Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Doughlas Bond, Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert; A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist

Listening to Beethoven Symphony Opus 21, Symphony no. 1. Beethoven wasn't 28 years old when he wrote it.  You can listen here.

As usual the books are piling up so I will attempt to give you a drive by review on three of them. 

 Here we go:

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond

 I read this book out loud to my parents while they were visiting here in August much to everyone's delight.  We all grew up attending traditional church and singing hymns.  So learning about one of Christianity's major hymn writers was a treat.

Isaac Watts is considered the creator of the English hymn and perhaps second only to Martin Luther to constructing Protestant hymnody. 

Like Beethoven, Watts was a child prodigy, writing poems at the age of eleven.  Watts grew up in a Puritan family and as such was not allowed into the Anglican Universities like Oxford or Cambridge but studied at what was then called a "non conformist" or "dissenting" university, Newington Green Academy.

Watt's never married, but wanted to, once.  He wrote extensively with a young lady who fell in love with him through his letters.  Upon meeting the very short, homely-faced man, she fell out of love with him but remained friends.  Watts spent most of his life with the wealthy Hartopp family, teaching their children and writing hymns.

Watts introduced the radical notion that one could create their own poetry put to music and sing it in the context of formal worship.  This seems normal to us, but back then only Psalms from the Bible was deemed appropriate for church service.

Watts wrote other things besides hymns.  He was also a powerful preacher and put many essays in book form.  Some of his books are definitely going on my to be read pile.  Being alive during the Enlightenment, Isaac believed that it was every Christian's duty to use their intellect.  One of his books is titled:  Logic:  or the Right Use of Reason in the 
inquiry after Truth with a Variety of Rules to guard against error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Science.  Quite a title.  Not pithy back then, were they?

Other books include:  An essay towards the Encouragement of Charity- Schools, for teaching the Children of the Poor to read and write;  The Doctrines of the Passions Explained,  Discourse of the Love of God and the Use and Abuse of the Passions in Religion etc..

This book adequately conveys the beauty and eloquence of Watts' thought and how he expressed his great love for God in the form of poetry.  It also gives a history as to how Watts came up with some of the more famous hymns he wrote.  After reading the book, I flipped through a hymn book to look at the hymns by Watts included.

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Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert

I simply adore Medieval art and this short volume gives pithy, if not always accurate, explanations of monsters painted in art.  It gives the legends, Biblical stories and histories to different mythical beasts.  The best part of the book is the colorful photos of the art it discusses.

And finally:

A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist.

I bought this book at a used bookstore thinking I had stumbled across a new author of scary and suspenseful stories of the 19th century, along the lines of M.R. James and E.G. Swain.  Well, yes and no.

Gilchrist, never married but lived with his mother and a male companion his whole life.  Perhaps that explains the misogynistic overtones of his stories.

The positive:  Gilchrist paints a lovely picture.  I can see the mists across the moors of England, the valleys, woods with dark verdure, and the unearthly beauty of the women who star in every tale.

Then there's this:  Every woman dies in a gruesome way. Oh sure, not in the same way and it's quite suspenseful. Occasionally the man dies at the hands of the woman.  In fact, most of the stories make you think that it is the man who is walking into a trap.   If that's your cup of tea, by all means get the book.  I'll mail you my copy.

The book did raise an interesting question.  Stories that take place on the Moors of England often refer to the supernatural or the residuals of past pagan beliefs of fairies, imps, and "little people".  We see this in books by the Bronte sisters, even Virginia Woolf as well as other writers.  Perhaps it is a part of the cultural heritage and make up of the people who were raised there.  As the American South is known for its Gothic tales and Ghost stories, maybe it's in the native north Englander's blood.

Certainly a topic worth exploring.

Well, that helped me catch up a little.  I think the next review can be about just one book.  Have a wonderful week.


  1. Hi Sharon.

    These all look like good books. I have seen Medieval Minsters around bookstores and online. It looks so appealing, I know too little about this type of art but I know that I like the kind that this book includes.

    The Gilchrist book sounds atmospheric. His attitude towards women is unfortunate.

    It seems that areas that are isolated and present the opportunity for people to be alone in a natural environment tend to develop very rich mythologies.

    1. Hi Brian.

      I think you are correct about people who are isolated or alone (or lonely) in that they have time to reflect and become more creative.

      I have often compared my time living in Chicago and New Jersey with living in Moblie, AL, on the Gulf Coast in Florida and now living in a small town in East Texas.

      I know I am more reflective in many ways here because there is so little external stimulus that I must create an internal stimulus.

      In the metropolitan areas there was a lot of external stimulus that provided a lot of excitement and creative inspiration in different ways. Mainly in my relationships with people because of the opportunity to meet such a greater diversity of people.

      So perhaps my time in the cities were more concrete and my time in lonely areas more abstract and impetus for using the imagination.

  2. Sharon, your assessment of the Gilchrist book interests me. Trained as I was as a New Critic, but reformed by more modern critical approaches (including new historicism, cultural materialism, biographical criticism, deconstruction. etc.), I am intrigued by your assessment of the author as a way of explaining the misogyny in the book. I wonder. Would you have seen it all differently if you had known nothing about the author's life? Let me be clear. I'm not impugning your critical approach. I am curious, though, about the process. I sometimes think I allow too much knowledge of an author to intrude upon my reading, but then I come upon someone like Emily Dickinson and cannot sound her depths without understanding more about the poet herself. Well, I've babbled enough. I'm just curious.

    1. Hi R.T. that is a good question. I read the book before I looked up background information on him.

      My impressions from reading the stories was of someone who saw women as unearthly and fairly like, very much an adulated and romanticized creature and completely out or reach.

      There did seem to be a connection between women and horror as though love for a woman could only bring about tragedy in the most horrible kind of way.

      As I said, sometimes the man was the victim, but often the woman was the victim at the hands of a man in a grotesque, perverse way.

      When I afterward read about his life it made me think that maybe that was why his stories took the turn they did. Rather like an "aha" moment.

      But ultimately, I would need to do further research on Gilchrist's life before arriving at any definite conclusions.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you (and C.S. Lewis who says the same) that we should simply read the books before reading anyone's analysis of the book or the author.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.