The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 3. Night Thoughts and its long-enduring popularity
The immense and long enduring popularity of Night Thoughts hardly requires much comment, even now that it has utterly vanished and is never likely to return. This popularity was not, as it has been in some other cases, due to lack of insight on the part of the public that bestowed it; but, as perhaps nearly always happens, it was due to the fact that the merits of the work, in part, at least, were exactly such as that public could best appreciate, and the faults such as it was most disposed to pass over. Night Thoughts is hard reading, nowadays, even for the most catholic lover of poetry; and the rest of Young, even The Universal Passion, is harder. But he must be a very exceptional critic who can do Young justice, either without a complete reading of his poems, or at a first reading only. Two keys, perhaps, are wanted to unlock the cabinet. The first is an easy and wellknown key—the effect of personal disappointment. To this feeling, in various forms, poets are proverbially liable; but it is difficult to remember any poet who shows it so constantly and in such various forms as Young. It is not always very noisy in him: but it shows itself everywhere—in his satire as well as in his preachings and moralisings, in the innumerable passages, whether longer or shorter, of a form of flattery which sometimes carries with it a despairing sense that nothing, or nothing adequate, will, after all, come from the flattered; in the elegies over apparent triumphs such as Addison’s, and apparent failures like that of Swift’s “little Harrison,” who was Young’s intimate friend; last of all, but not least of all, and, perhaps, most pathetically, in the title and the substance alike of his swan-song Resignation. That his disappointment, on the whole, was rather unreasonable is a feeble, as well as a “philistine,” way of dismissing the matter: unreasonable disappointments are apt to be the most, not the least, keenly felt.
But there was something else wrong with Young. Johnson, in one of that great majority of his judgments on which one cannot do better than fall back, pronounced that “with all his defects he was a man of genius and a poet.” He was this; but, of almost all men of genius and almost all poets, he was the most singularly lacking in art; and he seems, to some extent, to have been aware of it, if we may judge from the frequency with which he dismissed his own work as not worth republication. It is quite astonishing how bad an artist Young is; for, whatever its deficiencies in other respects and whatever its limits in the domain of art, the eighteenth century did not usually, according to its lights, make default in questions concerning art. In gross and in detail, Young’s art, even his mere craftsmanship, is absolutely untrustworthy. His rimes are the worst that we have from any English poet, except Mrs. Browning. He constantly ventures, in narrative blank verse, upon the dramatic redundant syllable, which is always a blemish, and sometimes fatal, out of drama. The almost incredible absurdities of Ocean, Imperium Pelagi and other odes come partly from want of taste in selection of stanza, partly from infelicities of phrase which few schoolboys would commit.
In the greater matter (as some hold it) of construction, he is equally weak. He really did precede Pope in certain turns, as well as in a general atmosphere, of satire, which, it may be suspected, is the reason why some not illiterate persons are in the habit of attributing lines and passages in Young to his greater successor. But, in the earlier poet, the inequality, the awkwardness, the verbiage, are still constantly present.