Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 24. Older contemporaries of Pope: Isaac Watts and his “Hymns.” Sir Samuel Garth

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 24. Older contemporaries of Pope: Isaac Watts and his “Hymns.” Sir Samuel Garth

A second, and very much larger, division, which may, indeed, perhaps with some sub-groupings, be made to include all the rest of the poets to be dealt with in this section, consists of those verse-writers who, though older than Pope, did not, for the most part, publish poetry before the close of the seventeenth century, and who represent the direct influence of Dryden, felt and exercised in parallel measure with that felt by Pope himself; so that, in their most characteristic work, they are of the queen Anne, or of the earliest Georgian, division. These, for the most part, though they may sometimes write pindarics, gravitate towards the couplet, and occasionally towards blank verse; confine themselves, though they do not abstain from lyric, to a few rather conventional forms of it; and, when they are not attempting large, and generally ill-selected, themes, approach very nearly to that “paper of verses” which had been contemptuously described in the generation before them. Not a few of the later born of them, as well as many of those who will be noticed in a subsequent chapter, make their appearance, if not their first or only appearance, in that remarkable collection of Dodsley, to which, accordingly, we must devote some direct attention as a whole. Some, such as Watts, have an abiding memory for parts of their work, while the rest is absolutely forgotten. Some, like Garth, have a place in the formal history of poetry which ought to preserve them long after their theme has lost whatever interest it may once have possessed. Others, like Blackmore, live in those “singing flames” of satire which at least ensure an uncomfortable immortality. With the three just named, we may begin.

The batch of writers previously reviewed, more or less, deserve the politely contemptuous French epithet “canary”; they seldom attempted major themes, and, when they did, still more seldom attacked them with the “horse, foot and artillery” of the long poem. With the trio just mentioned, the case is altered. The individual scale of Watts’s pieces is, indeed, generally small; but their tone is always serious. Garth’s best known, or singly known, work is, in design, burlesque; but the scale is considerable and the plan involves stretches of treatment which are not burlesque at all. Whatever may be said about Blackmore, two charges could never be brought against him: that the manner of his versifications was frivolous or that their bulk was insignificant.

Sir Richard Blackmore, though his exact birth year does not seem to be known, took his M.A. degree at Oxford in 1676, and, therefore—at the very earliest age of matriculation likely, even at that time—must have been born nearer 1650 than 1660; so that he may have been ten years older than Sir Samuel Garth, who was born in 1661, and can hardly have been much less than twenty the senior of Isaac Watts, the date of whose birth was 1674. But the order of their poetical merit must, on almost any conceivable system of criticism, be reversed.

Very few people, it may be suspected, are nowadays in a position to give offhand any opinion based on knowledge of Watts’s actual—quality as a poet. “Watts’s Hymns” (as Divine Songs for Children and Moral Songs are commonly, but incorrectly, called) early excluded his other work from notice, in accordance with the curious doom which literary reputations often have to undergo: and, while they themselves are probably little known now, their old familiarity has left behind it a sort of good-humoured contempt to rest on the sluggard, and the little busy bee and the everlastingly misquoted “Let dogs delight.”

But, though there are some very pretty things among these faded immortelles, and though Watts’s quite exceptional command of flexible and original metre is often shown in them, they are by no means the only or the chief poetical documents of his productivity. Whether against them, as against nearly all Watt’s work, Johnson’s well-known objection to sacred poetry will lie, must be left to individual opinion. It might, perhaps, be argued, without much danger of refutation, that the paucity of successes ought to be set against the extravagant multitude of attempts by quite unqualified hands, and that the existence of any successes at all—hardly to be denied in the face of a chain of verse from Dies Irae to not a few of Christina Rossetti’s pieces—bars too sweeping a condemnation. Undoubtedly, the bulk, if not the whole body, of Watts’s Horae Lyricae comes under the censure, whether it be just or unjust. Too much of this collection is in the perilous form of “pindaric,” and too much of this, again, succumbs to the special dangers of turgidity and frigidity which beset that form. For strictly impertinent and hopelessly disproportionate bombast, Watts’s Elegy on Mr. Thomas Gouge, which Southey has justly ridiculed, is hardly outstripped by anything in the English language. Yet, even here, amid the bombast and the bathos, occur phrases, and even passages, which, by themselves, dissociated from their subject, are unquestionable poetry.

Elsewhere, the faults are less and the merits more continuous. The sapphics “When the fierce north wind with his airy forces,” like nearly all English attempts at the metre before the last half century, balance and pivot the rhythm wrongly; but there is, at least, something grandiose about them, and, like Watts’s other things, they show a healthy reaction against the chilling uniformity of the couplet. Watts was one of the earliest to try blank verse; and few will think his “essays without rhyme,” as he himself called them, an item on the wrong side of his account. He was sometimes very happy in the dangerous “short measure”—the old “poulters’ measure” split into four; and, in whatever form he writes, we shall not accompany him far without (though, perhaps, in a rather different sense) agreeing with Johnson himself that “his ear was well tuned and his diction elegant and copious.” Inferior as he may be to Collins, he shows the same combat of time and man: while the time is even more against him. And one cannot help speculating on what he might have done if his floruit had coincided, not with the junction of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but with that of the eighteenth and nineteenth.