Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 5. Thomas Watson

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XII. The Elizabethan Sonnet

§ 5. Thomas Watson

Spenser’s youthful experiments attracted little attention. Thomas Watson was the earliest Elizabethan to make a reputation as a sonneteer. Steevens, the Shakespearean commentator, echoing, with characteristic perversity, the pedantic view of some Elizabethan scholars, declared Watson to be “a much more elegant” writer of sonnets than Shakespeare. Watson, in truth, was a frigid scholiast, who was characteristically indifferent to strict metrical law. Yet his work is historically of great value as marking the progress and scope of foreign influences. In early life, Watson translated all Petrarch’s sonnets into Latin; but only two specimens of his rendering survive. This laborious undertaking formed the prelude to his sonneteering efforts in English. In 1582, he published, at the earnest entreaty of his friends, according to his own account, one hundred “passions” or poems of love, which contemporaries invariably described as sonnets, though, with rare exceptions, they were each eighteen lines long. The book was entitled: The EKATOMIIAOIA or Passionate Centurie of Love. Congratulatory quatorzains prefaced the volume. One friend greeted Watson as the successor of Petrarch, the inheritor of that vein which glorified Madonna Laura. Another admirer, writing in Latin, credited Watson with the power of achieving for English poetry what Ronsard had done for French.

The most curious fact about this first collection of so-called sonnets by Watson is the care with which the writer disclaims originality. To each poem he prefaces a prose introduction, in which he frankly indicates, usually with ample quotations, the French, Italian or classical poem which was the source of his inspiration. He aims at little more than paraphrasing sonnets and lyrics by Petrarch and Ronsard, or by Petrarch’s disciples, Serafino dell’ Aquila (1466–1500), Ercole Strozza (1471–1508) or Agnolo Frienzuola (1493–1548), together with passages from the chief writers of Greece and Rome. As a rule, his rendering is quite literal, though, now and then, he inverts a line or two of his original, or inserts a new sentence. In the conventional appeals to his wayward mistress, and in his expressions of amorous emotions, there is no pretence of a revelation of personal experience. Watson’s endeavour won almost universal applause from contemporaries, but it is wholly a literary exercise, which appeals for approval, not on the ground of sincerity of emotion, but, rather, by reason of its skill in dovetailing together fragments of foreign poetry.

The welcome offered Watson’s first published collection of sonnet-poems induced him to prepare a second, which, however, was not issued till 1593, a year after his death. Watson’s second venture bore the title The Tears of Fancie, or Love Disdained; it differed from the first in respecting the primary law which confined the sonnet within a limit of fourteen lines. Although no apparatus criticus was incorporated with it, the influence of France and Italy was no better concealed from the seeing eye in Watson’s final sonneteering essay than in its predecessor. Watson’s Tears of Fancie were, once more, drops of water from Petrarch’s and Ronsard’s fountains.

Watson’s example largely encouraged the vogue of the Elizabethan sonnet, and crystallised its imitative temper. The majority of Elizabethan sonneteers were loyal to his artificial method of construction. Some of his successors were gifted with poetic powers to which he was a stranger, and interwove the borrowed conceits with individual feeling, which, at times, lifted their verse to the plane of genuine poetry. Yet even from those sonnets which bear to Watson’s tame achievement the relation which gold bears to lead, signs of his imitative process are rarely obliterated altogether.

Sidney entered the field very soon after Watson set foot there; for some years both were at work simultaneously; yet Watson’s influence is discernible in much of Sidney’s effort. Sidney, admittedly, is a prince among Elizabethan lyric poets and sonneteers. He loiters far behind Shakespeare in either capacity. But Shakespeare, as a sonneteer, should, of right, be considered apart. With that reservation, Sidney may fairly be credited as marching at the head of the contemporary army of sonneteers.