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Night Thoughts

Portrait by Phong Bui
Portrait by Phong Bui

It may be that any poem as we read it is only some of the first few spring leaves of the actual poem, whose true unfolding—from deepest root to flower to fruit to recreative seed—is to be found in its proliferating, uttering of itself in us. It grows towards us, becoming itself in all the translations of it, the illustrations made to or from it, the setting of it to song or symphony, the critical essays on it, the misremembered quotations of it, and retroversions of all those things backs towards the ‘original.’

So we’ll never really read Poe until we read him in German and French, and also let resonate as we read and reflect all the Hollywood adaptations, the music, radio plays, critical essays, exam questions, misquotations, scribbled excerpts on love letters sent or received—all of these are the poem. The real poem. We have to understand what a curious, deep, scarcely penetrable thing a poem is, any poem is. We have to observe that in a sense Baudelaire (who translated it) got more out of “The Bells” than did Poe (who wrote it).

We have to understand, then, that the whole poem, the true deep vast poem of the poem, is an energy behind the artifact, an energy which comes to expression and fruition in every translation (however clumsy), adaptation, musical setting, etc.

Which brings us closer to Edward Young.

His Night Thoughts is hardly remembered in the English-speaking world. Students are not much set to study him in Birmingham and Chicago and Bangalore, as they study Spenser or Blake or even John Clare. (In Nagoya they study everything, but that’s another story.)

And the poor beautiful exciting orphan nomad poems that are not taught in school—how many of them will ever be read again? Here and there, in moonlight, under a hedge, half-understood, whispered into a man’s ear : adored. Maybe that’s how poems should live, only that way.

The tragic-comedy of poetry in our time is its utter dependency on the sugar daddy of the university—which supports 90 poets out of 100. That’s good, of course, for the poets (moi aussi), being sustained by the university as in the Middle Ages writers of every kind were sustained by the monasteries. (Anyone with a head for likenesses will have long ago noted that the American university is the thorough inheritor and analogue of the mediaeval monastic institutions, abbeys and priories and friaries and nunneries and charterhouses…) There were then and are now Goliards, of course, disconnected wastrels with a head for a tune, too-educated libertines on the road, for Fun, that shifty goddess whose vagabond votaries worship her by restlessness. Sure, there are still readers, and even scholars and scientists, outside the Academy—but so few. And often embittered, always embattled. But always fun.

The sad part is that the only older poems (pre-slam, pre-Pulitzer, pre-PBS poems) that get read at all are the poems taught in schools. Thank God for the wild nomads who prowl around the hedges of the university, utter outcasts or resident misfits, who read and shout about what they read, and do so outside the sonorous halls of Ac. Because these are the ones who keep alive the tradition of reading unassigned poems, non-canonical works—the hard-to-read mystical prophetic Blake, the real Novalis.

But back to Young, himself a notable victim of institutional neglect—though in his own day (he was born about 1680) no poet was more famous in England, better paid (always wanting more), more highly regarded critically. (He is a sobering lesson to current poet-celebs.)

Neglected as he has been for centuries by the Academy, his work has flourished in other strange, almost magical ways: by the intense and problematic influence Night Thoughts (just that one poem) has wielded in many times and places. The course of that history makes me realize that it often takes centuries for the poem, the essential poem, to appear fully. Millennia maybe. Like those agaves that blossom only once a century, only sometimes do some of the great old poems come to flower, as the Iliad did after a thousand years of neglect flower in the Renaissance, and again in the German Romantic era, and again in our own. And as Gilgamesh has waited three thousand years to flower in our day, when from a bunch of dusty tablets it has turned for us into the central, defining poem of manhood, city, destiny for us—and for no other time between its composition and now.

Of Night Thoughts, then. What they did with Poe, the Europeans also did with Young. He became not a text but an atmosphere, an attitude. They associated him with their own dark crazies, Maldoror and Gaspard de la Nuit and Nerval and Barbey and Novalis and Hoffmann. It is not that the French enjoy Young and we do not. It is that they take him to be an entirely different kind of poet, one who has (as in some unwritten Borges story) written a text utterly different from the one we read, though the denotative meaning is the same.

When they read him, the language doesn’t get in the way of the poem anymore.

The poem is what is found in translation.


When we talk about Young’s Night Thoughts at all, it’s usually because we’ve noticed, somewhere in an album of Blake pictures or a glossy illustration in some text on romanticism or clinical depression or melancholia a sleek, arresting image by William Blake from the surviving series of engravings he did for a deluxe edition of Night Thoughts. Only the pictures prompted by—or it might be truer to say dreamed by—the first four books of the nine book poem in fact survive, of the many hundreds of drawings and engravings Blake made. We read that this picture—say, a vertical naked figure, his ankles in the sky, blows a long, sweet-belled trumpet right into the earsocket of a skeleton who seems to be gladly rousing from its shroud—is an illustration from Night Thoughts. The picture so tellingly, playfully (the trumpeter’s sex is hidden by a coyly but naturally enough raised knee) argues the abrupt and welcome character of the resurrection of the dead, that we perhaps are not required by curiosity to seek out the poem that tries to take on new life through Blake’s image.

If we can find a copy of Night Thoughts—Dover reprinted (only) the four books with Blake’s engravings handsomely enough thirty years ago, and it is that paperback I’m looking at now—we flip through and find the picture, and see that it is on the opening leaf of “Night the Second.” We start reading, and find the opening lines:

“When the cock crew, he wept” – smote by that eye
Which looks on me, on all; that power, who bids
This midnight centinel, with clarion shrill,
Emblem of that which shall awake the dead,
Rouse souls from slumber into thoughts of heaven.

That’s what Young gives. All the rest: naked muscular androgyne sleekly athletically beautiful; an Olympic trumpeter rousing a perky, not the least bit grisly corpse from the neat burial shroud; a trumpet in the sky—all that is Blake.

Or is it? Where is the cockcrow Young wants us to hear, where is the eye, the looking, the slumber, the heaven? All metamorphosed, that single word clarion turning trumpet, and the trumpet—the exact center of the image is the trumpet’s mouthpiece snug in the human mouth— generates for Blake the whole image. In other words, the poem has dreamed itself into and through Blake into another blossom of its meaning.

In other words, for every person who (till now, fortunate reader) has read those opening lines of “Night 2”, ten thousand have seen the Blake picture. In other words, Blake has given birth to Young anew.

In other words: in other words. The whole poem lives in other words.



It is not often that I’ve been asked to review a book published two centuries ago, but here it comes. Jonas Mekas, visiting the publisher of this paper, noticed on Phong Bui’s desk this small calf-bound book: Edward Young: The Complaint; or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality. To which are added The Last Day, A Poem. And A Paraphrase on Part of the Book of Job. (Brookfield, E. Merriam & Co. 1818.) It is a late edition, three quarters of a century after the poem’s first publication (London, 1742). Looking at the pretty little book, and from his own European education and wide reading recognizing the text as one so central to the development of romanticism, the Gothic, the Decadent, and in general the whole psychologizing drift of literature from the 19th Century onward, Jonas proposed that the poem, so little known in America, be reviewed in The Brooklyn Rail, and further suggested the present reviewer to be assigned the task.

To turn to the text itself is indeed to enter the dark. But not the dark we want. Not the dark that the continental romantics found there, full of demon glitter and sardonic images. It is not the great shattering dark of Beddoes or Nerval, or the sinister, ever-moving dark of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Instead we find not the welcome dark of fantasy but the dimness, the funereal gloom of a chilly English church, twilight on a wintry day, some padre droning on and on in a spate of sermon, chastening the skeptic. Glorious rhetoric, but soon we snooze. This priest finds in the coming of death and decay that sort of generalized hope of resurrection that animated so many brilliant poets before him—Herbert, Donne, Crashaw. He proposes his poem as a Consolation—the poem’s proper title, Night Thoughts being an afterthought. He finds in the gloom of death and judgment a fit reason to praise the God of Light. This to us preposterous theodicy, this justification of God and his providence and the pains of existence in a world he created, this is the excitement of the poem, and the basis of its long argument, nine books worth, full of wonderful imagery, rhetorical suasion—but not much that threatens to change our lives.

The poem is written apparently to console, but in fact to instruct. The shadowy figure of Lorenzo, the skeptical and undutiful son, is the person constantly addressed. Unless the reader finds a Lorenzo in herself, the reader is likely to be reading at right angles to the rhetoric of the text—one more reason, perhaps, for the poem’s relative lifelessness. For thousands of lines we observe Lorenzo rebuked for unbelief, for indifference to God and God’s glorious creation.

And this is, after all, the splendid thing about Edward Young. His poem strives against indifference, which is as we know not only the dullest of all sins, but the most sinister, since it is the root of civic crime (think Germany 1933-1945—or perhaps some closer examples) and of personal despair: clinical depression. Young seeks to kindle the excitement of Lorenzo, wake him to moral life by making him contemplate the vastness of misery and the even greater, if somewhat hypothetical, vastness of God’s grandeur in creation. And since he cannot point to that grandeur in actual presence, he can make it present only by rhetoric. To make the unseen vividly present.

Now praise of the inapparent is always good news for poetry (even if the inapparent has as common a signifier as ‘God’), and Young gets a lot from his philosophic certainty— fully Christian, of that faintly Eighteenth Century Deist flavor we still get from “The Spacious Firmament on High” sung in so many churches. His certainty of divine providence is wrapped in, expressed through, his keen awareness of existential misery.

Writing a few generations after Milton’s Paradise Lost (after Milton lost paradise for us), Young avails himself of Milton’s metrical and rhetorical strategies—at times it feels like Milton Lite—but where Milton is grand, severe, prophetic, Young is plausible, conversational even, trying to persuade. Where Milton takes the huge risk of vanishing grammatically or imagistically into hermeticism, the Stygian and demanding marshes of alchemical speculation, Young is always understandable, literate; he stays within himself, as they say, lucid, interesting. He writes so well, so smoothly, as if he were born among immensities, and nothing ever bruised his thought. Long periodic sentences, architectonically suspended verse paragraphs, telling enjambements, sonorous blank verse. Easy to see why he was popular in his day. Not so easy for us to see why he was so influential.

The moment was ripe. In another decade or two, Bishop Hurd would utter his remarkable lectures on medieval culture and literature, ushering in the immense fashion for the ruin, the Gothick. Magic was in the air—Swedenborg was thrilling Europe with lucid accounts of daytime transactions in the spirit world. The dark Satanic mills, factories, were gearing up, though, to darken our skies and make men and women seek their stars inside. You all know the story. Into this world Young’s poem found its way, and there, safe inside a more or less Christian and orthodox argument, lay the shimmering naughtiness of night.

So Young’s poem is the first to hit the big time with this extraordinary agency of moon and melancholy that will go on to haunt literature from Walpole and Radcliffe to, most evidently, the Romantics, then the French decadents, all the way down to triste d’Annunzio and beyond, casting its moony spell on the Russian symbolists, and is still not by any means dead in our day, animating (if that’s not too sturdy a word) our dormitory poetry of midnight misery, the video games of the Goth, Satanic rock, chic Death.

How amazing that a poem we can barely read with continuous pleasure nowadays (nowanights) should have not only seemed interesting but a masterpiece in its time—far eclipsing Milton for many years. Ezra Pound would have detected a nasty rule in all this: Display fashionable content in a safely competent formal vehicle, and you’ve got a hit.

Certainly Young’s audience was ready for it. The grief of a century of civil war and rebellion lay heavily on England’s memory, and the relative peace of recent years, stimulated by the opening of India and the China trade, left the English free to refocus civic demands on providence, sail through gloom into glory, the way the merchants of the East India Company were struggling through the benighted East and expropriating its jewels. The grand colonial gesture, the British Empire in its earliest stages, the era of Hastings and Clive, Young in passages of immense and (perhaps) unconscious brilliance maps onto the galaxy itself, and ends his long poem (through Book Nine) with a panoply of gorgeous guesswork about other stars and other planets and other sentient races under God’s mind—as if yet another ocean full of continents awaiting the explorers of the Hanoverian kings, fleeting like Seraphim through the colonies of the skies.


A poem happens in time, and we call its author the first genius or wastrel who happened to notice it in the psycho-cosm and write it down, having spotted it growing there at the side of the mind.

Casusally, slackly, we think: the poem is the seed or source of its translations, illustrations, critical commentary. Not so. The poem compels those to appear, always seeking to make manifest among humankind the still undisclosed shape of the poem itself. The poem solicits the sensibilities and energies of artist, critic, musician, translator, summons them to attend its four-dimensional apparition.

So many midwives a poem needs.

The inexhaustible beginnings of a Rilke, a Hölderlin, a Keats poem…. after all these years are still not all written down. A poem is a always a, only a, beginning.

October 2005


Robert Kelly


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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