The Encyclopedia of British Literature, 1660-1789
Appropriately for a poet whose great theme was the connection between time and eternity, Edward Young (1683-1765) lived to an advanced age and enjoyed a long and varied literary career. His life spanned the reigns of eight British monarchs, his works began in the early eighteenth-century milieu of Latinate university wit and London coffeehouse criticism, and ended over five decades later at the dawn of Romanticism. As a poet, Young was a skilled versifier and a formal experimenter, prolific in rhymed couplets, Pindaric and ballad stanzas, and blank-verse drama. His greatest and most original poem, the nine-part Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality (1742-6), is written in a blank verse that preserves much of the epigrammatic point of the couplet form; in the century following its publication it was routinely numbered among the greatest long poems in English, ranked with Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608-74), The Seasons by James Thomson (1700-48), and The Task by William Cowper (1731-1800). When Young compiled his own collected Works in four volumes in 1757, he styled himself "The Poet of Night Thoughts," and it is for this poem that he is primarily remembered. Beside Night Thoughts, Young's most significant work is a piece of literary criticism, Conjectures Concerning Original Composition (1759), which exalts originality as the pre-eminent criterion of literary merit and sets the stage for subsequent developments in English and German aesthetic theory.