I have just closed Isaac Watts’s once-famous book of children’s poetry, Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children. This book came out in 1715 and went through nobody-knows-how-many editions. Billions. Apparently there was a very long period during which it could reasonably be expected that any English-speaker could recite every one of these twenty-eight poems backward, under any conditions, including hanging upside-down drunk on two hits of acid.
Today, most people only know of the book’s existence because two of its pieces are parodied in Alice in Wonderland (Watts: “ ’Tis the voice of the sluggard … ” and “How doth the little busy bee … ” versus Carroll: “ ’Tis the voice of the lobster … ” and “How doth the little crocodile … ”). Modern readers usually assume Carroll is cocking a snoot at old Watts for being a moralistic, unfun and quadrilateral prig. It is, of course, possible that Carroll thought that, but I must say I doubt it. After all, Carroll was himself a supreme goody-goody, every bit as much as Watts. Read Carroll’s in-earnest poem on the first page of Alice (“From a Fairy to a Child”). Read his diary. Read More