Enjoy We Not Full Scope in What Is Seen?

In the ninth installment of Night Thoughts Edward Young sets out to crown his epic with a thunderous, stirring paean to the glory of God. He goes about executing a grand finale in much the way Beethoven will, a generation later: loudly and at prodigious length, reiterating one central theme with ever greater emphasis. Night Thoughts is marked throughout by frequent and various typographical emphases, but Night IX is positively frenetic. An eye skimming its pages snags ever and anon on exclamations, words italicized or capitalized, words in all caps or small caps. Young would reach out of the page and seize the reader by the lapels if he could.

Still, it is difficult to sustain the fever pitch he intends for anything like the thousands of lines to which he sets himself, and one might be forgiven for asserting that Night IX falls short of that improbable goal. There is a macro-textual structure, a quasi-chiastic sequence of long sweeping gestures built on sustained or recurrent metaphors: loosely, an opening, body, and closing1. But these slow movements are usually all but buried in a quick succession of florid throwaway conceits that stretch for a few lines and are abandoned: Time and Eternity are monarchs meeting at their borders, the Judgement is a play, sufferings are God's taxes. Often it seems like Young is wandering from association to association, all the while urging his bleak dogma, the noxiousness of Earthly existence. Presumably he believes in his message, but he can't save it from its own intrinsic gloominess.

From time to time, though, he does light up with a palpable enthusiasm, when he indulges himself in his most fantastic speculations. The main body of Night IX is built on the conceit of the night sky as a text that demonstrates God's existence and admonishes mortals to understand their place in Creation. But this theme is interrupted, repeatedly, by an irrepressible discursion into the sheer magnitude of Creation, leading to the notion that God might as well have created millions of vast and varied worlds parallel to ours. It's a genuinely bold and experimental thought, and Young is enchanted by its implications, finally imagining interviews with the peoples of distant planets, so much unlike us that "far other Thought, perhaps, [they] think, / Than Man." A tremendous, unfeigned energy animates this material, and it's infectious. The science fiction passages are generally better poetry than the rest of the work.

Of course any such assessment is subjective. At least Young's own interest can be halfway verified by his evident learnedness in the sciences: more than his occasional references to Newton, lines 1226-1230 show that he has read and understood Christiaan Huygens well enough to make passing reference to that astronomer's own (strikingly modern) casual speculations. But in judging some lines to be in some reified way better than others, I can only appeal to the tradition of Longinus himself, who plainly felt that distinguishing between the objective and the subjective was no concern of his.

Exciting as this far-flung excursus is for Young, he is strangely furtive about pursuing it. Not once but several times he pulls back from exploration of his multiple cosmos, first defensively (ll. 1551-1585), then self-reprovingly (ll. 1613-1636, 1851-1875), downplaying this grand passion, only to return to it again as if involuntarily. Does he believe he is serving God well, in imagining these varied worlds? Does God indulge his straying ramble, or is He pleased to have heard the point made? If the former, why so wantonly keep at it anyway? If the latter, why so cagey about it?

Possibly Young wants to get his message across despite an expected human umbrage. Against whose implied criticism is he guarding, then? Well, as a palliative for presumably just those folks who would object to his flights of fancy, he repeatedly pulls back, in the attitude of concession, to a more proper glorification of the visible world, affirmation of it as sufficient grounds for an unstinting rational acceptance of God. Does this tell us anything about who he's reassuring?

Young is writing in a country with a state religion, after all, where prevailing notions of religious tolerance are imperfect at best. Potentially, he has reason to be wary of most figures in power, if not the censure of the Church itself. Moreover much of what he's got to say is shaped by obligatory theology, and this might have something to do with the lesser fervor of many passages in comparison to those driven by Young's own insights.

Does he believe what he's saying, in these moments of rueful contrition? His sheer glee in chasing the broadness of possibility belies it. And he does plead the untainted motive and function of his fancy. But maybe he's just trying to drum up a proper sense of awe in the reader, which he can then transform into a proper respect for the magnitude of the workaday starry sky--waking Lorenzo to a proper degree of wonder, without recourse to the more drastic alarm of a miracle (ll. 1248-1250).

Maybe a better question is this: is God's glory better amplified by exploring its furthest reaches, or by humbly abandoning the effort, leaving Him unknowable? If we were to ask Young this, would he have a certain answer, or is he trying to do both at once?

In lines 1523-1534--early in his contemplation of the scale Creation, just before the first suggestion of other Creations beside--Young is at his most lyrical, his most forceful and effective, as he imagines the endpoint of Creation, God's own grand finale. To this vision he responds with an exhortation fit for Handel, without benefit of any strong typographical emphasis, or even--notably--of metaphor. This is perhaps the most powerful praise of God he manages throughout the work, and in that the poem benefits enormously from his fervor for the speculative. The word "resound," repeating three times in a single line, actually does resound, literally does re-sound, as the gods and the very inanimate world clamors with praise for God. Such warmth persists as long as Young permits himself to take a fair stab at imagining the grandeur of things that might really be just as he says: "Where am I? -- Where is Earth? -- Nay, where art Thou, / O Sun? -- Is the Sun turn'd Recluse?"

An earlier moment of memorably lurid verse, lines 164-187, is different in its subject--a vivid imagining of the Apocalypse--but similar in one crucial respect. Here, too, there is no metaphor. The poet is simply taking his best guess at the details of some staggering vision in which he quite literally believes. He knows he's speculating, and the specifics could be all wrong, but still his guesses are perfectly plausible, and he can feel certain that if the subject (whether the vastness of space or the end of the world) doesn't exactly resemble his predictions, it will at nevertheless be comparably awesome, if not more so. He, the poet, is awestruck by the thing he imagines.

Young's objective is to achieve a Longinian sublimity for all his readers in this finale, and the only times he actually begins to do this are those moments when his verse is driven by the grandiose ideas that he himself actually finds fascinating. And maybe he knows that, and maybe that's why he leaves these passages in, or rather gives himself permission to go on writing them, even when they stray from the orthodox cosmology. Or, to put it a better way: the poetry can become sublime when the poet is actually undergoing his own sublime moment, in a way that a character's (or even autobiographical speaker's) contrived transport cannot effect.

So, he lets these fanciful distractions remain. But he doesn't let them take center stage. The driving force, whether for the sake of popular sentiment or of his own convictions, must inevitably be his dour Christian struggle with all the verifiable aspects of human life. In a way, Night IX seems at times to be the thin veil through which another text that could have been, a luminous (and maybe somewhat shorter) poem given over wholly to fantastic speculation about the grandeur and vastness of God and His works, tries to make itself seen.

But perhaps it couldn't have been sublime if it had been fully revealed.

1Defending this breakdown would be a paper in its own right, and a longer one, but for reference here it is in more detail:
lines 1-26 Opening and invocation
lines 27-134 Insignificance of Earthly life and history
lines 131-366 Vision of the Apocalypse and Judgement
lines 367-512 Self-reproof of speaker for having been an ungrateful Christian
lines 513-539 Evaluation of first eight nights
lines 540-597 Bigger and better invocation to Night
lines 598-619 Rather boastful declaration of intent
lines 620-2020 Discourse on the book of the stars, which is universally available and ought to satisfy Reason of God's existence and nature
lines 1536-1612, 1679-1932 Sub-theme of multiple Creations
lines 1944-2084 Exasperation with an evidently unmoved Lorenzo
lines 2085-2142 I Put a Spell on You
lines 2143-2161 Plea in Philander's name
lines 2162-2194 Giving up on Lorenzo and getting ready for bed
lines 2195-2364 Direct address to God
lines 2365-2434 Satisfied review of epic, ending with another look forward toward Judgement

Written Word