Wednesday, May 7, 2008

descending shades

Edward Young to the Duchess of Portland

May 3, 1742.

uch is my opinion of your Grace's goodness, that I can choose no subject more agreeable to you than to speak of your friends. Last week a neighbour of poor Dr. Clarke's now in Huntingdonshire called on me; he told me our friend was still living, and that his physician said he might possibly live four or five years longer. That is in the ever blessed will of God. After this melancholy account, I will give your Grace something more comfortable. The doctor retains his spirits, and is cheerful under circumstances that fright the bystander. Now this would be impossible, was there not an indulgent Being who frights us with the appearance of remote evils, in order to give entrance to His fear into our hearts, and when those evils come supports us under them beyond our expectation, and more still beyond our deserts. Dr. Clarke's behaviour brings to my memory some lines which I have formerly read, whether it be in Fletcher perhaps your Grace can tell. After the author has represented a good man, whose name is Philander, on his death-bed behaving to the surprise of all about him, he adds

As some tall tower, or lofty mountain's brow
Detains the sun, illustrious from its height,
When rising vapours, and descending shades,
In damps and darkness drown the spacious vale,
Philander thus augustly reared his head
Undamped by doubt, undarkened by despair;
At that black hour, which general horror sheds
On the low level of inglorious minds,
Sweet peace, and heavenly hope, and humble joy,
Divinely beamed on his exalted soul.
With incommunicable lustre bright.' *

I hope in God, Madam, we may see our Philander again, before these verses are applicable to him in their full extent. Heaven is pleased to permit our friends to be so very dear to us, that our parting with them, which must necessarily be sometimes the case, might in some degree lessen that strong hold which the world is apt to take on our hearts: the most deplorable case of all is, when the world so entirely fills our hearts, as not to leave room even for our friends. If such there are, Heaven keep your Grace as distant from them, as your disposition is from theirs.
[Edward Young]

*Young was usually so secretive about his poetical compositions that the Duchess of Portland may have been momentarily misled by his reference to Fletcher; but if her Grace had turned to the works of either of the four poets of that name she must soon have realised the hopelessness of discovering that tribute to Philander. For, of course, Young was quoting from himself. And the fact that he should have cited those lines from the second of the Night Thoughts in the May of 1742 is presumptive proof that the first poem, The Complaint; or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, was already completed. Such, indeed, must have been the case, for in the following month, the June of 1742, that poem was issued by Dodsley as a quarto pamphlet in blue paper covers, with a picture of the poet absorbed in nocturnal meditation in the moon-lit churchyard of Welwyn.

-from The Life and Letters of Edward Young by Henry C. Shelley (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1914

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