1706
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Horae Lyricae: The Preface.

Horae Lyricae. Poems, chiefly of the Lyric Kind. In Two Books.... By I. Watts.

Rev. Isaac Watts


Isaac Watts declares his admiration for Milton, but believes he erred by introducing roughness, obscurity, and archaisms into his verse, "running back so far as to the days of Colin the Shepherd, and the reign of the Faery Queen." Not seen.

Isaac Watts, along with Sir Richard Blackmore, Elizabeth Rowe, and a number of others advocating a return to piety in poetry had a broad influence on eighteenth-century verse that has attracted little comment from modern critics. One has only to consider that most intellectual developments had origins in theological speculation, or that most writers publishing volumes of poetry were, if not actually clergymen, persons trained to write by clergymen, to appreciate the kind of influence that Watts and others like him had on the production of poetry.

Isaac Watts to Samuel Say: "My Bookseller urges me to reprint my Hymns, and talks of another edition of the Poems. I earnestly beg you to point me those lines in either which are offensive to the weak and pious, and shocking and digustful to the polite, or obscure to the vulgar capacity, or in short whatever you think should be mended, and if you please with your amendment; but I entreat it especially for the Hymns in a fortnight's time: farewell, and love, Your affectionate Brother in the Gospell, I. Watts" 23 December 1708; in Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature 4 (January 1809) 9.

Vicesimus Knox: "He was not only a devout and zealous Christian, but a profound scholar, a natural philosopher, a logician, and a mathematician. His life and conversation exhibited a pattern of every Christian virtue. For my own part, I cannot but think this good man approached as nearly to Christian perfection as any mortal ever did in this sublunary state" in Allibone, Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1882) 3:2614.

W. J. Courthope: "It is instructive to compare the Preface to Watt's Horae Lyricae, published in 1706, with Giles Fletcher's Preface to Christ's Death and Victory, published in 1610. We have seen that all through James I.'s reign there was a strong tendency to choose religious subjects for poetical treatment. Fletcher merely notices the omission of his poetical predecessors to occupy the field of sacred song, and, as I observed in examining his style, his own poem is chiefly remarkable as one of the earliest examples in the school of Theological 'Wit.' But a hundred years late Watts has to apologise for writing at all on the subject of religion. His Preface is a vehement protest against the immoral poetry of his day. 'This profanation and debasement of so divine an art,' says he, 'has tempted some weaker Christians to imagine that poetry and vice are naturally akin.' In opposition to this opinion he gives instances of poetical passages in the Bible (quoting also Longinus' reference to 'Let there be Light'), and shows by examples the superiority of Hebrew over Pagan poetry, as illustrating the Divine Nature" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 5:331.

Hoxie Neale Fairchild: "Though he is thoroughly steeped in Renaissance and seventeenth-century discussions of divine poetry, he has plainly digested his material and made it his own. The Preface, in fact, is one of the most significant documents in eighteenth-century literary criticism" Religious Trends in English Poetry (1939) 1:130; it was enlarged in later editions.

H. T. Swedenberg: "In the wake of Cowley, Blackmore, and Dennis, [Watts] advocated the use of Christian material in the epic" Theory of the Epic in England (1944) 70.




In the Essays without Rhyme, I have not set up Milton for a perfect pattern: though he shall be for ever honoured as our deliverer from the bondage. His works contain admirable and unequalled instances of bright and beautiful diction, as well as majesty and serenity of thought. There are several episodes in his longer works, that stand in supreme dignity without a rival; yet all that vast reverence with which I read his Paradise Lost, cannot persuade me to be charmed with every page of it. The length of his periods, and sometimes of his parentheses, runs me out of breath. Some of his numbers seem too harsh and uneasy. I could never believe that roughness and obscurity added any thing to the grandeur of a poem; nor will I ever affect archaisms, exoticisms, and a quaint uncouthness of speech, in order to become perfectly Miltonian. It is my opionion that blank verse may be written with all due elevation of thought, in a modern style, without borrowing back so far as the days of Colin the shepherd, and the reign of the Faery Queen. The oddness of an antique sound gives but a false pleasure to the ear, and abuses the true relish, even when it works delight. There were some such judges among the old Romans; and Martial ingeniously laughs at one of them, that was pleased, even to astonishment, with obsolete words and figures:

Attonitusque legis terrai frugiferai.

So the ill-drawn postures and distortions of shape that we meet with in Chinese pictures charm a sickly fancy by their very awkwardness: so a distempered appetite will chew coals and sand and pronounce it gustful.


[(1854) cii-ciii]