Here comes the sun


To celebrate the brief appearance of the sun, these short verses were found on a tiny piece of paper in an anonymous eighteenth-century recipe book:

Written upon a sun dial

Thus steals the silent hours away

The sun thus hastens to the sea

And men to mingle with their clay

Thus light and shade divide the year

Thus, till the last great day appear

And shut the starry theatre

Dr Watts

July 21st 1798

Another for a sun dial

Shining spot, but ever sliding

Brightest hours have no abiding

Use the golden minutes well

Life is wasting

Death is hasting

Death consign to heaven or hell

The date of 1798 must be the day they were written out, as the author, Dr Isaac Watts, died in 1748. Their rather melancholy, memento mori character betray his occupation as a Nonconformist theologian and hymnist.

Checking these out in The Poems of Isaac Watts, I discovered that the first is actually a loose rendering of a Latin inscription, which was written on the sundial in a circle:

Sic petit oceanum Phoebus, sic vita sepulchrum,

Dum sensim tacita volvitur hora rota;

Secula sic fugient; sic lux, sic umbra, theatrum,

Donec stelligerum clauserit una dies.

The second was destined for a ‘spot-dial’ or ceiling dial, where a mirror is placed near a window to reflect the sun onto a point on the ceiling, which obviously moves throughout the day. Watts wrote a more positive-sounding inscription for another spot-dial ‘made at a western window at Theobalds’:

Little Sun upon the ceiling,

Ever moving, ever stealing

Moments, minutes, hours away;

May no shade forbid thy shining,

While the heavenly Sun declining

Calls us to improve the day.

Watts seems to have been quite a prolific producer of inscriptions and epigraphs of all kinds, for portraits, effigies and tombstones; who knows, some of these may have been part of a business venture. My favourite is this translation of an inscription on a small French painting called ‘Phyllis playing with a parrot’:

If women will not be inclined

To seek the improvements of the mind,

Believe me, Phyllis, for ’tis true,

Parrots will talk as well as you.

Sundial image from Ford Place, South Ockendon; Colin Vosper, via Wikimedia Commons. Manuscript verses from 613/219, Suffolk Record Office. Information on Isaac Watts from Further poems from The British Poets, Vol. XLVI, Chiswick, 1822.

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