Friday, July 17, 2009

Isaac Watts

We have come around again to the birthday of the "Father of English Hymnody," Isaac Watts. Writer of more than 700 hymns, Watts has inspired much scholarship and commentary beyond what I customarily summarize here.

One aspect of his work that I find intriguing is his verse for teaching children. An important part of children's education at the time included lessons in correct behavior, and children would memorize verses to help in this training. One of Watts's most popular books, Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715) contained a poem entitled "Against Idleness and Mischief" which began:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

This particular poem was so familiar to generations of schoolchildren that Lewis Carroll could satirize it in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a hundred and fifty years later and know that his readers would understand the joke.

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Another one hundred and fifty years later, and it's now Carroll's satire that's better remembered than the original by Isaac Watts. However, there is another poem from Divine and Moral Songs for Children that we do still know -- now considered one of Watts's greatest hymns. There it was titled "Praise for Creation and Providence."

I sing the mighty power of God,
That made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad,
And built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
The sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at God’s command,
And all the stars obey.

I sing the goodness of the Lord,
Who filled the earth with food,
Who formed the creatures with a word,
And then pronounced them good.
God, how thy wonders are displayed,
Where’er I turn my eye,
If I survey the ground I tread,
Or gaze upon the sky.

There’s not a plant or flower below,
But makes thy glories known,
And clouds arise, and tempests blow,
By order from thy throne;
While all that borrows life from thee
Is ever in thy care;
And everywhere that we can be,
Thou, God, art present there.

Isaac Watts, 1715; alt.
English traditional melody,
arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906

This hymn has endured some changes here and there over the last three hundred years, as have many of those of Watts and his contemporaries. Watts would still recognize his verse, though he might be surprised that the grownups have appropriated it from the children.

One of the speakers at this week's Hymn Society Conference included this text in his presentation and suggested that we sing it to the tune ELLACOMBE. You will not be surprised, perhaps, to hear that a roomful of three hundred people immediately broke into the four-part harmony without accompaniment or the printed music.


Anonymous said...

What is the origin of this image of Rev. Watts? Thanks so much!

C.W.S. said...

I thought it was the frontispiece of a book of his poetry, but perhaps not.

I found some information at this link, but I am not sure what it means: