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Thomas Young: The Last Man Who Knew Everything

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This chapter details the youth of Thomas Young, the 18th century genius who "Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Among Other Feats."
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"Although I have readily fallen in with the idea of assisting you in your learning, yet [there] is in reality very little that a person who is seriously and industriously disposed to improve may not obtain from books with more advantage than from a living instructor ... Masters and mistresses are very necessary to compensate for want of inclination and exertion: but whoever would arrive at excellence must be self-taught."

Young, letter to his brother, 1798

Two or three years before his death, Thomas Young wrote a substantial autobiographical sketch in the third person, intended to be of use to someone writing an entry on "Young, Thomas" in a future edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Possibly he had yielded to the idea at the request of his favorite sister-in-law, Emily, to whom he gave the manuscript. Immediately after his death, it was consulted by his friend Hudson Gurney in writing his brief memoir of Young, and again in the 1840s and 50s by his biographer George Peacock; then it disappeared. It was rediscovered only in the 1970s in the papers of Sir Francis Galton at University College London inside a black folder marked "Biograph: notes whence extracts were made for Hereditary Genius." Galton, a scientist best known for his work on eugenics, had apparently consulted Young's sketch in the 1860s while researching his leading work, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences, a book stimulated by the publication of his first cousin Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. For some reason, the manuscript was never returned to the Young family.

Young was not a good candidate for a hereditarian like Galton, who made virtually no use of the sketch in his book, for Young had no offspring and no eminent close relatives. While it certainly cannot be said of his immediate forebears that they were "wholly without distinction and wholly without learning"—as has been said of Newton's family by his biographer Richard Westfall—they do resemble Einstein's merchant ancestors in combining considerable material prosperity with little obvious distinction. Young's father, Thomas Senior, was a mercer (cloth merchant) and banker from the village of Milverton, near Taunton, in the county of Somerset, in the south-west of England, while his mother Sarah was the daughter of a respectable merchant also from Somerset. The only notable figure in the family was her uncle, Dr Richard Brocklesby, a well-connected London physician, who would later have a decisive effect on his great-nephew Thomas's life.

Young's autobiographical sketch is virtually silent on his parents and siblings. He notes that he was born in Milverton on 13 June 1773, the eldest of ten children, and makes no further reference to his brothers and sisters. Nor is there any mention of his mother other than her name. Of Thomas Young Senior, the son notes: "His father followed the commercial fashion of the day, and became a manufacturer of money: he was for a time very successful in his speculations: but though a man of strict integrity, he was at last involved in the ruinous consequences of the general depression of the value of landed property so fatal to the country bankers."

An obvious reason for Young's lack of warmth is that his parents were Quakers who regarded their nonconformist religion, with its prohibitions on attending places of entertainment and on frivolity, and its particular observances—such as wearing plain black dress and broad hats, and using the same terms of address, thee and thou, to all, regardless of rank—as very serious matters indeed. The parents were, according to Gurney, himself a Quaker who would have known the Youngs personally, "of the strictest of a sect, whose fundamental principle it is, that the perception of what is right or wrong, to its minutest ramifications, is to be looked for in the immediate influence of a Supreme intelligence, and that therefore the individual is to act upon this, lead where it may, and compromise nothing." There is no place at all in Quakerism for the established authority of the church and monarch.

Young—like his friend Gurney—ceased to be a Quaker in his mid-twenties while his parents were still alive, married a non-Quaker, and regarded himself as a member of the Church of England in adult life. But according to Gurney's memoir:

To the bent of these early impressions he was accustomed in afterlife to attribute, in some degree, the power he so eminently possessed of an imperturbable resolution to effect any object on which he was engaged, which he brought to bear on every thing he undertook, and by which he was enabled to work out his own education almost from infancy, with little comparative assistance or direction from others.

However, Young's autobiographical sketch, on which Gurney's memoir was based, does not actually say this. What Young wrote—which was suppressed by Gurney and Young's biographer Peacock—was in fact distinctly ambivalent about, and even dismissive of, his Quaker roots:

His parents were rather below than above the middle station of life: but they were members of the society of Quakers; among whom education is not only very equally distributed, but the perfect community of rights and pretensions, and the complete contempt of public opinion not only obviate a great part of the depression of the lower orders, but have a natural tendency to produce, in a person who has any consciousness of his own power, a sentiment not very remote from conceit and presumption.

Very likely, Young regarded his father and mother as sharing in this general self-righteousness verging on bigotry, and as a direct consequence took care in his own life always to keep a close check on any incipient feelings of conceit about his remarkable achievements. Yet still it does seem plausible to attribute at least part of his attraction to science, his industriousness, and his self-reliance to his Quaker upbringing. There was a disproportionately large number of Quaker physicians and scientists in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain, such as the physicians John Fothergill, Thomas Dimsdale and John Coakley Lettsom, the chemist John Dalton and the meteorologist Luke Howard. One reason was probably that "despite the emphasis on discipline", each member of the Society of Friends was "encouraged to form his or her own views on any subject", as noted by the historians John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor in their survey of Quaker (and ex-Quaker) fellows of the Royal Society. Young himself notes in his autobiographical sketch: "if it was allowable to dwell more on one part than another of holy writ, he was most disposed to be impressed with the importance of that part which conjoins [enjoins?] the votaries of true and undefiled religion, to teach themselves unassisted from the writ."

A second reason for Young's lack of warmth toward his parents must surely have been that he was sent away from Milverton very soon after his birth, and thereafter never lived with his parents for more than periods of a few months. While this could well have been necessary because of lack of space in a small village house with a growing family, as suggested by Alex Wood, it does seem a surprising attitude for parents to take, especially toward their first-born son.

Thomas went to live with his mother's father Robert Davis, the merchant, who lived in Minehead, some fifteen miles from Milverton. He writes warmly in his autobiographical sketch of this grandfather, who strongly encouraged his grandson's education. He was fond of classical literature, and one of his favorite sayings, which made a lifelong impression on Thomas, consisted of the famous lines of Alexander Pope:

A little learning is a dang'rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring ...

Pieria was the legendary home of the Muses on Mount Olympus.

Very soon, by the age of two, Thomas was reading fluently. Before he was four, at the village school and at home with his aunt Mary, he had read the Bible twice through. He also began memorizing poetry in both English and Latin, even though he could not yet understand Latin properly. He taught himself to remember Oliver Goldsmith's entire poem The Deserted Village, which had been published a few years earlier, and his grandfather noted in a quarto edition: "This poem was repeated by Thomas Young to me, with the exception of a word or two, before the age of five." (Young himself, characteristically accurate, notes that he was then six.) He also read Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, but made no comment on them; they seem to have been among the few English novels Young felt worthy of his careful attention, whether as a child or as an adult.

Like many child prodigies, his memory was formidable. Another such prodigy, from the previous generation, was Richard Porson, the classical scholar whose biography Young wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica after Porson's death. There he remarked that "though a strong memory by no means constitutes talent, yet its possession is almost a necessary condition for the successful exertion of talent in general, and, indeed, it is very possible that the other faculties of the mind may be strengthened by the early cultivation of this one." But Young added a significant rider on the subject of memory, thinking of the fact that Porson, for all his great scholarship in the classics, left nothing to the world that was truly original:

It seems to be by a wise and benevolent, though by no means an obvious arrangement of a Creative Providence, that a certain degree of oblivion becomes a most useful instrument in the advancement of human knowledge, enabling us readily to look back on the prominent features only of various objects and occurrences, and to class them and reason upon them, by the help of this involuntary kind of abstraction and generalisation, with incomparably greater facility than we could do, if we retained the whole detail of what had been once but slightly impressed on our minds.

Looking back on himself as a child, Young wrote disarmingly: "As far as the qualities of the mind and feelings are concerned, he may be said to have been born old, and to have died young." From a very early age, it was clear to him that he wanted to study many different serious subjects at the most advanced available level, and he consciously set himself the task of mastering them. This was remarkable in itself, but what is more remarkable is that he did not lose his drive with increasing age: he remained curious and determined right to the end of his life, long after other child prodigies have burned themselves out. "I like a deep and difficult investigation when I happen to have made it easy for myself if not to all others," Young told Gurney in his forties, because "[it] keeps one alive." Perhaps he was fortunate that his Quaker relations did not believe in 'parading' a child prodigy. At any rate, said Isaac Asimov, the writer and scientist, of Young: "He was the best kind of infant prodigy, the kind that matures into an adult prodigy."

Not surprisingly, conventional schooling did not stimulate him. Before he was six, he was sent daily to a dissenting clergyman, "who had neither talent nor temper to teach any thing well". He also attended a "miserable" boarding school near Bristol for almost a year and a half. He was supposed to learn arithmetic there, but found that he had got to the end of the textbook under his own steam before his master had reached the middle with the class. However when he was almost nine, in 1782, he transferred to a school at Compton in Dorsetshire run by a Mr Thompson, which suited him better, because the headmaster allowed the pupils some freedom in the way they spent their time.

Here Thomas read the commonest Greek and Latin classics—Virgil, Horace, Xenophon and Homer—and some elementary mathematics, as well as acquiring some knowledge of French and Italian, using books published in Paris borrowed from a schoolfellow. Nothing amazing in this, given the emphasis on the classics in that period. But then he branched out in his language study into Hebrew, by reading for amusement a few chapters of the Hebrew Bible. He was soon hooked, and after finally leaving the school in 1786, aged thirteen, he devoted himself at home to Hebrew and read through 30 chapters of the Book of Genesis without any assistance. Then, in answer to a discussion started over the dinner table, as to whether there were as marked differences among eastern as among European languages, he began to learn Arabic and Persian. A neighbor who heard of his fascination with Oriental languages, though a complete stranger to him, lent him grammars of Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac and Samaritan, and the "Lord's Prayer" written in more than a hundred languages, which gave him extraordinary pleasure. He also read through most of Sir William Jones's Persian grammar published in 1771.

It must have been around this time that Thomas—quaintly dressed no doubt as a country boy in his Quaker costume—was said to have been taken to visit London by a relative and to have become engrossed in reading a valuable classic at a bookseller's stall. The skeptical bookseller said something like "There, my lad, if you could but translate to me a page of that (valuable as it is) it should be yours." His young customer promptly turned the text into flowing English. The bookseller, true to his word, though wincing at his sacrifice, handed over the book.

If it is beginning to sound as if science was neglected in Young's early years, this was not so. The Compton school usher, Josiah Jeffrey, "a very ingenious young man", lent Thomas the Lectures on Natural Philosophy of Benjamin Martin, and an elementary introduction to the Newtonian philosophy. The optical part of Martin's book got him started on making telescopes and microscopes, initially with the help of Jeffrey, who also had "an electrical machine", which the boy was allowed to use frequently, though disappointingly Young does not reveal what such a machine, in those pre-Voltaic days, was for. Jeffrey took Thomas's help, too, with the grinding and preparing of various kinds of colors, which were available for sale to the boys and others, and with bookbinding; and he taught him the first principles of drawing, with which he copied several specimens from the copper-plate of a book titled The Principles of Design. When Jeffrey left the school, Thomas took over and began selling paper, copperplates, copybooks and colors to his schoolfellows; he earned five shillings, useful pocket money in 1786.

During school holidays back in Milverton with his parents or in Minehead with his grandfather, Thomas developed these mechanical and scientific interests. His father had acquired at auction Joseph Priestley's book on air, which prompted a delighted Thomas to make his first chemical experiments. His father's neighbor, a land surveyor called Kingdon, was happy for Thomas to come and read at his house a three-volume folio edition of a dictionary of arts and sciences, and also to let the boy learn to use some of his mathematical and philosophical instruments. At Minehead, he got to know a saddler called Atkins, who kept a meteorological journal using a barometer and thermometer during the whole of 1782, which was published by the Royal Society in 1784. Atkins lent the boy a quadrant, "which became the constant companion of my walks", as he used it to measure the height of nearby hills, probably of Exmoor. Another productive encounter, with a man called Birkbeck, made Thomas passionate to study botany. So that he could see plants in detail, he decided to make a microscope following the instructions in Martin's book. He procured a lathe for turning the requisite optical glass and other materials, which he managed to get hold of with the help of his grandfather and a cooperative clerk working for his father. "My zeal for botany during these operations was replaced by my fondness for optics, and subsequently by that for turning." At the same time, Martin's book introduced him to the method of fluxions, as the Newtonian calculus was known—but left him frustrated at not understanding it. "I well recollect," he wrote, "that having seen a demonstration in Martin which exhibited, though unnecessarily, some fluxional symbols, I never felt satisfied until I had read, a year or two afterwards, a short introduction to the method of fluxions." (Young's glancing comment, "though unnecessarily", is typical of him; faintly pedantic in such an anecdotal context, but at the same time reminding us of how he would always disapprove of using unnecessary or ostentatious mathematics to describe scientific concepts and physical reality.)

But before his early education now starts to sound too much like that of an archetypal scientist—a practical-minded boyhood obsessed with making things and experimenting on nature to the exclusion of human relationships—Young utters a perhaps surprising, cautionary sentence in his autobiographical sketch: "not that he was ever particularly fond of repeating experiments, or even of attempting new ones; for he thought the sacrifice of time generally great, and the success very uncertain". Young did like to use his hands and make experiments in the time-honored Royal Society tradition of Newton, Boyle and Hooke, but he liked even more to use his mind, by reading all the authorities on a subject and coming to his own conclusion, which might lead him to an experiment of his own. In this respect, Young was more like Einstein with his famous 'thought' experiments than Newton in his Cambridge college laboratory or the eighteenth-century anatomist John Hunter, the 'father of modern surgery', whose last lectures Young would attend as a medical student. "[Hunter's] early distrust of the written word would make him forever skeptical of classical teaching and the slavish repetition of ancient beliefs; he would always prefer to believe the evidence of his eyes to the written words of others," writes Hunter's biographer, Wendy Moore. Young, by contrast, respected both kinds of evidence—though some of his later critics would say that as a result of this lack of enthusiasm for experiments and his respect for the literature, he did not conduct enough experiments and lacked originality as a thinker.

The next five years of his life, from 1787 to 1792, before he became a medical student, Young himself thought were "perhaps the most profitable of his life, with regard to mental and moral cultivation". He was transplanted from rustic Somerset to a country house known as Youngsbury, near Ware in Hertfordshire, not far to the north of London, where he would spend two-thirds of each year, and the other third in a house at Red Lion Square in central London, for the duration of the winter months. He rarely went home to Somerset.

The abrupt shift was the result of Quaker family networking. Youngsbury belonged to one of the wealthy Quaker banking and brewing families, the Barclays, as did the house in London. Its owner, David Barclay, was looking for a companion to share the education at home of his twelve-year-old grandson, Hudson Gurney, when his niece, Priscilla Gurney, happened to stay with Thomas Young's aunt and strongly recommended to her uncle the precocious, thirteen-year-old Thomas. Thomas's parents were in favor of the move, and it turned out to be a lucky perfect match for his personality and talents. He now became, in effect, part of the Gurney family, forming a lifelong friendship with Hudson Gurney despite theirs being an attraction of opposites. Thirty years later, in a letter, Young remarked to his friend Hudson:

It is singular how much you and I are contrasted in everything: you are generally out of humor with yourself, though you have great reason to be satisfied with others: I am abundantly disposed to give due weight to my own merits, but I feel nothing like an obligation to the world in general whom I cannot persuade to swallow my prescriptions with as much docility as they drink your beer.

What Gurney appears to have lacked—resolution—Young had in spades. Throughout his life, Young was keen on the idea that what one man had done, another man could also do; he had only a small belief in individual genius. According to one story told by Gurney, the first time his friend mounted on horseback at Youngsbury, he tried to follow the groom over a six-bar gate and was thrown heavily to the ground. But he got up without saying a word—Gurney never saw Young lose his temper at any time in his life—and made a second attempt, was again unseated, yet this time managed to stay on the horse. At the third attempt, he cleared the gate. In years to come, said Gurney, after taking lessons in horsemanship, Young would show "all sorts of feats of personal agility".

The tutor appointed for the boys by Barclay declined to take the job, so Thomas simply took over the classical education of Hudson, and they began reading together the great models of classical antiquity in both Greek and Latin. A classical tutor, John Hodgkin, now arrived to keep an eye on the pair, but there was relatively little need for him. The result was eminently satisfactory to both sides: Hodgkin was able to pursue his own classical studies, while giving Young a few hints on his Greek penmanship, which in due course resulted in a teaching book of ancient Greek texts by Hodgkin, Calligraphia Graeca, with some beautifully written examples in Young's hand. The close and informed appreciation of the Greek letters picked up in this practice would much later prove invaluable when copying and analyzing the Rosetta Stone and ancient Egyptian manuscripts.

As for mathematics and the sciences, the years at Youngsbury seem to have passed in extensive reading, rather than the practical experimentation of Young's first years. He studied botany and zoology and was particularly fond of entomology, but devoted much effort to reading mathematics, including Newton's Principia and Opticks, which he tackled in 1790, when he was 17. His biographer Peacock, a Cambridge tutor whose field was mathematics, was perplexed that a self-educated student could understand Newton's Principia, given the fact that it was a sealed book to most of Newton's mathematical contemporaries. But Peacock accepted Young's claim after reading his remarks in his private journal, which could only have been made by someone who understood Newton's propositions in detail. Nevertheless Peacock, who was severely critical of Young's general attitude to education—that private study was always superior to study in class with a teacher—was convinced that Young's method of learning mathematics was an inappropriate one, even for a mind as quick as Young's:

A retentive memory and great clearness and precision of thought would appear to have superseded in his case the necessity of a more progressive training. In other respects the effects of this irregular intrusion into the inmost recesses of philosophy were such as might have been anticipated: he never felt the necessity nor appreciated the value of those formal processes of proof which other minds require.

Young kept a precise note of what he read each year. This is his list of books for 1790 in his own order with additional information in square brackets: "Pentalogia Graeca [by John Burton]; Reynolds's Discourses; World [a weekly published in 1753-56]; Lee's Botany; Bonnycastle's algebra; Sheridan on elocution; Haphaestion Pauuri; Linnaei [Linnaeus's] Philosophia Botanica; Homer's Iliad and Odyssey; Simpson's Fluxions; Corneille chef d'oeuvres; part of the Monthly Review; Virgil; Lettsom's Fothergill; Demosthenes of Mounteney; Custer and Leeds; Foster on accent and quantity; Blackstone's Commentaries; Hesiod; Aeschylus; Euripides; Sophocles; Newtoni Principia, Lycophron, Newtoni Optica; History of France, volume 3 (about 1789 and 1790) [by Nathaniel W. Wraxall]; part of Caesar, and of Cicero: Virgil, Horace; Juvenal, Persius; Terence; Sallust's Catiline; Martial, book 1; Eton Greek grammar; Greek Evangelists; Cyropaedia [by Xenophon]; part of Homer, of Euripides, of Sophocles, of Aeschylus, of Aristophanes; Rollin's ancient history; Gough's history of Quakers; Bonnycastle's astronomy; Euclid's six books; Bolieau."

He was now on his way in right earnest to becoming a polymath. But Young himself was not especially impressed. In his autobiographical sketch, he said of his reading habits: "Though he wrote with rapidity, he read but slowly, [and] perhaps the whole list of the works that he studied, in the course of 50 years, does not amount to more than a thousand volumes: while it is said that William King the poet read no fewer than seven thousand in the course of a residence of seven years at Oxford." Of course, two centuries later, even literary scholars have hardly heard of this poet.

The only cloud over his intellectual idyll at Youngsbury appeared when Thomas was about fifteen. He glosses over it in his autobiographical sketch, but it must undoubtedly have been a cause of grave concern. He appeared to be developing a case of consumption—pulmonary tuberculosis—"a disease so frequent as to carry off prematurely about one fourth part of the inhabitants of Europe, and so fatal as often to deter the practitioner even from attempting a cure." This is from Young's grimly fascinating book, A Practical and Historical Treatise on Consumptive Diseases, published in 1815, which contains a number of observations on his personal symptoms in 1788-89. Perhaps the most interesting is the following:

[T]he dust of hard substances, constantly inhaled, seems to have an indisputable tendency to excite the disease: but the smoke of towns probably much less so than might naturally be imagined. In my own case, the symptoms originated in a very pure air, in a very healthy part of Hertfordshire, and subsided principally during a residence of some months in Red Lion Square, surrounded by closely built streets.

He also rejected on rational grounds, from personal experience, the supposition that once the tubercles had formed in the lungs, the consumption would become incurable:

I cannot help being persuaded that in my case there was an incipient formation of tubercles, the difficulty of breathing, and hectic symptoms, which I experienced, not being intelligible on any other supposition, since there was for a considerable time neither cough nor expectoration; and [the fact] that these tubercles must have disappeared at a subsequent period, was completely demonstrated by the restoration of the capacity of the chest to the extent of containing seven or eight quarts of air.

All that could be done for the youth was done. He was bled ("twice only"); a small blister was kept open on his chest for more than a year (at times "exceedingly painful"); a tonic was administered ("the Peruvian bark", that is cinchona containing quinine); and he was kept for two years on a diet of milk, buttermilk, eggs and vegetables with a very little weak broth ("little more than water in disguise"). His doctors were two well-known figures, both from Quaker backgrounds: Thomas Dimsdale, who had acquired a title, Baron Dimsdale, after inoculating Empress Catherine II of Russia against smallpox, and his great-uncle Richard Brocklesby, the physician of Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke. With their assistance, and under the loving care of Mrs Barclay, Thomas made a complete recovery.

One of the few advantages of the disease was that it brought him to the attention of Brocklesby, who was somewhat beholden to Barclay. Judging from Brocklesby's letters, though, this must have been a mixed blessing for his great-nephew. Brocklesby comes across as a man of strong, and strongly held, opinions, about both medicine and the world, though affectionate in his own way and keenly aware of young "Tommy's" potential. Advising on the miserably dull diet, he writes in late 1789:

Not that I am of opinion eating a little fish twice or thrice a week would hurt you, but you must make the trial cautiously and follow that which seems on experience not to be prejudicial. ... Recollect that the least slip (as who can be secure against error?) would in you, who seem in all things to set yourself above ordinary humanity, seem more monstrous or reprehensible than it might be in the generality of mankind. Your prudery about abstaining from the use of sugar on account of the Negro trade, in any one else would be altogether ridiculous, but as long as the whole of your mind keeps free from spiritual pride or too much presumption in your facility of acquiring language, which is no more than the dross of knowledge, you may be indulged in such whims, till your mind becomes enlightened with more reason.

Like many Quakers of his time, Young was an advocate of the abolition of slavery. On this occasion, he stood up to his elderly relative and well-wisher and continued his boycott of sugar and other products from the West Indian plantations—for in his autobiographical sketch, he notes proudly: "he was not fourteen when he took up the resolution of abstaining from the produce of the labor of slaves, and he adhered for seven years to this resolution, without once infringing it." Around the time he dropped it, in 1795, David Barclay of Youngsbury spent £3000 on liberating 30 slaves from a property in Jamaica that had fallen to him.

What really impressed old Brocklesby about his gifted great-nephew was the reaction to the young man's classical knowledge from the members of Brocklesby's circle of literary-minded friends in London. These included Edmund Burke, who had just published his influential Reflections on the Revolution in France; the statesman William Windham; Charles Burney, organist, composer and father of the novelist Fanny Burney; Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter; and two physicians with strong interests in the classics, Dr Thomas Lawrence and Sir George Baker.

Young had sent his great-uncle a translation into Greek of some lines from Shakespeare's Henry VIII. Brocklesby wrote to Youngsbury with genuine enthusiasm:

I duly received a pleasing letter from you with a beautiful manuscript on vellum, a paraphrastic translation of Wolsey's farewell to Cromwell; better judges than I am, give it much praise for the spirit of Euripides, which they say it breathes ...

But Mr Burke has taken the Greek manuscript from me, and means to show it to divers learned men of his acquaintance for their philological criticism. I should be glad to have a copy of the same on vellum, as neatly written ... Mr Burke wishes you to try what you can make of Lear's horrid imprecations on his barbarous daughters ... If you can give the Greek the like compass of energetic expression as my favorite Shakspeare has done in his native tongue, Mr Burke will laud you and judge most favorably of your performance. He advises you to study Aristotle's Logic, his Poetics, and above all books, Cicero's moral and philosophic works. Your mind is not yet strained to any false principles, and he thinks you should be reared and cultivated in the best manner, so as to form your views, to emulate a Bacon or a Newton in the maturity and fullness of time; for he thinks it worth while for a comprehensive mind to be disregardful of any pecuniary emoluments of a profession, if you can but be satisfied with a small competence, and feel your mind prone to and satisfied with enlarged and useful speculations ...

Have a care, however, that my frankness towards you may not puff you up with vanity, which has been the rock that many others have split on, and I hope you will steer clear from ...

I had a fever since I last saw you, which has left exceeding weakness in my knees, so that I can hardly walk one hundred yards together, but I must learn to be satisfied in what is past. Pray God to have you under his immediate care, and that no imprudence of yours hereafter may frustrate the work that in you, with care, may be wrought.

Soon, the youthful prodigy was introduced to Brocklesby's intellectual circle in person. Thomas spent the last two months of 1791 staying with his great-uncle at his house off Park Lane, rather than at the Barclay house in Red Lion Square. In his journal for 12 December, Young noted that Dr Lawrence, Sir George Baker, Richard Porson and another came to dinner; and that one of them read out Dr Johnson's Latin poem written on completion of his great dictionary. He recorded a conversation with Porson, who already admired Young's Greek penmanship, which began:

Young: Will turba scholarum do?

Porson: No; the five or six examples that may be brought are not sufficient to justify the making à sch short.

Young: What are we to make of immensaque stagna?

Porson: Most of the MSS have immensa stagna.

The rest of the conversation and other conversations show that Young could already hold his own in detailed discussion of Greek prosody. Meanwhile, the alcohol flowed convivially around the table—at least into Porson's glass if not into that of Young (as a Quaker he abstained), who remembered occasions when the subtlest nuances of Greek were discussed and dissected while Porson was "somewhat characteristically attempting to fill his glass out of an empty bottle".

Today's Encyclopaedia Britannica calls Porson: "British master of classical scholarship during the eighteenth century, the most brilliant of the English school that devoted itself to the task of freeing Greek texts from corruption introduced through the centuries." Young, in his Britannica entry on Porson, called him "one of the greatest men, and the very greatest critic, of his own or of any other age." And he explored Porson's achievement, thereby showing his own depth of classical scholarship, in considerable detail, while commenting that, "We find nothing in the nature of theory, or of the discovery of general laws, except some canons, which he has laid down, chiefly as having been used by the Greek tragedians in the construction of their verses." Young mentioned four such canons, of which the first two were: "when a tragic iambic ends with a trisyllable, or a cretic, this word must be preceded either by a short syllable, or by a monosyllable"; and that "an anapaest is only admissible in a tragic iambic, as constituting the first foot, except in some cases of proper names".

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1 Young’s translation into Greek of the speech by Wolsey to Cromwell in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, handwritten by Young on vellum, as shown in the biography of Young by Peacock.

With such prowess in the classics, Young might have been expected to study Greek and Latin further at university, or to study law, which was the recommendation of Burke. But it seems that he was already drawn to physic—probably influenced by some of the leading physicians he had recently met—a profession that at the turn of the century was considered to require a classical training just as much as a scientific one. Moreover, Brocklesby, his great-uncle, who had no children, had made it clear that he would pay Thomas's way as a medical student and leave him part of his estate in his will, so he could set himself up as a London physician. To what extent Young was influenced by this tempting offer is unclear, but it appears to have caused some family tension, judging from a letter sent by Young's father from Milverton to David Barclay of Youngsbury in early 1791:

[T]he plan for his studying physic is pretty generally approved of by his relations, and I hope not thought very unfavourably of by thyself ... I am apprehensive that the connection with his Uncle Brocklesby will add to his natural propensity to study and altho' the doctor is a man possessed of some valuable qualifications, yet I do not think him altogether fit to have the sole direction of young people therefore were he to make my son great offers I don't think it would be advisable to accept it, that is to the exclusion of myself and his other kind friends having the oversight of him, at same time I have no wish to offend him. ... If anything should occur I shall take it kind if thou wilt communicate thy sentiments to our Uncle Brocklesby as any remark from thee would be received much better than what I might say.

The following year, 1792, the decision was taken. Young spent his last summer of rural calm at Youngsbury. In the fall of that year, aged 19, he moved to London and took lodgings in Westminster not far from his medical lectures and his great-uncle's house (and not too close either, one may imagine Young as thinking). From now on, he became a citizen of the world's greatest metropolis.

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