1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Watson

Samuel Egerton Brydges, in "Thomas Watson's Sonnets" British Bibliographer 4 (1814) 1-5, 15-16.



[Greek characters] or Passionate Centurie of Love, divided into two parts: whereof, the first expresseth the Authors 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 frendes. London, Imprinted by John Wolfe, for Gabriell Cawood, dwellinge in Paule's Churchyard at the Signe of the Holy Ghost.

This title page has no date. It is within an ornamented wood-cut border. The volume is a very thin 4to. with one sonnet on every page. It is dedicated to Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxenford, &c. followed by an address "To the frendly reader." Then comes a prose letter from "John Lyly to the authour his freind." This is succeeded by "Authoris ad Libellum suum Protrepticon," 46 hexameter and pentameter lines. Now follow the commendatory verses, which are these:

1. A Quatorzain in the commendation of Master Thomas Watson, and of his Mistres, for whom he wrote this book of Passionat Sonnetes, signed G. Bucke.

2. To the Authour, signed T. Acheley.

3. An Ode written to the Muses concerning this authour, signed C. Downhalus. Also, Eiusdem aliud de authore; 18 hexameter and pentameter verses.

4. Lines beginning "It's seldom seene that Merite hath his due." signed M. Roydon.

5. To the Authour, signed G. Peele.

Then comes "A Quatorzain of the Authour unto this his booke of Love-Passions."

On the next page the sonnets begin.

The author was a native of London, and educated at Oxford, whence he returned to the metropolis and studied the law. He also wrote Meliboeus, a Latin eclogue on the death of Sir Francis Walsingham, 1590, 4to. Amintae Gauidia in hexameter verses. Lond. 4to. 1592. He also translated the Antigone of Sophocles, 1581 — an Englished a set of Italian Madrigals, published by Bird, 1590. Meres has compared him with Petrarch. In his Latin address ad Libellum, he speaks of' his cotemporaries Sydney and Dyer, as of similar fame; and expresses his own dependence on the house of Vere.

Hic quoque, seu subeas Sydnaei, sive Dyeri
Scrinia, qua Musis area bina patet;
Dic te Xeniolum non divitis esse clientis,
Confectum Dryadis arte, ruidique manu,
Fit tamen exhibitum Vero, qui magna meretur
Virtute, et vera nobilitate sua.
Inde serenato vultu te minis uterque
Perleget, et naevos condet uterque tuos.
Dum famulus Verum comitaris in aurea tecta,
Officii semper sit tibi cura tui.
Tum fortasse piis Nymphis dabit ille legendum,
Cum de Cyprigeno verba iocosa serent, &c.

The late Mr. George Steevens chose to pronounce WATSON "a more elegant sonneteer than Shakspeare;" with what justice the long specimens which follow, extracted from an uncommonly scarce book, will enable the reader to judge. It is true that Shakspeare's sonnets are not among the best of his minor poems; but they exhibit some occasional traits of his genius; and, I think, more genuine poetical talent throughout than those of the writer now before us.

The epithet "elegant" seems ill applied to Watson. Elegance must unite simplicity with grace. Over-laboured and far-fetched ingenuity cannot be elegant. It may extort unwilling praise for perverted ability: but if it wants nature, it merits not the encomium which has been thus whimsically bestowed.

Watson's Sonnets are very valuable as specimens of the degree of polish of the vernacular language of his day. They are terse, harmonious, and often constructed with admirable artifice. They are seldom disgraced by expletives, flat expressions, or imperfectly formed sentences. There is no involution of words, which generally follow one another in their proper places with uncommon felicity. There are whole sonnets in which not one single word takes a different position from that which it ought to have in prose. The very accentuation is seldom different from that of our times. That miserable intermixture of lame lines, or lame half-lines, which deforms most of the poetry of the Elizabethan age, never disgraces Watson.

This must be admitted to be high praise, though it be not the highest. The truth is, that such excellencies regard the form and dress, and not the soul, of poetry. It is in the materials, and in the spirit which inspires them, that the genuine character of the Muse is seen, and felt. 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; arid 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 with his natural enthusiasm, he carries the reader of sensibility along with him; kindles his fainter ideas into a flame; 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 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 sublety of his wit, than to discharge the fullness of his bosom? Whether Shakspeare in the sonnets to which these have been preferred, has done better, we may afterwards consider.

Let us proceed therefore to a more particular examination, accompanied by specimens, of the work before us. These sonnets do not adhere to the strict form of the class, of which they assume the name. — They consist of 18 lines instead of 14; and the rhymes are differently arranged, and not repeated like those of Petrarch and his followers. But this is a very trifling objection. Still as Watson is an imitator in many respects sufficiently servile, and does not at all spare labour, I rather wonder at an unnecessary departure from an established model: more especially as it will be difficult to convince his readers that he has improved upon it: for, in spite of Johnson, it must not be admitted, that that model is ill suited to the character of the English language. — A few poets, both old and modern, have shewn that they can manage it with skill and facility. [Author's note: Perhaps none better than the present Lord Thurlow, who has caught the true spirit of Spenser's best sonnets; and the very modulation ut his language, without servility, or the smallest appearance of affectation.]

If the reader is tired with the length of the extracts [Nos 1, 5, 6, 19, 22, 26, 41, 42, 45, 52, 66, 75, 79, 83, 85], let him recollect that it is all, which, from its scarcity, he will probably ever see of the book: and that it is not unworthy to contribute its share to the treasures of Elizabethan literature.

As a scholar, Watson appears to deserve great praise. In describing the passion of love he seems to have tasked his ingenuity to embrace all the conceits on that subject, which are to be found in classical mythology, as well as in the more affected and metaphysical parts of the similar compositions of his prototype Petrarch....

Now are these, or are they not wore elegant sonnets than Shakspeare's? Surely not. They want his moral cast; his unsophisticated materials; his pure and natural train of thought. Only let us contrast them by one single specimen taken at random.

SHAKESPEARE'S SONNET LIV.
O how much more doth Beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament, which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair; but fairer we it deem
For that sweet colour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses;
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses;
But for their virtue only is their shew,
They live unwoo'd and unrespcted fade
Die in themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth.

Drayton's sonnets are somewhat of the same class; but flowing from a colder vein. Daniel's are better than Drayton's. But I am in doubt where to place Sydney's. Those prefixed to Spenser's Fairy Queen are the best of that poet; and better than Warton will allow them to be. Ellis in his Specimens has given one or two by Barnaby Barnes from his Divine Centurie of Spiritual Sonnets, 1595, which are excellent. Drummond's of Hawthornden, which are many of them beautiful, both for sentiment and description, are not classed with them, because they are of half a century later. Perhaps there are not above 100 sonnets in the whole language, which are perfectly good, if we confine them to the strictness of the Petrarchian form. Among them are one or two of Edwards's, one or two of Tom. Warton; one or two of John Bampfylde; one or two of Mrs. Smith and Miss Seward; and above all two or three of Kirke White. I speak not of the living; from whom I could produce a few admirable specimens. Nor have I thought it necessary to point out those majestic ones of Milton, which are on the lips of every cultivated reader.

B.

April 6, 1811.