1742 | Welwyn

Toward the Precipice of Death

As Atlas groaned, the world beneath, we groan beneath an hour.

Time the supreme!—Time is eternity; 
Pregnant with all eternity can give; 
Pregnant with all that makes archangels smile.
Who murders time, he crushes in the birth 
A power ethereal, only not adored.
Ah! How unjust to nature, and himself,
Is thoughtless, thankless, inconsistent man!
Like children babbling nonsense in their sports,
We censure nature for a span too short;
That span too short, we tax as tedious, too;
Torture invention, all expedients tire, 
To lash the lingering moments into speed,
And whirl us (happy riddance!) from ourselves.
Art, brainless art! Our furious charioteer
(For nature’s voice unstifled would recall), 
Drives headlong toward the precipice of death;
Death, most our dread; death thus more dreadful made:
Oh, what a riddle of absurdity!
Leisure is pain; takes off our chariot wheels;
How heavily we drag the load of life!
Blessed leisure is our curse; like that of Cain,
It makes us wander; wander earth around,
To fly that tyrant, thought. As Atlas groaned
The world beneath, we groan beneath an hour.
We cry for mercy to the next amusement;
The next amusement mortgages our fields;
Slight inconvenience! Prisons hardly frown,
From hateful time if prisons set us free.
Yet when death kindly tenders us relief,
We call him cruel; years to moments shrink,
Ages to years. The telescope is turned.
To man’s false optics (from his folly false),
Time, in advance, behind him hides his wings,
And seems to creep, decrepit with his age;
Behold him, when passed by; what then is seen,
But his broad pinions swifter than the winds?
And all mankind, in contradiction strong,
Rueful, aghast! Cry out on his career.

Edward Young, from Night Thoughts. This section of the nearly 10,000-line poem in blank verse is located in the second of nine nights, titled “On Time, Death, and Friendship.” In the first night, “On Life, Death, and Immortality,” Young wrote, “Procrastination is the thief of time.” He composed the poem following the deaths of his stepdaughter, son-in-law, and wife. An edition of Night Thoughts that was published in 1797 featured illustrations by William Blake. In Samuel Johnson’s estimation, Young was “a man of genius and a poet.”