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Isaac Watts

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 7/18/2002
Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts Transcript

Isaac Watts, born in 1674 in England, was a Non-conformist minister and a hymn writer. In his lifetime he wrote over 600 hymns. Some of them, such as O God, Our Help in Ages Past, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and Joy to the World, are some of the best known English hymns.

Watts also wrote hymns for children, which, although they are not so well known today, were very popular when they were published in 1715. Over 20 editions of Divine Songs, Attempted in Easie Language for the Use of Children, appeared in his lifetime, with an American edition appearing in 1719.

In the Preface to the book, Watts defends the use of verse against Puritan charges of frivolity with the arguments that (quote) “verse was at first designed for the service of God, tho’ it hath been wretchedly abused since,” (unquote) and suggests that rhyme and metre would make the duty of learning truth easier and more delightful.

The Puritan stress on the innate wickedness of children lies behind the creation of Divine Songs for the Use of Children, and the fear of early death and of hell were still prime tools of education, but Watts also gave some emphasis to praise and thankfulness as suitable religious emotions for a child and even displayed a gentleness and humor that were quite new for his time.1

In the century following its publication, millions of copies of Divine Songs for the Use of Children were put into circulation. One of the most popular poems was entitled Against Idleness and Mischief:

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

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

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.
In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

In 1865, Lewis Carroll parodied this and one other poem from Divine Songs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, parodies which depended on the originals still being widely known in the nursery, as they were, 150 years after the original publication.

1 Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, p. 536. Source:
The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard, eds. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Posted in Literature, Music