Andrew Young

Priest, Poet and Naturalism, A Reassessment

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Richard Omrod
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Lutterworth Press
    , August
     2018.
     214 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780718895136.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Andrew Young, Priest, Poet, and Naturalist, A Reassessment, by Richard Ormrod, is written for those who are well conversant in the etiology and terminology of poetry and poetic imagery, as well as those conversant in the socio-political religious environment prevalent during the transition from the Victorian and Edwardian eras toward more modern sensibilities. One of the challenges of the biography process is to illuminate the subject’s humanity without coloring the result with subjective opinion, and although Young was certainly a product of his time, stories of his self-absorbed and demanding nature do not portray him as an appealing character. By interspersing analysis of Young’s poetry in relation to concurrent events in his life, Ormrod hopes to lessen the impact of Young’s often abrasive behavior and attitudes, encouraging his audience to focus on the poet’s work. 

Throughout the book, Ormrod is meticulous about noting the discrepancies between facts gained through research and extant information given by Young in his unpublished autobiographical writings. However, Ormrod’s resolution of the mystery of Young’s brother David’s disappearance was awkward; David, who was working in Singapore as a medical partner, had been implicated in a criminal case involving falsified morphine prescriptions. He was dismissed from his position, and it later became known he was wanted for questioning in several additional matters. David’s letters stopped in late 1907, and his family never heard from him again. Ormrod concludes that it is unlikely David committed suicide given that the body was never found and considers it more likely that he escaped, adopting a new identity (12-13). However, there is no evidence to support either of these theories, therefore the mystery would have been better left as is. In addition to this odd entry, there are consistent issues with sentence construction—excessive use of commas and unclear antecedents. Editing the prose for clarification would have been instrumental in increasing the pleasure of the reader’s experience as, almost by definition, the type of reader who would be interested in this work would also find the lapses in grammar irritating. 

Andrew Young follows a logical, chronological process for establishing Young’s history, and Ormrod effectively contextualizes the social and religious aspects of respectable family life in the Victorian era to build a layered portrait of the formative environment of Young’s early years. The second section, recounting Young’s academic history, details his focus of study as well as primary influential experiences outside of his family. The poet took his social and moral cues from his early religious indoctrination, and his speculative, internalized concentration was on morality. 

The opening chapters are not poetry heavy, however the examples chosen eloquently demonstrate Young’s natural talent for meter. Ormrod’s condensed analysis of “The Ball Tree” is pertinent and relates the author’s mentality and background to his creative output. Within the first years of Young’s marriage—and establishment as a pastor—his production of simplistic, yet effective nature poetry was exceptional, fostered by his wife Janet’s able and unflagging support. Ormrod’s comparison of “In the Spinney” and “The Secret Wood” (66) offers a fine example of the poet’s growth over a short period of time (1931-1935), and Ormrod’s analysis is an effective way to illustrate Young’s literary progress, his alienation from people, and his fascination with nature. 

Throughout, Ormrod’s poetical analysis is adept and reflects his experience and breadth of knowledge, although there are times when his individual opinions may have been positively colored by his overall appreciation of Young’s talent. The inclusion of the informal final exam letter, crafted after Young’s conversion to the Church of England (71-73), provides a window into the workings of Young’s mind up to this point in the book. This letter and his answers, relating as they do specifically to his belief system, make it clear that the reasons for his apparent coldness are tied to his focus on the life of the mind and spirit, often to the exclusion of softer emotions. 

By correlating the poet’s personal life with changes in the works he produced, Ormrod shows that, as Young’s religious practice changed to the Church of England, his poetry gave way to prose, such as his popular A Prospect of Flowersand A Retrospect of Flowers. Following this period of nature-centric work, and as he ages, Young begins his final, introspective phase, producing “Into Hades” as well as “The Time Traveler,” and writes what Ormrod considers to be Young’s finest work, Out of the Word and Back. By using examples from Young’s personal life—such as letters to his grandchildren and the care of his wife as she aged and became frail—Ormrod is able to humanize Young, although, as related, some of Young’s actions would be unacceptable in today’s society. 

The remaining chapters in this section consist of an extensive analysis of Out of the World and Back, followed by an exploration of Young’s lifelong interactions with literature, both as a practice and as a philosophy. In part 3, Ormrod relates Young’s experience and fascination with botany and wildflowers to his successful Flowerbooks. Finally, in part 4, Ormrod engages with old and new assessments of the poet’s status in the canon of English Literature, detailing technical, philosophical, religious, and traditional factors that Young was both influenced by, and made his own.

Ormrod has attempted a difficult task—combining biography with textual analysis—in an integrated but disjointed fashion. He has included impressions from a variety of sources including Young’s family, friends, poets, bishops, acquaintances, and so forth, creating a well-rounded portrait of the man. When Young received his honorary degree from Edinburgh University, the biography written for the The Royal High School’s magazine, Scholia Regia, provided an apt and well-chosen description of the poet’s accomplishment: “unimpeachable sincerity glows behind all the technical facets of his work” (88). The cumulative effect of Ormrod’s effort makes Young more relatable and intriguing, despite his apparent lifelong habit of solitary cantankerousness, and thereby encourages the reader to freshly evaluate Young’s talent for themselves.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Terri Tomlinson is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Ormrod is an academic who has taught for the Open University, and is a published biographer, journalist, reviewer and poet. Like Andrew Young, he lives in Sussex.

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