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In his prosody, as might be expected from his long experience with the couplet, Young departs widely from Milton's usage. Instead of sweeping his readers along with the "long-commingling diapason" of Paradise Lost, he jolts them over series of exclamations and ejaculations. On a page of thirty-four lines, only five or six on an average are run-over, and in some cases only two or three; usually not more than seven lines end even with commas, the remaining twenty-two being cut off from their fellows by semicolons, colons, periods, or marks of exclamation or interrogation. The Night Thoughts is overpunctuated, to be sure; some of its points might be dispensed with and commas substituted for fully a third of the rest, to the clarification of its meaning and the elimination of part of its jerkiness. Yet the punctuation is not altogether to blame; for on the first pages that I open to very few of the full stops (periods and question- or exclamation-marks), with which exactly half the lines end, could be omitted or changed so as to let the sense run over. One feature of Milton's prosody Young did adopt, - the extensive use of those strong pauses within the line which were anathema to the Augustans, and to Young himself so long as he wrote in rime. Yet, as these pauses usually occur near the middle of the line, where (as in the couplets of the day) most of his cesuras fall, and as his lines are usually not run-over, the effect of his prosody is rarely Miltonic.
What determined his versification was not the desire for flow, for beauty or variety of rhythm, but his staccato style and his penchant for aphorisms. The Night Thoughts is unusually quotable, and for nearly a century its gnomic lines were in everybody's mouth:
Tir'd Nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep.
All men think all men mortal, but themselves.
A man of pleasure is a man of pains.2
In thus transferring to blank verse the epigrammatic terseness of the couplet, Young was making more of an innovation than is commonly
1 Instances of these strong internal pauses, which often make a separate sentence of each half-line, will be found on page 151 above. The Monthly Review (1776, liv. 309) declared that in point of versification the Night Thoughts was "more faulty than any other composition of acknowledged merit in the class of English poetry."
2 Pages 1, 13, 14, 33, 54, 83, 107, 206.
realized; for, from the very nature of Milton's prosody and the character of his epic, there are few quotable lines in Paradise Lost, and the same is true of Cyder, The Seasons, and the other unrimed poems of the period. Now quotability, always an asset, was a real step forward at a time when readers had been trained by Augustan poetry to expect it; and writers of blank verse were not slow in taking the hint. Even the conversational Cowper (who likewise had a long preliminary training in rime) introduced many sententious lines into The Task. But it is not through quotability alone that Young helped to bring the couplet and blank verse closer together. His more direct style, his short sentences, his strong medial cesuras and end-stopped lines, his freedom from the elaborate Miltonic involutions and inversions, his very defects, it should be noticed, were all away from Milton and towards Pope. Little as we may like these features of the Night Thoughts, they were of service in the development of blank verse. The task of the eighteenth century was to hammer down Milton's style, which, like Lucifer's shield, was of "ethereal temper, massy, large, and round," into something less glorious but more usable, something better adapted to human nature's daily needs. In this cause no one did more than Young.
For the vogue of the Night Thoughts was tremendous. At least thirty-four editions, published either separately or in Young's works, appeared in the second half of the eighteenth century, and the poem made something of a sensation when translated into French (Robespierre is said to have carried a copy in his pocket during the Revolution), besides having a triumphal progress through Germany.1 Dr. Johnson, who preferred Young's description of night to either Shakespeare's or Dryden's, agreed that the Night Thoughts was "one of the few poems in which blank verse could not be changed for rhyme but with disadvantage." 2 Burke committed many passages of it to memory, and even the fastidious Horace Walpole thought that in the author's "most frantic rhapsodies" there were "innumerable fine things." 4
What heav'n-born Seraph gave thy Muse its fire?
queried one bard; 5 another declared,
1 See Thomas's Young, p. 539; and J. L. Kind's Young in Germany (N. Y., 1906). 2 "Young," in Lives (ed. Hill), iii. 395; Boswell's Johnson (ed. Hill), iv. 42–3, n. 7 (and cf. v. 269-70); cf. also Mrs. Piozzi's Anecdotes (1786), 58–9.
* Moulton's Library of Literary Criticism, iii. 489.
♦ Letter to the Earl of Strafford, July 5, 1757.
' C. Graham, in Univ. Mag. (1785), lxxvii. 98; cf. William Thompson's Sickness, iii. 412-16.
The starry host put back the dawn,
and many shared this admiration who were unable to express it, devout souls like Bowles's mother, who revered the Night Thoughts "next to God's own Word."2 Considerable evidence could, in truth, be adduced in support of Samuel J. Pratt's assertion that "no composition can . . . boast a greater number of readers." Numerous readers implied some imitators, and these Young had. Even before the last books of the poem had been published, other Night Thoughts, Day Thoughts, and pieces "after the manner of Dr. Young" or "in imitation of" him or "occasioned by" his work were being composed. Most of his followers, to be sure, did not acknowledge their indebtedness so frankly as this, but writers continued even into the nineteenth century to copy the poem or to be influenced by it.
1 James Grainger, Solitude, in “Dodsley's Miscellany," 1755, iv. 235. Bowles, Banwell Hill, ii. 80-89.
These pieces that are patterned more or less after the Night Thoughts do not sound particularly Miltonic, as, for that matter, their original usually does not. Yet Young was far more influenced by Paradise Lost than were most of the men who wrote verse like his, for he had more to unlearn. The author of Conjectures on Original Composition was hardly the man to copy any one. Had he not asserted as early as 1730, "No Man can be like Pindar, by imitating any of his particular Works; any more than like Raphael, by copying the Chartoons. The Genius and Spirit of such great Men must be collected from the whole; and when thus we are possess'd of it, we must exert its Energy in Subjects and Designs of our own. . . . Nothing so unlike as a Close Copy, and a Noble Original"?
3 Observations on the Night Thoughts (1776), quoted in Crit. Rev. xli. 65. "He was indeed a favourite author from my childhood," Pratt said of Young (ib.); and Samuel Rogers, who was born in 1763, remarked, "In my youthful days Young's Night-Thoughts was a very favourite book, especially with ladies" (Table-Talk, ed. Dyce, 1856, p. 35).
* See Bibl. I, 1745 (Davies), 1752 (anon.), 1753 n., 1754 n., 1755 (anon.), 1757–64, 1760 (Newcomb), 1765 ("T. L." and Letchworth), 1775 (anon.), 1791 (Philpot). Two of these are curious, — a stupid blank-verse rendering of James Hervey's prose Meditations and Contemplations, and a "poetical version" of one of Young's prose "moral contemplations" (cf. above, p. 111, n. 2). James Foot (Penseroso, 1771, preface) says that he used blank verse because Young and "most of the celebrated writers of the present times" used it. Young is cleverly parodied by William Whitehead (see Young's Works, 1854 vol. i, pp. lxi-lxii) and by John Kidgell (The Card, 1755, i. 241-2).
• Preface to his Imperium Pelagi.
twenty-nine years later, in his Conjectures, had he not again declared, "It is by a sort of noble contagion, from a general familiarity with their writings, and not by any particular sordid theft, that we can be the better for those who went before us"? We have seen that Young knew Paradise Lost well, and in view of the wide gulf between his early and his late verse there can be little doubt as to the "noble contagion" he caught from it; but the "particular thefts" are so few in comparison with those in the blank verse of his contemporaries (in The Seasons, for example) that he may have been unconscious, or almost unconscious, of them. What Milton did for him was to rouse him, to free him from the shackles of rime, to get him out of the neoclassic rut. Young was wise enough not to slip from one rut into another, not to become a slave to his new guide. The vehicle he hacked out for himself, though perhaps a poor thing, was his own, and it was of no little help to those who came later.
1 Reprint of 1917, p. 49.
THERE were many men in the eighteenth century who knew their Milton as well as our grandmothers knew their Bible, Gray, Thomas Warton, Philips, and perhaps Pope, besides such minor notables, now forgotten, as Jonathan Richardson, Thomas Hollis, Leonard Welsted, and George Hardinge. Yet it is doubtful if any of these men were better acquainted with Milton's writings than was the poet Cowper. His editor, Canon Benham, asserts, "He appears to have known Milton nearly by heart";2 and he himself wrote, "Few people have studied Milton more, or are more familiar with his poetry, than myself." This familiarity, as we learn from The Task, began in his early years:
Then Milton had indeed a poet's charms:
And still admiring, with regret supposed
And of Allegro and Penseroso he said, "I remember being so charmed with [them] when I was a boy that I was never weary of them." It was this early love for Milton, combined with an extraordinary verbal memory, that made him know the poems so well.
1 On the minor writers, see above, pp. 6-7.
2 Globe ed., p. xxv.
3 To Clotworthy Rowley, Oct. 22, 1791.
4 iv. 709-17.
Letter to William Unwin, Jan. 17, 1782.
See, for example, his letter to Unwin, May 1, 1779, "Not having the poem, and not having seen it these twenty years, I had much ado to recollect it"; he then quotes from memory the four stanzas of his Latin translation of Prior's Chloe and Euphelia. Later he tells the same friend (presumably in August, 1786, see Wright's edition of the Correspondence, iii. 89), “I did not indeed read many of Johnson's Classics; those of established reputation are so fresh in my memory, though many years have intervened since I made them my companions, that it was like reading what I read yesterday over again. In a letter to John Newton, Dec. 13, 1784, he recalls Cleopatra's use of "worm for “asp," though he has not read the play "these five-and twenty years."