1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Watson

Thomas Humphry Ward, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 1:389-90.



Thomas Watson is one of the best of the Elizabethan "amorettists," or writers of wholly artificial love-poetry, and his Hecatompathia, which Mr. Arber's reprint has put within the reach of every one, may be taken as a type and summary of the whole class. It consists of a hundred so-called sonnets or "passions," each of three six-lined stanzas, and each headed with a prose introduction describing the purport and often the literary origin of the poem. A series so furnished tells its own story and we do not require to go back to Watson's epistle To the friendly Reader to appreciate his "travaile in penning these love-passions," or to learn that his "paines in suffering them" were "but supposed." Watson, in fact was a purely literary poet. At Oxford, says Antony Wood, he spent his time "not in logic and philosophy, as he ought to have done, but in the smooth and pleasant studies of poetry and romance." To these studies, however, his devotion was serious; for he mastered four languages, so that he writes as familiarly of Sophocles and Apollonius Rhodius as of Ovid, of Petrarch and Ariosto as of Ronsard. He translated the Antigone into Latin, and it was one of his Latin poems that gave him the fancy name of Amyntas, under which the poets of the time ranked him with Colin Clout and with Astrophel. But the literature that he affected most was the love-poetry of the Italians — of Petrarch and his followers, of Seraphine and Fiorennzuola, and many others that are quite forgotten now. Sometimes translating, sometimes paraphrasing, sometimes combining them, he tells the story of his imaginary love, its doubts and fears and hopes, its torments and disappointment and final death, in that melodious Elizabethan English which not even monotony and make-believe can wholly deprive of charm. But still, Watson and his kindred poets have little more than an historical interest. They are but the posthumous children of the Courts of Love; their occupation is to use the scholarship and the ingenuity of the Renascence to dress up the sentiment of the Middle Age — sentiment no more real to them than it is to ourselves. They make no appeal to us; their note has nothing of the note of passion and of truth that rings in the verse of Sidney and of Shakespeare.