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A pastor's night thoughts

Portrait of Johann Jacob Frey
Portrait of Edmund Ludlow from the title page of his Memoirs as published in 1698.

The Basel clergyman Emanuel Merian, born in 1732, was very precocious. He began studying philosophy when he was twelve, theology at fifteen and was ordained at age twenty. Then his career stalled; he was his father’s "Helper" in his Basel parish until the age of 28. In 1760, Merian took over a country parish of his own in Bretzwil, writing, memorizing and preaching a sermon every Sunday, teaching confirmation classes, admonishing debtors and marrying parishioners. In 1766, he became Münsterpfarrer and Antistes at Basel Cathedral, holding both positions for 50 years until his death at age 84.

Merian’s link to England is an extraordinary almost secret episode in this long and fairly standard career. Despite his early intellectual promise, he did not study abroad, possibly because his father needed him. But in the four years in Bretzwil, he kept a journal in English, a language which was not on any school curriculum and which anglophiles like Johann Jacob Frey acquired in England. This journal describes, in succinct and correct English, his parish duties, his marriage (very briefly) and a large number of books he read. Among many collections of English and French sermons, these include two seminal novels in English. Both are epistolary works with female protagonists: the first early English translation of Jeanne Riccoboni’s Letters of My Lady Catesby and then Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, a tortured psychological masterpiece and one of the longest novels in the language. Merian tore through 4600 little octavo pages in just three weeks, recording when he finished each volume but not commenting in any way. The only clue to any kind of emotion comes in the entry for New Year’s Eve, 1760, when he notes "I had to do with some Debtors /wrote a Letter to the Lords Deputies" and then ends the year’s notes with a passionate, melancholy passage from Edward Young’s bestseller Night Thoughts:

… Years to Moments shrink,
Ages to years. The Telescope is turn’d.
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 past 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.

Young. Night-Thoughts.

Regula Hohl Trillini