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Paradoxical Rebellion Bound to Conformity: Isaac Watts’s “Hurry of the Spirits, in a Fever and Nervous Disorders”*
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Paradoxical Rebellion Bound to Conformity: Isaac Watts’s “Hurry of the Spirits, in a Fever and Nervous Disorders”*
Isaac Watts , John Milton , John Locke , “The Hurry of the Spirits , ” Nonconformist , Dissent , social religion , national consciousness
  • The English evangelical pastor, poet, and hymnist, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) in his poem, “The Hurry of the Spirits, in a Fever and Nervous Disorders”1 (wr. 1712; pub. 1734), accurately and deliberately creates the ordered “disorder” of the poem itself. Watts’s poem, I argue, engages in a methodical refusal to settle upon a single system of images or terms for describing or referring to the speaker’s identity or situation. Watts’s refusal to identify with one religio-political approach to nonconformist dissent, however, has been the very point of criticism that undermines not only the poet’s monumental work on hymns but also the lasting impact that Watts had upon the national consciousness of England after the Puritan Revolution.2 Thomas Milner, Watts’s biographer, documents how certain nonconformist historians ignored Watts’s political stance and even regarded it to be futile or eccentric because of its ambivalence (611- 12). My paper does not participate in the ongoing controversy to identify Watts’s nonconformist political viewpoint. Rather, it will focus on why the poet refuses to choose one ideal path in his pursuit for religious freedom and, further, attempt to examine the writer’s defense of his demotic aesthetics through historical context, which is exemplified in his poem. Watts’s aversion to controversy steered his interests primarily on developing a comprehensive, detailed formulation of what a secularized “social religion”3 might entail and further ventured to explore its uses and limitations. By analyzing Watts’s refusal to choose and follow one single system of belief in the “Hurry of the Spirits,” this paper outlines the poet’s internal conflict which has been overlooked and simplified as a philosophical and literary weakness.

    Watts conceded that belief in a “superior invisible power” could be beneficial to society’s peace, yet he constantly remained committed to the pursuit of orthodox rebellion. In “The Hurry of the Spirits,” the freedom for all religious communities, represented as the “ruffled sea,” was Watts’s nonconformist principal goal as he attempted to locate authority in the individual and reject hierarchical authority in favor of conscience and non-violent faith. Yet Watts also understood that public acknowledgment of religion was necessary for rulers who needed to retain limited residual powers in order to seek the social benefit of the state. J. F. Maclear explains how for Watts, social religion functioned “not to champion religious truth but to inculcate those beliefs and behavior which secured social harmony” (44). Thus. while Watts inherited a culture which extended back before the Enlightenment, he also simultaneously struggled to balance a perfect religious freedom with the ancient ideal of a “sacred order” (l. 52). Sharon Achinstein, in her book, Literature and Dissent in Milton’s England, examines how the religio-political dissent movement, which occurred in the Puritan Revolution, ignited controversies that were accommodated to the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth century by nonconformists such as John Milton and Isaac Watts. Although Achinstein celebrates Milton’s courage and sincerity, she is clearly concerned with the fanaticism and desire for revenge in Milton’s works,4 which are problematic issues for contemporary readers struggling in a period of religious strife and tension. Hence, Achinstein, though very briefly, provides a study of the undervalued genres of dissent that readers turned to after the English Puritan Revolution.

    The historical events between 1640-1660 created hope that England would develop the revolutionary ideas of the Reformation, break away from monarchical rule and, under Cromwell’s government, become a republic or commonwealth. Thus, the mid-seventeenth century witnessed a surge of ordinary people whose sermons, visions, prophecies, petitions, and poems found their way into print. Achinstein discusses how this increased political participation sparked the development of a growing national consciousness. The impact of the revolutionary movement not only survived the Restoration and Dryden’s all-powerful influence on literary culture but also transformed into a politics of activist longing and a new range of literature. Achinstein’s book focuses on hymns as surviving examples of dissenting political attachment. Watts’s hymns were not literal translations of the psalms, which church-goers were singing at the time. Rather Watts removed the concerns of the ancients in favor of contemporary themes.5 Watts’s poetry and hymns functioned to construct a community and an identity for dissenters and nonconformists, who were struggling against Britain’s return to the “sacred order” of an orthodox— the Anglican church. Achinstein documents how memorials, honoring the deceased, enabled dissenters to form illegal and oppositional gatherings that defiantly refused to follow the liturgy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

    Milton’s works and political ideals are relived in the poetry of Watts and other nonconformist writers decades later. Achinstein’s book provides a thorough analysis of Milton, however, in the section titled, “Isaac Watts and the End of the Radical Hymn,” Achinstein briefly examines how Watts continues Milton’s nonconformist ideas in a couple of pages which gloss over Watts’s dedicated work on writing hymns. While Achinstein examines why Milton chooses to oppose a national liturgy, she also introduces another set of issues concerning the potentially dangerous and violent reality of Milton’s political visions: “the degree to which [Milton’s] religious arguments undergird political life” (5-6). Milton’s great poems, unlike his pamphlets, struggle to portray a continuing dissent that does not take the explicit form of petitions and political tracts but can be traced in the publication history of Samson Agonistes.6 Milton, in Samson Agonistes, outlines the tensions between literal and figural violence, between active and passive disobedience and, further, questions whether the individual should act autonomously and how an individual should read God’s will. According to Achinstein, suffering under the constant threat of imprisonment, Milton ingeniously creates a means of encoding his ideas of dissent in the valorizations of divinelyinspired violence such as Samson’s revenge. Like Samson, Milton, suffered blindness and imprisonment, both literal and metaphoric, during the Restoration. The story of Samson’s violence and sacrifice, then, is Milton’s way of writing a political tract for his time in poetry. According to Milton, violence provided certainty, it was the “sure mark of God’s care, the aftereffect by which divine agency and intention become visible” (Achinstein 144). In contrast to Milton’s divinely-inspired violence explicit in Samson’s revenge, Watts’s poetry, I argue, avoids the use of violence not as a retreat from the political realm but rather as a realistic analysis of the outcome of what Milton envisioned decades before. Achinstein, in her chapter “Reading Dissent,” acknowledges the multifaceted culture of dissent that denies any simplistic conformist/nonconformist binary but does not explain why some of the later nonconformists, succeeding Milton, refuse to be affiliated with any one particular dissenting group/belief.

    Watts was well aware that his hymns did not follow the values of proper literature in the “Age of Dryden,” which required orderly aesthetics, a celebration of a return of monarchical order both in form and content, the heroic couplet, and a return to pagan, Classical texts.7 Achinstein further explains how Dryden restricted religious enthusiasm by endorsing literary and religious protocols to curb extravagant imagination, thereby utilizing literary form for the purpose of state regulation (180). According to Dryden, the rules of poetry, poetic form, could negate the irrational and dangerous energy of dissenters. The Restoration period indicated an opposition to and end of the preceding decades of political, intellectual, and religious chaos from the Puritan Revolution. The revolutionary poetics of nonconformist, dissenting writers, however, continued, but not in the same form and content. Watts’s hymns were devised not only for the ease of singing but also for the goal of reaching and connecting a wide audience in a spontaneous manner that did not follow Milton’s vision of apocalyptic vengeance. Rather Watts retains the affective elements of the dissenting hymn while eschewing Hebraic violence in favor of Enlightenment politeness and sociability. In his introduction to The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, Watts explains that if we sing the biblical psalms as written, we express only the concerns of the ancient Hebrews, so new lines are needed to express contemporary concern. Watts states:

    Watts himself claims that we are in need of a new method of expression for contemporary circumstances, and if the translation does not belong to us, then we cannot use even the personal pronouns.8 By creating and rewriting hymns, Watts was able to respond to contemporary conditions through biblical hermeneutics which related current events to the scripture and further served to harmoniously unite a varied, nonconformist audience of readers.

    In “Hurry of the Spirits,” Watts’s difficulty to define the speaker’s political identity, I contend, stems from the poet’s concern with the ongoing conflicts between the Anglican state and the unprecedented religious pluralism, which remained a problem throughout post-Restoration England. Watts wrote radical proposals and poetry that advocated for a religious Establishment so restricted that it would rest on natural law alone. Watts’s A New Essay on Civil Power in Things Sacred (1739),9 which concerns church-state issues was not only criticized as “too visionary to be relevant to the contemporary political debate” but also dismissed as “impractical, fanciful, and irrelevant” and even as “a harmless but not very feasible speculation” (Maclear 39). In opposition to the religious violence Milton presented, Watts attempted to introduce ways in which Protestant dissent was tamed and transmuted both in form and content. Despite his efforts, Watts was severely criticized by his contemporaries as being “at variance with the first principles of civil and religious freedom” (Milner 611-12). Upon analysis of Watts and his poetry, however, I argue that the poet was political in that he was not interested in glorifying the state with religious sanctions but rather wanted to free evangelical religion from the constraints of an Establishment. Watts focused on securing for the state the services of religion that were necessary for a stable society, while at the same time vindicating the “gathered church”—meetings outside the hierarchy—as a legitimate religious community, separate of the Anglican Church (Maclear 26).10

    Watts struggled to protect religious freedom and the stability of the state, but in doing so he realized that public religion would be necessarily sacrificed. Another problem with which Watts was concerned was the fact that particular religions could compete with and even destabilize the national consciousness. Watts was not alone in his fear of how religions could seduce citizens from the common good and divide the commonwealth, thereby bringing about social disruption and conflict. Even the Walpole government dreaded the prospect of renewed religious fervor. Watts also firmly believed that religion was not merely private in its consequences but rather necessary for the well-being of any state. Therefore, Watts, a nonconformist dissenter, did not support securing religious freedom by a consistent privatization of belief. Rather, as exemplified in his poem, Watts was seeking a balance between the Anglican church and freedom of religious belief and claimed that social stability required a public church which would aid the state in controlling society through religious sanctions, while the state would reciprocate by conferring prestige on and enforcing the decisions of the hierarchy. Watts’s justification of religion is utilitarian not only because it values religion as an indispensable mechanism of social discipline but also because of the emphasis on “civil interests in society” rather than the scripture. Thus while swearing that God was “by far the best and surest bond of government,” it was also apparent from antiquity that swearing even by false gods and idols could make a “nation tolerably peaceful and flourishing for years or ages” (Maclear 34). Watts advocated for a national religious Establishment in which admission to political rights was granted after attending a civil ritual where every male citizen, at age twenty-one, would appear in a court of justice and testify to his “veneration of a God” and “willingness to observe all moral and civil laws” (Maclear 35).

    Watts was concerned however with the problem of legitimacy in common public worship. Would it be possible for religious teachers to not only edify lectures but also experience devotions through the medium of natural religion? With some degree of hesitation, Watts argued that religious freedom demanded that national religion be restricted to educational rather than devotional or liturgical functions. Nonconformist interest in the public role of social religion is clearly represented in Watts’s literary project which focuses on hymns. Contemporary dissenting statesmen, such as Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, supported the concept of a “benevolent Establishment” that would regulate religious groups to which the state might endorse its blessings (Maclear 35-9).

    Although Watts was dedicated to the rights of conscience and to excluding the state from the spiritual realm, he still believed in the unifying power of an official religion and was aware of the dangerous tendencies of pluralism. Watts understood the practical need for political authority over the plural “religious bodies” yet still believed that “all sects were to be free, equal, and self-sustaining, none receiving public monies” (Maclear 37). As a result, although the political campaign against the penal laws and tests in civil and religious affairs failed, the nonconformist rebellions indicated not only an ultimate dismantling of Anglican monopoly but also introduced the possibility of a state which would observe a practical neutrality: a neutrality Watts envisioned in the ordered disorder of the poem, “The Hurry of the Spirits.”

    Envisioning such practical neutrality in “The Hurry of the Spirits,” the speaker does not engage in a single identity but rather fluctuates between natural images of the sea and social images of the state—seeking a balance between the two images. The speaker refuses to identify his situation and shifts between his religious nature and his political reason. Ultimately, the speaker carefully balances his passions of devotion and rational concerns for the state with the active stance in “I,” which encompasses all and excludes none. For the speaker’s identity the reader is referred either to a confused aggregate of vaguely distinguishable properties—” my frame of nature,” “my reason,” “my spirit,” “my thoughts” (ll. 1-7) — or, in the latter half of the poem, to the “I” which presumably encompasses or owns all of these properties (ll. 21-44). In order to defend religious diversity, dissenting authors hailed the personal “I” as a stance against the claims of the state. “I” justified a private identity that was beyond the reach of government and church authority. Just as Watts promoted church-state relations thereby encouraging the development of a national religion, he also emphasized that national religion continue in a strictly religious role. By separating public religion from the conformist/ nonconformist division, Watts allowed his readers and political leaders to pursue a nation’s purpose and values without obligation to any particular Christian influences. Similarly, the images employed to describe the speaker’s situation fluctuate between the natural and un-social images of sea and sea-tempest (ll. 1-2; 29-50) and the profoundly social images of a disturbed state, in the throes of civil wars (ll. 3-16; 50-53).

    The interpretation of the poem which the title most obviously suggests—that the poem represents an effort to depict the sensations of the speaker in a state of illness—can clearly accommodate the variance of terms and images used to represent speaker and situation. For example, the speaker’s internal dilemma is exposed: what happens when the illness is more depressing and tumultuous than the chaos it tries to escape? Can the illness that Watts refers to be interpreted not only as sickness and madness but also as imagination? According to this interpretation, the importance of these terms and images resides less in what they may seem to represent concretely—sea or state, confused aggregate or stable identity—than in the very fact of their fluctuation, which itself represents the tumult and “hurry of the spirits.” I would like to suggest that it is possible to read this poem in a way which would grant the very ordering of these varying terms and images a certain meaning. Such a reading, I would argue, could in turn suggest to the reader a definite relationship between the construction of the speaker’s identity and the depiction of the speaker’s situation, a relationship in which what I will first call “madness,” and later “imagination,” plays a key role.

    In order to explicate this reading it is first necessary to map out what I have described as a fluctuation in terms and images. The first two lines establish the presence of this fragmented identity and nature imagery by means of the simplest metaphors: “My frame of nature is a ruffled sea/ And my disease the tempest.” The speaker’s nature like endless waves of a ruffled sea demands the right of conscientious dissent, whereas the speaker’s illness torments him with the threat of “new schemes, and models, which may be form’d by the warm imaginations or doubtful reasonings of men.”11 The figures of sea and tempest, however, are quickly left behind, to be replaced by a more complex view of the state in which scenes of the Puritan Revolution are represented as rebellion, riot, and political discord.

    Watts differs from Milton in that he rejected the doctrines of violent apocalypticism in favor of the principles of rational dissent and liberty of conscience. Watts wrote perhaps the best popularization of Locke’s theories of the mind, and yet Achinstein explains how Watts claimed that revelation was necessary to instigate actions and openly disagreed with Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, because it downgraded prophetic enthusiasm to merely a kind of persuasive rhetoric (244). Whereas Locke excluded enthusiasm from legitimate rational discourse,12 Watts’s poetry expressed limitations of reason and the importance of the affections in spiritual devotion. Watts believed that the soul required passions for religious exercise, yet he cautioned against devotions that were deemed too passionate and refrained from having to choose between reason and anti-social passions because he believed that “reason and revelation agree to require social religion.”13 Whereas Milton accepted violence as God’s assurance, Isabel Rivers argues that Watts came to embrace “politeness” as a new solution to the same problem that continued from Milton’s time (176). Thus, Watts’s revision of Milton’s enthusiasm and Locke’s rationalism was not a retreat from the political realm but a new approach which emphasized that “forging the bonds of sociability would lead to healing; and indeed the moral habits of social tolerance could be strengthened by hymn singing, itself a communal action” (Achinstein 240). Watts was not ambivalent or fragmented in his religio-political views. Rather the poet/hymnist simultaneously looked backward upon the hopes of previous decades and forward to a community of differing denominational affiliations, which coexist in communal harmony with the option of more than one system of truth.

    Various properties of the fragmented self — “my reason” (from its throne), “my spirits” — alternately “[give]/ The peaceful word” and “[strive] in vain/ To calm . . . and command” (ll. 5-7). Even the speaker’s fragmented identity is soon effaced; “my thoughts” are replaced by “the mind,” and the poem turns to present the reader with an impersonal, generalized view of political conflict:

    The shift in situational imagery seems to herald the complete effacement of personal individual identity; the properties of reason and spirit are no longer governed by a possessive.

    The speaker deliberately removes the possessives not only to state the common concern among dissenters in the early eighteenth century but also to support both a national Establishment and a national consciousness. The fluctuating restoration of the speaker as a coherent and active individual, again, balances the need to free evangelical religion from stultifying restraints which glorify the state through religious sanctions. Watts’s accurate and methodical refusal to settle upon a single system and identity, then, is a balance between a religious and political viewpoint which not only creates a new genre of dissent but also constructs a community of the various fractioned sectors of nonconformist dissenters. What Milton envisioned with vengeance, Watts enacted with balanced poems and transmuted hymns that aimed to heal and unite. As Achinstein emphasizes, Watts severed the Old Testament from the New, thereby hailing the “hymn as tool of university truth” (241). Watts rejected Milton’s enthusiasm and paved the road in which reason and revelation could go hand in hand. Watts promoted a new direction for the hymn, which not only rejected a particularist “Jewishness” but also promised hymns “suited to the present Case and Experience of Christians” (241).14

    With line 21, the speaker’s identity is restored to the poem in an unfragmented, active form; “If I but close my eyes, strange images/ In thousand forms and thousand colours rise . . .” And just as the previous effacement of the sea and tempest was followed by the removal of the speaker’s possessive “my,” so the restoration of the speaker’s acknowledged identity (in the form of the active “I”) is fast followed by restoration of the sea-tempest images, which will hold sway over the poem until line 50.

    The questions which must then arise are first, what accounts for the removal of the possessives which initially signify the fragmented speaker; and second, what accounts for the subsequent restoration of the speaker in the form of the whole, coherent, and active “I”? I would like to suggest that the key to answering these questions can be found in lines 13-26, a key which will also furnish a means with which to interpret the poem’s rather ambivalent second (and last) stanza. Lines 13-16 initially suggest that in the midst of political tumult “little restless atoms . . . impose ideas on the mind; confused ideas/ Of non-existents and impossibles.” The enumeration of the “confused ideas” which follows and mirrors the former fragmentation of the speaker’s self also suggests madness—the speaker cannot even name the ideas or images which pass through his mind:

    In line 21, with the new presence of the speaker’s “I,” the reader notices an abrupt shift in the manner of the speaker’s confusion: “If I but close my eyes, strange images/ In thousand forms and thousands colours rise,/ Stars, rainbows, moons, green dragons, bears and ghosts . . .” (ll. 21-23). The confused ideas are now concrete images with specific names, and with the second mention of the coherent “I” the familiar image of sea and storm returns: “I’m in a raging storm . . .” (l. 21). The return of the coherent “I,” accompanied by these concrete images, is precipitated by the speaker’s first action as an unified, coherent subject—an action which, one might argue, actually constitutes the speaker as an unified, coherent subject: “I but close my eyes . . .” (l. 21). This action marks the unification of the speaker’s identity as well as the speaker’s escape from political discord into the (admittedly unsettled) natural world. Most importantly, I would argue the closing of the speaker’s eyes  is a figure for the transformation of the earlier confused ideas into the concrete images appropriate to poetry—the mastery of madness by an act of creative imagination or literal imagination: that is, images seen in the mind’s eye!

    This solution, however, seems not entirely satisfactory— a suspicion suggested by the three closing questions of the poem:

    I would argue that this last stanza—what one might call an end without closure—points to some unresolved difficulty in the original formation of the speaker’s coherent identity. In line with that argument I would suggest that the return in the last line of the poem to political imagery— “ungovernable,” “sacred order,” “ruling”—points to some sort of dissatisfaction with the speaker’s original escape from political discord. To close one’s eyes to political uproar and retreat into “Nature” by an act of poetic imagination, the speaker seems to suggest, is a possible, but not “satisfying” or a “final” solution. Rather, it seems, such a retreat merely generates the sort of questions and turmoil which began the poem—it may generate more poetry but no closure outside the realm of imagination.

    How do the earlier period’s apocalyptic visions square with later varied religio-political texts is a question that must be analyzed from the poet’s/writer’s perspective and not evaluated in contrast. The necessity to identify the varied group(s)—who opposed a national liturgy and common prayer book—as monarchical, nonconformists, or dissenters loses momentum due to the fact that writers refused to settle on a single system or identity. As for the speaker in “The Hurry of the Spirits,” Watts’s dissenting, political ideas fluctuate between Restoration Anglicans and moderate nonconformists in an attempt to close the gap of religio-political differences that were threatening England, and as an attempt to construct national consciousness from poetic imagination.

    1All citations for Isaac Watts’s poetry are from the following edition: The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse, ed. by Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: OUP, 1989). Hereafter, the poem will be referred to as “The Hurry of the Spirits” and all quotations from this poem will be indicated only by line number in parentheses.  2For criticism of Watts, see Thomas Milner, E. Paxton Hood, and, A. P. Davis. Milner is critical about Watts’s deviance from orthodoxy, whereas Hood does not discuss Watts’s political views on religion and state. Although Davis discusses Watts’s essays, he only briefly examines Watts’s religio-political views of church and state.  3See Sharon Achinstein, “A Radical Press,” for a brief yet powerful analysis of dissenting hymns and their role as “social religion” (237-42).  4See Achinstein, “Chapter 4. Violence,” for detailed analysis of the Milton’s apocalyptic writing and violence. Achinstein argues that “Dissenting writers deployed violence in order to solicit divine favour as well as to activate readers’ desires for sympathy, solidarity, and action” (84).  5See Maclear, “Isaac Watts and the Idea of Public Religion,” for historical analysis of how “Watts seldom hesitated, moreover, to replace Israel with Britain as the object of divine favor” (43).  6See Achinstein, Literature and Dissent in Milton’s England, sections “Samson Agonistes and the Politics of Memory” (pp. 48-57), and “Samson Agonistes” (pp. 138-47), for a detailed analysis of Milton’s literary and religious texts.  7See Howard D. Weinbrot, “Part II. Texts Within Contexts, Essaying England: Our Genius, Our Clime,” in Britannia’s Issue: The Rise of British Literature from Dryden to Ossian, for a detailed analysis of the literary, political, and historical background of the Age of Dryden (143-92); and, see Christopher Hill, “Chapter III. Heresy and Radical Politics,” in The Collected Essays of  Christopher Hill, Volume 2: Religion and Politics in Seventeenth-CenturyEngland, for a thorough literary analysis of Dryden’s works and its impact on the period (32-87).  8See Watts’s “Preface” in The Enchiridion, Isaac Watts: The Psalms of David &c. (1719), which is available in a reprint in the Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Vol.3 Nol.72 (Summer, 1955).  9See A. P. Davis, “Chapter VI. Sermon and Essay” in Isaac Watts: His Life and Works, for a chronological account of the contents of Watts’s A New Essay on Civil Power in Things Sacred (144-46).  10Recent English Reformation scholarship has argued that tension between the image of the church as a saintly and persecuted minority and as the covenanted nation was a continuing ambivalence in English Protestant history. See Donald Davie, “Psalmody as Translation.” The Modern Language Review (MLR), 1990 Oct.; 85(4): 817-828. Davie explains that Watts was “continually aware of the nonconformists’ notion of ‘a gathered church,’ a minority gathered from the world and therefore necessarily in tension with society at large” (821).  11See Watts, A New Essay on Civil Power in Things Sacred; or an Enquiry after an Establish’d Religion consistent with the just Liberties of Mankind, and Practicable under every form of Civil Government (London, 1739), vi.  12All citations for John Locke’s Essay are from the following edition: John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. by Peter Nidditch (Oxford: OUP, 1975). See John Marshall, “Part I. Religion and the Politics of Toleration,” in John Locke: Resistance, Religion and Responsibility, for a detailed analysis of Locke and poliitics of the Age of Dryden.  13Ibid., 81.  14Quotations are from the “Preface” of The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament in The Enchiridion, Isaac Watts: The Psalms of David &c. (1719).

  • 1. Achinstein Sharon. 2003 Literature and Dissent in Milton’s England. google
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