Because it's really tough to miss his music, just about anyone who's ever gone to church knows Isaac Watts. Those who know such things claim he wrote more than 750 hymns in his time (1674 - 1748). That's where we meet him, in his hymns; he's there somewhere in the shadow of the glory he created.
But one meets Isaac Watts in other places as well--in his own commentary on the way in which he wrote lyrics that have become so familiar and precious to so many. He was--as he had to be--his own fiercest critic; and sometimes, he says in the intro to Hymns and Spiritual Songs, he had to restrain himself.
"Some of the beauties of poesy are neglected and some willfully defaced," he says, speaking of what English teachers call metaphor and simile. And then, a confession: "I have thrown out the lines that were too sonorous and have given an allay to the verse lest a more exalted turn of thought or language should darken or disturb the devotion of the weakest souls."
Okay, if you catch a whiff of condescension, it's there. Sometimes he'd like to be more "poetic" but he's a bit afraid the unwashed in the sanctuary won't get it. Restraint, he says, is something that really has to be practiced. But we'll let him explain:
But hence it comes to pass that I have been forced to lay aside many hymns after they were finished, and utterly exclude them from this volume, because of the bolder figures of speech [there's the phrase] that crowded themselves into the verse which I could not easily restrain. . .If there's any question, Isaac Watts did not dream up his metaphors, didn't sit there, quill in hand, and work them out. They came to him almost too easily, too willingly. And now, a confession of sin:
I confess myself to have been too often tempted away from the more spiritual designs I proposed, by some gay and flowery expression that gratified the fancy; the bright images too often prevailed above the fire of divine affection and the light exceeded the heat.At times, he says, his craft got away from him. Thrilled by the form, he nearly forgot content; and the line, he says, went over the top, devotion--the thought--left somewhere behind.
Yet I hope in many of them the reader will find that devotion dictated the song and the head and hand were nothing but interpreters and secretaries to the heart.He wants those who sing his hymns to see that his devotion to God created the music--and that his creative imagination--his head and hands--were but "secretaries to the heart."
Watts says he loves to dress up his lyrics in poetic finery. But it's a weakness he has to fight. Style should only serve, not rule.
If you're wondering, one of the hymns to make the cut in that first collection is "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," a hymn that includes one of the most famous "figures of speech" in all of English hymnody:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
English teachers call that metonymy, a species of metaphor that substitutes part of something for the whole of something. This famous line happens to reverse that definition, substituting whole (sorrow and love) for the part (blood). What's literally falling from the savior is blood. But Watts reminds us it's not just that--it's sorrow (for us) and love (for us). Blood flowing from the Savior's wounds is bad enough, but there's very much more to his suffering.
I could write all morning long to try to unpack what's in those two lines, but sometimes it's better simply to sing them in sheer wonder.
If you're blessed, you may just sing that old Watts hymn sometime in the next few days. If not, spend a couple minutes listening. What Watts wrought will take your breath away. Those hands of his, those secretaries to the heart, never did finer work.