Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 2. Young’s life and literary career

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VII. Young, Collins and Lesser Poets of the Age of Johnson

§ 2. Young’s life and literary career

An extensive notice of biographical data, not generally included in the plan of this History, would be altogether out of place in a collective chapter; but some references of the kind will be found to be occasionally indispensable. Young’s long life, from the time when he entered Winchester in 1695, was exactly divided between residence at school and in three colleges at Oxford (New college, where he missed securing a place on the foundation, Corpus Christi, and, lastly, All Souls, of which he became a lay fellow in 1708) and tenure of the college living of Welwyn, to which, having given up plans of professional and parliamentary life and taken orders, he was presented in 1730. Throughout each of these long periods, he appears (except at the moment of his election at All Souls) as a disappointed man, baffled as to regular promotion at school; wandering from college to college; not, indeed, ever in apparent danger of the jail, but incessantly and fruitlessly courting the patron; an unsuccessful, or but once successful, dramatist; a beaten candidate for parliament; and, in his second stage, perpetually desiderating, but never, in the very slightest measure, receiving, that ecclesiastical promotion which, in some not quite comprehensible way, almost every eighteenth century divine seems to have thought his plain and incontestable right. In both parts of his career, moreover, there can be little doubt that Young suffered from that curious recoil or rebuff for which, perhaps, not enough allowance has been made in meting out praise or blame among the successive literary generations of the eighteenth century. Addison’s administrative, and Prior’s diplomatic, honours were not unmixed blessings to their possessors; but there cannot be any doubt that they made Grub street, or even places much more agreeable and less “fabulous” than Grub street, all the more intolerable to the younger generation.

Before applying the light of this (of course not novel) consideration to Young’s work, let us see what that work (most of it now utterly forgotten) actually was. He began with addresses and odes of various kinds (one on the queen’s death) in the last two years of Anne, and produced the play Busiris, a paraphrase of Job and his Letters to Tickell, in 1719. In 1721 appeared his one famous play The Revenge, and, a little later, in parts (1725–8), the most important work of his younger, but not very young, years, The Universal Passion. During the years 1728 to 1730 were published the amazing pieces called Ocean and Imperium Pelagi, with others. The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, began to appear in 1744, when the author was nearly sixty-two. A third play, The Brothers, followed in 1753: and his last work of importance, Resignation, in 1762.