Night Thoughts

Edward Young’s ten thousand line blank verse poem, The Complaint: Night Thoughts, was first published in 1742. It is divided into nine “nights” of the author’s reflections on the question of suffering and tragedy. It was written in reaction to the author losing his wife and two friends within a couple of year’s time. The poem enjoyed widespread popularity around the world, finding itself translated into many languages. Its popularity rivaled that of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

But then a strange thing happened. The book disappeared and has become virtually inaccessible. Aside from one paperback edition published by Dover it has been mostly unavailable for over a hundred years and the Dover edition is apparently out of print. Largely it has been the spectacular engravings that William Blake did for the 1797 folio edition that have been remembered of late, this despite the fact that it was the poetry that was loved for so long. In fact lists the Dover edition as being by William Blake, with no mention of Young at all.

And what of the poem itself? It reminds me a bit of the first nine chapters of Proverbs, a poem which is structured as an extended address by Solomon to one of his sons. Likewise, Edward Young addresses his poem to Lorenzo, which is widely assumed to be a literary device referencing his son, who was about eight years of age when he began writing this poem. Like the Proverbs of the Bible, the poem is designed to impart wisdom to the young: that is, to give them the experience of those who have gone before, sparing them from having to go through it themselves, or giving them added insight so that they can better endure that which is unavoidable. It is not to be understood as a literal reference to his son, or reflect his personal demons; rather, he stands for that son who might be skeptical of his father’s religion.

The poem has contributed to the English language, with such phrases as “time flies.” It has also contributed to the language of the church, especially the words of its hymns. Consider this section from the Night the Fourth and ponder the phrases that were plundered by later hymn writers:

To man the bleeding cross has promised all;
The bleeding cross has sworn eternal grace;
Who gave his life, what grace shall He deny?
O ye! who, from this Rock of Ages, leap,
Disdainful, plunging headlong in the deep!
What cordial joy, what consolation strong,
Whatever winds arise, or billows roll,
Our interest in the Master of the storm?
Cling there, and in wreck’d nature’s ruin smile
While vile apostates tremble in a calm.

“Rock of Ages” and “billows roll” are two obvious examples of phrases used by later hymn writers. Augustus M. Toplady wrote the words of the hymn Rock of Ages in 1776. An unsubstantiated story says the lyrics were inspired when Toplady took shelter from a storm under a rocky overhang near England’s Cheddar Gorge. Given that the phrase appears in Young’s popular poem, the poem would seem a more likely source for the song. Toplady reportedly wrote the words on a playing card. The music for the hymn was written in 1830 by Thomas Hastings.

The phrase “billows roll” appears in the song, Peace Like a River written by Horatio Gates Spafford. In 1871 the Great Chicago Fire burned down much of the city. Despite a well known legend that the Great Chicago Fire was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Mrs. O’Leary on DeKoven Street, historians now believe it was begun by Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, who first reported the fire. When it was all over, three hundred people were dead and a hundred thousand were homeless. Spafford was one of those who tried to help the people of the city get back on their feet. A lawyer who had invested much of his money into the downtown Chicago real estate, he’d lost a great deal to the fire. His only son died about this same time. According to the story, he also had four daughters. Spafford worked at helping the homeless, impoverished, and grief-stricken people who had been ruined by the fire.

After about two years of such work, Spafford and his family decided to take a vacation. They intended to sail to England to join the evangelists Moody and Ira Sankey on one of their evangelistic crusades, then travel on to Europe. Horatio Spafford was delayed by some business, but he sent his family on ahead, planning to catch up with them later.
Unfortunately, their ship, the Ville de Havre, never made it. Off the coast of Newfoundland, it collided with an English sailing shipand sank within twenty minutes. Spafford’s wife, Anna, was one of only forty-seven survivors. All four of his daughters were killed.

Spafford boarded the next available ship to be near his grieving wife, and the two finally met up with Dwight Moody. “It is well,” Spafford told him quietly. “The will of God be done.” It was during those dark days that Spafford was led to write the words to that well-known hymn, including the phrase from Young’s poem, a poem that was very familiar to him, and doubtless of some help to him as he passed through that tragedy.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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