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This article is taken from PN Review 80, Volume 17 Number 6, July - August 1991.

The 'Ending Up' of Isaac Watts Donald Davie

IN 1736 ISAAC WATTS, a nonconformist minister then aged 61, received a letter he could not have foreseen:

Poet, Divine, Saint, the delight, the guide the wonder of the virtuous world; permit, Reverend Sir, a stranger unknown, and likely to be for ever unknown, to desire one blessing from you in a private way. 'Tis this, that when you approach the Throne of Grace, and lift up holy hands, when you get closest to the Mercy-seat, and wrestle mightily for the peace of Jerusalem, you would breathe one petition for my soul's health. In return I promise you a share for life in my unworthy prayers, who honour you as a father and a brother (though differently ordered) and conclude myself,
Your affectionate humble Servant,

The effusiveness of this, its exalted tone, and the tropes which it so confidently deploys - 'the Throne of Grace', 'the Mercy-seat' - are virtually certain to set 20th-century teeth on edge, whether those teeth are in a devout head or the head of an unbeliever. Such floweriness, we have been schooled to think, must be insincere. And yet George Thomson, it is clear, neither requested nor expected to receive any benefit from this unsolicited tribute - apart from the solitary unworldly benefit that he asks for: 'one petition for my soul's health'. What is condemned by one generation as florid can seem to other generations no more than soberly exalted; and ...

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