From the Collections: Young’s “Night Thoughts”

July 6, 2020

Title page of “Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality” by Edward Young. Published by N. Biggs, 1804. B00339. Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library

 

Among the books in the Mary Baker Eddy Collection is a bound copy of the poem “The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality”—commonly referred to as “Night Thoughts.” This volume by the English poet Edward Young (1683–1765) was in the library at Mary Baker Eddy’s Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, residence at the time of her passing in 1910.

Eddy held a particular affinity for this work. In a 1901 interview, Joseph Clarke of the New York Herald asked about her favorite books; “Night Thoughts” was the first one she referenced:

I will tell you the books and writers that I have loved best. They are: Young’s ‘Night Thoughts,’ Alexander Pope’s poems, Felicia Hemans’ poems, Ruskin’s works, Robert Browning’s poetry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry and essays, and Amos Bronson Alcott’s works. 1

Night Thoughts coverPublished between 1742 and 1745, “Night Thoughts” is a long form poem divided into nine parts. While not well-known today, the work enjoyed considerable popularity throughout much of Eddy’s life. Young wrote it as a meditation on the fragility of life, after his wife’s passing. In early years Eddy also experienced her own profound losses, including the death of her brother Albert Baker (1810–1841), and it makes sense that this poem would have brought her comfort and become a favorite. From childhood she had an affinity for poetry, the study of poets and writers forming a vital part of her self-education and contributing to an enduring love of verse.

This copy of “Night Thoughts” is a 1804 edition, printed in London, England.2 Further evidence of Eddy’s attachment to this poem is found in her annotations. On page 60, for example, she wrote, “my brother Albert read this to me.”3 That memory remained with her; among the household workers who heard her mention it, Clara Shannon recalled this:

Annotated page in 'Night Thoughts'

Eddy’s marginal annotations on page 60 of “Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality” by Edward Young. Published by N. Biggs, 1804. B00339. Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

 

[Eddy] was very fond of her brother Albert, and he taught her a great deal. One day he found that she had fainted, and she remained unconscious for a long time. Albert read to her from Young’s “Night Thoughts” and he read on and on, calling her by name from time to time, till she opened her eyes and consciousness returned.4

A unique aspect of Eddy’s childhood involved her family’s encouragement to read and learn. She was also fortunate to have grown up in New Hampshire—while education for women was still controversial, girls there were able to receive at least basic instruction in some school districts.5 Because of her delicate health, the doctor advised that she not attend school, at least at times.6 Nevertheless, learning continued unabated in a number of ways. According to author Heather Vogel Frederick, “During her early years in Bow, the groundwork was laid for Mary Baker Eddy’s continuing education. Homeschooling, classroom work, abundant reading and writing on her own, and tutoring sessions with [her brother] Albert were preparing her for what lay ahead.”7 In 1909 Irving Tomlinson, another member of Eddy’s staff, recalled her saying this:

When I was a child it was easier for me to write in poetry than in prose. When I first went to school I would write my compositions in poetry. One of the teachers went to mother and said, Do you know Mary is a born poet? Mother said, No, but she is always making rhymes! …. I thought once that my mission was to write poetry but my life has had more prose than poetry to it.8

Even if Eddy did not become a poet, a knowledge of poetry and classic literature is evident throughout her writings, which are filled with references to both. Her main work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, makes literary references to other favorite poets, including Alexander Pope and Felicia Hemans. Page 202 of her work Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896 also includes this “Night Thoughts” reference: “The chamber where the good man meets his fate ….”9

According to Eddy’s autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, “My second brother Albert Baker, was next to my mother, the very dearest of my kindred.10 Albert’s tutelage and care in his sister’s education, and his encouragement of her intellectual development, clearly furthered an already voracious love of books and writing. Eddy’s mention of him in her copy of “Night Thoughts” helps demonstrate the profound impression his teaching and kindness made. Tomlinson remembers:

To her brother Albert Baker [Eddy] was indebted for lessons in the ancient tongues, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. She was a profound student of philosophy and classic literature, and her scholarly brother, when he asked her aid, never failed to get the true quotation for which he sought. Rare natural gifts and scholarly associations did much for Mrs. Eddy.11

Annotation in Night Thoughts

Eddy’s marginal notation on page 59 of “Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality” by Edward Young. Published by N. Biggs, 1804. B00339. Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

 

It’s not surprising, then, that “Night Thoughts” appears to have been especially meaningful to Eddy in honoring the memory of this favorite brother. We find an additional notation on page 59 of this copy, next to a passage that ends, “When shall I die to vanity, pain, death? When shall I die?—When shall I live forever?”12 She wrote, simply, “Albert.”

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  1. J.I.C. Clarke, “Mrs. Eddy Outlines Basis of her Religion,” New York Herald, 5 May 1901.
  2. Edward Young, “Night Thoughts” (London: N. Biggs, 1804), B00339.
  3. B00339, 60.
  4. Clara Shannon, “Golden Memories,” 1927, Reminiscence, 9.
  5. Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998), 29.
  6. Isabel Ferguson and Heather Frederick, A World More Bright (Boston, Massachusetts: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 2013), 14.
  7. Heather Vogel Frederick, “A Woman of Sound Education”: Mary Baker Eddy’s School Years (Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts: Longyear Museum Press, 2020), 25.
  8. Irving Tomlinson, manuscript, 1 July 1909, A11963.
  9. Young, “Night Thoughts,” Night II, “On Time, Death, and Friendship,” 631–633.
  10. Mary Baker Eddy, Retrospection and Introspection (Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist), 5.
  11. Irving Tomlinson, “Mary Baker Eddy,” typescript, c. 1902, essay, n.d., A12110.
  12. Edward Young, “Night Thoughts,” (London: N. Biggs, 1804), B00339.