Isaac Watts’s collection of moral songs for children was first published in 1715. For the next 150 years, it was one of the most popular children’s books, typical of the kind of verse directed at children at this time. Unlike the fanciful and imaginative stories, rhymes and proverbs found in cheap 18th century chapbooks, these books were aimed at a ‘polite’ middle class readership, and provided lessons on how children should behave and understand the world. Watts’s poems, like others of their kind, simplified the complexities of ethical, religious and social issues, condensing them into packaged didactic instruction.
How do these poems relate to those of William Blake?
William Blake reacted against this genre of children’s literature in the Songs of Innocence and Experience, taking a popular literary form and subverting it. In some of Blake’s Songs there is a direct relation to Watts’s verse. ‘London’ in Songs of Experience, for instance, inverts the self-righteousness of the speaker in Watts’s ‘Song IV’: Watts’s child, speaking in the first person, looks at the ‘Poor’, ‘Children … half naked’ and those who ‘early learn to swear, and curse, and lye, and steal’, and is encouraged, by way of a remedy, to fear God, and love him ‘more than they’.
Who owned this copy?
This copy was owned by Elizabeth Ashfold, who has written in the inside front cover:
her Book god give her grace thear in to Lock and not to look but undarstand that Larning is bettar then hous and Land when hous and Land is gon and Spent then Larning is most Exalent. June the 26 1763.
[Elizabeth Ashfold’s book – God give her grace to look in it, but not just to look in it, but to understand that learning is better than house and land: when house and land are gone and spent, then learning is most excellent]
Elizabeth was copying a well-known text – and clearly had some difficulty with her spelling. The inscription reminds us of the importance placed on children’s education at this time.