Edward Young – “Conjectures on Original Composition” 1759

  • Young highlights how writing is not a product of craft or of the muses by noting that, “How independent of the world is he, who can daily find new Acquaintance, that at once entertain, and improve him, in the little World, the minute but fruitful Creation, of his own mind?”
  • Again, Young recognizes that the creation of man’s own mind is the result of where the “glorious fruits where Genius prevails. . . . The mind of a man of Genius is a fertile and pleasant field.”
  • Originality is core to the genius of the author for Young: “But suppose an Imitator to be most excellent (and such there are), yet still he but nobly builds on another’s foundation; his Debt is, at least, equal to his Glory; which therefore, on the balance, cannot be very great. . .”
  • Young notes that so few works of real originality exist because those that are original engross, prejudice, and intimidate, preventing us from being able to tap into our own possibilities.
  • Young compares “genius to virtue, and learning to riches” to demonstrate how learning can be accreted, slowly accumulated; however, genius can be compared to the body’s “natural strength” and, therefore, cannot be created.
  • Genius can, however, be supplemented via learning to reach its full potential.  “I say, sometimes, because there is a Genius, which stands in need of Learning to make it shine.”
  • Imitation is bad or inhibits genius because 1) it deprives the liberal and politer arts of more works of genius; 2) it thwarts the design of nature to create originals; and 3) makes us Poor and Proud because we write a lot; however, the writing we do isn’t original and isn’t remarkable at all.
  • Young makes a distinction between imitation (bad, inferior, servile) and emulation (generous).
  • We get some nationalist sentiment when Young discusses the state of Genius in Britain: the Originals of the state include Bacon, Newton, Shakespeare, and Milton.  Shakespeare specifically was certainly not an imitator: Young notes, “Who knows if Shakespeare might not have thought less if he had read more?”  Addison was really good too!

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