poem index

Isaac Watts & Emily Dickinson: Inherited Meter

Year

2014

A precocious child, Isaac Watts was raised in Southampton, England, in the late seventeenh century, the son of a convicted Dissenter from the Anglican Church. When threatened with a whipping for continuously annoying his family by conducting all discourse in rhyme, he called out, "O father, do some pity take/ And I will no more verses make." He didn't keep his ironic promise, and his proclivity for rhyme matured into profound innovation, leading him to become the architect of the modern English hymn.

Before Watts's contribution to devotional song, hymns were not generally a component of public worship in England. In Watts's view, the few hymns that were sung at church were disappointing. Inspired by this dearth, Watts presented English Christendom with around six hundred hymns based on psalms and other biblical passages. He wedded the language of scripture with the meter known today as hymn meter, a lyrical quatrain based on English folk poems and ballads that consists of four lines of alternating rhyme in either the abab or xaxa pattern.

There are three categories of hymn meter: common meter, which is composed by alternating lines of iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter; long meter, which is iambic tetrameter, solely; and short meter, which presents two lines of iambic trimeter followed by a single line of iambic tetrameter, and finally returns to iambic trimeter to complete the quatrain. The structure is so-called "short" because it is one foot shy of the common meter stanza.

The use of Watts's hymns gained momentum in worship services, but was met with mixed passions. On the one hand, some congregations and parishioners welcomed the opportunity to sing such personal and accessible versions of prayer. On the other, some were deeply offended by Watts's audacity to recast scripture; critics called his hymns "Watts's Whims." Some congregations compromised by situating Watts's songs last in the church service so those who chose to could exit before it was time to sing. Watts's first collection, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, appeared in 1707, and contained the hymn, "Heavenly Joy on Earth," which seems to directly confront his detractors:

Let those refuse to sing
who never knew our God;
but children of the heavenly Kings
may speak their joys abroad.

And speak abroad they did. Benjamin Franklin reissued Watts's hymns in America, where they were enthusiastically adopted by the Christian revival known as the "Great Awakening" in the 1740s. However, even one hundred years later in the United States, the controversy surrounding Watts's hymns was still contentious. Fatefully for American poetry, one church that thoroughly embraced Watts was the First Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Emily Dickinson and her family worshiped. There, as a child, the young poet was exposed to Samuel Worcester's edition of Watts's hymns, The Psalms and Spiritual Songs. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, Worcester's son, a professor at Amherst College, brought out many new editions of the collection.

Emily Dickinson made this same hymn meter--and the emotionally spiritual content of Watts's biblical adaptations--the foundation of her poetic. A renegade in American literature, Dickinson rejected the iambic pentameter line, which had been the dominant poetic mode for hundreds of years, in favor of the hymn meter, which better suited the revolutionary nature of her expression. An avid reader, Dickinson would have been well aware that this formal choice was rather subversive. Indeed, she undermined the popular poetic style of the day with her use of the hymn meter, loading her own "hymns" with confrontational and startling imagery while employing an often jagged rhyme scheme marked by "slant rhyme," as opposed to "perfect rhyme," -- destabilizing the form even as she perfected it.

 

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