Isaac Watts Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Isaac Watts’s verse and prose is almost exclusively religious, although—as a practicing divine interested in the instruction of youth—he authored tracts that could be classified as pedagogical and theological. Foremost among these is a collection of prayers for little children titled The First Catechism (1692). This collection was followed by The Art of Reading and Writing English (1721), The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity (1722), Logick: Or, The Right Use of Reason (1725), An Essay Towards the Encouragement of Charity Schools (1728), A Caveat Against Infidelity (1729), and his last work, Useful and Important Questions Concerning Jesus, the Son of God (1746). Watt’s Sermons on Various Subjects, in three volumes, appeared between 1721 and 1727.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Isaac Watts, the founder of English hymnody, ranks as the highest among the Nonconformist writers of divine poetry during the eighteenth century. For more than a century he held the respect of those British and American Nonconformists who sought spiritual uplift from the worship services of their particular denominations. Although Watts established his literary reputation as a hymnodist, as a writer of divine odes for congregational worship, he saw himself as a poet, although one who later renounced poetry for the sake of edification. Among lower-class Christians, Watts sought to promote what he termed “pious entertainment,” which, unfortunately, prevented him from achieving his potential as a pure literary artist. Indeed, on more than one occasion he felt the need to apologize for being so easily understood, for having written poetry that could be read without difficulty.

In addressing the simpler souls of the English-speaking world, Watts managed to fuse image with thought and emotion, attaining a level of intensity not often reached by his more learned Augustan colleagues. In so doing, he relieved the English hymn of considerable poetic excess—complex theology and imagery that, during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, were regarded as essential ingredients of divine poetry. Watts, however, recognized immediately the difference between the high aesthetic level of divine poetry and the practical regions in which congregational...

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Adey, Lionel. Class and Idol in the English Hymn. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987. This history of English hymnody places Watts’s remarkable career in theological and historical perspectives while explaining the role hymns occupied in the church life of eighteenth century England. Adey’s particular contribution is his argument that Watts’s stern Calvinist upbringing determined his portrait of a Father God in his psalms and hymns. Adey’s bibliography is a gold mine of primary sources related to Watts and the hymnody of his era.

Argent, Alan. Isaac Watts: Poet, Thinker, Pastor. London: Congregational Memorial Hall Trust, 1999. A brief biographical study of Watts and his work.

Bailey, Albert Edward. The Gospel in Hymns. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950. A standard history of gospel hymnody places Watts at the center of the revolution in church music through his “rhymed theology.” Bailey’s extensive catalog of Watts’s hymns, psalms, and poems is especially useful to researchers.

Fountain, David. Isaac Watts Remembered. 1978. 2d ed. Reprint. Southhampton, Hants, England: Mayflower Christian Bookshop, 1998. This biography of Watts examines his life from beginning to end, with an emphasis on his Christian beliefs and how they shaped his life and works.

Hood, John Paxton. Isaac Watts: His Life and Hymns. Greenville, S.C.: Ambassador, 2001. A biography of Watts that examines his life philosophy and religious views and how they informed his hymns.

Maclear, J. F. “Isaac Watts and the Idea of Public Religion.” Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 1 (January, 1992): 25. Watts’s ideas about public religion are discussed. Watts developed a comprehensive and detailed formulation of national religion.

Stackhouse, Rachelle A. The Language of the Psalms in Worship: American Revisions of Watts’ Psalter. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997. Part of the Drew Studies in Liturgy series, this work examines the psalms by Watts and the language used.

Woychuk, N. A. Isaac Watts: The Father of English Hymnology. St. Louis, Mo.: SMF Press, 2002. This biography of Watts looks at him as a writer of hymns.