Isaac watts and a Hot Summer's afternoon in Southampton
By Alan Russell
Away from the main streets of brash consumerism and commercialism of Southampton City there are strongly woven webs of parks and green spaces that run a street’s width north of the Central Library, Art Gallery and Civic Centre.
Directly opposite the Central Library is Watts Park. In the height of summer the day I was there the canopies of the trees spread welcoming degrees of shade over the lawns and walkways. Young people were playing Frisbee around an oak tree. Two women wearing brightly coloured hijabs were sitting by an oak tree holding their own private majlis and talking animatedly to one another. Under another oak tree two more women wearing jeans and t shirts were also talking just as enthusiastically about something. Their dog looked on with heavy disinterested eyes. No doubt the two groups of women were probably talking about the same topics. One grossly overweight woman took up the whole length of a park bench in the glaring sunlight soaking up the heat like a salamander has to before it can spring into action to survive. Or, she might have just been sleeping off a lunch. Either way she could not be distracted from her iPhone. Nearby an Asian man was playing a game with his daughter. She would blow bubbles and then urge him to chase and catch the bubbles floating in the air before they landed on blades of grass and were forever punctured. A scruffy man sat on another bench with two bulging carrier bags next to his feet. He was tucking into a sandwich. He could have been on his way home from shopping or he was already at his home packed into the carrier bags.
Looking down on all of this panoply of city life is a statue that I have walked past many times without taking the time to find out the ‘who’ and ‘why’ he was carved into stone.
This hot afternoon I did stop. I did look and I did some research.
The man in a periwig and frock coat is Isaac Watts. Born in Southampton on 17th July 1664 and passed away 25th November 1748. A remarkable life span of 74 years in an era where the average life expectancy was about 40 years. What made this man even more remarkable is what he achieved in those 74 years,
From an early age he was able to create his own rhymes seemingly simultaneously. One time at church he was caught with his eyes open during prayers and was asked why he behaved in such a way. His reply was:
A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers
The question to ask is ‘Who asked the question and if everyone was meant to have their eyes closed at prayer who was the person who had their eyes open?
This skill at creating rhymes manifested itself in later life in one of his hymns attributed to his penmanship:
From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator’s praise arise
Let the redeemer’s name be sung
Through every land by every tongue
Young Isaac was educated in Southampton and although he was a gifted and able student he was unable to graduate to the either of the Oxbridge universities because he was a ‘dissenter’ in that he openly declared non-acceptance of the traditional church preaching and beliefs of the time. Where I stayed in Tewkesbury at the Tudor Rose Hotel in early 2016 was also an academy for dissenters’ students in the same academic predicament.
Fortunately our society has moved on from this level of intolerance over the last seven or eight generations since the days of Isaac Watts.
On graduation from the dissenters’ academy he became a pastor at a large independent chapel in the Stoke Newington area of what is now London in 1690. This is where he spent most of his life. At the independent chapel priests were trained but Isaac Watts did not follow any religious lines in his part of their training. He was truly non-conformist and believed it was more important to develop academically rather than be trammelled into one way of ecumenical thoughts. His approach was secular.
It was while he was being beaten as a child for his open eyed misdemeanour that he thought of the following couplet:
Father, father pity take
And I will no more verses make.
Fortunately he did not keep the promise made under duress and went on to write 750 hymns some of which are still in current use in English and have been translated around the world into different tongues.
As well as being a prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts also wrote books on theology and logic. In 1724 he published:
Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences.
Which would be a modern publisher’s nightmare to work into the design of a book cover. This publication was a contemporary to John Locke’s much more succinctly titled masterpiece ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’.
Perhaps his most famous hymn and now classified as a Christmas Carol is ‘Joy to the World’ which has been covered by just about every singer, including Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra, that have been able to record Christmas music.
So there you have it. In a small park in the centre of Southampton is a statue to commemorate a man who was a dissenter, a pastor, a logician, a song writer and someone who after 74 years of life has created a legacy for future generations to sing and read in any language. I am sure if he could see the scene I saw on that hot summer’s day from his plinth that he would be looking down in contentment in the knowledge that people from all backgrounds were living in relative harmony and understanding sharing the sunshine, the shade and the lawns of Watts Park.