Divine Songs by Isaac Watts (Poetry Friday)

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In the history of western children’s literature, after Pilgrim’s Progress came Isaac Watt’s elegies for children, Divine Songs. But while Pilgrim’s Progress was actually intended for adults and children learned from it, Divine Songs was intended to be for children. And while Pilgrim’s Progress actually does have some relevance for Christians today (even given how bored I felt while reading it), Divine Songs are even more painfully instructive than Pilgrim’s Progress was. In fact, I don’t want my son to ever read these as a child.

In his Divine Songs, Isaac Watts warns children of their damnation in no uncertain terms. His visions of burning and hell-fire held nothing back. His poems are called “elegies,” and this refers to not just the rhyming format but the subject matter. According to Harmon and Holman, elegies tend to be about mourning and death:

In classical writing the elegy was more distinguishable by its use of the elegiac meter than by subject matter. The Elizabethans used the term for love poems, particularly complaints. Up through the end of the seventeenth century, elegy could mean both a love poem and a poem of mourning. Thereafter, the poem of mourning became virtually the only meaning. (page 178-179, eight edition, A Handbook to Literature)

Isaac Watts wrote his poems for children in 1715. Just as 30 years earlier John Bunyan shared Pilgrim’s Progress for a specific purpose (helping teach Christian principles), Watts obviously wrote his children’s poems to teach children Christian and moral principles (although the Christianity is not quite as charitable as we may expect today).

Sometimes, though, Watts’ moralistic lessons for children are rather amusing. Even the damnation verses are amusing if you read them without thinking about the little child you are supposed to be reading them to. For example, here are the first two stanzas of Song 16, “Against Quarrelling and Fighting.”

1 Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God has made them so;
Let bears and lyons growl and fight,
For ’tis their nature too.

2 But, children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other’s eyes.

I guess it might not sound too amusing, but really it’s kind of pathetic that this was what children had for literature, and that this is what they were memorizing (as Alice was called upon to recite in Alice in Wonderland). I’d have nightmares of damnation if I were a child!

I did appreciate Isaac Watts’ poetic version of the Ten Commandments (half way down this webpage), and his Cradle Hymn wasn’t too bad, although there is still a stanza about damnation in it.

In the end, I’d rather read my son Sandra Boyton‘s bedtime poetry.

Reviewed on January 9, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • The world was SUCH a different place, wasn’t it? Wow.  That verse you gave really was amusing.  Frankly, I can see my husband repeating it to our boys in a campy, bouncy way so that they’d all laugh…

  • Amanda, I’m glad it sounds amusing. I thought so too until I reread it in the context of the post and then I thought: OK, I have a weird sense of humor.

    All of the poems were “bouncy.” Quite annoying given what they were about.

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