THOMAS WATSON, a once popular writer of sonnets, was born in London, and educated at Oxford, whence he returned to the metropolis for the purpose of practicing the law. In 1581, his principal poetical work was entered on the Stationers' books, and afterwards published with the following title, though without date: — The EKATOMPAOIA, or Passionate Centurie of Love, divided into two Parts: whereof the first expresseth the Author's Sufferance in Love: the latter, his long Farewell to Love and all his Tyrannie. Composed by Thomas Watson, Gentleman; and published at the Request of certeine Gentlemen his very Friends.
Of this Collection, which occupies a thin 4to, black letter, with a sonnet on each page, an admirable critical analysis has been given by Sir Egerton Brydges, in the twelfth number of the British Bibliographer, accompanied by seventeen specimens of the sonnets, and from this critique, and from the Theatrum Poetarum, edited by the same elegant scholar, we have drawn our account, for the original is so scarce as to be of hopeless acquisition.
It will strike the reader, in the first place, that the poems which Watson termed Sonnets, have no pretensions, in point of mechanism and form, to the character of the legitimate sonnet. Instead of the beautiful though artificial construction of the Petrarcan model, they consist of eighteen lines, including three quatrains in alternate rhyme, and a couplet appended to each quatrain; a system of verse totally destitute of the union and dignity which distinguish this branch of poetry in the practice of the Italians. It should be remarked, however, that our poet has occasionally given us a sonnet in Latin verse, in which he confines himself to fourteen lines, and, as he observes, in the Introduction to his sixth sonnet, "commeth somwhat neerer unto the Italian phrase than the English doth." Watson was, indeed, an elegant Latin poet, and in the matter prefixed to his first and sixth sonnets, informs us that he had written a poem "De Remedio Amoris," and that he was then "busied in translating Petrarch his sonnets into Latin, — which one day may perchance come to light." In fact there appears to be more of true poetry in his Latin than in his English verse; for though to the Centurie of Love must be attributed great purity, correctness, and perspicuity of diction, and a versification uncommonly polished, harmonious, and well sustained, yet the soul of poetry, tenderness, simplicity, and energy of sentiment, will be found wanting. In their place Watson has bestowed upon us a multitude of metaphysical conceits, and exuberant store of classical mythology, and an abundance of learned allusion; but to adopt the interesting observations of the critic mentioned in the preceding paragraph, "to meditate upon a subject, till it is broken into a thousand remote allusions and conceits; to accustom the mind to a familiarity with metaphysical subtleties and casual similitudes in contradictory objects, is to cultivate intellectual habits directly opposite to those from whence real poetry springs; and to produce effects directly opposite to those which real poetry is intended to produce.
"The real poet does but pursue, fix, and heighten those day-dreams which every intellectual being more or less at times indulges; though the difference of the degree, as well as of the frequency, in which individuals indulge them, is incalculable; arising from the difference of mental talent and sensibility, as well as of cultivation. But who is there in whose fancy some absent image does not occasionally revive? And who is there so utterly dull and hard, that in him it arises unassociated with the slightest emotion of pain or pleasure? Yet in what abundance and richness of colouring such images are constantly springing up in the mind of the poet? Visions adhere to the boughs of every tree; and painting what he sees and feels he carries the reader of sensibility along with him; kindles his fainter ideas into a name; draws forth the yet weak impression into body and form; and irradiates his whole brain with his own light. The chords of the heart are touched; and while thus played upon produce enchanting music; till, as the spell is silent, the object of this borrowed inspiration is astonished to find, that all this brilliant entertainment sprung from the wand of the poetical magician.
"If this be the secret of true poetry, what is he who seeks to convey images so unnatural, that no one had ever even an imperfect glimpse of them before, and no one can sympathize with them when expressed? Can he whose thoughts find no mirror in the minds of others be a poet? Is not a metaphysical poet a contradiction of terms?
"He who adopts these principles, will think of Watson as I do. — Has he painted the natural emotions of the mind, or or the heart? Has he given
A local habitation and a name
to those 'airy nothings' which more or less haunt every fancy? Or has he not sat down rather to exercise the subtlety of his wit, than to discharge the fullness of his bosom?"
Yet has Watson, with these vital defects, been pronounced by Mr. Steevens superior as a sonneteer to Shakspeare; a preference which we shall have occasion to consider in the chapter appropriated to the minor parts of our great dramatist.
Beside the Hekatompathia, Watson published, in 1561, a Latin translation of the Antigone of Sophocles; in 1582, Ad Olandum de Eulogiis serenissimae nostrae Elizabethae post Anglorum proelia cantatis, Decastichon, in 1586, a Paraphrase in Latin verse of the Raptus Helenae, of Coluthus; in 1590, an English Version of Italian Madrigalls, and Meliboeus, a Latin Eclogue on the death of Sir Francis Walsingham, 4to; in 1592, he printed Aminta Gaudia, in hexameter verses, 4to; and beside other fugitive pieces two poems of his are inserted in the Phoenix Nest, 1593, and in England's Helicon, 1600.
Watson has been highly praised by Nash, by Gabriel Harvey, and by Meres; the latter asserting that "as Italy had Petrarch, so England had Thomas Watson." He is supposed to have died about the year 1595, for Nash, in his Have with you to Saffron Walden, printed in 1596, speaks of him as then deceased adding, "that for all things he has left few his equals in England."