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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #5: Clergyman Poets

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

You may have noticed in class that I spend a lot of time talking about poems and the poets who wrote them. One of the reasons is that I feel poetry is the crown of literature and should be given the most attention. The faithful indeed should be interested in the classic poets, as many of the them have been avowedly religious and Christian. Poets such as John Donne, George Herbert and Robert Herrick— just to name a very few—expressed a deep love of and devotion to God. We will be talking about these poets in future poetry bee posts. Although William Wordsworth himself was not a clergyman of the Anglican Church, as those just mentioned were, his brother Christopher Wordsworth took holy orders and became a Master of Trinity College of the University

of Cambridge. Isaac Watts was a clergyman, but not of the English Church. He was an independent or “Nonconformist” minister. Before religious freedom was fully granted in England, it was difficult to stand apart from the mainstream church, which in was at that time the Church of England. His father suffered for his religious beliefs and was in fact imprisoned several times because of them.

Many of my students may remember my talk about the young Isaac’s precocious talent and obsession for poetry. He had a inclination to rhyme almost anything. Once, so the story goes, the little verse maker was caught with his eyes open during prayer. His father asked him why he was not being attentive to his prayers, and Isaac’s reply was A little mouse for want of stairs/ran up a rope to say its prayers. The father punished the little boy for his inordinate and inappropriate propensity for verse-making by putting the child on his knee for a spanking. When he was just about to apply the board of education to the seat of learning, little Isaac piped, “O father, do some pity make/And I will no more verses make!”

Although Isaac Watts is one of the most popular and enduring Christian hymn writers of all time, his poetry is well-respected by the secular world. In fact, one of my first encounters with Isaac Watts was in a class I took in a secular college. However, Watts undoubtedly is more celebrated for the indelible mark he made on the English speaking world with his hymns. He really wrote so many, it is hard to choose which one to post for our poetry bee posting. I think everyone is familiar, though, with “Joy to the World,” which continues to be a favorite especially around Christmas time. The poem is from Watts’ Psalms of David, a psalm book which contains a metrical version of each of the 150 psalms contained in the Old Testament of the Bible. Do any of you know what the word metrical means? Well, the psalms are called metrical because they have been put into meter so that they can be sung. You are now studying poetics and know what I mean by stress and meter (if you don’t, we will be going over it in a later poetry bee post).

Particularly, the famous “Joy to the World” is a rendering of the 98th psalm into meter. Isaac Watts also changed the content a little because his book was meant to be sung by Christian churches, not the ancient Hebrews. You may know that many of the psalms were written by David a few thousand years ago in ancient Israel. Watts revised them so that they related specifically to the Christian Church. The original psalm goes like this:

1 Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. 2 The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. 3 He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

4 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; 5 make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, 6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn— shout for joy before the LORD, the King.

7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. 8 Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.

Now let me present Isaac Watts' version of the psalm. You will notice that they are really quite similar if you compare them closely.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room,

And Heaven and nature sing,

And Heaven and nature sing,

And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Because he is such an influential poet, we will be talking about Isaac Watts in our next poetry bee post.


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