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The Rhetoric of the Personal and Pictorial: Portrayal of the Self and the Abstract in Young, Gray, and Collins

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  1. Suvir Kaul described the poetic climate in which these poets arose.
  2. Young's Night Thoughts are quite literally poems.
  3. Just a few years after Young's publications of the Night Thoughts, Thomas Gray wrote and published his ?Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,?.
  4. Gray develops more pictorial representations, anticipating Collins' fully formed pictorial figures.
  5. These are not the vaguely suggested silhouettes of the other poems.

Following the ethical and didactic works popular in the early eighteenth century, which offered a view of Man as an imperfect but scientific being in search of meaning in a universe created by a perfect God, a crop of poets emerged who wrote instead about ?a preponderance of sentiment, affect, imagination, melancholy, genteel arts, botany, and ruminative gardening.? These poets, among them Thomas Gray, William Collins and Edward Young, characterized the Age of Sensibility, a movement away from the scientism of the Age of Reason and towards knowledge embodied by more personal experience. Instead of encapsulating all human experience under the title ?Man,' as the socially minded Augustans did, these poets sought to portray a unique and individual experience of emotion, be it one of fear, grief, or creation. Their fascination with the natural world and man's relation to it is a clear continuation of Augustan works such as Pope's ?Windsor Forest? and ?An Essay on Man,? but for the poets of Sensibility, the invocation of nature becomes something more akin to prayer than empirical study. Wishing to deny certain similarities to their predecessors, these poets ?avowedly wished to counteract the didactic poetry that appealed to the mind by writing the more sensuous poetry that appealed to the fancy.? Many of these works embody a religious voice that impresses upon the reader the pervasive darkness, sometimes portrayed as melancholy, other times as terror that floats atop the human world. Collins, Gray and Young are all concerned with the experience of the individual, especially the poet, in relation to this otherworldly darkness, fear, and death, especially how one manages to express that relationship through poetical and pictorial description.

[...] Instead of trying to embody the emotions of their society as a whole, they submerged their social commentary, where it exists, in allegorical and pictorial language, and focused on the importance of knowledge gained through personal experience. Young's Night Thoughts are quite literally poems written during the periods of insomnia that plagued him after the loss of several dear family members, including his wife, and the explorations of sleep, time, death, and immortality reflect his personal trauma, not that of mankind as a whole, though his readers responded to his work with great praise, perhaps finding comfort in his personal thoughts expressed. [...]


[...] Jean Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray, (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press reprinted 1974) 2. Thomas Gray: Contemporary Essays, edited by W.B. Hutchings and William Ruddick, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1993) 3. Shaun Irlam, Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteenth Century Britain, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999) 4. Suvir Kaul, Thomas Gray and Literary Authority: A Study in Ideology and Poetics, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992) 5. [...]


[...] In the Night Thoughts, the beginnings of pictorial description and enthusiastic rhetoric are clearly visible in the half-drawn images and smattering of exclamation points, but Young is concerned with his own evolution and exploration more than the creation of visible images. His discussion on time and its passing, unheeded until it has gone, is indicative of his own emotions concerning his lost wife and daughter: We take no note of time But from its loss. To give it then a tongue Is wise in man. [...]

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