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Night Thoughts: The forgotten bestseller that inspired the Gothic

There are, of course, innumerable claims that could be made to have been the first ghost story, or the first piece of Gothic horror in literature. This piece argues that Edward Young’s extraordinary poem Night Thoughts deserves a look-in as an early example of Gothic literature because of the extravagance of its Gothic imagery, and the depth of its argument that the ideas of the ghost and the tomb are central, rather than ornamental, to any proper discussions of existence or imagination.

The Gothic sensibility’s appearance in mainstream art and culture is often said to begin with the popular craze for Matthew Lewis’s outrageous tale The Monk in 1796, or the exhibition in London of Fuseli’s The Nightmare in 1782. Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, is another strong candidate for this beginning, though the argument against it is that it remained an oddity rather than triggering an explosion of interest in the Gothic among the literate public in general.

Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare
Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare was first exhibited at the annual Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1782

The usual argument goes along these lines: during the Enlightenment, cold reason and classical beauty were the touchstones (the development of a formal style of criticism by writers such as Dryden, Pope and Addison, the many translations of Homer and Virgil that were bestsellers to the newly literate middle class from the 1720s onwards, the logic of empiricism and the scientific method) and the development of the Gothic in the second part of the eighteenth century was part of a natural reaction against that and towards a more chaotic and passionate aesthetic.

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There is a much more direct connection, however, between the “Augustan” poets with their love of rules and deep respect for ancient authors, and these writers of the exotic and the baroque: Edward Young’s bestselling epic of reflection and melancholy, Night Thoughts, which appeared in 1743 before Alexander Pope, the champion poet of the Augustans, had even had the decency to retire to his tomb. Night Thoughts was hailed as the best thing to come out that year by Pope himself; Dr Johnson, not shy of calling out the less talented writers of the age, called Young a genius. For a hundred years he had a huge reputation: and then, at some point halfway through the nineteenth century, he fell catastrophically out of fashion, and almost entirely out of print.

It is a shame, because Young’s poem is not only studded with fabulous images and quotable lines – ‘Death but entombs the Body; Life the Soul’ being perhaps my favourite, demonstrating a Gothic streak a mile wide (III.458) – but it also forms a bridge between two apparently very different poetical worlds: one cold and rational, and the other boiling over with passionate intensity. Taking two strands from philosophy – on the one hand, emerging ideas of the transcendent sublime (Edmund Burke (1729–1797), On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) is the classic reference) and on the other the more established description of a rational empirical world (in which using John Locke’s example you prove a candle flame that you think you can see actually exists by holding your hand over it to see if it hurts) – Young flips Pope’s use of images of night, darkness and chaos to depict what’s wrong with the world and uses those terms instead to provide the ideal setting for reflection on God. The line between imagination and memory, something that for empiricists was almost impossible to draw, is where Young’s images dwell.

The poem begins with an invocation of Sleep which immediately evokes the desperate horror of the sleepless Macbeth; the poet is ’emerging from a sea of dreams / Tumultous’ (I.9-10), struggling to reconcile religious belief with a very real terror of physical death, which the poet in the preface says was the ‘real, not fictitious’ occasion of the poem. We then go on, still in this first of nine parts, to an invocation of a more sinister deity, night herself, and her attendant darkness and silence:

Night, sable Goddess! From her Ebon throne
In rayless Majesty, now stretches forth
Her leaden Sceptre o’er a slumbering world:
Silence, how Dead? And Darkness, how profound? (I. 18-21)

The first book continues to press this point, eventually raising the spectre of Death itself to the position of ultimate power:

Death! Great Proprietor of all! ‘Tis thine
To tread out Empire, and to quench the Stars. (I. 204-5)

All of this, of course, is a prelude to the poet ‘realising’ that these apparent rulers are in fact subservient to a Christian god, but to paraphrase William Booth, throughout the nine books, it’s the darkness that gets all the good lines and which provides the vast majority of the imagery. Night brings a curtain down on the distractions of the modern city, allowing for reflection and peace. This is what seemed to create such enormous public interest and, I would contend, sow the seeds of a Gothic sensibility for a generation of writers to come.

Young even pictures someone like this future poet in book five, seeking a Gothic solitude in order to be able to perceive the world as it really is:

The Man how blest, who sick of gaudy Scenes,
(Scenes apt to thrust between us and ourselves!)
Is led by Choice to take his favourite Walk,
Beneath Death’s gloomy, silent, Cypress Shades,
Unpierc’d by Vanity’s fantastic Ray:
To read his Monuments, to weigh his Dust,
Visit his Vaults, and dwell among the Tombs? (V.310-6)

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1740–1812, French, active in Britain (from 1771), A Philosopher in a Moonlit Churchyard, 1790, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon
Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1740–1812, French, active in Britain (from 1771), A Philosopher in a Moonlit Churchyard, 1790, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon

It isn’t new, at this point in poetry, to relate darkness, silence and death, but it is new to claim them as the most proper environment for philosophical thought, rather than relegate them to the domain of ignorant superstition. I’m not saying that for the Augustans that this kind of supernatural imagery was always excluded and derided, but poets like Pope and critics like Addison did tend to use it in very specific ways: to describe the antithesis of reason, the absence of beauty, or the wavering of rational thought. It was also very powerfully used in political satire – the ghost of a politician would often return in poetry to make scandalous (and indeed otherwise libellous) revelations. But this poem does not do that: its style is religious, reflective, much more akin to the style of the Hebrew prophet-poets in the Bible than to Homer and Virgil. Young seeks out darkness, midnight, walks among the tombs in order to find truth.

And that, for me, is what helps to bring the Gothic sensibility into existence with all of its tropes. Gothic writers – good ones, anyway – don’t wallow in the imagery for its own sake. They seek to use extreme, terrifying, nightmarish and otherwise generally unpleasant ideas and situations to discuss universal truths about the human condition. As the nine books near their conclusion, Young imagines true horror and despair to be a world in which the afterlife does not exist and in which the world itself is miserable and dark for all eternity:

Our Doom decreed demands a mournful scene;
Why not a dungeon dark, for the condemn’d?
Why not the Dragon’s subterranean Den,
For Man to howl in? Why not his Abode,
Of the same dismal Colour with his Fate? (VII. 800-4)

The true nightmare is ‘Annihilation!’, in which the ‘all-conscious Soul,’

For ever is extinguisht. Horror! Death!
Death of that Death I fearless, once, survey’d. (VII. 836-8)

Against this annihilation, the poet finally consoles himself after the eighteenth-century equivalent of a quite epic box-set (the ninth book alone has nearly 2500 lines) with a detailed argument for the existence of the divine and the limits of the earthly world contrasted against the joy and eternal light of Heaven. In so doing, however, the passionate evocation of the midnight world continues to rule the poem thematically, from the eagerness with which Young describes the evil that can happen under cover of darkness:

Now Plots, and foul Conspiracies, awake;
And, muffling up their Horrors from the Moon,
Havock, and Devastation, they prepare,
And Kingdoms tott’ring in the Field of Blood; (IX. 952-54)

To the conclusion of the poem itself, where instead of a blaze of light, the reader instead is rewarded with eternal darkness:

When TIME, like Him of Gaza in his Wrath,
Plucking the pillars that support the World,
In Nature’s ample Ruins lies entomb’d;
And MIDNIGHT, Universal Midnight! Reigns. (IX. 2431-34)

Postscript and further reading

All quotes are taken from Stephen Cornford’s edition of Night Thoughts published in 1989, the only edition published in the last 150 years. For those interested in the many imitations and rivals that followed, I recommend you seek out Robert Blair’s The Grave, Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination, James Hervey’s Meditations Among the Tombs, and of course Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Penguin Classics published a good compilation of ‘night pieces’ called Night Thoughts in 2003 which is available on Amazon but which alas only includes a very few lines from Young.

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2 replies on “Night Thoughts: The forgotten bestseller that inspired the Gothic”

This was fascinating as hell, thanks for sharing.

The use of darkness and death as a bridge to the sublime is an oft overlooked motif in all great works of art. From horror to crime fiction, the hint of the “other” adds a layer of mystery and a hint of something eternal operating behind the scenes.

Young seemed to have an intuitive understanding of how darkness can serve goodness – a dark kind of light, so to speak. In darkness we can see beyond ourselves to vastness, fear, and wonder.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the fabric of existence is vast darkness, where stars shine.

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