1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Isaac Watts

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 3:531-32.



DR. ISAAC WATTS, a character at once eminently good and great, was the son of a dissenting schoolmaster of Southampton, where be was born, in 1674. His talents and aptitude for learning being early conspicuous, some gentlemen of his native town expressed an inclination to send him to the university, after he had received a suitable classical education; but Watts was resolved to adhere to the religious tenets of his forefathers; and accordingly, he studied some time under Mr. Rowe, who kept a dissenting academy, where he had for his fellow pupils, Horte, afterwards archbishop of Tuam, and Hughes, the poet.

After spending two years more at his father's house, in the study of divinity, he became tutor to the son of Sir John Hartopp; and being chosen assistant to Dr. Chauncey, preached his first sermon, on the anniversary of his twenty-fifth birth day. By the death of Dr. Chauncey, being left sole pastor, he was reduced by a dangerous illness to such a weak state, that his congregation allowed him an assistant; and being attacked in 1712 by another very severe indisposition, he probably would have sunk under its effects, had not Sir Thomas Abney invited him to his house, in whose family he spent the remainder of his days, equally beloved and respected.

During his whole life, when his infirmities allowed, he continued the teacher of a congregation, and filled up every interval of leisure in pursuing his various works, "Of which," says Johnson, "it is difficult to read a page, without learning, or at least wishing to be better. The attention is caught by indirect instruction; and he that sat down only to reason, is on a sudden compelled to pray." His Logic and Improvement of the Mind are highly esteemed. As a poet, he is respectable, if not great. His divine poems and spiritual songs, like all other compositions of the kind, having a constant recurrence of the same imagery must not be tried on the scale of general criticism. He wrote for infancy as well as age, the child as well as the man, and succeeded to a high degree in being useful.

Dr. Watts died of a gradual decay, in 1748, in the seventy-fifth year of age. His constitution was always delicate, and his stature low; and it is wonderful how much the energy of his mind prevailed over the feebleness of his frame. He was liberal in his principles, and sincere in his devotion: in a word, he was a christian philosopher.

He was one of the first authors that taught the Dissenters to court attention by the graces of language.

Whatever they had among them before, whether of learning or acuteness, was commonly obscured and blunted by coarseness and inelegance of style. He shewed them that zeal and purity might be expressed and enforced by polished diction. Such was his flow of thoughts, and such his promptitude of language, that in the latter part of his life he did not precompose his cursory sermons, but having adjusted the heads, and sketched some particulars, trusted for success to his extemporary powers.