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This report is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

Night Thoughts on Night Thoughts John Clegg
In the 275 years since its publication, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts has been praised, dispraised, and finally ignored, as a didactic poem, and a particularly heavy-handed specimen of the genre. J.R. Boyd, in the preface to his 1856 edition, recommended the poem for rote learning in schools, as ‘furnish[ing] a great number of pithy sentences, easily remembered, and pregnant with the most important meaning, which, if lodged early in the mind, must exert a salutary influence’ (and it goes on like this). If this is the best that can be said for it, it is obviously not likely to win many new readers today; I propose here a different approach to Night Thoughts.

Most eighteenth-century didactic poems cannot be read as dramatic monologues - that is, a form of poetry where the audience potentially knows more than the speaker. If we’re not convinced by the argument in Cowper’s ‘Conversation’, the poem falls apart, whereas Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ fails if we are convinced (of the speaker’s self-exoneration). Night Thoughts was certainly intended to be a poem of the first sort. It is much more convincing as a poem of the second, the furious thoughts of an elderly churchman in a chilly and draughty bedroom in Welwyn, as he begins to drift off to sleep.

These thoughts mostly concern ‘Lorenzo’, his imaginary twenty-something dissolute son (his real son, Frederick, was eight years old when the poem was published). They are sermons rather than arguments, but they refer back to arguments in the past between Young and Lorenzo - and ...

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