1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Isaac Watts

Tobias Oldschool, Gentleman, "Eminent Authors: Watts" Literary Speculum 1 (March 1822) 310-12.



Our great moralist, speaking of Isaac Watts, of whose abilities he seems to have, entertained a high opinion, says "he did best what nobody has done well." On a candid perusal, however, of the writings of that amiable character, we shall feel called upon to bestow something more than negative praise; for united with the vein of genuine piety, which runs through all his poems, we find frequent marks of a vigorous understanding, and a fertile imagination. In his version of the Psalms, he occasionally fails, from too close an adherence to the original; but a very considerable portion of this paraphrase is extremely happy, and we may safely pronounce It infinitely superior to that commonly used in our churches. The volume of hymns is a much more uniform composition; here he depended on the resources of his own mind, availing himself indeed of the inexhaustible treasures of scripture, but adapting them to his purpose with admirable skill, and surrounding them with unborrowed excellencies, both of sentiment and expression. The object of the poet in this work was completely attained, his Hymns are always pleasing, often beautiful, and sometimes sublime. Addison's sacred Odes, Pope's Universal Prayer, and Dying Christian, are inimitable productions, and reflect great honour on their authors; yet even if we are unable to find among the Poems of Watts any thing equal to these, let it be remembered that the last named writer had many difficulties to surmount, that his subjects were various, and frequently ill fitted for poetical composition, and that most of those who have preceded or followed him in the same field are generally below and never above mediocrity. We think it, however, easy to instance, among his Hymns, pieces which deserve to rank with those enumerated; literary productions which exciting admiration when interest and affection cease to operate in their favour, merit the applause they obtain. The works of Isaac Watts are universally read and admired: his title to that distinction may be disputed; — the fact cannot be denied. The public judgment, hen unbiassed, is an excellent criterion, and in the present case there was nothing to incline the balance favourably, but virtue and genius: virtue, which was not weary of "well doing," though exposed to pain, disease, and sorrow genius, which "Shone brightest in affliction's night;" and when the decaying body began to return to its dust, looked out from the ruins of nature, and triumphed in the consciousness of its immortality. We do not attempt to give examples of the poetical beauties of Watts: it would be easy to select them, but it is not requisite, because they, are familiar; they have charmed us in childhood; and in our maturer years, they continue to afford delight. The Divine Songs formed apart of our primer, we conned them over with rapture at the foot of the hill of science, and whatever advance, we may have made towards its summit, we still peruse them with satisfaction. Early impressions are difficult to efface. The joys that excited our hopes in the morning of life, are dearer to memory than the feverish pleasures of its noon. With the recollections of our boyish days the Poems of Watts are inseparably connected, but our predilections are justified by his merit, for having read his works we are at a loss to determine which to admire most, his piety or his wisdom.