1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Isaac Watts

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 3:91-93.



We feel relieved, and so doubtless do our readers, in passing from the dark tragic story of Swift, and his dubious and unhappy character, to contemplate the useful career of a much smaller, but a much better man, Isaac Watts. This admirable person was born at Southampton on the 17th of July 1674. His father, of the same name, kept a boarding-school for young gentlemen, and was a man of intelligence and piety. Isaac was the eldest of nine children, and began early to display precocity of genius. At four he commenced to study Latin at home, and afterwards, under one Pinhorn, a clergyman, who kept the free-school at Southampton, he learned Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. A subscription was proposed for sending him to one of the great universities, but he preferred casting in his lot with the Dissenters. He repaired accordingly, in 1690, to an academy kept by the Rev. Thomas Rowe, whose son, we believe, became the husband of the celebrated Elizabeth Rowe, the once popular author of Letters from the Dead to the Living. The Rowes belonged to the Independent body. At this academy Watts began to write poetry, chiefly in the Latin language, and in the then popular Pindaric measure. At the age of twenty, he returned to his father's house, and spent two quiet years in devotion, meditation, and study. He became next a tutor in the family of Sir John Hartopp for five years. He was afterwards chosen assistant to Dr. Chauncey, and, after the Doctor's death, became his successor. His health, however, failed, and, after getting an assistant for a while, he was compelled to resign. hi 1712, Sir Thomas Abney, a benevolent gentleman of the neighbourhood, received Watts into his house, where he continued during the rest of his life — all his wants attended to, and his feeble frame so tenderly cared for that he lived to the age of seventy-five. Sir Thomas died eight years after Dr. Watts entered his establishment, but the widow and daughters continued unwearied in their attentions. Abney House was a mansion surrounded by fine gardens and pleasure-grounds, where the Doctor became thoroughly at home, and was wont to refresh his body and mind in the intervals of study. He preached regularly to a congregation, and in the pulpit, although his stature was low, not exceeding five feet, the excellence of his matter, the easy flow of his language, and the propriety of his pronunciation, rendered him very popular. In private he was exceedingly kind to the poor and to children, giving to the former a third part of his small income of 100 a-year, and writing for the other his inimitable hymns. Besides these, he published a treatise on Logic, another on The Improvement of the Mind, besides various theological productions, amongst which his World to Come has been preeminently popular. In 1728, he received from Edinburgh and Aberdeen an unsolicited diploma of Doctor of Divinity. As age advanced, he found himself unable to discharge his ministerial duties, and offered to remit his salary, but his congregation refused to accept his demission. On the 25th November 1748, quite worn out, but without suffering, this able and worthy man expired.

If to be eminently useful is to fulfil the highest purpose of humanity, it was certainly fulfilled by Isaac Watts. His logical and other treatises have served to brace the intellects, methodise the studies, and concentrate the activities of thousands — we had nearly said of millions of minds. This has given him an enviable distinction, but he shone still more in that other province lie so felicitously chose and so successfully occupied — that of the hearts of the young. One of his detractors called him "Mother Watts." He might have taken up this epithet, and bound it as a crown unto him. We have heard of a pious foreigner, possessed of imperfect English, who, in an agony of supplication to God for some sick friend, said, " O Fader, hear me! O Mudder, hear me!" It struck us as one of the finest of stories, and containing one of the most beautiful tributes to the Deity we ever heard, recognising in Him a pity which not even a father, which only a mother can feel. Like a tender mother does good Watts bend over the little children, and secure that their first words of song shall he those of simple, heartfelt trust in God, and of faith in their Elder Brother. To create a little heaven in the nursery by hymns, and these not mawkish or twaddling, but beautifully natural and exquisitely simple breathings of piety and praise, was the high task to which Watts consecrated, and by which he has immortalised, his genius.