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  • Imitating Eve Imitating Echo Imitating Originality: The Critical Reverberations of Sentimental Genius in the Conjectures on Original Composition
  • Matthew Wickman*

Much of what remains compelling about Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) devolves from a tension between the essay’s thematic contradictions and the energy that shapes them. These contradictions primarily arise from the discrepancy between Young’s effusive polemics advocating original thinking and expression, and his elegiac tribute to Joseph Addison in which he admonishes his readers to imitate Addison’s noble death. While work has been done to show how Young coordinates these ostensibly conflicting ideas, less attention has been devoted to Young’s literary precedents in this endeavor or to the critical significance of his essay’s sentimentalism in effecting the synthesis. 1 I hope to illustrate that one of the Conjectures’ most obvious performative attributes, their florid rhetoric, is also one of their savviest contributions to critical thought. This sentimental passion, forged in the crucible interfusing originality and imitation, reconstructs the similar paradoxes displayed in Milton’s Eve and, through her, Ovid’s Echo and Narcissus. Young’s rhetoric engages these sources as prototypes of genius, a subject whose status and function was shifting in the mid-eighteenth century. Genius is a topic on which the Conjectures wax eloquent and for which they have often been anthologized and remembered; but in subtler ways redolent of Eve, Young’s essay evinces an alternative aspect of genius by drawing from the shrewder currents within sentimentalism which shape the essay itself into a critical template of the genius it presents. 2 In fact, Young’s self-reflexive homilies distill the impression that the original genius articulated in the Conjectures is defined there in terms of the critical labor it performs. John Mullan has observed that “the historical phenomenon of (sentimental) literature, its vogue and its influence, cannot be clearly explained by a merely literary criticism.” 3 And indeed, several important studies have appeared within the past decade which analyze this literature in relation to issues of gender and culture, science and medicine, and social reform. 4 This conviction that sentimental literature can be explained only by acceding at some level to extra-literary factors actually reiterates a bias commonly expressed in much sentimental [End Page 899] fiction, namely that verbal or written language is unequal to the task of adequately representing the objects it evokes. 5 Young’s Conjectures are provocative in this light because they suggest an inversion of this presupposition, redirecting the compass of sentimental literature to the topic of literary criticism, and interpreting the world through its lens. My aim in this essay is to show how the Conjectures delineate a sentimentalized model of genius in terms of critical activity, and this criticism in turn as an impulse away from prescription and toward interrogation. Ultimately, Young’s essay may be most significant less for its particular reflections on original composition (which by 1759 were no longer original) than for underscoring the critical primacy of literary engagement at the historical moment when the concept of literature begins to evolve from a category inclusive of all forms of educated discourse to one which assumes both the narrower and more peripheral distinction of imaginative writing, and the epistemological status of fiction. 6

While Young gestures toward concepts of genius that would blossom in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, he was also sensitive to notions about genius which were already in circulation. Traditionally, the period dating from the 1740s through the early nineteenth century has been considered an age in which the concept of genius evolves from its prior significations of attendant or ancestral spirit (such as the genius of a given locale) or natural inclination to its more Romantic and modern associations of an ecstatic and creative individuality exemplifying, in Drummond Bone’s words, the singular status of an “unfathomable exception.” 7 Such individuality, oxymoronic in its very exemplarity, personifies what Thomas McFarland calls “the originality paradox,” the ontological dependence of the individual on the group from which it emerges and against which it is contrasted, and the onus placed on the individual artist by the tradition in which and out from which that artist...

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