do not think that Young had any clear perception of a versifier's need for a commission, or knew whether he possessed one or not. Simply he wrote in verse because he hoped to be more generally audible so—and to a fit congregation for his purpose—than in the pulpit. As I read him I am continually aware of a strong despotic intellect striving, often in vain, to flog the heart into a white heat of passion. But, as with some other writers of verse, his failures perplex me less than episodes of occasional inspiration. Suddenly a gust of pure poetic sensibility will snatch him from self
and from contemplation of the Christian virtues of a Dod.
Hast thou ever weigh'd a sigh,
Life's a debtor to the grave,
What is Hell ?
The Poetical Works of Edward Young (Aldine Edition of the British Poets). Two vols. William Pickering, 1852.
1 The Complaint ; or, Night Thoughts: Night VIII. 2 Ibid., Night IV. Night III.
4 Ibid. 5 Night VI.
6 Night I.
? Ibid. 8 Night IV.
10 Night VI. 11 Night IX.
13 Love of Fame, Sat. ii. 14 Sat. iii.
16 Night V. 17 Night III.
18 Night VIII. 19 Night IX. 20 Ibid.
I ONCE was attacking to Mark Pattison the poetry of the period I will call Hanoverian. After his manner he assented until I began upon the Seasons, when he demurred. He considered that its author wrote with personal knowledge. Thomson I still think stilted and artificial. He prefers pedantic Latinisms—such as amusive, delusive, diffusive, effusive, elusive, prelusive—to racy Saxon. He confounds verbal solecisms with new ideas. His upstrokes are as broad as his downstrokes. Not rarely he is delicate to the verge of comedy, as in Damon's belated respect for the modesty of fair Musidora. Finally, he adopts an air of having studied Nature in books rather than in situ. Nevertheless, his love for her was real. He had, I now fully agree, observed her at first hand, although he hides his familiarity underneath a coating of literary tradition and fashion. He had followed the mowers, as
they rake the green-appearing ground,
And drive the dusky wave along the mead. His own eyes had noted the reluctant approach of the summer night, with faint erroneous ray :
While wavering woods, and villages, and streams,
Uncertain if beheld.2