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When I Survey
the Wondrous Cross
(July 17, 1674 – November 25, 1748) is recognized as the "Father
of English Hymnody", as he was the first prolific and popular
English hymn writer, credited with some 750 hymns.
Born in Southampton, Watts was brought
up in the home of a committed Nonconformist — his father, also
Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his controversial
views. At King Edward VI School (where one of the houses is now
named "Watts" in his honor), he learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
Watts, unable to go to either Oxford
or Cambridge due to his Non-conformity, went to the Dissenting
Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690, and much of his life
centered around that village, then a rural idyll but now part of
His education led him to the pastorate
of a large Independent Chapel in London, and he also found
himself in the position of helping trainee preachers, despite
poor health. Taking work as a private tutor, he lived with the
non-conformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House, Abney Park in
Stoke Newington, and later in the household of Sir Thomas Abney
and Lady Mary Abney at Theobalds, Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire,
and at their second residence, Abney House, Stoke Newington.
Though a non-conformist, Sir Thomas practiced occasional
conformity to the Church of England as necessitated by his being
Lord Mayor of London 1700–01. Likewise, Isaac Watts held
religious opinions that were more non-denominational or
ecumenical than was at that time common for a non-conformist,
having a greater interest in promoting education and
scholarship, than preaching for any particular ministry.
On the death of Sir Thomas
Abney, Watts moved permanently with his widow and her remaining daughter
to Abney House, a property that Mary had inherited from her brother,
along with title to the Manor itself. The beautiful grounds at Abney
Park, which became Watts' permanent home from 1736 to 1748, led down to
an island heronry in the Hackney Brook where he sought inspiration for
the many books and hymns he wrote. He is likely to have attended the
nearby Newington Green Unitarian Church, as "in later life [he] was
known to have adopted decidedly Unitarian opinions."
He died in Stoke Newington and
was buried in Bunhill Fields, having left behind him a massive legacy,
not only of hymns, but also of treatises, educational works, essays and
the like. His work was influential amongst independents and early
religious revivalists in his circle, amongst whom was Philip Doddridge,
who dedicated his best known work to Watts. On his death, Isaac Watts'
papers were given to Yale University, an institution with which he was
connected due to its being founded predominantly by fellow Independents
The hymn is significant
for being an innovative departure from the early English hymn style of
only using paraphrased biblical texts, although the first two lines of
the second verse do paraphrase St Paul at Galatians 6:14. The poetry of
"When I survey..." may be seen as English literary baroque.
Lyrics by Isaac Watts
1. When I survey the wond'rous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory dy'd,
My richest Gain I count but Loss,
And pour Contempt on all my Pride.
2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the Death of Christ my God:
All the vain Things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his Blood.
3. See from his Head, his Hands, his Feet,
Sorrow and Love flow mingled down!
Did e'er such Love and Sorrow meet?
Or Thorns compose so rich a Crown?
4. His dying Crimson, like a Robe,
Spreads o'er his Body on the Tree;
Then am I dead to all the Globe,
And all the Globe is dead to me.
5. Were the whole Realm of Nature mine,
That were a Present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my Soul, my Life, my All.
The second line of the first stanza
originally read "Where the young Prince of Glory dy'd". Watts himself
altered that line in the 1709 edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs,
to prevent it from being mistaken as an allusion to Prince William, Duke
of Gloucester, the heir to the throne who died at age 11.
The hymn's fourth stanza ("His dying
crimson...") is commonly omitted in printed versions, a practice that
began with George Whitefield in 1757. In the final stanza, some modern
variations substitute the word "offering" for "present" to sound more