Item of the Day: The Complaint; or, Night Thoughts, on Life, Death, and Immortality

Full Title:  The Complaint; or, Night Thoughts, on Life, Death, and Immortality.  By Edward Young, L.L.D. With the Life of the Author.  London:  Printed for Thomas Tegg, 111, Cheapside.  1812.

Memoirs of the Late Dr. Edward Young.

 Edward Young, L.L.D. author of the Night thoughts, and many other excellent pieces, was the only son of Dr. Edward Young, an eminent, learned, and judicious divine, dean of Sarum, fellow of Winchester college, and rector of Upham, in Hampshire. He was born in the year 1684, at Upham; and, after being educated in Winchester college, was chosen on the foundation of New College at Oxford, October 13th, 1703, when he was nineteen years of age; but being superannuated, and there being no vacancy of a fellowship, he removed before the expiration of the year to Corpus Christi, where he entered himself a gentleman commoner.

In 1708, he was put into a law fellowship, at all Souls, by Archbishop Tennison.  Here he took the degree of B.C.L. in 1714, and in 1719, D.C.L.  In this year he published his Tragedy of Busiris:  in 1721, the Revenge; and in 1723, the Brothers: about this time he published his elegant Poem on the Last Day, which being wrote by a Layman, gave the more satisfaction. He soon after published the Force of Religion, or Vanquished Love, a poem, which also gave much pleasure, to most who read it, but, more especially to the noble family for whose entertainment it was principally written.  Some charge the Author with a stiffness of versification in both these poems; but they met with such success as to procure him the particular friendship of several of the nobility, and among the rest the patronage of the Duke of Wharton, which greatly helped him in his finances.  By his Grace’s recommendation, he put up for member of parliament for Cirencester, but did not succeed.  His noble patron honoured him with his company to All souls; and, through his instance and persuasion, was at the expence of erecting a considerable part of the new buildings then carrying on in that college.  The turn of his mind leading him to divinity, he quitted the law, which he had never practised, and taking orders, was appointed chaplain in ordinary to king George II.  April 1728.

In that year he published a Vindication of Providence, in 4to. and soon after his Estimate of Human Life, in the same size, which have gone through several editions in 12mo. and thought by many to be the best of his prose performances.  In 1730, he was presented by his college to the rectory of Welwyn, in Hertfordshire, reputed worth 300l. a year, besides the lordship of the Manor annexed to it.  He was married in 1731, to lady Betty Lee, widow of Colonel Lee, and daughter to the earl of Litchfield, (a lady of an eminent genius and great poetical talents) who brought him a son and heir not long after their marriage.

 About the year 1741, he had the unhappiness to lose his wife, and both her children, which she had by her first husband; a son and a daughter, very promising characters.  They all died within a short time of each other: that he felt greatly for their loss, as well as for that of his lady, may easily be perceived by his fine poem of the Night Thoughts, occasioned by it. This was a species of poetry peculiarly his own, and has been unrivalled by all who have attempted to copy him.  His applause here was deservedly great.   The unhappy Bard, “whose griefs in melting numbers flow, and melancholy joys diffuse around,” has been often sung by the profane as well as pious. They were written, as before observed, under the recent pressure of his sorrow for the loss of his wife, and his daughter and son-in-law; they are addressed to Lorenzo, a man of pleasure, and the world, and who, it is generally supposed, (and very probably) was his own son, then labouring under his father’s displeasure.  His son-in-law is said to be characterised by Philader; and his daughter was certainly the person he speaks of under the appellation of Narcissa:  See Night 3.1.62. In her last illness he accompanied her to Montpelier, in the south of France, where she died soon after her arrival in the city.

After her death it seems she was denied Christian burial, on account of being reckoned a heretic, by the inhabitants of this place; which inhumanity is justly resented in the same beautiful poem:  See Night 3, line 165; in which his wife also is frequently mentioned; and he thus laments the loss of all three in an apostrophe to death:

“Insatiate Archer! could not one suffice?

Thy shaft flew thrice, and thrice my peace was slain

And thrice, ere thrice yon moon had fill’d her horn.”

 He wrote his conjectures on Original Composition, when he was turned of 80; if it has blemishes mixed with its beauties, it is not to be wondered at, when we consider his great age, and the many infirmities which generally attend such an advanced period of life.  However, the many excellent remarks this work abounds with, make it justly esteemed as a brightening before death:  the Resignation, a poem, the last and least esteemed of all Dr. Young’s works, was published a short time before his death, and only served to manifest the taper of genius, which had so long shone with peculiar brightness in him, was now glimmering in the socket.  He died in his parsonage-house, at Welwyn, April 12th 1765, and was buried, according to his own desire, (attended by all the poor of the parish) under the altar-piece of that church, by the side of his wife.  This altar-piece is reckoned one of the most curious in the kingdom, adorned with an elegant piece of needlework by the late lady Betty Young.

 Before the Doctor died, he ordered all his manuscripts to be burnt.  Those that knew how much he expressed in a small compass, and that he never wrote on trivial subjects, will lament both the excess of his modesty (if I may so term it) and the irreparable loss to posterity; especially when it is considered, that he was the intimate acquaintance of Addison, and was himself one of the writers of the Spectator.

In his life-time he published two or three sermons, one of which was preached before the House of Commons.  He left an only son and heir, Mr. Frederick Young, who had the first part of his education at Winchester school, and became a scholar upon the Foundation; was sent, in consequence thereof, to New College in Oxford; but there being no vacancy (though the Society waited for no less than two years) he was admitted in the mean time in Baliol College, where he behaved so imprudently as to be forbidden the College.  This misconduct disobliged his father so much, that he never would suffer him to come to his sight afterwards: however, by his will, he bequeathed to him, after a few legacies, his whole fortune, which was considerable.

As a Christian and a Divine, he might be said to be an example of primeval piety: he gave a remarkable instance of this one Sunday, when preaching in his turn at St. James’s; for, though he strove to gain the attention of his audience, when he found he could not prevail, his pity for their folly got the better of all decorum; he sat back in the pulpit, and burst into a flood of tears.

The turn of his mind was naturally solemn; and he usually, when at home in the country, spent many hours in a day walking among the tombs in his own churchyard.  His conversation, as well as writings, had all a reference to a future life; and this turn of mind mixed itself even with his improvements in gardening: he had, for instance, an alcove, with a bench so well painted in it, that, at a distance, it appeared to be real, but upon nearer approach, the deception was perceived, and this motto appeared,

Invisibilia non decipunt

The things unseen do not deceive us.

It is observed by Dean Swift, that if Dr. Young, in his satires, had  been more merry or severe, they would have been more generally pleasing; because mankind are more apt to be pleased with ill-nature and mirth than with solid sense and instruction.  It is also observed of his “Night Thoughts, that though they are chiefly flights of thinking almost super-human, such as the description of death, from his secret stand, noting down the follies of a Bacchanalian society, the epitaph upon the departed world, and the issuing of Satan from his dungeon; yet these, and a great number of other remarkable fine thoughts, are sometimes overcast with an air of gloominess and melancholy, which have a disagreeable tendency, and must be unpleasing to a cheerful mind; however, it must be acknowledged by all, that they evidence a singular genius, a lively fancy, an extensive knowledge of men and things, especially of the feelings of the human heart, and paint, in the strongest colours, the vanity of life, with all its fading honours and emoluments, the benefits of true piety, especially in the views of death, and the most unanswerable arguments, in support of the soul’s immortality and a future state.

G.W.

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Filed under 1700's, Culture, Poetry, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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