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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Walter Brooks Drayton Henderson (1887–1939)

By William Watson (1858–1935)

SIR WILLIAM WATSON has now been before the public as poet for close upon forty years,—his first work, ‘The Prince’s Quest,’ having been published in 1880, his latest early in 1917. In this later year he received the honor of knighthood. Throughout this period, and especially since 1892 when his distinguished collection, ‘Wordsworth’s Grave and Other Poems,’ appeared, he has manifested himself as a literary artist of consummate skill and lofty moral purpose. Not always at the flood tide of his inspiration, almost nothing has come from his pen which has not shown the molding power of his Roman hand, in an excellent blending of power of thought with the most scrupulous regard for æsthetic values: control, stateliness, sonorousness, and an as it were, sculptured beauty. Hardly a page of his volumes which does not reveal as many lines memorable for their sheer artistry as can be shown in the entire output of poets better known to popular fame than he. Of such lines as “Death’s little rift hath rent the faultless lute”; “Extort her crimson secret from the rose”; “Whose very being is thy going hence, And passage and departure all thy theme”; “The everlasting taciturnity,” it may well be said (to borrow Swinburne’s double praise of Pindar and Landor, in whose fraternity Watson well may stand) that indeed they

  • “Hang in the air
  • Like pearls in the ears of mourners,”
  • and to the same plaudits must also answer both his sonnets and his epigrams—save as they are more sharply luminous, and four or fourteen fold more radiant as from crystal facets.

    Of first importance among Sir William Watson’s themes is that of literature itself:

  • “I have full oft
  • In singers’ selves found me a theme of song
  • Holding these also to be a very part
  • Of Nature’s greatness.”
  • By such poems as the famous ‘Lacrimæ Musarum’ (on Tennyson), ‘Wordsworth’s Grave,’ and ‘In Laleham Churchyard’ (on Arnold), he brings a language, opulent but not prolific in great elegies, willingly into his debt. In the first of these only, it is true, is there the fullest measure of personal feeling. But in them all is present, for compensation, a fine critical estimation of literary and of moral values, constantly expressing itself in praise perfect in fervor and felicity. Of this, the lines on Wordsworth are perhaps the best example:

  • “Rest! ’twas the gift he gave; and peace! the shade
  • He spread for spirits fevered with the sun,”
  • while “Collins’s lonely vesper-chime,” and “the frugal note of Gray,” are but incidental illustrations of it.

    Equally significant is his concern with the problem of man’s destiny, considered generally. Of this, as of the former phase, his own, ‘Apologia’ is the aptest description. “Rapt from all relation with his kind” and “isled from the fretful hour” he stands alone to hear “the eternal movement” and behold everywhere around him:

  • “In million billowed consentaneousness
  • The flowing, flowing, flowing of the world.”
  • The oppression of this position is no light one. Witness ‘Autumn,’ ‘The Lost Eden,’ ‘The Hope of the World,’ ‘The Dream of Man.’ A refuge may be found in acceptance of universal law—but only by the costly exercise of rigorous self-control and stoic resignation. The refuge too has at times the semblance of a last resort. Less austere consolations have failed and vanished. The poet (like his early contemporary, Francis Thompson, but without his mystical insight) is one of those who have “slipped the world’s great leaping time and come upon her pinched and dozing days.”

    Two corollary forces operating upon him seem to be responsible for this sadness; first, the strong reaction from that continuation of the French revolutionary philosophy which as late as 1872 had produced its song of Glory to Man in the highest; and this took the form of a belittlement of human achievement and an insistence upon man’s inability to really know; second, the advance of science in the particular of which he writes in the preface to ‘The Muse in Exile.’ “It so happens that I was almost cradled in ideas of evolution, and grew up in an atmosphere where (natural selection) and the (survival of the fittest) were household words.” His vision of man is of one entangled with the “cosmic fortunes and starry vicissitudes,” “chained to the wheel of the world”; as one at large in the prison of the senses—a prisoner, none the less, before whom, should he attempt to escape from it,

  • “Rise the unscalable walls, built with a word at the prime;
  • Lo! in unslumbering watch and with pitiless faces of iron,
  • Armed at each obstinate gate, stand the impassable guards.”
  • So construing man’s position, and burdened in addition by a sense of unrelenting fate, the onward “chariot of the Untarrying,” “the thunder of irrevocable wheels,” he yet contrives to rest content if only some whispers from the stars come blown through our prison bars. And there are these. Not natural beauty: for though he can rejoice in “the wild feet of the elfin wind,” or the “rumour of the rose,” and accepts the tradition that beauty is lent “a divine and transient dower,” he has no intimate communication with nature. But chiefly the sublime mystery of poetical inspiration. This is the whisper of the stars that conveys to his innermost being knowledge immediate and undebatable. This

  • “savours not of death,
  • This hath a relish of eternity.”
  • Elevated by such truth revealed to him as he considers poetry, he comes to a recognition of the “secluded Spirit unknowable”; and at times even to the point where, if his agnosticism does not actually leave him, its impenetrable cloud grows somewhat thin, and the starry whispers swell into music of the spheres. Such a moment concludes the ‘Hymn to the Sea’ and radiates again in his plea for song to England, where the conception of the poet leads to a conception of God, eldest of poets with the whole moving to his measures.

    It would be overbold to say that this mood gains absolute assurance, as Sir William’s work has progressed. But it certainly gains stability. Deriving his inspiration at the start chiefly from a contemplation of the laws of life in the abstract, of poetry, and of the death of poets, he had little personal sense of the active urge and progression of life with which to combat the agnosticism he derived from his environment. Of later years, however, he has been moved by particular and more personal facts of life itself: the fact of patriotism, stirred by what he conceived to be English indifference to the fate of Armenia; and the fact of personal love. The former gave breath to some of the most impassioned sonnets of appeal since Milton; the latter to others memorable among our poetry of love. Both of these experiences have reacted upon his theology. The poet who chides an errant Empire becomes conscious of a Purpose climbing with “the ever climbing footsteps of the world.” The lover of newly revealed beauty comes to acknowledge the “eternal Artist” creating anew “that which is fairer than all song.” It is by such development that Sir William Watson has even more fully realized the ideal of the poet as he himself conceives it. “The true function of the poet to-day is to keep fresh within us our often flagging sense of life’s greatness and grandeur.”