Eighteenth-Century Children’s Poetry and the Complexity of the Child’s Mind
Isaac Watts’s Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715) was not the first volume of poems written expressly for children, but it was the first successfully to make the case that something peculiar might be achieved by addressing children through poetic form, and that in order to effectively meet the needs and capacities of a young audience, poetry needed to be shaped with those needs and capacities in mind. By the end of the eighteenth century, Watts’s volume had gone through at least 14 editions, and, as Harvey Darton points out, by the end of the nineteenth century, several of the poems within it had suffered the ‘misfortune’ of ‘being recited by children in public, year in, year out, to the mortification of the reciters and the weariness of the audience.’ Over the course of the eighteenth century, then, poetry that was specially written or adapted for young people came to occupy a central place in the child’s life of the mind. By 1745, the notion that children ought to be conversant with the principles of poetry had become such an established one that John Newbery dedicated an entire volume of his series, Circle of the Sciences (1745–6), to the business of introducing young readers to excerpts of poetry and equipping them with strategies for understanding them. The pre-eminent place that adults aspired for poetry to have in children’s culture can be construed from the fact that there are no equivalent volumes in the Circle of the Sciences series devoted to other species of literature, reflecting the engrained view of poetry’s aesthetic and moral superiority to prose or drama. As John Dennis wrote in The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701), ‘Poetry…is more passionate and sensual than prose,’ a belief which endured throughout the period, despite concerted attempts to establish the aesthetic and moral credentials of the novel. But Newbery’s tacit prioritisation of poetry over prose also indicates a widespread supposition that whereas prose is self-explanatory, poetry does not readily yield itself to the reader, and it can only be understood, or at least only understood correctly, after initiation. This is apparent in the use of ‘Easy’ in the titles both of Newbery’s volume, Poetry Made Familiar and Easy, and Watts’s Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children, wherein the emphasis placed on accessibility alerts us to the perceived difficulty of this art form for its intended audience. Careful examination of how these two seminal figures in the evolution of children’s literature, Isaac Watts and John Newbery, manipulated subject matter and form in order to render poetry ‘easy’ for the child provides us with a means of viewing some of the period’s most prominent ideas about children’s cognitive needs and capacities and reflecting on the role established during the period for children’s poetry in cultivating intellect.