Isaac Watts Essay - Critical Essays


Criticism of Isaac Watts’s poetry has ranged from what could be termed “kind” to that which is obviously and totally negative. In his Life of Watts (1781), Samuel Johnson set the critical tone by complaining of the irregularity of his measures, his blank verse, and his insufficiently correspondent rhymes. As was his method, however, Johnson did find merit in Watts’s smooth and easy lines and religiously pure thoughts, combined with ample piety and innocence. Still, the London sage wished for greater vigor in the hymnodist’s verse. In the nineteenth century, critical commentators made sport of the sing-song patterns of Watts’s children’s hymns, while Lewis Carroll delighted in parodies of such pieces as “Let dogs delight to bark and bite,” “’Tis the voice of the sluggard,” and the “Busy bee.” Such strokes secured for Watts the lasting reputation of an Independent minister who accomplished little, poetically, beyond penning stiff moral verses for little children in his spare moments.

Careful reading of the poet’s prefaces to those collections intended for mature minds, however, reveals him to have been his own rather stern critic. As late as 1734, with his major poetry already published, Watts proclaimed (in Reliquiae Juveniles) that he had made no pretense to the name of poet, especially since the age and the nation had produced so many superior writers of verse. More than the mere conventional expression of humility, the statement leads directly to an examination of those “superior” souls steeped in classicism who helped Watts develop his poetic theories and practices. One, Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (Mathias Casimirus Sarbievius; 1595-1640)—although outside both Watts’s age and his nation—demonstrated the advantages of a form, the ode, that he could easily adapt to congregational and private worship. The other, John Milton—like Watts a Nonconformist and a classicist—proved that blank verse could convey both meaning and elegance.

Horae Lyricae

Sarbiewski—the Polish Jesuit, classical reviser of the breviary hymns under Pope Urban VIII, and known generally as the Christian Horace—wrote Latin odes and biblical paraphrases that became popular shortly after their publication in England in 1625 and 1628. Watts translated certain of those odes in his Horae Lyricae (both 1706 and 1709 editions); many other poets, both earlier and later, also translated some of Sarbiewski’s works: Among them wereHenry Vaughan (in 1651), Sir Edward Sherburne (1651), the compilers of Miscellany Poems and Translations by Oxford Hands(1685), Thomas Browne (1707-1708), and John Hughes (1720). Even Samuel Taylor Coleridge translated Sarbiewski’s “Ad Lyram,” but after the early nineteenth century little interest was expressed in the works of the Polish Jesuit. Watts probably discovered Sarbiewski sometime between 1680 and 1690, when studying Latin at the Free School at Southampton under the tutelage of the Reverend Pinhorne. The earliest printed evidence of Sarbiewski’s influence appeared in book 2 of Horae Lyricae in the form of an ode to Pinhorne, in which the young Watts thanked his schoolmaster for introducing him to the Latin poets, particularly Sarbiewski. The extravagant praise of Sarbiewski and the translation of his poetry make it clear that Watts never really lost his schoolboy regard for that poet. In fact, in the preface to the 1709 edition of Horae Lyricae, Watts admitted that he often added or deleted as many as ten or twenty lines in order to fit the original sense to his own design. Further, he apologized for not having been able to capture Sarbiewski’s force, exactness, and passion of expression.

Thirteen acknowledged translations and imitations of modern Latin appear throughout Watts’s poems and hymns; ten of these come from Sarbiewski. The Sarbiewski translations may be found in both the 1706 and 1709 editions of Horae Lyricae: “The fairest and only beloved,” “Mutual love stronger than death,”“Converse with Christ,” “Forsaken yet helping,” “Meditation in a Grove,” “Come, Lord Jesus,” “Love to Christ present or absent,” and the long narrative that received considerable praise from Robert Southey, “The Dacian Battle.” In Reliquiae Juveniles, a collection of earlier poetry and prose, Watts included translations of “To Dorio” and “The Hebrew Poet.” In the first piece, Watts reacted to what he termed the softness and the beauty of two four-line stanzas describing a lyric poet’s first attempts on the “harp” and his introduction to the lyric form. He complained, however, of the difficulties of translation. “The Hebrew Poet” is very long—thirty four-line stanzas. Again, Watts notes the difficulty of accurate translation from the Old Testament Psalms: How does the translator Christianize the piece, yet at the same time retain the “Hebrew glory” and the quality of the original Latin ode? Early in the poem, he mentions “The Bard that climb’d to Cooper’s-Hill,” referring to Sir John Denham, who succeeded as a poet concerned with meditative and speculative subjects but who failed as a translator of the psalms of David.

Despite his misgivings, Watts managed to do justice to Sarbiewski’s Latin poetry. His study of Sarbiewski and the practical exercise of translating his odes taught the Nonconformist poet to think in terms of higher nature while praising God. Thus, his hymns challenged the Augustans to regard natural objects closely and with a certain degree of enjoyment, a characteristic found lacking in the vast majority of Watts’s less pious contemporaries—principally John Sheffield, William Wycherley, Bishop Thomas Sprat, William Walsh, Bernard Mandeville, and, foremost among them, Jonathan Swift.

In upbringing and training and in conception of the poet’s purpose, certain tantalizing parallels exist between the early careers of Watts and Milton. Milton died the same year that Watts was born. Both emerged from Puritan homes, having been exposed to the dominant literary and cultural traditions of their times. After classical educations (although Milton’s was longer and perhaps more formal), both returned to their homes for further study, meditation, and work. As students, they both wrote Latin verse dedicated to their tutors: Milton’s “Ad Thomas Iunium, Praeceptorem Suum” (1627) when he was nineteen,...

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