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The Hymns Of Wesley And Watts Five Papers by Bernard L. Manning

The Hymns of Isaac Watts

Bernard Manning

A paper read to the University Congregational Society in Cambridge on Sunday, October 17, 1937.

DR. HENRY BETTS and Dr. Albert Peel have recently revived the respectable game of comparing the hymns of Watts and the hymns of Wesley. I shall have to take a turn or two at it myself before I finish this paper. Indeed, no one can read Watts without having Wesley in mind, and nothing will enable a man to see the greatness of Watts's hymns so well as a thorough knowledge of Wesley's. I make no apology, then, for beginning and continuing and ending with the comparison at the back of my mind. Watts himself began the game when he said with the generosity of a Congregationalist and the exaggeration of a preacher that Wesley's Wrestling Jacob' was worth all that he himself had ever written.

This paper is about Dr. Watts's hymns, not about Dr. Watts. We must, for all that, take a look at Dr. Watts himself. He was born in 1674 and died at the age of seventy-four in 1748. His life, that is to say, covered the period in which Protestant Dissent won its permanent place in English society. When Watts was born, Protestant Dissent was proscribed and persecuted. When he was a boy, there occurred the decisive struggle with Popery and the Popish King, James II. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought security to the Church of England and Toleration to Protestant Dissenters. When Watts was in middle life the end of the Stuarts and the accession of the House of Hanover marked the failure of the Tory attack on the settlement of 1688, an attack aimed especially at the Dissenters, but promising a revival of Popery too. At the very end of his life, Dr. Watts had the satisfaction of witnessing in the failure of the '45 the collapse of the Young Pretender, and the final deliverance of Great Britain from the dangers that had menaced it since the death of Oliver Cromwell. The Constitution was saved from Divine Right. Protestantism was saved from France and the Pope. Dissent was saved from Toryism and persecution. Watts, then, was one of those fortunate persons whose life coincides with the increasing triumph of his own cause. The right people win. The wicked are cast down. All things -- visibly -- work together for good to them that love God. The note of cheerfulness -- perhaps the most distinct note in Watts's poetry -- comes appropriately from such a setting.

That is the setting. We glance now at the career. Watts's grandfather was a naval officer who served under Blake, the Cromwellian admiral, one of our greatest naval heroes. Watts's father, as became a Dissenter after the collapse of the Rule of the Saints, led a humbler life. He was in business in Southampton. But remember the grandfather and observe Watts's rather warlike patriotism, his pride in the sceptred isle', set in the silver sea', in the Navy which protects it, in the naval traditions of our race. All this, which comes leaking through Watts's pious prayers for Britain, reminds us of Blake's lieutenant. Watts himself was two things: a minister and a scholar, great in each work. His studies ruined his health. In 1712, just before he was forty, he went to live with Sir Thomas Abney, of Abney Park, and he spent the rest of his life there. He did not completely abandon the active ministry, however, and at the time of his death he was something like a national figure. He has a memorial in Westminster Abbey. About his scholarship we observe that, vast as it was, he amassed it under the difficulties which hampered all Dissenters till 1870. He was excluded from Oxford and Cambridge, and went to a Dissenting academy. The academies tried to do what the national universities refused to do for Dissenters. Compared with Oxford and Cambridge, the academies had many disadvantages, but they had one notable advantage. On them the dead hand of mathematics and classics lay less heavily. They developed a wider notion of education. Philosophy, natural science, history, modern languages found a place. Accordingly, Dr. Watts possessed an encyclopaedic sort of scholarship, less fine and nice, it might be, in the classics than the most polished Oxford man of his time might have, but vastly wider in scope and more liberal in tendency. I do not mean that Dr. Watts knew little Greek and Latin. He was accomplished in both; but he knew other things too.

So much, but no more, does it seem necessary to say by way of introducing the author. We now open the book: The Psalms of David imitated in New Testament Language together with Hymns and Spiritual Songs. It has two parts, as the title indicates, and they are of about equal length. In the first part Dr. Watts presents a metrical version of the Book of Psalms. It is not a mere reproduction of the 150 psalms. Some are omitted. Some are abbreviated. Some are represented by more than one version in different metres. Some are divided into several parts. All are baptized into the Christian faith. But Watts shall tell you in his own words what he has done:

It is necessary to divest David and Asaph, &c. of every other Character but that of a Psalmist and a Saint, and to make them always speak the common Sense of a Christian.... Where the Psalmist describes Religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and Love to it: ... Where he talks of sacrificing Goats or Bullocks, I rather chuse to mention the Sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God: Where he attends the ark with Shouting in Zion, I sing the Ascension of my Saviour into Heaven, or his Presence in his Church on Earth.'

The second part of the book contains hymns. First comes a book of hymns collected from the Holy Scriptures' -- that is to say, paraphrases of both Old and New Testament passages. Second is a book of hymns composed on Divine Subjects' -- that is to say, hymns as we should understand the word, freely composed without particular reference to Holy Scripture. Third, and last, are hymns prepared for the holy ordinance of the Lord's Supper'. As Watts had ended his Psalter by six versions of Gloria Patri in various metres, so he ends the hymnbook by others. Some are in the form of hymns. Some are single verses. To these he adds four hosannas to the Son of God. The result is a very substantial volume.

I shall not pretend to any bibliographical knowledge of Watts's works. If you want that knowledge, you will find it in Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology. I mention only that the Hymns were published in 1707 and enlarged in a second edition in 1709; and that ten years later the Psalms were published. We will take the volume as it stands compacted of these two.

Nor shall I give you, what I am indeed unfit to give you, an historical sketch of hymn-singing in our churches. I note only that Watts is a pioneer. Hymns were being sung in our churches in the late seventeenth century; but there was a prejudice against them as both Popish and unscriptural. That prejudice died hard; and, what was worse, the supply of English hymns was meagre and poor. To Watts more than to any other man is due the triumph of the hymn in English worship. All later hymn-writers, even when they excel him, are his debtors; and it is possible to hold that his work for hymns is greater than Charles Wesley's, even if as a writer of hymns we place him a little lower than Wesley. Metrical psalms in great numbers there were before Watts, and they were much used. But here, as in his hymns, Watts was a pioneer. In his Christian interpretation of the Psalms, he had predecessors, but no one had so thoroughly carried out the plan before.

In examining what Dr. Watts wrote, we must then always remember that he is hewing his way through an almost unexplored territory, and that his successors, not having his rough work to do again, will be able to polish and improve. We must expect him to make many experiments that fail, and to try many arrangements before he finds the best. His book is a laboratory of experiments. Only in a few places can we expect him to bring one off. Another set of conditions hampered him. He was writing for congregations that were often ignorant. His hymns had to be suitable to be announced and sung line by line by illiterates. He had to write in only a few well-known metres, a limitation of which he often complained.

I claim at this point the historian's privilege: the privilege of mentioning dates. The hymns were published in 1707. Watts's mind, that is to say, was formed in the seventeenth century. He is a seventeenth- rather than an eighteenth-century writer. This appears in that quality of his verse which friends call quaint, and enemies grotesque. When Watts's taste was set the English language had not undergone that purging and purifying, that rationalizing and simplification, which we associate with the name of Addison. Here we find a contrast between Watts and Wesley. Watts's forebears wrote crabbed, allusive, tortuous prose and verse. Charles Wesley's forebears wrote the slick and polished stuff. To write great theology in common metre, long metre, or in 6.8s is not easy even if you have a perfect command of metre; but Watts found no metre ready tamed for his use. Read the metrical psalter of the Church of Scotland, and you will get a picture of the untamed, unbroken metres which Watts had to discipline. Wesley found that work done for him. The wonder is not that Watts is, when compared with Wesley, rough and grotesque, but that he has achieved even his moderate success in harnessing his verse to his theology. Here is an example at random from Psalm xx: Some trust in chariots and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God'. The Scottish version is:

In chariots some put confidence,

Some horses trust upon;

But we remember will the name

Of our Lord God alone.

Watts writes:

Some trust in horses trained for war,

And some of chariots make their boasts;

Our surest expectations are

From Thee, the Lord of heav'nly hosts.

I have not chosen a grotesque, but an average, passage. But you can see Watts smoothing the verses down. In the eighteenth century they will be smoothed quite flat.

From the seventeenth century Watts derived another quality which makes him very unlike Wesley. This quality reminds us of Milton, even though the difference between Milton and Watts is very great. Let me put it this way. Charles Wesley in his hymns concerns himself mainly (I had almost written exclusively) with God and the soul of man: their manifold relations, their estrangement, their reconciliation, their union. Watts, too, concerns himself with this drama; but he gives it a cosmic background. Not less than Wesley, he finds the Cross the centre of his thought: all things look forward or backward to the Incarnation and the Passion. But Watts sees the Cross, as Milton had seen it, planted on a globe hung in space, surrounded by the vast distances of the universe. He sees the drama in Palestine prepared before the beginning of time and still decisive when time has ceased to be. There is a sense of the spaciousness of nature, of the vastness of time, of the dreadfulness of eternity, in Watts which is missing or less felt in Wesley. You have a touch of it in the last verse of Watts's greatest and best-known hymn, When I survey'. Were the whole realm of nature mine': the whole realm of Nature -- no thought, no expression is more characteristic of Watts than that. It is an echo of his encyclopaedic philosophic thought. You constantly find Watts surveying' the whole realm of Nature and finding at the centre of it its crucified and dying Creator.

In the most hideous period of the last war, in a rather dingy, dreary chapel in the Potteries, I heard Dr. F. B. Meyer preach (as only he could) on the Passion. He took for his text Watts' hymn When I survey'; and to this day I can give you the headings and gist of that moving sermon. I recall what Dr. Meyer said about the word survey': a cold, rather formal word for the sinner's looking at the Saviour, he thought it, but it was (he admitted) very characteristic of Watts. It is the word of a man who, in seventeenth-century fashion, sees the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour. John Bailey says that in no poet are we so frequently made aware of the sky as in Milton. In this Watts is Milton's disciple. The spaciousness of the firmament is always appearing in his hymns, and he cannot glance or look at so vast an expanse of time and space as the scene of our redemption unfolds: he must survey it.

Ere the blue heavens were stretched abroad

From everlasting was the Word.

There is a magical quality in that verse. Watts knows that the blue heavens' alone provide an adequate background for any thought of the Word. It is like Milton. It is like Dante. It has sublimity. That sublimity was partly lost in the intense examination of the human soul which marked the evangelical and pietist movements, but in Watts it leads straight to the Calvinist's awareness of the sovereignty of God.

God is a name my soul adores

The almighty Three, the eternal One;

Nature and grace, with all their powers,

Confess the Infinite unknown.

Thy voice produced the sea and spheres,

Bade the waves roar, the planets shine;

But nothing like Thyself appears

Through all these spacious works of Thine.

Still restless nature dies and grows,

From change to change the creatures run;

Thy being no succession knows,

And all Thy vast designs are one.

A glance of Thine runs through the globe,

Rules the bright worlds, and moves their frame;

Of light Thou form'st Thy dazzling robe,

Thy ministers are living flame.

How shall polluted mortals dare

To sing Thy glory or Thy grace?

Beneath Thy feet we lie afar,

And see but shadows of Thy face.

Who can behold the blazing light?

Who can approach consuming flame?

None but Thy wisdom knows Thy might,

None but Thy word can speak Thy name.

These verses, though less august, show the same perception of the great realm of Nature:

Firm are the words His prophets give,

Sweet words, on which his children live;

Each of them is the voice of God

Who spoke and spread the skies abroad.

Each of them powerful as the sound

That bid the new-made world go round;

And stronger than the solid poles

On which the wheel of nature rolls.

O for a strong, a lasting faith

To credit what my Maker saith,

T' embrace the message of His Son

And call the joys of heaven our own!

Then, should the earth's old pillars shake

And all the wheels of nature break,

Our steady souls should fear no more

Than solid rocks when billows roar.

Our everlasting hopes arise

Above the ruinable skies,

Where the eternal Builder reigns,

And His own courts His power sustains.

It is not, I think, an accident that the Methodists have drawn so freely on this type of hymn by Watts. Charles Wesley himself provided them with ample riches in the expression of evangelical faith; but the genius which presided over the evolution of the Methodist hymn-book consciously or unconsciously understood that Watts could supplement Wesley on this other side. In this way it has come about that the Methodists have a splendid store of Watts's hymns on what we may pretentiously call the cosmic setting of the Faith. They have valued Watts in some ways more than we.

The verses that I last quoted contain two interesting words from which we may now jump to consider Watts's diction. Did you note the fine phrase above the ruinable skies'? Watts has a flair for the use of the memorable word. We shall find that as we proceed. The other word is old': should the earth's old pillars shake'. Unless you are very careful, that sounds ludicrous. We want Watts to say ancient' or to use a more dignified word. Old' is a word that has lost caste since 1709. Compare

The sons of good old Jacob seemed

Abandoned to their foes.

Unhappily for Watts, many of his words have lost caste; and verse after verse of his psalms and hymns we find ruined by a turn of phrase that, once venerable, is become comic. The great divide, I surmise, is somewhere near Addison. Words have changed less since then. That is why Wesley seems less archaic or dated' than Watts, though, of course, there are a few expressions in Wesley that strike us as odd. But there are many in Watts. Very much too often we descend from the sublime to the ridiculous with a shattering bump, or, when he wishes to move us he makes us squirm.

Here every bowel of our God

With soft compassion rolls.

Not merely by his fondness for bowels' and worms' does Watts disturb us, but by scores and scores of expressions that died in the polite reformation of Augustan English.

So much then we must expect for the simple but adequate reason that Watts's taste was formed in the seventeenth and not in the eighteenth century. As an example, let me quote Watts's use of the exclamation Well'. He is very fond of this, but it gives a grotesquely colloquial touch to some of his solemn passages. He is contrasting the eternal life of God with the transitoriness of His creatures.

The sea and sky must perish too,

And vast destruction come;

The creatures -- look, how old they grow

And wait their fiery doom.

Well, let the sea shrink all away

And flame melt down the skies;

My God shall live an endless day

When th' old creation dies.

Or, in another sense, he opens a hymn:

Well, the Redeemer's gone

T' appear before our God,

To sprinkle o'er the flaming throne

With his atoning blood.


Well, if our days must fly,

We'll keep their end in sight.

Bible readers will remember that the translators of the Authorized Version in their address to the Reader use Well' in a similar solemn manner. It is part of Watts's seventeenth-century inheritance.

I could fill pages with examples of this unhappy change in the meaning of Watts's words.

Thou has redeemed our souls from hell

With Thine invaluable blood,

Yet with my God I leave my cause,

And trust His promised grace;

He rules me by His well-known laws

Of love and righteousness.

[God] rides upon the stormy sky

And manages the seas.

Thee, mighty God, our souls admire.

Must heaven's eternal darling die

To save a trait'rous race?

And Heaven without Thy presence there

Would be a dark and tiresome place.

and, perhaps oddest of all,

Through all His [God's] ancient works

Surprising wisdom shines.

Examples leap from every page. These will suffice to explain why so many of Watts's hymns cannot be sung today.

At times it is not the odd word, but the quaint or crude thought which puts the psalm or hymn out of court. Watts out-Wordsworths Wordsworth in his love of simple, everyday language; and as Wordsworth at times made the sublime ridiculous by his kindergarten expressions so also did Watts. At its best Watts's language is pure and transparent. It is as pure Anglo-Saxon as Bunyan's own:

Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood

Stand dressed in living green.

But at its worst it is banal beyond belief. What modern versions of St. Paul's epistles have done for Romans and Ephesians Watts has done for the Psalms. The obscurity has gone: granted; but so has the awe, the majesty, the numinous, the divine. Here is a neutral example about manna:

But they in murmuring language said,

Manna is all our feast.

We loathe this light, this airy bread,

We must have flesh to taste'.

Ye shall have flesh to please your lust'

(The Lord in wrath replied)

And sent them quails like sand or dust,

Heaped up from side to side.

He gave them all their own desire;

And greedy as they fed,

His vengeance burnt with secret fire,

And smote the rebels dead.

And meritorious as Watts's use of Anglo-Saxon words is, free as he is of pompous rubbish, his exclusion of Latin words deprives him of those magical changes that Wesley knows so well how to use. By the introduction of a word like essential' or transient' among Anglo-Saxon words Wesley will strike a deep note in a way that holds you spell-bound. When he would be strong, Watts is often merely violent.

At times, however, his violence becomes grand:

They love the road that leads to hell;

Then let the rebels die

Whose malice is implacable

Against the Lord on high.

But if thou hast a chosen few

Amongst that impious race,

Divide them from the bloody crew

By Thy surprising grace.

On Judgment Day:

The angry nations fret and roar

That they can slay the saints no more;

On wings of vengeance flies our God

To pay the long arrears of blood.

On Satan:

Now Satan comes with dreadful roar,

And threatens to destroy;

He worries whom he can't devour

With a malicious joy.

On the other hand, we have this pleasing picture of supernatural natural history:

A thousand savage beasts of prey

Around the forest roam,

But Judah's Lion guards the way

And guides the strangers home.

Here is the Warning to Magistrates,' to the Tory invaders of the rights of conscience who attempted to undermine the Toleration Act. It is worth the attention of Hitler:

Yet you invade the rights of God,

And send your bold decrees abroad

To bind the conscience in your chains.

Break out their teeth, eternal God,

Those teeth of lions dyed in blood,

And crush the serpents in the dust.

As empty chaff, when whirlwinds rise,

Before the sweeping tempest flies,

So let their hopes and names be lost.

But Watts was sometimes a master of understatement, as well as sometimes a slave of exaggeration. There is a neatness about this next verse which makes even Esquire seem cumbrous. Watts is writing on the excellency of the Christian religion:

Not the feigned fields of heathenish bliss

Could raise such pleasures to the mind,

Nor does the Turkish Paradise

Pretend to joys so well-refined.

You notice that, even when he is most grotesque, he lets slip the great phrase. The feigned fields of heathenish bliss' might be Milton. To pay the long arrears of blood' might be Shakespeare. Might it not be Aeschylus?

One other quality that has not helped the hymns demands a word. Watts, it must be confessed, is not always very clever at rhymes. Something must be allowed for changes in pronunciation of vowels and diphthongs. Something may be due to a faulty ear. But much, I am persuaded, is due to haste and carelessness. Have you noticed how many poor rhymes, false rhymes, and mere assonances occur even in his great hymns? Watts rarely tries to rhyme more than the second and fourth lines. That, to begin with, is letting himself off easily. Contrast Wesley, who usually rhymes first and third as well as second and fourth, and so gets a more compact verse. Take as an example Jesus shall reign'. In six verses, with twelve alleged rhymes, we find no fewer than five of the twelve imperfect. Watts is in this matter distinctly inferior to Wesley, who had, of course, a gifted musical ear and a rare facility in Latin verse to help him. Wesley's book, as well as Watts's, contains, of course, a good many false rhymes and mere assonances, but Wesley's do not weaken his verse as much as one would at first expect. This is because, unlike Watts, Wesley leaves very few lines without some attempt at rhyming. If lines 2 and 4 rhyme badly, lines I and 3 partly save the situation for Wesley. Watts has too often neglected to provide himself with this safety valve, and one bad rhyme, being the only rhyme, puts the verse out of action. So marked is the difference that if you read a hundred pages of Watts at a sitting, and come (as you will come) on the hymn perfectly smoothed and perfectly rhymed, your inclination is to say, Why, Wesley might have written that!' for at his best Watts is as accomplished as Wesley.

I take two of Watts's smoothest examples. You will note how much they gain because here, like Wesley, he sets out to rhyme lines I and 3 as well as 2 and 4. Even here, however, Watts does not give us perfect rhymes:

Not all the outward forms on earth,

Nor rites that God has given,

Nor will of man, nor blood, nor birth,

Can raise a soul to Heaven.

The sovereign will of God alone

Creates us heirs of grace,

Born in the image of His Son,

A new, peculiar race.

Or this:

Nor eye has seen, nor ear has heard,

Nor sense, nor reason known,

What joys the Father has prepared

For those that love the Son.

Each verse has one false and one true rhyme. Spread this defective rhyming equally all over the psalms and hymns and you see the result is considerable and depressing.

You will perhaps assume from what I have said that the common opinion is true, that our hymn-books have selected the best of Watts, and that we are not missing much in missing all but the twenty-five hymns or so with which we are familiar. Let no word of mine lead you into that error. When every deduction for every reason has been made, Watts's psalms and hymns contain many, many pieces which would enrich our worship. Not a few, it is true, contain a phrase or word that is now comic or grotesque; but by no means all. And even those hymns which, for such reasons, we cannot sing in public, we neglect at our peril in private. I at least know of no devotional book richer than Watts's hymns and psalms. The whole piece may be unfit for use, but the great phrase, the great thought, the penetrating analysis, the blinding flash of genius lighting up Calvary afresh for us -- these things would purge and wring and subdue and elevate and all but save our souls, did we give them the chance. Watts's was a great mind, a great soul, a great experience. Much that he writes is too intimate except for the holy of holies. But we ought to use it there.

Every one will make his own selection. I should have been sorry to miss this meditation:

Here at Thy cross, my dying God,

I lay my soul beneath Thy love.

Not all that tyrants think, or say,

With rage and lightning in their eyes,

Nor hell shall fright my heart away,

Should hell with all its legions rise,

Should worlds conspire to drive me thence,

Moveless and firm this heart should lie,

Resolved (for that's my last defence)

If I must perish, there to die.

There I behold, with sweet delight,

The blessed Three in One;

And strong affections fill my sight

On God's incarnate Son.

And if no evening visit's paid

Between my Saviour and my soul,

How dull the night, how sad the shade,

How mournfully the minutes roll.

Deep in our hearts let us record

The deeper sorrows of our Lord.

The mount of danger is the place

Where we shall see surprising grace.

Turn, turn us, mighty God,

And mould our souls afresh;

Break, sovereign grace, these hearts of stone,

And give us hearts of flesh.

It is time, after examining the limitations, to observe the strong features of Watts's verse. We have glanced at the simple Anglo-Saxon words which compose it. Page after page shows no Latin word. Whole verses are in monosyllables. The experiment is too difficult to succeed always, but if it comes off it is heavenly in its clarity and light. You can notice this in everything that I quote from Watts.

There are few tricks in Watts's verse, but he is fond of some simple devices. These interest us because first we can watch him practising them in scores of feeble or moderate verses, and then using them to bring off some distinguished performance in a classic hymn.

He is very fond, for instance, of a sort of repetition or parallelism. This descends perhaps from his putting into verse so many of the parallel sentences of Hebrew poetry. At times he repeats an idea, at times a phrase, at times only a word.

Down to the earth was Satan thrown,

Down to the earth his legions fell,

High on the cross the Saviour hung,

High in the heavens He reigns.

To Jesus our atoning Priest,

To Jesus our superior King.

I'll make your great commission known,

And ye shall prove my gospel true

By all the works that I have done,

By all the wonders ye shall do.

A more interesting type is here:

He bids the sun forbear to rise,

Th' obedient sun forbears.

In the creation:

Let blood,' He said, flow round the veins,'

And round the veins it flows.

Note the chiasmus there too.

Our days alas! our mortal days

Are short and wretched too;

Evil and few,' the patriarch says,

And well the patriarch knew.

Watts is particularly fond of pairing his lines in a way of his own. Most writers pair lines I and 2 or 3 and 4, and Watts often does that too. But he very often secures an interesting effect by pairing lines 2 and 3:

Nor shall Thy spreading Gospel rest

Till through the world Thy truth has run,

Till Christ has all the nations blest

That see the light or feel the sun.

Down to this base, this sinful earth,

He came to raise our nature high;

He came t' atone almighty wrath;

Jesus, the God, was born to die.

Not very remarkable, you may say. Wait a moment. Turn now to the greatest of Watts's hymns, and see this particular form of parallelism, combined with a chiasmus, in the second and third lines of the verse. See Watts bring off with apparently artless art the performance for which he has practised scores and scores of times:

See from His head, His hands, His feet,

Sorrow and love flow mingled down.

Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,

Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Another device of which Watts is very fond is accumulation. He piles up words and ideas of the same order, and produces the effect memorably described in Burke's treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful:

His worship and his fear shall last

Till hours and years and time be past.

(There Persia, glorious to behold,

There India shines in eastern gold)

And barb'rous nations at His word

Submit and bow and own their Lord.

No bleeding bird, nor bleeding beast,

Nor hyssop branch, nor sprinkling priest,

Nor running brook, nor flood, nor sea,

Can wash the dismal stain away.

Sometimes Watts accumulates phrases, as when Wisdom speaks:

Before the flying clouds,

Before the solid land,

Before the fields, before the floods,

I dwelt at His right hand.

Not much in it? Perhaps not; but, for all that, you will find it a feature of the greatest of his hymns:

See from His head, His hands, His feet.

While life and thought and being last,

Or immortality endures

While such as trust their native strength

Shall melt away and droop and die.

From Milton, I suspect, Watts learnt his mastery of proper names. They adorn his verse frequently and happily. Sometimes they strike us as odd.

He takes my soul ere I'm aware,

And shows me where His glories are;

No chariot of Amminadib

The heavenly rapture can describe.


So Samson, when his hair was lost,

Met the Philistines to his cost,

Shook his vain limbs with sad surprise,

Made feeble fight, and lost his eyes.

But this is impressive:

What mighty man, or mighty God,

Comes travelling in State

Along the Iduman road

Away from Bozrah's gate?

And have you noticed the triumph of long practice with proper names in There is a land of pure delight'? In one couplet Watts works off three of them. We do not notice them as heavy or precious; and yet they awaken that historic memory which only proper names can command:

So to the Jews old Canaan stood,

While Jordan rolled between.

Watts has achieved perfect mastery when he can use proper names to bewitch us without our noticing it.

You remember that other quality which we observed earlier: Watts's awareness of the whole universe as the setting for human life and for the drama of salvation. That quality gives deep tones to his greatest hymns. That, too, he controls after much experiment. I need only remind you of

Time, like an ever-rolling stream.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,

With all their lives and cares,

Are carried downwards by the flood

And lost in following years.

The Mighty God, whose matchless power

Is ever new and ever young,

And firm endures while endless years

Their everlasting circles run.

And of course supremely:

Were the whole realm of nature mine.

Watts, then, achieves his supreme triumphs not by accident. They are compounded of many ingredients already well known to him, experimented with happily and unhappily, carelessly as well as carefully, but finally subdued by his art in a classic hymn. For some of the hymns as whole pieces, notably for When I survey' and for There is a land', we can find rough drafts in his book.

We have lingered perhaps too long on the lesser things. Let me ask a final question touching greater matters than diction and versification. What of Watts's choice of subjects? What are the psalms and hymns about?

They concern, as is natural, some things of passing or historic interest. In making David speak like a Christian, Watts most properly made him speak also like an Englishman, not to say like an eighteenth-century Whig. Watts equates, that is to say, Palestine, Israel, Judea, Jerusalem with Great Britain. The exquisitely sensitive commentators call this vulgar. Vulgar or not, Watts does it. The result is that he gives us some fascinating reflexions on English history. The deliverances of the chosen people had their parallels in Gunpowder Plot, the landing of William of Orange, the accession of George I, and generally in the defeat of the French, the discomfiture of the Tories, and the confusion of the Papists. Popish idolatry reproved: a psalm for the 5th of November'; The church saved and her enemies disappointed: composed for the 5th of November, 1694'; Power and government from God alone: applied to the Glorious Revolution by King William or the happy accession of King George to the throne'. The hymns are full of sound political doctrine as well as thanksgiving.

Britain was doomed to be a slave,

Her frame dissolved, her fears were great.

When God a new supporter gave

To bear the pillars of the State.

No vain pretence to royal birth

Shall fix a tyrant on the throne.

The lesson is clear:

Oft has the Lord whole nations blest

For His own church's sake;

The pow'rs that give His people rest

Shall of His care partake.

Let Caesar's due be ever paid

To Caesar and his throne,

But consciences and souls were made

To be the Lord's alone.

Here is Guy Fawkes:

Their secret fires in caverns lay,

And we the sacrifice;

But gloomy caverns strove in vain

To 'scape all searching eyes.

Their dark designs were all revealed,

Their treason all betrayed.

But nevertheless:

In vain the busy sons of hell

Still new rebellions try.

The grandson of Blake's lieutenant rejoices in the success of our arms, in the cause of liberty and Protestantism:

How have we chased them through the field,

And trod them to the ground,

While Thy salvation was our shield,

But they no shelter found.

In vain to idol saints they cry,

And perish in their blood.

The decline of the Dissenting interest in the early eighteenth century has left a pathetic reflexion in Watts. Empty churches are not new phenomena.

'Tis with a mournful pleasure now

I think on ancient days;

Then to Thy house did numbers go,

And all our work was praise.

In God they boasted all the day,

And in a cheerful throng

Did thousands meet to praise and pray,

And grace was all their song.

But now our souls are seized with shame,

Confusion fills our face.

Yet have we not forgot our God,

Nor falsely dealt with heav'n.

Most of the psalms and hymns contain no local or passing reference. They deal -- ninety-nine out of a hundred of them -- with the great elemental facts that always dominate the Christian's mind. There is indeed a certain sameness about Watts's book because he deals so constantly with the same three or four topics. There is nothing denominational about him. We find rather less reflexion of the intense fellowship of classic Congregationalism than we should have expected. Watts deals with the great common themes of catholic Christianity.

There is, to begin with, the most frank and most moving recital of the weakness, the unsatisfactoriness, the transience of human life. The hopes and fears of men Watts portrays with a tender but unflinching hand. No man has analysed more faithfully the doubts and hopes and fears that we all have.

The passions of my hope and fear

Maintained a doubtful strife,

While sorrow, pain, and sin conspired

To take away my life.

And all is set over against the vast universe:

Like flowery fields the nations stand,

Pleased with the morning light;

The flow'rs beneath the mower's hand

Lie with'ring ere 'tis night.

Watts is almost Virgilian in this. Not less than Virgil, he deserves Tennyson's great word:

Thou majestic in thy sadness

At the doubtful doom of human kind.

There is no easy sentimentality in Watts. He has one foot firmly on earth. His quite ghastly poems about death and the grave, about Hell and Satan, provide valuable evidence that he at least had allowed for the emergence of Mussolini and Hitler. Watts is a sound Calvinist. He knows that mankind has fallen. He takes full note of evil, and allows handsomely for it.

But if one of Watts's feet is firmly planted on earth, the other is no less firmly planted on catholic, evangelical, apostolic theology. A line which, for another purpose, I have already quoted gives us in strong epigrammatic form the other thing which Watts sees over against the tragedy of human life:

Jesus, the God, was born to die.

In its blazing antitheses: the Galilean carpenter who is God: the God who is born: the God who dies; it carries us back to the most ancient hymns of the Greek and the Latin Church.

Our souls adore th' Eternal God,

Who condescended to be born.

The Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection -- these things are for Watts no less certain than the frustration of human hopes. That is why (in his own word) he is, on the balance, cheerful'.

Till God in human form I see

My thoughts no comfort find.

But if Immanuel's face I see

My hope, my joy begins.

I love th' incarnate mystery

And there I place my trust.

Here is the final vision of a Love of God older than the universe and filling it:

So strange, so boundless was the love

That pitied dying men,

The Father sent His equal Son

To give them life again.

Christ be my first elect,' He said,

Then chose our souls in Christ our head,

Before He gave the mountains birth

Or laid foundations for the earth.

Thus did eternal love begin

To raise us up from death and sin;

Our characters were then decreed

Blameless in love, a holy seed.'

So let our lips and lives express

That holy gospel we profess.

Now by the bowels of my God,

His sharp distress, His sore complaints

By His last groans, His dying blood,

I charge my soul to love the saints.

Tender and kind be all our thoughts,

Through all our lives let mercy run;

So God forgives our numerous faults

For the dear sake of Christ His Son.

These are the august notes of true Catholic theology and true Christian living. I know of no better introduction to classical theology than Watts. Let me give you two examples. Recently I read through the Gloss Ordinary and the other main commentaries used by medieval theologians on the first few chapters of the Song of Solomon. I found it again almost word for word in Watts's paraphrases of that book. And in Watts's Jesus shall reign' you have the great verse (omitted, of course, nowadays from our books because it is so great):

In Him [Christ] the sons of Adam boast

More blessings than their father lost.

What is that but the glorious passage from the ancient Office for Easter Eve? O certainly necessary sin of Adam ... O happy fault which deserved to have such and so great a Redeemer.'

Watts's book moves to a splendid end in his sacramental hymns. The Lord's Supper has an essential place in Watts's religion.

I love the Lord, who stoops so low

To give His word a seal.

And thus our sense assists our faith

And shows us what His gospel means.

{St. Thomas Aquinas has the complementary thought in his great eucharistic hymn, Pange, lingua:

Praestet fides supplementum

Sensuum defectui.}

He sets out the high sacramental doctrine of the Savoy Confession. The Lord's Supper is more than a memorial.

This holy bread and wine

Maintains our fainting breath

By union with our living Lord

And interest in His death.

Here have we seen Thy face, O Lord,

And viewed salvation with our eyes;

Tasted and felt the Living Word,

The bread descending from the skies.

He remembers with infinite tenderness those who once partook with us of the Supper here on earth.

While once upon this lower ground,

Weary and faint ye stood,

What dear refreshments here ye found

From this immortal food.

Here God's whole name appears complete,

Nor wit can guess, nor reason prove,

Which of the letters best is writ,

The power, the wisdom, or the love.

If I were asked to compare Watts with Wesley in a word, I should say, I think, though with great diffidence, that Watts seems to me to have the greater mind, the wider outlook, the more philosophic approach to human life and to the Christian revelation. He has also, I think, more original poetry in him. Now and then he hits out a greater and more elemental phrase than any that I remember in Wesley. But Wesley is the greater artist. He flies more surely. He crashes far less often. He reaches the heights far more often, though perhaps he does not go quite as high. His book, as a whole, far surpasses Watts. Watts, because he is dominated by the notion of paraphrasing, puts Scripture very often into his own words; it is not always to the advantage of Scripture. Wesley does little paraphrasing. He puts his own notions into Scripture language, and it is always to their advantage. Each is scriptural; they are equally scriptural, but in different ways, and the literary luck is with Wesley. Watts had it in him to do better than Wesley ever did, better than he himself ever did.

But in essentials they are one; and they provide us with one quite conclusive reason for being Christians as far as we can be. They form a heritage that only a madman will let slip. Let Watts have the last word in the last lines of his superb doxology to the Holy Trinity:

Where reason fails,

With all her powers,

There faith prevails

And love adores.

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