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ON THE LIFE AND POETIC GENIUS OF
BETWEEN the period of George Herbert, and that of EDWARD YOUNG, some singular changes had taken place in British poetry as well as in British manners, politics, and religion. There had passed over the land the thunderstorm of the Puritanic Revolt, which had first clouded and then cleared, for a season, the intellectual and moral horizon. The effect of this on poetry was, for such fugitive though felicitous hymns as those of Herbert, to substitute the epic unities and grand choral harmonies of Milton. Then came the Restoration—the Apotheosis of falsehood; including in that term false principles, false politics, and false taste. Britain became the degraded slave of France, at once in laws and in literature. Dryden, indeed, maintained, in some measure, the character and the taste of his nation, but he stood almost alone. To him succeeded Addison and Pope, both gifted but both timid men, whose genius, great as it was, never, or rarely, ventured on original and daring flights, and who seemed always to be haunted by the fear of French criticism. Pope, especially, lent all his influence to confirm and seal the
power of a foreign code of literary laws; and so general and so deep was the submission, that it is to us one of the strongest proofs of Edward Young's genius, that he ventured, in that polished but powerless era, to uplift a native voice of song, and not to uplift it in vain ; for, if he did not absolutely make a revolu
tion, or found a school, he yet established himself, and left his poetry as a glorious precedent to all who should afterwards be so hardy as to “ go and do likewise."
Edward Young was born in June 1681 (according to some, two years earlier), in the village of Upham, Hampshire. His father was rector of the parish, and is represented as a man of great learning and abilities. He was the author of some volumes of sermons, and, on account of their merit, and through the patronage of Lord Bradford, he was appointed chaplain to King William, and Dean of Salisbury. He died in 1705, in the sixty-third year of his age, and Bishop Burnet, the Sunday after his decease, pronounced a glowing panegyric on his character, in a funeral sermon delivered in the Cathedral.
Edward was sent to Winchester School, and thence to Oxford, where he obtained a law fellowship in All-Souls College, and afterwards took successively the degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Civil Law, besides obtaining a fellowship in 1706. When the Codrington Library was founded, he was appointed to deliver the Latin oration. It was published, but met with a frigid reception, being full of conceits and puerilities, and the author wisely omitted it from his collected works. Little else is known of his career at College. He is said to have blended fits of study with frequent dissipation. When he relaxed, it was in the company of the infamous Duke of Wharton, who patronised, corrupted, and laughed at him. When he studied, he would shut his windows, create around him an artificial night, and make it more hideous by piling up skulls, cross-bones, and instruments of death in his room. His talent was then as well known as his eccentricity. Tindal the sceptic bore a striking testimony to this when he said, “ The other boys I can always answer, because I always know where they have their arguments, which I have read a hundred times; but that fellow Young is continually pestering me with something of his own."
He seems to have been nearly thirty ere he began to tune that lyre which was afterwards to thrill with vibrations of song so powerful and melodious. His first choice of a subject was characteristic of the lofty and ambitious tone of his genius: it
was, “ The Last Day.” This poem was written in 1710, although not given to the world till 1713. He had previously, in 1712, published an epistle to Lord Lansdown, which displayed little of his peculiar power, but was at once feeble and pretentious. Young became afterwards heartily ashamed of it. In the same year that “ The Last Day" appeared, he prefixed to Addison's "Cato
copy of verses of no great merit. Shortly after, he issued a poem entitled, “ The Force of Religion; or, Vanquished Love:" it was founded on the story of Lady Jane Grey and her husband, and was ushered in by a flaming dedication to the Countess of Salisbury. On the death of the Queen, in 1714, he published a panegyric in verse on her memory, and inscribed it to Addison. In these days flattery to princes and nobles was a commodity almost essential to poetry—a tawdry court dress which every poet was obliged to put on for the nonce; and not even Dryden has excelled Young in the violent unlikeness and unsparing incense of his adulations. It is satisfactory to remember that, on cool reflection, he cancelled the most of those unworthy effusions; although he continued to the last very much of a courtier, as the dedications to the “Night Thoughts” sufficiently prove. He is supposed about the year 1717 to have visited Ireland in company with Wharton.
In 1719 his tragedy of “ Busiris” appeared on the stage, and had considerable success. He sold the copyright afterwards to B. Lintot, for £84, which, for a first play by an author previously unknown, was thought a large sum. “Busiris” is a play of that solemnly pompous and intensely artificial school, the race of which has been long since gathered to its fathers. It is conceived and written in 'Ercles’ vein; and Nat Lee himself, in his wild ranting plays, has scarcely surpassed the torrents of bombastic nonsense which issue from the lips of Myron. Immediately after “Busiris” he published his Paraphrase on part of the Book of Job, a production scarcely worthy either of Young or of the sublime original. The descriptions in that grandest of all poems, which are so rich and massive as to press almost on the
sense, are more fairly represented in our common prose translation than in the poetical paraphrase of Young. We are far, however, from being opposed, with some critics, to the principle of paraphrasing Scripture. We admire to enthusiasm many of the Scottish paraphrases, some of Byron's and Moore's Hebrew Melodies, and Croly’s Scenes from Scripture; and should like to see all the poetry of the Bible versified by some competent hand.
In 1721 appeared “ The Revenge,” by far the most powerful of his tragedies. Its great fault lies in its likeness to Othello : its great praise is, that, though it imitates and challenges comparison with that Shakspearean masterpiece, it has not been utterly sunk and eclipsed before it. As a play, we think it decidedly second-rate; the plot is not artistically managed, and the means by which jealousy is excited in the mind of Alonzo, are a very poor and shabby copy of those in Shakspeare. Zanga has been called a “ vulgar caricature of Iago ;” he is so in part, perhaps, but Young has abated the vulgarity of the imitation by endowing his hero with a wild and native vein of poetry. Iago is a subtler, colder fiend than Zanga, and indulges more in sneers and in smut than in declamation. Zanga's speeches exhaust the rhetoric of revenge. Iago has nothing but intellect, wit, and malignity. Zanga has an imagination worthy of the hot and lion-peopled land of his birth. Iago, after his detection, sinks into obstinate silence; he stiffens into the statue of a demon, Zanga dies, using lofty imagery.
Indeed, “ The Revenge ” owes all its interest to the flames of poetic genius which burst out at every pore of its otherwise coarse and copied structure. It was dedicated to Wharton, with whom Young continued to be intimate; whom he taught to speak good Latin in the space of six weeks ; and who lent him money to reimburse him for the expenses of an unsuccessful attempt to get into Parliament. This was in 1721; the place was Cirencester. The election, however, was contested, and fortunately, perhaps, both for Young and the world, he was unsuccessful. Had he gained the seat, he had very probably,
Though born for the universe, narrow'd his mind,