1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Isaac Watts

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:5-6.



ISAAC WATTS — a name never to be pronounced without reverence by any lover of pure Christianity, or by any well-wisher of mankind — was born at Southampton, July 17, 1671. His parents were remarkable for piety. Means would have been provided for placing him at the university, but he early inclined to the Dissenters, and he was educated at one of their establishments, taught by the Rev. Thomas Rowe. He was afterwards four years in the family of Sir John Hartopp, at Stoke Newington. Here he was chosen (1698) assistant minister by an Independent congregation, of which four years after he succeeded to the full charge; but bad health soon rendered him unfit for the performance of the heavy labours thus imposed upon him, and in his turn he required the assistance of a joint pastor. His health continuing to decline, Watts was received in 1712 into the house of a benevolent gentleman of his neighbourhood, Sir Thomas Abney of Abney Park, where he spent all the remainder of his life. There is no circumstance in English literary biography parallel to the residence of this sacred bard in the house of a friend for the long period of thirty-six years. Abney House was a handsome mansion, surrounded by beautiful pleasure-grounds. He had apartments assigned to him, of which he enjoyed the use as freely as if he had been the master of the house. Dr. Gibbons says, "here, without any care of his own, he had everything which could contribute to the enjoyment of life, and favour the pursuit of his studies. Here he dwelt in a family which, for piety, order, harmony, and every virtue, was a house of God. Here he had the privilege of a country recess, the fragrant bower, the spreading lawn, the flowery garden, and other advantages to soothe his mind and aid his restoration to health; to yield him, whenever he chose them, most grateful intervals from his laborious studies, and enable him to return to them with redoubled vigour and delight." The death of Sir Thomas Abney, eight years after he went to reside with him, made no change in these agreeable arrangements, as the same benevolent patronage was extended to him by the widow, who outlived him a year. While in this retirement, he preached occasionally, but gave the most of his time to study, and to the composition of those works which have given him a name in the annals of literature. His treatises on Logic and on the Improvement of the Mind are still highly prized for their cogency of argument and felicity of illustration. Watts also wrote several theological works and volumes of sermons. His poetry consists almost wholly of devotional hymns, which, by their simplicity, their unaffected ardour, and their imagery, powerfully arrest the attention of children, and are never forgotten in mature life. In infancy we learn the hymns of Watts, as part of maternal instruction, and in youth his moral and logical treatises impart the germs of correct reasoning and virtuous self-government. The life of this good and useful man terminated on the 25th of November 1748, having been prolonged to the advanced age of seventy-five.