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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #6: Give 'Em Watts, Boys

As was said in the previous Poetry Bee blog, Isaac Watts was an “Independent” or “Dissenting” minister; that means that his ministry was not a part of the Church of England, which had been the national church of England since Henry VIII. His hymns and psalms, though, have been sung for more than two and a half centuries by all Christian denominations. I also mentioned in the previous blog that Watts wrote metrical renditions of the 150 psalms and put them in a volume titled, Psalms of David. A copy of these psalms may be found at Gutenberg e-text. Watts wrote songs especially for younger children, much like the "Wee Sing Bible Songs" (only more content), titled Divine and Moral Songs for Children. One of the poems contained in the work, “Against Idleness and Mischief,” was recited and sung so many times that by the mid–nineteenth century it had permanently entered the cultural unconscious of England. Like the nursery rhymes (Jack Sprat, London Bridge, and Ring around the Rosy), which are still repeated by children today—unless, of course, those pernicious electronic devices have done their job of erasing them—they songs had a natural appeal to children and could be easily memorized and sung.

The Vice and Virtue class may be called upon to recite “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts (below) in the final rounds of the poetry bee. This poem was perhaps the most recited poem in English classrooms during the 1800s. The poem reflects the kind of teaching one would find in the English schools around the 1700s and 1800s. But attitudes changed toward the end of the century 19th century, and many people began to think that the moral lessons found in children’s literature were over the top. The late Victorian writer Lewis Carroll parodied the poem with his “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” found in his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll wrote a lot of nonsense verse and stories for children that countered the serious didactic (“preachy”) literature of an earlier period. Although many children and adults have identified with Lewis Carroll’s works as reflecting the true playfulness of childhood, Isaac Watts’ poems and hymns have firmly endured throughout the centuries, and continue to instruct, please and edify.

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 labors hard to store it well

With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor 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 past,

That I may give for every day

Some good account at last.

Lewis Carroll’s parody:

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!

Watts’ poetry has inspired more than just parodies that make fun. The Romantic poet William Blake imitated Watts in his the simple child-like style found in works such as Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Many writers are not appreciated much when they are living. That was certainly true of Blake. Some contemporary critics did not see any poetic talent in Blake and merely thought he was crazy. Hearing some of the boyhood stories, you might think so, too. When he was very young, little William Blake once told his father that he had seen angels sitting in a tree; another time, he was affrighted when from a window he heard, or said he heard, God speaking to him. Blake’s strange copperplate etchings also might be a case in point to some that the poet was not quite in his right mind. Like his poetry, they are pictures of the “other” world—the invisible spiritual world—which Blake saw either with his eyes or with his mind’s eye. Was Blake truly mad? Blake would have said that it was not he who was mad, but the English society in which he lived, as it was a society that allowed children to be sold into harsh servitude and in which the poor were forced to work in noisy, polluted and even dangerous environments.

Blake wrote during the Industrial Revolution, a time when great advances were being made in tools and machines. The Industrial age brought much material wealth to England and Europe. But it also brought much social upheaval. Many trades had been displaced by machines, forcing villagers to leave the rolling meadows of the countryside to work in the crowded, smoggy city. Families were torn apart. Instead of working side by side their parents out on the field, children took their places in the dark, noisy factories or plied themselves at some other occupation. Children faced many occupational hazards in their work. They were often maimed by the loom of the cloth factory or suffocated by the confines of a chimney. Little boys were often employed to clean chimneys. They would crawl inside the flue of a chimney to scrub it. Unfortunately, many would get stuck and suffocate before they were taken out; others became crippled or ill from the cramped space and the noxious soot. Notice as you read the poem “The Chimney Sweeper” the contrast between the harsh and ugly real world and the beautiful and happy world of the imagination, where angels lived. Which world would you like to live in? Below is an illustrated page from Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, titled "The Tyger."

Blake was not educated in literature or writing. He was, rather, a trained artist. Blake left the house of his father, who was a hosier, or a maker or dealer in hose, to study art at the Royal Academy. He did not finish his studies there, but left to become a coppersmith. As a coppersmith, he engraved images onto copper, which when brushed with ink could be printed on the page. One of his earliest works after leaving the Royal Academy was an illustrated edition of William Cowper's works, then one of the most popular of poets of his day. In the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from which the following poems are taken, William Blake colored the pages of his book with artful pictures of gentle lambs, lamb-like tigers, and cherubic children. Although not much appreciated in his own day, popular opinion has changed and both the poetry and artwork of the work are now much admired.

The simple meter and style of the poetry found in Songs of Innocence and of Experience has been compared to that of Isaac Watts. Although Blake’s poems have Biblical figures and symbolism, Blake himself was far from being an orthodox Christian.

In the next poetry bee blog we will look at some other clergymen poets, including John Donne.

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