Genius and Analogy in Young's Conjectures and the Theology of Night Thoughts

By Odell, D. W. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Genius and Analogy in Young's Conjectures and the Theology of Night Thoughts


Odell, D. W., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


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THE publication of Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), the critical essay by Edward Young, Anglican priest and humanist, "unmistakably signalize[s] the shift in emphasis from the literary doctrine of tradition and imitation proclaimed in Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism" (1711) to the Romantic emphasis on genius and originality (McFarland 5). Readings of the Conjectures typically assume its doctrine is secular despite the tact that by a crucial analogy, Young bases it on the Christian theology of his poem, Night Thoughts (1742-45). That grounding is questionably ignored or marginalized when the Conjectures is associated with Romantic aesthetics in the "'Natural Supernaturalism" that "distinguishes writers" whom M. H. Abrams terms "Romantic"--"the assimilation and reinterpretation of religious ideas as constitutive elements in a world-view founded on secular premises" (13).

Within Night Thoughts, an epic-length poem of nine first-person meditations on the sudden death of three loved ones, Young deploys Anglican apologetics against a Deistic rhetorical adversary, Lorenzo. "The Complaint" (Nights 1-3) ends with "The Christian Triumph" (Night 4); "The Relapse" (Nights 5-8) ends with "The Consolation" (Night 9), which contains a climactic apostrophe to the Holy Trinity (9.2195-2364). Created in God's Image (Gen. 1:27), fallen but redeemed by God Incarnate, humans "are analogues of God merely by force of existing" (Gilson, Spirit 142). Thus the Conjectures states, "as the moral world expects its glorious millennium" by the "marvelous light" of "revelation," so "the world intellectual may hope, by the rules of analogy, for some superior degrees of excellence to crown her later scenes; nor may it only hope, but must enjoy them too," for "genius has ever been supposed to partake of something divine" (32, 13).

Based on humans as God's image, Young's "analogy" is not a binary opposition. Nor is it the figure typical in design arguments for Nature as the Book of God in natural religion evidenced from Anglican Bishop Samuel Clarke's 1704-05 Boyle lectures basing natural theology on Newtonian science (Buckley 166-93, Jager 10), to William Paley and the clockmaker analogy in the next century (Jager 117, 237n13). By the traditional doctrine of the analogy of being, Night Thoughts relates revelation to reason: negative (transcendental) revealed theology paradoxically balances the positive (incarnational) revealed and natural theology of the idea of progress in patristic and scholastic tradition. Evident are Neoplatonic and Aristotelian aspects of the Trinitarian theology of Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker (Odell, "Christian Rationalism" 54-56), the Elizabethan Anglican theologian "[g]rounded in Aristotle and Aquinas" (Hoopes 125).

With Hooker, Young of course rejected papal supremacy (Night 3.167, Conj. 25). But as in Aquinas, "Analogy" in Night Thoughts is "man's surest Guide below" (6.734) because each human, "An awful Stranger," is graced by the Holy Spirit to become "a Terrestrial God" capable of "Evolutions of surprising Fate" (4.495, 510). Since God is the Creator of nature and humans ex nihilo, the source of beauty in nature and human art, humans are agents of creation in "all arts and sciences" (Conj. 33). Young consequently follows the classical nosce te ipsum in the Socratic tradition made Christian, "Know thyself" (Night 4.484), to discover "the stranger within," potential genius (Conj. 24).

Young's key analogy in the Conjectures and its relation to the theology of Night Thoughts have been insufficiently examined or ignored. One reading emphasizes Young's analogy as "a controlling and organizing" principle of his essay, paying only minor attention to the theology of his poem (Odell, "Argument" 87). In a second, genius and originality are privileged terms in a binary opposing tradition and imitation, usually linked to Enlightenment or Romantic literary theory: "Young declared the poet independent of tradition, learning, and rules," for "the genius has all that is needed within himself and produces art by a creative process akin to that of nature" (Berghahn 534). …

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