Isaac Watts 1674-1748
English poet, religious prose writer, hymnist, and essayist.
Watts is often considered the “Father of English Hymnody.” In the almost 700 hymns he composed during his long writing career Watts combined paraphrases of scripture and lyric poetry to establish the standard for the modern English hymn. In addition, his Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715) was the first collection of hymns intended for children. A prominent member of the Independent Dissent religious group, Watts wrote many works on religion and pedagogy, among other subjects. However, his greatest legacy is the model of religious song and hymn he created, which is still in use in much of the Western world.
Watts was born on July 17, 1674, the first of eight children of Isaac Watts and Elizabeth Taunton. When Watts was an infant, his father was imprisoned as a Dissenter. Tutored in Latin by his father from the age of four, Watts continued his education at the Free-School in Southampton, where he learned Greek, French, and Hebrew. In 1690 he refused a university scholarship because of the required allegiance to the Church of England, instead choosing to attend the Newington Green Academy of Thomas Rowe, a leading academic among the Dissenters. Watts wrote his first serious poetry and essays during this period. Once he completed his studies, Watts returned to Southampton, where he spent two years reading, writing, and contemplating. He then became a tutor, and in 1698 he began preaching at the prominent Mark Lane Meeting in London. In 1702 Watts accepted the position of pastor of the Mark Lane Meeting. This congregation provided the social and political context of Watts's future writing. Often suffering from fevers and nervous illness, Watts lived in the homes of families in his congregation. In 1728 Watts received his Doctor of Divinity diploma from Edinburgh and Aberdeen. He continued to write and preach to his congregation until his death on November 25, 1748.
Watts's reputation rests largely on his hymns, which were published in four volumes before his death. Horae Lyricae (1706), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children, and The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719) have each been reprinted countless times, demonstrating the author's important contribution to devotional poetry. Education was the other primary focus of Watts's career. His textbooks and writings on educational theory, including The Art of Reading and Writing English (1721) and Logic: or the Right Use of Reason (1724) were republished in both Britain and America for more than a century.
The impact of Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs is difficult to overestimate. As the progenitor of the English congregational hymn it established a new genre of poetry combining metrical psalmody and the devotional lyric. The new genre flourished and thousands of hymns were written in the following centuries. Some of Watts's Psalms of David are among the best-known poems in the English-speaking world. Critics often view Watts as a voice in strong contrast to the Augustan mainstream of his time. V. de Sola Pinto has maintained that Watts should be remembered “as a poet who kept alive the spirit of freedom and adventure in imaginative literature at a time when it was nearly stifled.” Arthur Paul Davis has claimed that “the poetry of Isaac Watts deserves a place in the history of English literature not only because of its intrinsic worth, but also because it is the best expression of eighteenth century evangelicalism.”
Horae Lyricae. Poems chiefly of the Lyric Kind, in Three Books (poetry) 1706
Hymns and Spiritual Songs (songs) 1707
A Sermon Preached at Salters-Hall to the Societies for Reformation of Manners, in the Cities of London and Westminster, October 6th 1707 (sermon) 1707
Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (songs) 1715
A Guide to Prayer: or, a Free and Rational Account of the Gift, Grace and Spirit of Prayer; with Plain Directions how every Christian may attain them (prose) 1715
The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, And apply'd to the Christian State and Worship (prose) 1719
The Art of Reading and Writing English: or, the chief Principles and Rules of Pronouncing our Mother-Tongue, both in Prose and Verse; with a Variety of Instructions for True Spelling (prose) 1721
Sermons on Various Subjects (sermons) 1721
An Elegy on the much lamented Death of Mrs. Elizabeth Bury (prose) 1722?
Logic: or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth with a Variety of Rules to guard against error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences (prose) 1724
An Essay towards the Encouragement of Charity-Schools, particularly those...
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SOURCE: Gillman, Frederick J. “Crescendo.” In The Evolution of the English Hymn: An Historical Survey of the Origins and Development of the Hymns of the Christian Church, pp. 197-213. New York: MacMillan Company, 1927.
[In the following essay, Gillman discusses Watts's goals in hymn writing and provides an analysis of his works.]
In the Library of York Minster there is a volume entitled Musick's Monument, dated 1676, which gives a vivid and humorous account of the singing in parish churches in general and in York Minster in particular, at the very time when George Fox was lamenting its unreality. The author, Thomas Mace, was thoroughly satisfied with the few Psalm tunes then in use (in spite of the fact that there were scarcely more than a dozen to choose from), and declared “they are so excellently good that I will be bold to say art cannot mend them or make better.” But the singing distressed him. It was entirely satisfactory in the Minster, “the most remarkable and excellent that has been known or remembered anywhere in these latter days”; but as for the ordinary parish churches, “'Tis sad,” he says, “to hear what whining, toting, yelling or screeching there is in many country congregations.” Mace's remedy was to introduce organs to aid the human voice. He contended that the young people of a village could learn to play that instrument in a fortnight, “and thus, little by...
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SOURCE: Brawley, Benjamin. “Isaac Watts and His School.” In History of the English Hymn, pp. 67-88. New York: Abingdon Press, 1932.
[In the following essay, Brawley examines Watts's writings in light of the author's position as the innovator of original, individualized hymns.]
The early years of the eighteenth century were in England a period of materialism and compromise. A spirit of self-interest pervaded both church and state, and principle was subordinated to expediency. The day of Puritanism was over; complacency succeeded a great war of ideals; faith retreated before the sway of Deism. Alexander Pope became the chief poet of the age.
In spite of the current rationalism, however, there was still interest in religion. The people at large knew little of Deism or Platonism, and their spiritual striving was simple and sincere. As we have seen, moreover, by the close of the seventeenth century the Psalters were losing ground, and the idea of using original hymns was making its way, though in the Established Church, and even among many Dissenters, the innovation was opposed as a profanation of the service. What was needed was some strong man to give unity and point to individual compositions and to popularize the new form. The man was already on the scene in the person of Isaac Watts, regarded by many as the foremost of English hymn writers.
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SOURCE: Pinto, V. de Sola. “Isaac Watts and the Adventurous Muse.” In Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, Vol. XX, collected by George Cookson, pp. 86-107. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1935.
[In the following essay, Pinto examines the characteristics of Watts's poems and argues that his poetry should be more highly regarded.]
It is often a great misfortune for a poet, as far as his literary reputation is concerned, to be renowned for the sanctity of his life. It is nearly as bad as being notorious for wickedness. If a poet is supposed to have been a rake, the public will read his works, not for their own merits but in order to discover something interesting about his depravity, but if a poet has the character of saint, his poetry usually becomes enveloped in a fog of conventional sentiment, and he is remembered less as a poet than as a model of virtuous conduct and as the pet of the particular church to which he belonged. The example of George Herbert is a terrible warning. For a long time the fact that Herbert is a great English poet was overlooked, and he was remembered only as an Anglican saint who wrote verses. Herbert has now been rescued from the clutches of the devout. It is recognized that he was a great poet as well as a great Christian and a noble parish priest. But there are other poets who are still suffering from what might be called the curse of sanctity. One of...
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SOURCE: Davis, Arthur Paul. “Sermon and Essay” and “The Adventurous Muse.” In Isaac Watts: His Life and Works, pp. 127-187. New York: The Dryden Press, 1943.
[In the following essays, Davis provides an analysis of Watts's prose and its orientation, and argues that Watts's poetry deserves a place in English literary history not only because of its intrinsic worth, but also “because it is the best lyrical expression of eighteenth century evangelicalism.”]
SERMON AND ESSAY1
Watts's period of literary activity covered forty-two years (1705-1747) of one of England's most important literary eras. During this interval the modern novel was born, the familiar essay under Addison and Steele developed into full maturity, and prose satire under Swift reached a height never equalled before or since. But these phenomenal activities seem to have passed over Watts as though he were in another age, and in one sense his prose works belonged to another age. Even though his style is largely typical of the eighteenth century, even though he imitates in an unconvincing way the essays of the Spectator, Watts is nevertheless a belated seventeenth century prose writer. His sermons and treatises of the popular religious type are eighteenth century continuations of the work of Dod, Greenham, Rogers, Perkins, Goodwin, Baxter and other seventeenth century Puritan divines. Like his...
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SOURCE: Hope, Norman Victor. Isaac Watts and His Contribution to English Hymnody. New York: Hymn Society of America, 1947, 10 p.
[In the following essay, Hope examines the achievements of Watts in relation to English hymnody and praises his contributions to this field.]
In any account of the development of the English hymn, the name of Isaac Watts must occupy a place of high honor. To be sure, it would doubtless be correct to say that the very greatest of all English hymn-writers was not Watts, but Charles Wesley. But even so, it may well be thought that Watts's over all contribution to English hymnody was at least as great as that of any other, Wesley included.
The chief facts concerning the life of Isaac Watts can be briefly summarized. He was born in Southampton, England, on July 17, 1674, the son of a Dissenting schoolmaster who later went into business. Since during the reign of King Charles II (1660-85) Nonconformity was penalized by law in England, Watts's father—like such other Dissenters as John Bunyan—more than once went to prison for his religious convictions. Young Watts received his early education at the Grammar School of his native town, which he attended from 1680 till 1690. At that time, and indeed down to the nineteenth century, Nonconformists were debarred from the two English universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Accordingly, Watts pursued his higher studies at...
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SOURCE: Escott, Harry. “Revolutionary Manifesto.” In Isaac Watts, Hymnographer: A Study of the Beginnings, Development, and Philosophy of the English Hymn, pp. 121-31. London: Independent Press Ltd., 1962.
[In the following essay, Escott discusses the content of Watts's work A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody and its relationship to the preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs.]
Chronologically Isaac Watts was a hymn-writer before he turned his attention to the reform of metrical psalmody. This was an accident. His early sporadic hymnody at Southampton supplied the immediate need of a local congregation, with more advanced ideas of the nature of congregational praise, and which seems to have already used hymns in its worship. However, such sporadic hymn-writing could not long satisfy Watts's philosophic mind. He wished to commend the Christian hymn to the Church as a whole; and such a purpose demanded a full-dress apologia of an Evangelic hymnody. Accordingly, the logically prior writing in Watts's reform is not the 1707 preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs, but A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody which followed the text of that volume, and was never again published during the author's life. This essay is the quarry from which he drew material for the preface to the Hymns and for the later preface to The Psalms of David Imitated …,...
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SOURCE: Bishop, Selma L. “Watts's Composition of Hymns” and “Watts's Interest in Matters of Philology.” In Isaac Watts: Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707-1748; A Study in Early Eighteenth Century Language Changes, pp. xix-xxiv; xxv-xxxii. London: Faith Press, 1962.
[In the following essays, Bishop analyzes Watts's impact on hymns sung in church and examines his views on writing methods and linguistic techniques.]
WATTS'S COMPOSITION OF HYMNS
No doubt Watts's interest in hymnody began vaguely with his mother's encouragement of her son to write verse in his childhood. It had its true beginning in his love of the Latin Psalms of George Buchanan (1506-1582)1 to whom Watts referred occasionally and whose influence he admitted. He referred likewise to another writer of Psalms in Latin, Dr. Arthur Johnston, M.D. (1587-1641).2 He offered praise to these two authors whom he read in his youth:
A Stanza, or a Couplet of these Writers (George Buchanan and Dr. Johnston) would now and then stick upon the Minds of Youth, and would furnish them infinitely better with pious and moral Thoughts, and do something towards making them good Men and Christians.3
He called Buchanan's Psalms ‘excellent translations’4 and thought the lower classes should read Dr. Johnston's...
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SOURCE: Hoyles, John. “Introduction: Classicism and the Enlightenment” and “Free Philosophy.” In The Waning of the Renaissance, 1640-1740: Studies in the Thought and Poetry of Henry More, John Norris and Isaac Watts, pp. 143-48; 164-74. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971.
[In the following essays, Hoyles argues that Watts's works can be categorized as “the embodiment of both classical aesthetics and the English Enlightenment.” He then examines Watts's philosophical beliefs and argues that he “expresses the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy, and provides an interesting link between the seventeenth-century puritans and the nineteenth-century utilitarians.”]
INTRODUCTION: CLASSICISM AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT
The value of interpreting the work of More and Norris in relation to such problematic terms as Metaphysical, Classical and Romantic on the one hand, and Renaissance, Enlightenment and Modern on the other, depends largely on assigning some meaning to the middle term in each of these series of abstractions. Since the field of inquiry is principally that of religious lyricism, there can be little difficulty about choosing the work of Isaac Watts as the embodiment of both classical aesthetics and the English Enlightenment.
Traditionally Addison holds this position; but this is largely because Addison appealed to the Victorians, who restored so many 18th...
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SOURCE: Marshall, Madeleine Forell and Janet Todd. “Isaac Watts's Divine Delight.” In English Congregational Hymns in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 28-59. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.
[In the following essay, Marshall and Todd analyze Watts's creation of the English hymn and its characteristics.]
IN DEFENSE OF HYMNODY
The acceptance of hymns for congregational use, necessary for the establishment of the hymn tradition, depended on a departure from the principle, formulated by Calvin and upheld by the Reformed churches, that Christian song must confine itself to biblical texts, the proper piety of which was guaranteed by divine revelation. Someone had to write hymns that could overcome this resistance. Ideally the champion of hymns would belong to a denomination unbound by church hierarchy, with its need to be persuaded. He would be a man of irreproachable piety, who would speak with authority of the devotional life. And he would be a competent poet, whose taste and opinions lay within the mainstream, eminently uncontroversial. Supplementing these political requirements, and in line with our preliminary definition of the hymn, the father of the English hymn ought probably to be a clergyman or preacher, familiar with the experiences of his people and comfortable in his role as leader and educator. He had to be able to distinguish between his private fears and...
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SOURCE: Maclear, J. F. “Isaac Watts and the Idea of Public Religion.” Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 1 (January-March 1992): 25-45.
[In the following essay, Maclear examines Watts's ideas about religion and its importance and impact on society and civil matters.]
Over the past two decades scholarly interest in “civil religion,” “public religion,” or “national religion” has created a large and growing literature in such diverse fields as sociology, history, and religion.1 While these studies have succeeded in disclosing religious assumptions in the consciousness of contemporary American and some foreign societies, investigations have been far less enterprising in exploring the historical context in which the phenomenon itself developed, Generally, it has been assumed that concepts of civil religion became prominent with the subsidence of Christianity in the Enlightenment and received their primary stimulus from the nascent modern nationalisms of the American and French Revolutions. In consequence, their relation to classic Christian patterns in the era before the Enlightenment has remained largely unexplored.
It may be surprising to learn that one intriguing and neglected figure in this earlier development who speculated about a public religion distinct from traditional confessions is the eighteenth-century English evangelical pastor, poet, and...
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Benson, Louis F. “Dr. Watts' ‘Renovation of Psalmody.’” In The English Hymn: Its Development and Use In Worship, pp. 108-218, 1915. Reprint. Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1962.
Analyzes Watts's impact and contributions to psalmody.
England, Martha Winburn, and John Sparrow. “Emily Dickinson and Isaac Watts.” In Hymns Unbidden: Donne, Herbert, Blake, Emily Dickinson and the Hymnographers, pp. 113-47. New York: New York Public Library, 1966.
Considers Watts's influence on the writings of Dickinson.
Marshall, Madeleine Forell. “Teaching the Uncanonized: The Examples of Watts and Rowe.” In Teaching Eighteenth-Century Poetry, edited by Christopher Fox, pp. 1-24. New York: AMS Press, 1990.
Discusses how noncanonical authors such as Watts and Rowe should be taught to literature students.
Pinto, V. de S. “Isaac Watts and William Blake.” Review of English Studies 20, no. 79 (July 1944): 214-23.
Discusses the relationship between Watts's Divine Songs for Children and Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.
Wolosky, Shira. “Rhetoric or Not: Hymnal Tropes in Emily Dickinson and Isaac Watts.” New England Quarterly 61, no. 2 (June 1988): 214-32.
Examines the relationship...
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