Sunday 19 June 2011

Isaac Watts

I took a necropolitan stroll yesterday through Abney Park, which is a jumbled and bramble-covered cemetery in North London. One might easily deduce from the chaotic state of the grave stones that the Second Coming had happened years ago. Everything is overgrown with brambles and ivy, and the whole thing is like Ozymandias run riot in Stoke Newington.

Hidden right in the middle is a monolithic monument to Isaac Watts, whose writings, dear reader, you are familiar with.

What's that? You've never read any Isaac Watts? Well, you have. Sort of.

Do you remember the poem in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that goes:

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!

You do? Do you remember how it is introduced? Alice says:

I'll try and say 'How doth the little - '," and she crossed her hands on her lap as if she were saying lessons, and began to repeat it, but her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come out the same as they used to do...

The lesson that Alice is trying to recite was Against Idleness and Mischief. It's a moral poem by Isaac Watts, who was an eighteenth century moralising poet, theologian and hymn-scribbler. The original starts like this:

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.

And then it goes on to be the origin of another terribly well known phrase:

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.

So that's two bits of the same poem that you sort of know, isn't it? Did your mother ever tell you that birds in their little nests agree? Mine did. That's another of Isaac's. The full verse goes like this:

Birds in their little nests agree;
And 'tis a shameful sight,
When children of one family
Fall out, and chide, and fight.

Mind you, you can also kill two birds with one stone, which is how I dealt with my siblings. My old physics teacher told me that time always was always marked on the X axis of a graph because:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

As you can probably tell, Isaac Watts combined tediousness with talent in roughly equal helpings. So I am complimenting him when I say that he was pretty damned tedious. Victorian children were forced to learn and recite all his awful moralisings.

However, his poetry can be turned on its head. For example, he wrote a thoroughly condemnatory poem called The Sluggard that begins:

'Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
"You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again."
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

Which I think I shall print out and pin to the door of my bedroom. Later in the poem we are told of the Sluggard's garden:

I pass'd by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher;

Which would be a perfect description of Abney Park, in which his memorial now stands among grandiose brambles.


  1. What a marvellous post. Thank you, kind sir, for the erudition.

  2. I rather proud of myself for recognizing Isaac Watts, although I can't say I'm exceptionally familiar with his writngs (for obvious reasons). Ah, the benefits of editing a children's literature course that discusses moralizing Victorians alongside fairy tales and Alice and picture books. I could go on, so great is my love of such things, but I'll resist.
    It's amazing how frequently your posts correspond with what I'm encountering in my daily life, and they never fail to enlighten me. So thanks for another good one!

  3. *I was
    (The preview button is my friend. I should know this by now.)