British Congregationalist minister Isaac Watts composed hymn lyrics on biblical themes of enduring popularity. Among his best-known compositions are “Joy to the World” and “O God, our help in ages past.” He created original versions of the Psalms of David through a type of translation featuring clear and direct use of the English language, tetrameter lines of verse, and a simplified approach to theology that emphasized people’s sinfulness, the beauty of creation, the power of God, and the hope of redemption from sin made possible by the life of Jesus. The hymns and Psalms texts enjoyed a wide audience, especially in the United States during Watts’s lifetime, with an edition published by Benjamin Franklin in 1729.
As a boy, Watts was concerned with the unpoetic and often-complicated rendering of the Psalms from which he was supposed to draw inspiration. He was encouraged by his father to begin translating the Psalms, an activity to which he returned when he had his own church in London at the turn of the eighteenth century.
He incorporated a variety of poetic techniques for his renderings of the Psalms to accomplish what he called “accommodating” the Old Testament poetry and doctrines to the people of his parish. His poetry was, therefore, inspired by the Psalms, and he also wrote original verse that brought a New Testament perspective to the images of God in the Old Testament. The primary subjects of his poetry are the power, majesty, and mercy of God; the life of Christ and of the Christians who take him as a role model; the nature of the Church; the steps to achieve eternal life; and the mystery of the Eucharist. In preparing his Psalms texts and his poetry, Watts bore in mind the importance of creating core and repeated images that paralleled aspects of daily life, such as his emphasis on the body of Jesus as food for the soul illustrated in the hymn notated as “Memorial for our absent Lord,” drawn from two Gospels: “The Lord of Life this table spread/ With his own flesh and dying blood/ We on the rich provision feed/ and taste the wine and bless our God.”
The Psalms and hymns are mainly written in rhymed quatrains, and all are designed for congregational singing. Many rhyme abab, though some feature rhyming couplets, and there are occasional off-rhymes for sense more than sound. The core of rhymed words summarize the major tenets of the Christian’s relationship with God. The repeated characterization of God as kind and people as sinners solidified the images...
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