Sunday, October 19, 2008

'Burning Several Poems of Ovid, Martial, Oldham, Dryden, &c' (Isaac Watts)

The early eighteenth-century writer Isaac Watts was well-known for creating many hundreds of hymns, any number of which are currently being subjected to breathless covers on YouTube. He was also a poet, and in his Horæ Lyricæ: Poems Chiefly of the Lyric Kind, including an entertaining work entitled ‘Burning Several Poems of Ovid, Martial, Oldham, Dryden, &c’. The poem is said to be about how the notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (here Strephon), recanted his saucy ways, and ‘refined’ his soul by throwing some of his own poems into the fire.

Fair enough, but I’ve never been quite sure about the title of the poem, which seems to be suggesting that Watts (or at least his editor) would have preferred to burn more than just the works of Rochester.

The poem:

I judge the Muse of lewd Desire;
Her Sons to Darkness, and her works to Fire.
In vain the Flatterers of their Wit
Now with a melting Strain, now with an heavenly Flight
Would tempt my Virtue to approve
Those gaudy Tinders of a lawless Love.
So Harlots dress: They can appear
Sweet, modest, cool, divinely Fair,
To charm a Cato’s Eye; but all within
Stench, impudence and Fire, and ugly raging Sin.
Die Flora, die in endless Shame,
Thou prostitute of blackest Fame,
Stript of thy false Array.
Ovid and all ye wilder Pens
Of modern Lust, who gild our Scenes,
Poyson the British Stage, and paint Damnation gay,
Attend your Mistress to the Dead;
When Flora dies her Imps should wait upon her Shade.
Strephon of noble Blood and Mind
(For ever shine his Name!)
As Death approach’d his Soul refin’d,
And gave his looser Sonnets to the Flame.
“Burn, burn, he cry’d with sacred Rage,
“Hell is the due of every Page,
“Hell be the Fate. (But O indulgent Heaven!
“So vile the Muse, and yet the Man forgiv’n!)
“Burn on, my Songs, for not the silver Thames
“Nor Tyber with his yellow Streams
“In endless Currents rolling to the Main
“Can e’er dilute the Poyson, or wash out the Stain.
So Moses by divine Command
Forbid the leprous House to stand,
When deep the fatal Spot was grown,
Break down the Timber and dig up the Stone.

1 comment:

Tamara said...


Do you have any info on the writings of Isaac Watts which were destroyed by the executors of his estate? He apparently wrote some very persuasive essays about Unitarianism in the last two years of his life, and the people in charge of his documents did not want them made public. (Watts' religious beliefs were very controversial during his life, as he could not be categorized within any orthodox Christian theology.)

I'm doing some research on conversion.