Young, Night Thoughts (1741), i. 36-54

Thou, who didst put to flight
Primeval Silence, when the morning stars,
Exulting, shouted o'er the rising ball;--
O THOU, whose Word from solid darkness struck
That spark, the sun! strike wisdom from my soul;
My soul, which flies to Thee, her trust, her treasure,
As misers to their gold, while others rest.

Through this opaque of Nature and of soul,
This double night, transmit one pitying ray,
To lighten and to cheer. O lead my mind
(A mind that fain would wander from its woe,)
Lead it through various scenes of life and death;
And from each scene the noblest truths inspire.
Nor less inspire my conduct than my song:
Teach my best reason, reason; my best will
Teach rectitude; and fix my firm resolve
Wisdom to wed, and pay her long arrear:
Nor let the phial of thy vengeance, pour'd
On this devoted head, be pour'd in vain.

The lines leading up to this passage create a valued hierarchy of consciousness, in which the best state is death, if death indeed means oblivion ... but if one dreams in death, than that is no better than the second best state, sleep. Sleep, for the poet, is never deep enough to erase the pain of conscious thought, which always intrudes on sleep in nightmare visions. Waking life, though, is even more nightmarish than sleep. To Young, any extension of consciousness into self-awareness is massively destructive and death is by far the most enviable state.

Why, then, should the poet ask that his soul be illuminated? If "primeval silence" and "solid darkness" are optimal, then the poet should shun the advent of "wisdom." But solid darkness is never an option for the poet; he is speaking from an already partly illumined state. That is, he is conscious of his own darkness. The divine presence is framed as the object of addiction, the substance (gold) which must be present to allay a diseased craving (avarice). The poet's darkness isn't real darkness, and his silence would not be real silence.

The opaque of soul, unlike the opaque of Nature, is a concealment, a state of lack. That is why mind "would wander from its woe," not from its "rest" (42). Primeval silence has been lost. The poet cannot ask his God to withhold vengeance. The vengeance has already been issued, and is the condition of writing.

In the manner of Gray's "Hymn to Adversity," Young sees the blighted state as a grounds for wisdom. But in trying to frame the divine "vengeance" as a blessing, neither poet presumes to mitigate its potency as a "curse." Instead, blessedness and cursedness engage in the kind of spiritual dialectic professed by eighteenth-century theologians like Law. Suffering and ease--cursedness and blessedness--are not two different dispensations, but a single one.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography