This paper examines the literary, cultural, and pedagogic achievements of Ann and Jane Taylor in their generic development of moral and religious verse writing for children. Examining representative works from their
Ann and Jane Taylor were the daughters of Isaac Taylor (1759-1824), a copperplate engraver and Congregational minister, and his wife Ann Martin Taylor (1757-1830). The sisters were the eldest of six surviving children in a devout dissenting family that became a literary dynasty. “The Taylors of Ongar,” as the family came to be known, published nearly a hundred books among them (Stewart xv). “[S]ocially isolated and somewhat cut off from their families of origin by their fervent religious commitment and from their neighbours by their superior education,” as Davidoff and Hall have assessed (68), the Taylor family became a self-sustaining unit preoccupied by the spiritual health and moral welfare of all the children. The parents led the way in their conscious decision to educate their children with kindness, as Isaac Taylor Jr. (brother of Ann and Jane) recalled their mother stating in
So, it was the parents who first sought a new, more generous approach to education. That their children became as keenly engaged in the issue of child-rearing—becoming disciples spreading the example of compassionate teaching that their parents had established—is indicated by the fact that all the Taylor authors wrote for children.
Ann and Jane Taylor displayed their imaginative powers early. A poem composed by Jane at about the age of nine is recorded in her posthumously published memoirs, and, in her autobiography, Ann Taylor Gilbert recalls composing her first poems at around the age of seven in imitation of Isaac Watts’s
Two observations are worth drawing out from this passage: firstly, Ann turned to verse for solace at a time of childhood insecurity, and, secondly, Watts’s
In light of Watts’s widely-acknowledged virtuosity, Ann and Jane Taylor took pains to present themselves as extending his practice rather than countering or replacing it in their advertisement to the first edition of
The fact that
Although some attempts have been made to address children suitably (Watts has selected simple lexicon, utilized the easily chantable iambic metrical pattern: “The Ravens shall pick out his Eyes, / And Eagles eat the same,” and attempted to capture the child’s attention with the use of animal imagery), ultimately, the hymn’s stance is not sympathetic towards the young. The assumption is that children must be threatened and rebuked into good behavior. The work is actually a paraphrase of Proverbs 30:17: “The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.” Watts’s use of this source reveals his Puritan heritage. Independent churches followed a modified Calvinism and Watts himself was proud of this identity, urging in 1731, “let us not be ashamed to distinguish ourselves as the offspring of the Puritans, and as Protestant Dissenters, who have learned of our fathers to pay a religious reverence to all that is holy” (quoted in Spurr 103). In Protestant traditions, the Bible has been “elevated above all authorities as supreme in the church” since Luther (Hendrix 46). It is, therefore, not surprising that Watts looked to illuminate the topic with the divine authority of the Bible –indeed, hymns in the eighteenth-century were often paraphrases of the scriptures (Watson, “Eighteenth-Century Hymn Writers” 329-344) –but his privileging of the Proverbs 30:17 in particular out of the whole Bible to teach about filial submission reveals that his understanding of children was fundamentally shaped by the doctrine of Original Sin. In fact, Watts captured his views about this doctrine in Hymn 57 of his
The authoritarian adults in “Obedience to Parents” communicate their shared view of children’s innate postlapsarian wickedness. They admonish their young charges because they are understood as delinquents whose rebellious flesh must be mortified. In Lacanian terms, the Law of the Father is laid down to the individual child-reader by bigger, older, multiple teachers. Child readers may well infer that they are inherently corrupt through being indoctrinated in this Puritan view of humanity as “shapen in iniquity” and conceived in sin in the mother’s womb (Psalm 51:5).
In fact, Watts was also capable of writing gentler and more-nurturing children’s verse influenced by Locke’s pedagogical principles. In
“Cradle Hymn,” published as the ultimate hymn in the eighth edition of 1727, may be viewed as the culmination of Locke’s pedagogical thinking in Watts’s
As the title clarifies, this hymn is also a lullaby and it utilizes the situation of bedtime to plant religious knowledge. The quiet soothing sounds of the first line, opening with the lingering onomatopoeic “Hush” and sibilant “still” and “slumber,” simultaneously evoke the silent sleep being invoked by the speaker and function to calm the imagined infant in her cradle. Instead of the unsympathetic voices of stern teachers who expect the worst of their charges, Watts replicates the mother’s voice of assurance. This point is clarified in the seventh verse, which contains the lines “Soft, my Child! I did not chide thee, / … / ’Tis thy Mother sits beside thee, / And her Arm shall be thy Guard” (25, 27-28). The reader easily discerns that innumerable blessings descend “gently” because the child is beatified, cherished, and requiring of special care and attention. The implication is that the child is profoundly precious.
Significantly, Watts points out analogues between the child of the hymn and the infant Jesus throughout the hymn:
Although a shift has occurred in this verse, the lullaby having moved into the didactic mode with the teaching of the theology of the incarnation, the instruction is conveyed in a manner that does not undermine the child’s confidence. Rather, the child’s condition of being little, weak, and unknowing is identified as being shared by God. In this way, the child’s self-image is strengthened. In “Obedience to Parents,” children were viewed as inclined to ungodliness, and, thus, far from God’s holy character. However, in “Cradle Hymn,” the infant Christ is identified as resembling the child in the cradle. Here, Watts is writing about the divine in humanity in a manner resonant of Blake in his “The Lamb,” albeit seven decades before the publication
So, Watts did produce some gentler verse for children, setting precedents for the Taylors to follow. Yet, as Castle has observed, he “can seldom refrain from concluding even his mildest verses with reference to a hell of whose reality he was convinced and from whose torments he was so concerned to steer sinful childhood” (166). This characteristic is demonstrated all too well in the last verses of “Cradle Hymn”:
Evidently, Watts’s pastoral responsibility persistently pushed even his most tender works to become terrifying didactic warnings. As such, although devoting the majority of the poem to teaching about God in benevolent terms of love and protection, Watts ends “Cradle Hymn” by preaching a similar message to that of “Obedience to Parents,” namely, that there are dire eternal penalties for neglecting God.
Hymns for Infant Minds and Nineteenth-Century Hymn Culture
Although Ann and Jane Taylor’s
The first edition contained seventy hymns on diverse subjects including: God’s Creation (“About God, who made the Sun and the Moon”), personal and moral behavior (“Against Anger and Impatience”), the care of siblings (“To A little Sister, on Her Birthday”), God’s character (“Though the Lord be High, Yet hath He Respect Unto the Lowly”), worship (“On Attending Public Worship”), death (“A Child’s Lamentation for the Death of a Dear Mother”), the importance of the scriptures (“The Bible”), sickness and recovery (For a Very Little Child, Upon Getting Well”), and eschatology (“Time and Eternity”). As was normal practice for the time,
This in-built versatility, which would have allowed children to sing poems to their favorite tunes, no doubt contributed to their popularity and endurance throughout the nineteenth century, the golden age of hymn-singing in Britain.
The collection’s success is further indicated by the inclusion of individual works in church hymnals. In 1892, John Julian listed twenty-four works by the elder sister and fourteen by the younger as having been included in hymnbooks (1116-17). In fact, as the Taylors’ hymns were often included in Sunday school anthologies, often without attribution (Feldman 732), the circulation of their work is likely to have been broader. As Ian Bradley has observed, hymns were a ubiquitous part of nineteenth-century British material culture; they appeared “on postcards and tombstones, on framed posters to be hung at home and in school reading books. Their tunes were played by brass bands and barrel organs and formed the largest single category of subject matter for pianola rolls” (xiii-xiv). It is likely that the hymns would have been memorized too. The practice of memorizing hymns, especially on the Sabbath, was a common feature of nineteenth-century childhood experience, as illustrated in Charlotte Brontë’s
This fictional depiction of hymn recitation was mimetic of Victorian culture. For instance, as a child, Thomas Hardy, faithfully recited Watts’s “An Evening Song” from Watt’s
Like Isaac Watts, Ann and Jane Taylor were also preoccupied by the issue of how to teach good moral behavior. Yet, their writings display a divergence in the way they sustain their image of the child as innocent and deserving of dignity throughout their works. Their pedagogical approach was imbued with Romantic-era sympathy for the child, which led them to imagine a different audience of children to Watts. Ann recalled in her autobiography:
This excerpt suggests that, in contrast to Watts’s one-directional didacticism, Jane imagined interaction with a rational being worthy of respect. Ann’s remembrance of her sister’s imaginative relationship with her child audience—particularly her intimate address of the child as “love”—is revealing of the sisters’ emotional investment in their project. This extract is especially fascinating in terms of Jane Taylor’s purposeful discarding of male-gendered language and worldview; at a time when the everyman and every-child would have been referred to as male, it seems that Jane consciously envisaged her child-reader as female. The infant girl, occupying one the lowest positions in society— lacking strength, status, and knowledge—is treated as one whose opinions and feelings matter. This approach was new in children’s verse, and, in reflecting on this aspect of their writing, Harvey Darton suggested, “That was perhaps the secret of the Taylors’ freshness, which still lingers in the best of their children’s verse, though the mode is nearly outworn” (184).
On the subject of filial obedience, it has been demonstrated that Watts attempted to chastise his child audience into submission. As the title signals, Jane Taylor’s hymn on the same theme, “Love and Duty to Parents,” utilized an altered pedagogical approach developed from a more generous view of children’s rational capabilities. Here, duty is united with love and, more than this, love is the precursor of filial submission:
In striking contrast to Watts’s speakers, who are condescending adults or transgressive youths, Jane Taylor’s speaker is a well-intentioned child, whose words are affectionate and persuasive. The child’s own voice is valorized and used as the instrument of reason. The tenderness of Watts’s mother in “Cradle Hymn” may well be an influence, but, in this work, the gentle and lucid thoughts belong to the young not their caretakers.
Utilizing this child-centered educational technique, Jane Taylor is able to communicate complex ideas in an accessible way. For instance, in the verses above, the ventriloquized “good” child speaker persuades readers that parents deserve to be loved and obeyed because they cared for us first. This beautifully simple logic of reciprocity actually replicates a principle argument of St. John’s gospel and the Johannine epistles that “We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Jane’s seemingly facile children’s hymn thus teaches about the profound Christian theology of the “debt of love.” Thus, through their vision of the innocent and intelligent child, the Taylors managed to extend Watts’s discussions in several directions.
In “Love and Duty to Parents,” another departure from Watt’s portrayal of obedience is the idea that learning moral behavior is an ongoing, self-governed process:
Importantly in terms of child psychology, “Love and Duty to Parents” educates that loving parents may be approached for mercy if one does transgress in a moment of weakness. The penitent soul will not be cast out irrevocably from their love. Thus, Jane Taylor’s more generous perception of the child’s mental capacity means that, as religious poetry, her work is more intricate in its Christian theology.
As moral literature, “Love and Duty to Parents” is also more developed than Watts’s “Obedience to Parents.” Specifically, Jane Taylor is able to masterfully manipulate the formal constraints of the hymn to lay stress on key principles relating to inter-personal behavior. In the third verse, through her use of the tetrameter scheme in long meter, she creates the line “Be naughty, and give you such pain,” which isolates the crucial principle that iniquitous behavior causes suffering to those who love the offender. In other words, the idea that individual actions have social consequences is accentuated in a way that it could not be in prose. That Jane purposefully constructed such succinct and cogent lines is supported by Isaac Taylor Jr’s observations that: “If one might judge by the appearance of the manuscript copy of these hymns—its intricate interlineations, and multiplied revisions, it would seem that, many of them cost the author more labour than any other of her writings” (1:116). Through the refined force of this line, Jane Taylor appeals to the child’s sense of guilt – regret about wrongdoing –not only to encourage good behavior but to develop empathy and, by extension, social responsibility. In fact, this is a technique which modern child psychologists advocate regarding the enforcement of moral behavior. Whereas shame is understood as a devastating emotion upon the child’s core self-image, guilt is seen, in Adam Grant’s words, as “a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior” (“Raising a Moral Child”). In fact, it is noteworthy that, in these terms, Watts’s “Obedience to Parents,” in which adults express wrath and threaten with irreparable punishment, would be deemed far more harmful in shaming the child and potentially creating a damaged, negative self-image (Eisenberg 667-69). Writing from the perspective of children, who they understood as benign and rational beings, the Taylors carefully extended Watts’s discussion of obedience to parents in multiple significant ways: first, they taught that, rather than slavish submission, filial duty is a fruit of love; secondly, that, even when children make mistakes, a contrite heart provides a way back to love and acceptance; and thirdly, that individual actions have interpersonal consequences.
Repeatedly in the Taylors’ hymns, children’s voices are valorized and their thought-lives are empathetically imagined. The sisters’ mindfulness of infant speech and inner life suggests that they sympathized with the Romantic vision of childhood as articulated, for instance, by William Wordsworth in his poems about children’s fresh perceptions of the world such as “Anecdote for Fathers” and “We are Seven.” Indeed, these works, first published in
In fact, however, the Taylor sisters’ admiration for Wordsworth is difficult to establish. Ann’s autobiography contains five verse epigraphs taken from his poetic corpus, but these may have been added by her posthumous editor, Josiah Gilbert, as they are extraneous to the body of the text. While no direct reference is made to Wordsworth in either sister’s life accounts, Isaac Taylor Jr. does state in Jane’s memoirs that, until the composition of
The sisters may also have been influenced by William Blake. Jane Taylor’s “The Beggar Boy,” for instance, first published in the
Here, Blake’s sensitivity to, and advocacy of, the vulnerable young, who live in the urbanized capitalist world, is reflected in Jane’s composition. In fact, the Taylor sisters are commonly acknowledged to be significant as early disseminators of Blake’s work, as they reproduced “Holy Thursday” in their
One Romantic-era author, who is known to have been admired by the Taylor sisters, is Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825). Ann even met the author on a visit to London in 1807:
Like Wordsworth and Blake, Barbauld believed in the innocence of children. Although, significantly for the Taylors, also a dissenter, Barbauld offered a different theological model to Watts’s Calvinist Puritanism. Growing up in the progressive educational environment of the Warrington Academy—one of the educational institutions established for religious dissenters, who were barred from Oxford and Cambridge—where her father was a teacher, her beliefs were shaped by a range of Enlightenment thinkers including John Locke (1632-1704), Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). In particular, she developed benign religious views from the benevolist philosophical ethics of Hutcheson, who held a hopeful view of humanity built on the understanding that people are the worthy creatures of a loving creator (Barbauld 235). This sympathetic belief shaped her understanding of children and pressed upon her the importance of educating through nurture. From this standpoint, she authored a number of sympathetic works for children’s education, many of them stressing the social significance of the mother as educator in the formation of future citizens.
The most significant work by Barbauld to have influenced the Taylor sisters is
I will praise God with my voice; for I may praise him, though I am but a little child.
Although written in prose, Barbauld’s child, like the Taylors’, speaks with reason and grateful reciprocity for God’s kindness. In “Hymn VI,” where Barbauld utilizes a catechistic dialogue form between a mother who asks probing theological questions and her sensitive child cognizant of natural beauty:
Barbauld’s influence is most evident in Ann Taylor’s hymn “About God, who made the Sun and the Moon.” Its stimulus seems to have been the opening lines of Barbauld’s “Hymn I” about God’s Creation: “Come, let us praise God, for he is exceedingly great; let us bless God, for he is very good. / He made all things; the sun to rule the day, the moon to shine by night” (238). This hypothesis is supported by the fact that Ann Taylor’s hymn is written in the mode of a conversation between “Mamma” and “Child,” which replicates Barbauld’s formal construction in “Hymn I”:
Like Barbauld’s “Child of reason”, Ann Taylor’s child speaker is sentient and attuned to the wonders of nature. Thus, in terms of literary influence on the Taylors, Barbauld offered,
Ann and Jane Taylor’s phenomenal triumph in their own time is evidenced by the fact “
In their original advertisement, Ann and Jane Taylor apologized for their “temerity” to follow Watts; yet, moving beyond the restrictive moralism of Watts and echoing the Romantic-era view of innocent childhood experience, they were able to produce children’s literature that was progressive in learner-centered education and healthy psychological development. Their greatest achievements were in their attempts to privilege the “good” child’s voice, replicate the tones of childish loquacity, and reason with loving encouragement rather than frighten with disturbing threats. Remarkably, considering their early-nineteenth-century origins, these practices remain sound pedagogically today. Consciously imagining a benevolent and rational child audience, Ann and Jane Taylor were able to make huge advances in writing moral and religious verse for children. The pervasiveness of their influence on the religious culture of nineteenth-century Britain as may be evidenced in two quotations printed in the advertisement to the forty-seventh edition of
Remarkably, in these quotations from two great Anglican clergymen who were immensely influential in British educational terms during the nineteenth century—Arnold was a great reformer of the English public school system (the beloved headmaster as depicted in Thomas Hughes’s