Dr. Isaac Watts was born at Southampton, July 17, 1674. His father was the master of a boarding-school in that town, of very considerable reputation. He was a sufferer for non-conformity, in the time of Charles II. and when at one time in prison, his wife, it was said, was seen sitting on a stone near the prison door, suckling her son Issac.
This son was a remarkable instance of early attention to books; He began to learn Latin at the age of four, probably at home, and was afterwards taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the Rev. John Pinhorne, master of the free school at Southampton, rector of All-Saints in the same place, prebendary of Leckford, and vicar of Eling in the New Forest. The proficiency he made at this school induced some persons of property to raise a sum sufficient to maintain him at one of the universities; but his determination was soon fixed to remain among the dissenters, with whom his ancestors had long been connected. In 1690, he went to an academy superintended by the Rev. Thomas Rowe, where he had for his companions, Hughes the poet, and Horte, afterwards the Archbishop of Tuam; Mr. Samuel Say, afterwards an eminent preacher among the dissenters, and other persons of literary eminence. It is well-known that Dr. Watts strove to wean Hughes from his attachment to the stage. In 1693, he joined the congregation under the care of Mr. Rowe, as a communicant.
His application to this academy was very intense, and perhaps few young men have laid in a larger stock of various knowledge. The late Dr. Gibbons was in possession of a large volume in his hand-writing, containing twenty-two Latin dissertations upon curious and important subjects, which were evidently written when at this academy; and, says Dr. Johnson, * shew a degree of knowledge, both philosophical and theological, such as very few attain by a much longer course of study.*
His leisure hours seem to have been very early occupied in poetical efforts, and particularly when, after leaving the academy in his twentieth year, he went to reside with his father at Southampton, and spent two years in reading, meditation, and prayer, to fit himself for the work of the ministry.
At the end of this time, he was invited by Sir John Hartopp to reside in his family at Stoke Newington, near London, as tutor to his son. Here he remained about four or five years; and on his birth-day, 1698, preached his first sermon, and was chosen assistant to Dr. Chauncy, minister of the congregation at Marklane. About three years after, he was appointed to succeed Dr. Chauncy; but had scarce entered on this charge, when he was so interrupted by illness, as to render an assistant necessary; and, after an interval of health, he was again seized by a fever, - which left a weakness that never wholly abated, and in a great measure checked the usefulness of his public labours. While in this afflicting situation, he was received into the house of Sir Thomas Abney, of Newington, Knight and Alderman of London, where he was entertained with the utmost tenderness, friendship, and liberality, for the space of thirty-six years. Sir Thomas died about eight years after Dr. Watts became an inmate in his family, but he continued with Lady Abney and her daughters to the end of his life. Lady Abney died about a year after him; and the last of the family, Mrs. Elizabeth Abney, in 1782.
' A coalition like this,' says Dr. Johnson, ' a state in which the notions of patronage and dependence were overpowered by the perception of reciprocal benefits, deserves a particular memorial; and I will not withhold from the reader Dr. Gibbons's representation, to which regard is to be paid as to the narrative of one who writes what he knows, and what is known likewise to multitudes besides.'
The passage thus elegantly alluded to is as follows : « Our next observations shall be made upon that remarkably kind providence which brought the Doctor into Sir Thomas Abaey's family, and continued him there till his death, a period of no less than thirty-six years. In the midst of his several labours for the glory of God and good of his generation, he is seized with a most violent and threatening fever, which leaves him oppressed with great weakness, and puts a stop at least to his public services for some years. la this distressing season, doubly so to his active and pious spirit, he is invited to Sir Thomas Abney's family, nor ever removes from it till he had finished his days. Here he enjoyed the uninterrupted demonstrations of truest friendship. Here, without any care of his own, he bad every thing which could contribute to the enjoyment of life, and favour the unwearied pursuits of his studies. Here he dwelt in a family, which, for piety, order, harmony, and every virtue, was a house of God. Here he had the privilege of a country recess, the fragrant bower, the spreading lawn, the flowery garden, and other advantages, to sooth his mind, and aid his restoration to health; to yield him, whenever he chose them, more grateful intervals for his laborious studies, and enable him to return to them with redoubled vigour and delight. Had it not been for this most happy event, he might, as to outward view, have feebly, it may be, painfully, dragged on through many more years of languor, and inability for public service, and even for profitable study, or perhaps might have sunk into his grave under the overwhelming load of infirmities in the midst of his days: and thus the church and world have been deprived of those many excellent sermons and works which he drew up and published during his long residence in this family. In a few years after his removing thither, Sir Thomas Abney dies: but his amiable consort survives, who shows the Doctor the same respect and friendship as before, and most happily for him, and great number besides; for, as her riches were great, her generosity and munificence were in full proportion: her thread of life was drawn out to a great age, even beyond that of the Doctor's; and thus this excellent man, through her kindness, and that of her daughter, the present (1780) Mrs. Elizabeth Abney, who in a like degree esteemed and honoured him, enjoyed all the benefits and felicities he experienced at his first entrance into this family, till his days were numbered and finished, and, like a shock of corn in its season, he ascended into the regions of perfect and immortal life and joy.'
In this retreat he wrote the whole, or nearly the whole, of those works which have immortalized his name as a Christian poet and philosopher. He occasionally preached: and in the pulpit, says Dr. Johnson, though his low stature, which very little exceeded five feet, graced him with no advantages of appearance, yet the gravity and propriety of his utterance made his discourses very efficacious. Such was his flow of thoughts, and such his promptitude of language, that in the latter part of his life he did not pre-compose his cursory sermons ; but having adjusted the heads, and sketched out some particulars, trusted for success to his extemporary powers.
He continued many years to study, and to preach, and to do good by his instruction and example, till at last the infirmities of age disabled him from the more laborious part of his ministerial functions; and being no longer capable of public duty, he offered to remit the salary appendant to it, but his congregation would not accept the resignation. His annual income did not exceed one hundred pounds, of which he allowed one third to the poor.
His death was distinguished by steady faith and composure, and deprived the world of his useful labours and example, Nov. 25, 1748, in the seventy- fifth year of his age. He expired in that house where his life had been prolonged and made comfortable by a long continuance of kind and tender attentions of which there are few examples.
Dr. Johnson's character of him in that admirable life he wrote for the English Poets, may be received with confidence.
- Few men hare left such purity of character, or such monuments
of laborious piety. He has provided instruction for all ages, from those who are lisping their first lessons, to the enlightened readers of Malbranche and Locke: he has left neither corporeal nor spiritual nature unexamined : he has taught the art of reasoning, and the science of the stars. His character, therefore, must be formed from the multiplicity and diversity of his attainments, rather than from any single performance; for it would not be safe to claim for him the highest iank in any single denomination of literary dignity: yet perhaps there was nothing in which be would not have excelled, if be had art divided his powers to different pursuits.'
His entire works have been published in six volumes, quarto, and more recently in octavo. With respect to the work now before the reader, its continued popularity would be a sufficient test of its merit, were we not enabled to add the opinion of the eminent critic already so frequently quoted. — ' Few books, says Dr. Johnson, have been perused by me with greater pleasure than his IMPROVEMENT OF THE MIND, of which the radical principles may indeed be found in Locke's Conduct of the Understanding; but they are so expanded and ramified by Watts, as to confer on him the merit of a work in the highest degree useful and pleasing. WHOEVER HAS THE CARE OF INSTRUCTING OTHERS, MAY BE CHARGED WITH DEFICIENCY IN HIS DUTY, IF THIS BOOK IS NOT RECOMMENDED.'