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WHÉN a writer has formed a new school, and is found, after the criticisms of half a century, to be still possessed of great reputation, it is important to the cause of literature that the reason of this success should be investigated ; especially when it is neither ascribable to greatness of genius, nor to superiority of taste, nor to the perfection of the art.
A few tragic situations and a few quaint words, with an indescribable, vague, and fantastic use of woods, heaths, winds, spectres, and tempests, account for the celebrity of Shakspeare.
Young, who has nothing of this nature in his works, is indebted, perhaps, for a great portion of his reputation, to the fine picture which he displays at the opening of his chief work, “ The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality.” A minister of the Almighty, an aged father, who has lost his only daughter, wakes in the middle of succeeding nights to moan among the tombs. He associates death with time and eternity, through the only grand medium which man has within himself-I mean sorrow. Such a picture strikes the observer at once, and the effect is durable.
But on advancing a little into these Night Thoughts, when the imagination, roused by the exordium of the poet, has created a world of tears and reveries, you will find no trace of what the author promised at the outset. You behold a man, who torments himself in every way for the purpose of producing tender and melancholy ideas, without arriving at any thing beyond morose philosophy. Young was pursued by the phantom of the world even to the recesses of the dead, and all his declamation upon mortality exhibits a feeling of mortified ambition. There is nothing natural in his sensibility, nothing ideal in his grief. The lyre is always touched with a heavy hand. Young has particularly endeavoured to impart a character of sadness to his meditations. Now, this character is derived from three sources, the scenes of nature, the ideas floating upon the memory, and religious principle.
With regard to the scenes of nature, Young wished to avail himself of them as auxiliaries to his complaints, but I do not know that he has succeeded. He apostrophizes the moon, and he talks to the stars, but the reader is not thereby affected. I cannot explain in what the melancholy consists, which a poet draws from a contem. plation of nature ; but it is certain that he finds it at every step. He combines his soul with the roaring of the wind, which imparts to him ideas of solitude. A receding wave reminds him of life-a falling leaf of man. This sadness is hid in every desert for the use of poets. It is the Echo of the fable who was consumed by grief, and the invisible inhabitant of the mountains.
When the mind is labouring under chagrin, the reflection should always take the form of sentiment and
imagery, but in Young the sentiment, on the contrary, is transformed into reflection and argument. On opening the first Complaint I read :
“ From short (as usual) and disturbid repose
Is this the language of sorrow? What is a wrecked desponding thought, Aoating from wave to wave of fancied misery? What is a night which is a sun, compared with the colour of a person's fate? The only remarkable feature of this quotation is the idea that the slumber of the tomb may be disturbed by dreams; but this directly brings to mind the expression of Hamlet : “ To sleep-to dream!”
Ossian awakes also at midnight to weep, but Ossian weeps in reality. “Lead, son of Alpin, lead the aged to his woods. The winds begin to rise. The dark wave of the lake resounds. Bends there not a tree from Mora with its branches bare? It bends, son of Alpin, in the rustling blast. My harp hangs on a blasted branch. The sound of its strings is mournful. Does the wind touch thee, oh harp, or is it some passing ghost ? Is it the hand of Malvina. But bring me the harp, son of Alpin, another song shall arisé. My soul shall depart in the sound; my fathers shall hear it in their airy hall. Their dim faces sliall hang with joy from their cloud, and their hands receive their son."
Here we have mournful images, and poetical reveric. The English allow that the prose of Ossian is as poetic as verse, and possesses all the inflexions of the latter; and hence a French translation of this, though a literal one, will be, if good, always supportable ; for that, which is simple and natural in one language, possesses these quali: ties in every language.
It is generally thought that melancholy allusions, taken from the winds, the moon, and the clouds, were unknown to the ancients; but there are some instances of them in Homer, and a beautiful one in Virgil. Enæas perceives the shade of Dido in the recesses of a forest, as one sees, or fancies that one sees the new moon rising a. midst clouds.
“ Qualem primo qui surgere mense
Observe all the circumstances. It is the moon, which the spectator sees, or fancies that he sees crossing the clouds; consequently the shade of Dido is reduced to a very small compass, but this moon is in its first phasis, and what is this planet at such a time? Does not the shade of Dido itself seem to vanish from the mind's eye?” Ossian is here traced to Virgil; but it is Ossian at Naples, where the light is purer, and the vapours more transparent.
Young was therefore ignorant of, or rather has ill expressed melancholy, which feeds itself on the contemplation of nature, and which, whether soft or majestic, follows the natural course of feeling. How superior is Milton to the author of the Night Thoughts in the nobility of grief! Nothing is finer than his four last lines of Paradise Lost:
" The world was all before them where to chusc
In this passage the reader sees all the solitudes of the world open to our first father, all those seas which water unknown lands, all the forests of the habitable globe, and man left alone with his sins amidst the deserts of creation.
Harvey, though possessing a less elevated genius than the author of the Night Thoughts, has evinced a softer and more generous sensibility in his " Meditations among the Tombs.” He says of an infant, which suddenly died : “What did the little hasty sojourner find so forbidding and disgustful in our upper world, to occasion its precipitate exit? It is written, indeed, of its suffering Saviour, that, when he had tasted the vinegar, mingled with gall, he would not drink.* And did our new.come stranger begin to sip the cup of life; but, perceiving the bitterness, turn away its head, and refuse the draught? Was this the cause why the weary babe only opened its eyes, just looked on the light, and then withdrew into the more inviting regions of undisturbed repose
?" Dr. Beattie, a Scotch poet, has introduced the most lovely reverie into his Minstrel. It is when he describes the first effects of the Muse upon a young mountain bard, who as yet does not comprehend the genius, by which he is tormented. At one time the future poet goes and seats himself on the borders of the sea during a tempest; at another, he quits the sports of the village that he may listen, first at a distance, and then more closely to the sound of the bagpipe. Young was, perhaps, appointed by nature to treat of higher subjects, but still he was not
Matthew, chapter 27, verse 34.